Review of Why We Lie: Financial Times (Jun 10)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 16:07

Why We Lie, by Dorothy Rowe, Fourth Estate RRPŁ18.99, 384 pages

Review by Hilary Spurling, Published: June 12 2010

Lies, in Dorothy Rowe's book, form the basic coinage of human exchange. She investigates the catastrophic lies elevated to mythological status by the Nazis, and by Joseph Stalin with his army of assiduous western apologists headed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But Rowe is most disturbing when she concentrates on the everyday fibs we all tell, the little white lies defined by Louis Aragon - another French master of the arts of deceit and betrayal - as "the words we put on like gloves, to hide torn hands, for fear of gossip".

Torn hands, and the cover-ups devised to conceal them, constitute Rowe's special subject as a psychologist. In Why We Lie she strips down our inner safety mechanisms with methodical acumen. Nuts and bolts are exposed. Weaknesses, failures and fault lines are traced back to source. Rowe explores the reasons why we need to deny truths too painful to face, and lays bare the dangerous, sometimes devastating consequences for ourselves as well as for others.

Her analysis is gripping, astute and incisive. Parts of this book are hilarious, especially its side swipes at contemporary father figures from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Jeremy Clarkson, "a man unable to entertain any new ideas apart from those relating to cars". Other parts - in particular Rowe's account of the duplicity and evasiveness implanted by parents in children from infancy onwards - make grim and persuasive reading.

Rage, shame, guilt and the terror of disintegration override under stress human intelligence and honesty. This rule-of-thumb is amply borne out by the behaviour of power-brokers from bankers, politicians and government departments to religious believers and the CIA. "I have reached an age where I no longer need to pretend I know everything," writes Rowe, who is 80 this year. Nor is she any longer prepared to put up with the narrow orthodoxies of her own profession. Scientific argument has, she crisply points out, much in common with religious war. Open dissent from entrenched belief puts careers and livings, if not lives, at stake: "Reputations can be ruined, and prestigious jobs and research grants lost."

Psychologists come in for even more scathing treatment than the city financiers whose arrogance, ambition and contempt for truth Rowe dissects. Therapists speak a turgid jargon devised "to exclude and deceive". Their research is too often trivial, their deductions superficial and self-serving, their dogmatism based on "habit and professional laziness". They feel superior to patients perceived as so many clinical symptoms rather than as people whose underlying problems nobody wants to confront. Their unavowed intent, she says, is to ignore and, where possible, suppress "the irresolvable dilemmas and inevitable misery of human life".

No wonder Rowe's colleagues responded uneasily to her first arrival in this country at the end of the 1960s ("they may have discussed together the possibility of getting me deported back to Australia", she remarks). At a time when mental disturbance was routinely treated with drugs and electro-convulsive therapy, Rowe caused consternation by listening to her patients instead.

Her conclusions, laid out in a series of veracious, intelligible and immensely popular books, call in question the concept of mental illness itself. They also effectively subvert the routine practice of prescribing harmful, addictive chemicals to deal with disorders for which "no physical cause ... has been found to exist". This book is an alarming antidote to public and private doublethink, fudge, waffle, PR and the ability to hold two or more contradictory beliefs simultaneously, the cognitive dissonance of our time neatly summed up by Barbara Tuchman: "Don't confuse me with the facts."

Hilary Spurling is author of 'Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China' (Profile)