Nearly all of us know someone who has had cancer; we are aware of its devastating effect on friends and families. So why would anyone lie about suffering such a cruel disease?
Belle Gibson, a single mother who claimed to have beaten a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer by shunning conventional medicine for a healthy diet, became a sensation. Known as Healing Belle, she garnered hundreds of thousands of social media followers. She then developed an app, The Whole Pantry that was to be preinstalled on Apple iWatches, and had a publishing deal for a book suggesting other cancer sufferers could improve their chances of beat the disease through diet and lifestyle changes.
Early in March, however, Gibson’s story began to unravel. First Fairfax Media reported that charities had not received payments promised to them from the proceeds of Gibson’s app.
The Melbourne-based blogger went into hiding, wiping her Twitter and Instagram accounts as well as The Whole Pantry Instagram account which had a following of almost 200,000, and generally erasing as much as she could of her social media profile.
This week, Ms Gibson confessed to The Australian Women’s Weekly that none of the cancer story was true. The saga has been exposed as one of the biggest scams of the decade. Gibson’s lies have not only destroyed her own life, but may have adversely affected the lives of others who believed her story and eschewed conventional medicine, trusting that healthy eating could cure their cancer, just as, supposedly, it had cured Gibson’s.
Most of us lie, but most of our lies do not have the potential to harm many others. According to Megan Garber from The Atlantic, our daily dishonesty tends to involve lubricating lies (“I’m doing fine”), logistical lies (“I’ll be there soon”) and charitable lies (“Of course that doesn’t make you look fat”).
Belle didn’t tell an everyday lie, but she’s not the first to gain a financial benefit by lying about having cancer.
Father Richard Abourjaily was branded “delusional” by the Archbishop of Sydney and suspended from his duties when his lies were uncovered. He told hundreds of churchgoers, friends and family members he had prostate cancer and used money they gave him to help pay for a trip to Lourdes for a “miracle cure” back in 2008.
Then there’s Angie Gomez, who was 19 years old when she raised $17,000 after telling her classmates she was dying of leukaemia. The Texas prom queen was arrested in a police investigation after telling her family, friends and fiancé she had six months to live.
So why do these people do this? Are they and Belle mentally ill? Could they suffer from Munchausen Syndrome, a mental disorder in which a person fakes illness to gain attention and sympathy from others? Or are they just pathological liars, often referred to as compulsive liars, who find telling the truth awkward and unnatural. To them, lying is a habit and feels right.
According to psychotherapist John Gardiner, liars. after repeatedly lying about the same thing, may even come to believe their own lies. “By telling lie after lie, the liar themselves can suffer from building a false version of reality that increasingly distances them from others,” Dr Gardiner said.
“Along with stress and anxiety there may be other personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder,” he added.
According to psychiatrist Dr Milton Roxanas, lying is a way of life for pathological liars, and the truth is uncomfortable for them. “The lies usually develop early in life, often in response to difficult situations at school or home. They don’t intend to be manipulative, but develop it as a bad habit. That’s how they differ from sociopaths,” he said.
He explained that pathological liars often fabricate lies in order to gain attention. Most are bored, have low self-esteem, want sympathy or attention, or want to feel important or feel like they have accomplished a great deal.
“Liars are always very insecure about themselves. The reaction of a person who is caught in a lie may be defensive, quick to fabricate other lies, or they may seek revenge. Alternatively though, the person could also feel upset they were caught in their lies and have a breakdown,” Dr Roxanas said.
That would suggest Belle Gibson may be undergoing an emotional hell as she deals with her public exposure, the media storm and the venom of those she duped.
Lies, just like many other things, cause stress and anxiety. Look at the polygraph machine, what’s come to be known as the “lie detector”. They don’t detect lies specifically, but rather the signs of stress that accompany telling them. So what other emotional side effects can some of these liars be facing?
“Lying requires a lot of effort. When you tell the truth, you simply remember what happens. When you lie, you have to consider what you’re trying to hide, figure out a believable version of the opposite, give a convincing performance to sell that lie and then remember it for the rest of eternity so you never get caught,” Dr Gardiner said. –Brooke McNeil
Top photo taken by Mohammed Rassa.