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July 8, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Honesty. We teach honesty, we preach honesty, and most people practice honesty, or at least a form of it, most of the time. Our cultural fealty to honesty, then, makes it all the more interesting when we carefully consider honesty and reject it.

Now, by ‘honesty,’ I’m not talking about adhering to the criminal laws. No, I’m talking about interpersonal honesty. I’m talking about telling the truth.

Of course we know there are countless good reasons to lie. When five-year-old Andy brings his drawing home to Mom, she can tell the truth which in all likelihood is “That drawing’s really mediocre, Andy” or she can praise it to the heavens and of course, stick it on the refrigerator. In that case, Mom’s options are honesty and love – i.e. making Andy feel good about himself – and the choice is an easy one. Everyone understands that the little kid needs a few kind words and that the brutal truth to him is just that – brutal. This is not complicated.

But Andy is only five. What happens when he’s, say, 25 and his name is Ben? This does in Slate’s advice column, Dear Prudence (Slate, 7/3/13):

More than 13 years ago, I got pregnant. At the time, I was finishing school and just beginning my career. My boyfriend "Ben" and I had been dating seriously for a few years. We had talked about marriage and children but hadn't decided on when that would be. Ben assumed the pregnancy was a birth control failure. I told other people that it was an "unplanned but welcome surprise.” I never told another person this, but my pregnancy wasn't an accident at all. I stopped taking birth control pills because I wanted to have a child. After I stopped I didn't get pregnant for almost a year and got lulled into a false sense that it was never going to happen. From the moment I saw the positive pregnancy test, I knew what I had done was a horrible, dishonest, unethical thing and felt terrible guilt and shame. I seriously considered giving our baby up for adoption, but finally decided to raise her. Ben and I split up when our daughter “Holly” was 3 years old. He and I live in different states and aren’t friends, but he is involved in Holly’s life and they have a good relationship. I eventually married and so did he. I now have a younger child with my husband. Like everyone else, my husband thinks my getting pregnant with Holly was an accident. I have spent the last 13 years feeling that maybe I was some kind of pathological monster. But I’m mentally stable, and I have a pretty unremarkable suburban life. I had decided that I would go to my grave never telling anyone what I had done. Recently, a friend became pregnant after a one-night stand. Everyone assumes that was an accident, but she confided in me that she had been seeking out sex with the purpose of getting pregnant. I was so relieved to meet someone else who planned an "accidental" pregnancy that it made me wonder if I should open up about my secret. But I'm afraid if I told Ben it might change the way he interacted with Holly. My questions are: Am I some kind of monster for getting pregnant on the sly? And should I come clean, and if so, who should know?

- Not an Oops

I suppose it’s some sort of a feather in the cap of Not an Oops that she’s concerned about what she did. That said, her question to Prudie is whether she is “some kind of monster for getting pregnant on the sly?” and when that’s the question, everyone knows the answer is ‘No.’ So, properly viewed, NaO is writing to Prudie to be let off the moral hook. Needless to say, Prudie meets her every wish. Her message is basically that, yes, manipulating a man into fatherhood is not the most honorable of behaviors, but, not to worry, no harm done, and of course, no one needs to know. As to that last, one of the many people (Ben who’s the dad, Holly, who’s the child and NaO’s current husband) whom Prudie advises to keep in the dark, would actually probably benefit from the news.

That person of course is the child, Holly, who’s now 13 years old. Because NaO and Ben told everyone at the time that Holly was “an accident,” that’s what Holly believes, i.e. that she was an “oops,” that she’s an unwanted child. So, most importantly, coming clean would give a girl who’s at a very important stage in her development, a brand new sense of her own worth. She’d know that she was wanted, at least by her mother. That strikes me as important, but Prudie tosses it aside. A child’s emotional well-being? Not a big deal, at least not when compared to the benefits conferred on her Mom by continuing her 13-year lie.   

What are those benefits? The nut of the matter is that they’re the same as with any lie. The reason people lie is to gain power over others and over situations. The flow of information confers power on those who control it. So if little Andy tells his mother he’s done his homework, that means he can go out and play. If he tells her that and it’s not true, it’s his exercise of power over information that confers a benefit on him.

And of course that’s precisely what NaO did 13 years ago to Ben. She lied to him countless times over the course of a year about birth control. She knew he was relying on her to avoid pregnancy and she lied. Her lie conferred power on her and over him. She used it to get a child she’d never have gotten otherwise.

And, speaking of lies and their potential to confer power, let’s look at one I bet NaO told in her letter to Prudence. Notice the strategic omission of any mention of child support. He and Holly don’t live in the same state, but he’s “actively involved in Holly’s life and they have a good relationship.” So NaO’s got primary custody and, unless this is an exceptional situation, that means Ben pays, has been paying and will continue paying, every month.

So what NaO neglected to mention and Prudie neglected to bring up, was not only NaO’s exercise of control over Ben’s fertility, but over his wallet as well. As a source of information, it seems that NaO knows what she’s doing, and she’s still doing it. She tells what she perceives to be in her best interest to tell. Readers may understand the desire for a child, but if she were to reveal the financial end of the “bargain,” they might well take a more jaundiced view of the matter.

But as far as Prudence goes, I think NaO needn’t have worried. Prudie seems like she knows the secret handshake, the meaning of the wink and the nod. Prudie of course counsels NaO not to disturb the status quo. NaO wants to know if she should come clean so Ben, Holly and her husband would know the truth. But Prudie opts for continuing the lies forever.

At this late date, however, your coming clean would only cast a shadow over your character. You are deeply remorseful for what sounds like a singular act of substantial deceit. There’s nothing to be gained by telling your husband and making him uneasy about your essential honesty. Were you to spill, the person who would perhaps benefit the most psychologically would be Holly.

“Cast a shadow over your character?” “Making him uneasy about your essential honesty?” Yes, that’s what coming clean would do and it would give Ben and her husband a far more accurate picture of the woman they’re dealing with than they currently have. And that, according to Prudie, is the one thing we can’t have, even though doing so might well benefit the most vulnerable person in the whole affair – 13-year-old Holly.

Lies are seductive things, and the seduction is the power they confer over other people. Simply withhold one piece of information – “I’ve quit taking my BC pills” – and just look at all the miraculous benefits that can follow! A child of your own, a responsible father, a check every month! What’s not to like? Tell the truth and you get zip.

But of course, some people’s lies confer more power than others. If the President of the United States lies, it potentially affects millions – perhaps billions – of people. If I lie, it affects just a few. Women are in a unique position due to their access to many types of contraception that are useable (or not) in secret, to exercise great control over the men in their lives by simply telling or not telling the truth. Lying about contraception confers great power over those men. By contrast, telling the truth allows those men to make their own rational decisions regarding whether or not to father a child. Prudie’s advice to NaO, then, is not just to confer power on herself, but to withhold it from men.

And that, my friends, is pretty much the state of play in today’s United States. Among those who are positioned to influence public opinions and morality, a woman lying to a man about contraception, and doing so for the purpose of conceiving a child she knows he doesn’t want, is, while perhaps not ideal behavior, still perfectly acceptable. And certainly not important enough to let on about later, even if doing so would harm no one and help a child.

It’s the world we live in.

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