Before she digs up the juiciest lies and deceptions, Evelin Sullivan tells readers of The Concise Book of Lying about the first fib she ever told—on the playground at age 3. And she has the scar above her right eye to prove it.
Sullivan has since reformed. “It probably sounds hokey, but I’m really committed to the truth,” she says. “I dislike lying, especially when people do it to me, because it really hurts.” Her ninth and newest book, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a compelling and often witty romp through centuries of prevarication. Among its targets: the Bible, Greek mythology, trickster figures, hypocrites, George Costanza, Othello, the lies of the Vietnam War, psychoanalysts and lie detectors both medieval and modern.
Sullivan has been teaching technical writing at Stanford since 1985. She works with undergraduate and graduate foreign students in engineering who are finishing articles, book chapters and dissertations. And, it should be noted, not once in 17 years has she come across evidence of plagiarism.
Although she has filled four novels with nefarious characters distinguished by their twisted and tortured minds, Sullivan set out four years ago, somewhat like Diogenes, to get at the fundamental causes, characteristics and effects of telling untruths. Camping out in Stanford’s Green, psychology and law libraries, she began with the Bible as the source of Western civilization’s moral imperative for honesty, but she says she could have started anywhere. “There isn’t a culture alive that says to its people, ‘By the way, lying is a good idea,’” Sullivan says, “even though trickster figures are definitely admired for the panache they have and for how they bamboozle people.”
While Sullivan says she had “enormous fun” researching and compiling the book, she spells out the intent of her work in more sobering terms. Lying, she asserts, is “an evil thing for those being lied to, for those doing the lying and for that amorphous thing called society.” Fire and brimstone, indeed.