I wanted to trust him, but the kid had a long rap sheet and an even longer history of lying
rs. Gottlieb sent me a short e-mail message: “Dear Dr. Freedman: My son Shlomi is really a great boy and doesn’t have any psychiatric problems, but now he’s in a bit of trouble and I’m hoping you can help him out.”
Now, those two phrases — “really a great boy” and “in a bit of trouble” — can mean just about anything. There are kids who have never shown any symptoms of psychiatric illness but have begun to show the early signs of psychosis, there are those whose parents failed to recognize the development of mental illness building over the past years, and there are “regular” kids who just seem to be followed by trouble.
We scheduled an initial consultation, prior to which Mrs. Gottlieb sent a brief history. In her note, she described a pleasant, stable family in the Tristate area without any major flags. This was a boy who had done well until he’d gotten to high school, when the problems started: an incident with marijuana, a fight and a stolen bike, and now the most recent infraction — involvement in a Jerusalem riot that landed him an overnight arrest.
“He’s really a great boy, though,” Mrs. Gottlieb practically pleaded at the end of her message. But then Shlomi showed up 47 minutes late to his 50-minute appointment. There were excuses about a bus and a taxi that couldn’t find the building.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Freedman, I guess we can try another time?”
“Shlomi,” I told him, “I’ve been doing this for long enough not to take anything personally, but your mother paid good money for this appointment and I could have used the hour to sit with another patient. We can schedule another meeting, but you’re gonna have to take the achrayus for showing up on time.”
“B’seder,” he said somewhat flippantly — and I didn’t really expect to see him again.
I was actually surprised when he sent an apologetic e-mail and rescheduled. And Shlomi caught me further off-guard by showing up ten minutes early with a mid-sized Schottenstein Gemara in hand that he opened as I made a cup of coffee.
“You know, I’m not a criminal, a crazy person, or some sort of psychopath. I’m a decent kid, Dr. Freedman,” he offered as we sat down to chat. “I’m just completely unable to catch a break.”
He was eager to plead his case so I gave him the floor. He proceeded to recount a series of stories, beginning in ninth grade when a friend brought a bag of oregano to school to play a trick on a fellow classmate.
“I thought it was pretty funny that he tried to convince everyone it was marijuana. Truth is, I wasn’t even involved, but when the rebbi saw him showing other kids, I laughed, and he thought I was in on it. The menahel took everything seriously and less than a week later I was at a new yeshivah.”
It sounded like there were a few holes in his story, but I kept listening as he told me about the next yeshivah, where he was kicked out for “breaking up a fight.” His perspective was that of a peacemaker who was punished before he had a chance to explain himself.
“Then there was the time I bought a used bike from a kid I knew,” he went on. “I thought I was getting a good deal on a nice mountain bike, the same kind my neighbor had. Turns out it wasn’t just the same kind of bike, it was actually my neighbor’s bike. And since I’d already gotten in trouble for fighting and marijuana, his dad called the cops on me.”
He had an excuse for each story he told me. The time when he was just “holding the beers in his garage for a friend” and the time when he “wasn’t really betting on a football game,” to his recent arrest when “I was really just there in Meah Shearim to buy this new Gemara, and I happened to bump into a cop during an anti-draft protest. Before I knew it, I was handcuffed and on the ground.”
I raised an eyebrow somewhat incredulously.
“I’m telling you, Dr. Freedman, I just have the worst luck.”
We ended our meeting and scheduled a follow-up for the following week. In the meantime, I’d make sure to speak with Mom.
“He’s a really good boy,” she insisted again. “He just keeps on getting into trouble.”
“I understand. He certainly doesn’t seem depressed or anxious or to be suffering from any mental illness.”
“I’m telling you, he’s a great kid. Do you know he volunteers as a special-needs camp counselor every summer?”
These were nice details that helped me to judge Shlomi more favorably — but I was concerned when Shlomi came late the next time with a story about a strike downtown that delayed his bus.
“Shlomi,” I said. “There wasn’t any strike downtown today. I was just there myself.”
Shlomi blushed, but then started to tell me another story about a suspicious package.
“Honesty, Shlomi. Let’s just take responsibility for your actions instead of blaming them on other folks or lying to get out of trouble. Frankly, I don’t think you’re a born criminal, but unless you start getting honest, you’re going to end up an accidental one. And lying all the time isn’t going to help you plead your case.”
The problem in diagnosing and treating chronic lying is that it’s usually a symptom of a greater psychological dysfunction: extreme fear of failure, escape from perceived persecution, assuming the deception creates a better advantage than the truth (and it really wasn’t so bad to lie, so why not do it again?), and extreme need for attention or pity are just some reasons people lie compulsively.
Was his lying a symptom of an underlying psychiatric condition? Perhaps — I’d only met Shlomi for a short amount of time, and our discussions had been relatively superficial. But this kind of chronic lying was going to start burning bridges fast. People shun chronic liars, and at the rate he was going, it wouldn’t be long before even his best buddies would feel used or abused and abandon him. I wanted to help him before he lost his natural compassion and empathy, ruined his relationships, and wrecked his neshamah.
I wanted to trust him, but the kid had a long rap sheet and an even longer history of lying. It wasn’t a great combination, but it was one I’d be willing to work with as long as he could be honest with me.
“Shlomi,” I said, “You can call it ‘bad luck’ or ‘not catching a break.’ Just know that the stakes are getting higher. It’s one thing to get arrested, and it’s another to lie in court. That’s called perjury, and judges don’t particularly like it.”
“I hear that, Dr. Freedman,” he said. Shlomi was quiet. He realized the game was up, that I wasn’t buying his stories. The question between us now was whether he’d have the courage to deal with the fallout of all those lies and get himself more honest.
“Ever been busted for jaywalking, Shlomi?”
“I told you about that time, didn’t I? Well, actually the answer is no. Never really happened and hopefully never will.”
“How can you be so sure, Shlomi?” I asked. “Is this another one of your fantasy statements?”
“No, Dr. Freedman, I promise. I’m coming back next week to make sure I’ll stay inside the crosswalk.”
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 776)