My Big Lie

Louis Kiefer*

One of the big myths in child abuse validation is that children never lie about child abuse.  Very often little attention is given to the subtle effects of the interviewing techniques which produce a description of events which simply never happened.  Sometimes the person is just trying to help the child make a difficult revelation, and sometimes the person has already made the judgment of abuse and merely wants to rehearse the child until the child is able to recite a version which will be believable.

As an example of the former, I am reminded of my own experience and how I came to tell a lie of significant proportion.  It was not that I clearly fabricated a false story.  I was too young to make something like that up.  But that doesn't mean that the story told, at the prodding of my mother, was not as if I had created a most dreadful lie.

The year was 1942.  I was five years old, living in Simsbury, Connecticut.  We were at war with Germany and Japan.  Bradley Army Air Force Base was located not too far from my home.  Westover Airfield was also located nearby.  It was not unusual to have military flights over our home.

It was a hot summer afternoon.  I was playing, by myself, in the back yard.  Unbeknownst to me, a military plane, a B-17, had crashed in Simsbury.  The route of flight would have taken the plane near our house.  Since it had crashed less then three miles away, it was likely that I had seen it.  I hadn't.

My mother came running out of the house.  "Louis, Did you see a plane flying low?" she asked.

I thought a bit.  I had seen planes flying low.  As a matter of fact every plane I had ever seen had to have been flying low enough for me to see it.  Also the question was not worded to ask me about a particular plane.  The question was about "a" plane, "any" plane — not "the" one that had just crashed.

The answer was therefore "Yes."  I had, in the past, seen a plane.  In fact I had, in my short life, seen many planes, all flying low although some were flying lower than others.

The next question was "Where was it?"

My first inclination was to say "I don't know" but it was apparent that my mother wanted some information from me.  As a child I seldom was asked informational type questions, except to either accept responsibility for a wrong deed or to point the finger at my sister for something she had done.  The other type of question was those asked of an instructional nature, such as what number comes after four.  This was clearly a situation where I was suspected of having knowledge that was wanted, so I decided that I would cooperate as best I could.

I thought a minute.  If it were a plane and if it were flying, it could only be up, so I pointed up.  (I 'was not aware at that age that a plane could have a position over a geographic location.)

My mother quickly interpreted this gesture as "Over Talcott Mountain?" — the name of a small mountain to the east of our house.

Without knowing at that time that the mountain had a name but knowing from the tone of voice that my mother would be satisfied with a yes, I replied "Yes."

"Did you see anyone parachute?" she asked.

I had seen people parachute in the movies so I knew what my mother was talking about.  But I still was not aware that she was talking about specific airmen bailing out of a specific flaming plane.  Instead I believed she was talking generically.  Yes, I had seen people parachuting — at least in the movies, and Life magazine.  I told her I had seen people parachuting.

"How many?" she asked.

Up to now the questions were simple true/false tests.  In future years I could come to love that type of a test because it required no hard knowledge.  Only an ability to guess.  But now my mother had asked something that required real narrative type information.

What would be a good answer?  I thought to myself.  One, two, three, maybe a zillion.  My older sister used to talk in terms of zillions and I was all set to say "a zillion" but before I did, my mother said "One or two?"

Next to true/false exams, multiple choice exams would become my favorite throughout life.

I said, with all the certainty I could muster, "Two."

With that my mother wheeled around and dashed into the house where she promptly called the chief of police, Edward F. Fellows.  She proudly reported that her five-year-old son had seen the plane, flying low just before it crashed and he saw two people bail out over the Talcott Mountain and their chutes had opened.

Now, you will recall that what I said was "Yes," "Yes," (I pointed up) and "Two."

When I heard my mother on the phone making up this story, I had an uneasy feeling that things were getting out of hand.

In a few minutes, a black 1939 Ford sedan, with the red lights and long 10-foot whip antenna drove into the driveway.  It was Chief Fellows.

I remember those long brightly polished brown boots setting foot in our driveway.  Chief Fellows appeared to be a giant.  His brown belt was worn like a sash across his chest, the huge revolver in an even larger holster scared the dickens out of me.

"Where is the kid who saw the plane crash?" asked Chief Fellows as he alighted from the police car.

My mother had quietly moved in back of me and started shove to me out in his direction.

Before he spotted me, a radio message came to him.  He turned back to the car and sat in the driver's seat.  The message stated that the Army had verified that there were only two on board, and both had died in the crash.

With that Chief Fellows got back in his car and without a word drove off.

I did not intend to lie — only to please.  My mother did not seek to get anything but the truth from me.  Had she not asked leading questions, I would have said nothing because there was nothing to say.

Was I able to describe a unique event that I could have only known through personal experience?  Not really.  Did I feel guilty?  Yes.  Not because I had participated in something that should cause guilt or because I had witnessed something terrible, but merely that I had failed to please.

* Louis Kiefer is an attorney and can be contacted at 60 Washington Street, Suite 1403, Hartford, Connecticut 06106.  [Back]

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