The Fraudulence Paradox: David Foster Wallace on Lies, Loneliness, and Belonging

David Foster Wallace was one of our generation’s most loved and most celebrated writers of short stories, essays and novels.

He was also a lucid observer of human nature.

In his short story Good Ol Neon (found in his collection Oblivion) David Foster Wallace uses the term fraudulence paradox to capture one of the many paradoxes that come with being human:

“There was a basic logical paradox that I called the ‘fraudulence paradox’ that I had discovered more or less on my own while taking a mathematical logic course in school. . . . The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside — you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were.”

I spent most of my early life putting on a pretty “outdoors” face — getting good grades, collecting certificates and certifications, and grooming myself for this and that interview.

I was terrified of the idea of others, even friends and family, learning too much about who I truly was.

Why do we tell such lies?

Perhaps we can learn a little by looking at kids.

Get ’em while they’re young

Lying, it seems, starts young.

By the age of six months, children are able to lie with fake laughter and fake tears to attract attention from their parents. A few years later, they are able to say, “I don’t care” to bluff their way out of punishment.

Most interestingly, smart kids — those with with higher IQ — tend to be more deceptive.

In Love and Lies, philosopher Clancy Martin shares what he sees as “the most fundamental source of childhood lying”:

[The most fundamental source of childhood lying is] the suspicion by the child that telling the truth will create emotional distance between the parent and the child. ‘If I admit what I did, she will be angry with me, she will love me less; if I lie, she won’t know, and she will love me just the same, or perhaps still more, since the lie will reassure her.’ Of course the double bind is that in lying, not only do we risk further separation, but we also alienate ourselves. Every lie we tell is itself a small separation, an assertion of loneliness, a reminder that you know the contents of your own mind and the other person does not. You cannot lie without hiding what is in your mind.

Clancy echoes Wallace, mentioning what he calls the “paradox of childhood lies”:

“Again, the paradox of childhood lies is that we so often tell them out of fear of rejection, fear of separation, fear of being alone, and yet the lie is itself an expression of our independence. We lie in order not to be alone, and yet we cannot lie without accepting the fact that fundamentally, alone is where we are. Our minds are entirely private — and especially so when we lie.”

Adults are often just as, or even more afraid, than children are. Certainly, I’ve lied many, many times out of fear.


In the same short story, Wallace notes that a second paradox occurs on top of the fraudulence paradox:

“Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year old became aware of this paradox, he’d stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he’d figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn’t eve have a form or name — I didn’t, I couldn’t.”

The higher-order paradox seems to be this one:

Once we figure out that our fraudulent self guarantees a life of loneliness, alienation and emptiness, we nevertheless remain unable to take action and change our situation.

This, though, does not surprise me.

After all, if everything — your work relationships, your family, your friends (can you even call them friends?) — is built on a fraudulent persona that you’ve crafted, it’s a terrifying thing to risk that in order to try and tell the truth.

I lied a lot as a kid. I’m sure I still lie a lot now.

But one thing has changed. As a child, I was always afraid that, if others found out the truth about me, they would no longer love me or want to be near me.

As an adult, I’ve discovered the opposite.

Honesty — true, genuine and vulnerable honesty — is so rare that, if you do will the courage to be honest, to show your weaknesses, and to admit your failures, people are often attracted to you rather than repelled.

But maybe I’m lying ;)

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