I Think You’re Fat
This story is about something called Radical Honesty. It may change your life. (But honestly, we don’t really care.)
AJ Jacobs, Esquire, 24 Jul 2007.
Here’s the truth about why I’m writing this article:
I want to fulfill my contract with my boss. I want to avoid getting fired. I want all the attractive women I knew in high school and college to read it. I want them to be amazed and impressed and feel a vague regret over their decision not to have sex with me, and maybe if I get divorced or become a widower, I can have sex with them someday at a reunion. I want Hollywood to buy my article and turn it into a movie, even though they kind of already made the movie ten years ago with Jim Carrey.
I want to get congratulatory e-mails and job offers that I can politely decline. Or accept if they’re really good. Then get a generous counteroffer from my boss.
To be totally honest, I was sorry I mentioned this idea to my boss about three seconds after I opened my mouth. Because I knew the article would be a pain in the ass to pull off. Dammit. I should have let my colleague Tom Chiarella write it. But I didn’t want to seem lazy.
What I mentioned to my boss was this: a movement called Radical Honesty.
The movement was founded by a sixty-six-year-old Virginia-based psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. He says everybody would be happier if we just stopped lying. Tell the truth, all the time. This would be radical enough — a world without fibs — but Blanton goes further. He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.
Yes. I know. One of the most idiotic ideas ever, right up there with Vanilla Coke and giving Phil Spector a gun permit. Deceit makes our world go round. Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.
And yet…maybe there’s something to it. Especially for me. I have a lying problem. Mine aren’t big lies. They aren’t lies like “I cannot recall that crucial meeting from two months ago, Senator.” Mine are little lies. White lies. Half-truths. The kind we all tell. But I tell dozens of them every day. “Yes, let’s definitely get together soon.” “I’d love to, but I have a touch of the stomach flu.” “No, we can’t buy a toy today — the toy store is closed.” It’s bad. Maybe a couple of weeks of truth-immersion therapy would do me good.
I e-mail Blanton to ask if I can come down to Virginia and get some pointers before embarking on my Radical Honesty experiment. He writes back: “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”
I’m already nervous. I better start off with a clean slate. I confess I lied to him in my first e-mail — that I haven’t ordered all his books on Amazon yet. I was just trying to impress upon him that I was serious about his work. He writes back: “Thanks for your honesty in attempting to guess what your manipulative and self-protective motive must have been.”
Blanton lives in a house he built himself, perched on a hill in the town of Stanley, Virginia, population 1,331. We’re sitting on white chairs in a room with enormous windows and a crackling fireplace. He’s swirling a glass of Maker’s Mark bourbon and water and telling me why it’s important to live with no lies.
“You’ll have really bad times, you’ll have really great times, but you’ll contribute to other people because you haven’t been dancing on eggshells your whole fucking life. It’s a better life.”
“Do you think it’s ever okay to lie?” I ask.
“I advocate never lying in personal relationships. But if you have Anne Frank in your attic and a Nazi knocks on the door, lie….I lie to any government official.” (Blanton’s politics are just this side of Noam Chomsky’s.) “I lie to the IRS. I always take more deductions than are justified. I lie in golf. And in poker.”
Blanton adjusts his crotch. I expected him to be a bully. Or maybe a new-age huckster with a bead necklace who sits cross-legged on the floor. He’s neither. He’s a former Texan with a big belly and a big laugh and a big voice. He’s got a bushy head of gray hair and a twang that makes his bye sound like bah. He calls himself “white trash with a Ph.D.” If you mixed DNA from Lyndon Johnson, Ken Kesey, and threw in the non-annoying parts of Dr. Phil, you might get Blanton.
He ran for Congress twice, with the novel promise that he’d be an honest politician. In 2004, he got a surprising 25 percent of the vote in his Virginia district as an independent. In 2006, the Democrats considered endorsing him but got skittish about his weeklong workshops, which involve a day of total nudity. They also weren’t crazy that he’s been married five times (currently to a Swedish flight attendant twenty-six years his junior). He ran again but withdrew when it became clear he was going to be crushed.
My interview with Blanton is unlike any other I’ve had in fifteen years as a journalist. Usually, there’s a fair amount of ass kissing and diplomacy. You approach the controversial stuff on tippy toes (the way Barbara Walters once asked Richard Gere about that terrible, terrible rumor). With Blanton, I can say anything that pops into my mind. In fact, it would be rude not to say it. I’d be insulting his life’s work. It’s my first taste of Radical Honesty, and it’s liberating, exhilarating.
When Blanton rambles on about President Bush, I say, “You know, I stopped listening about a minute ago.”
“Thanks for telling me,” he says.
I tell him, “You look older than you do in the author photo for your book,” and when he veers too far into therapyspeak, I say, “That just sounds like gobbledygook.”
“Thanks,” he replies.” Or, “That’s fine.”
Blanton has a temper — he threatened to “beat the shit” out of a newspaper editor during the campaign — but it hasn’t flared tonight. The closest he comes to attacking me is when he says I am self-indulgent and Esquire is pretentious. Both true.
Blanton pours himself another bourbon and water. He’s got a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, and when he spits into the fireplace, the flames crackle louder.
“My boss says you sound like a dick,” I say.
“Tell your boss he’s a dick,” he says.
“I’m glad you picked your nose just now,” I say. “Because it was funny and disgusting, and it’ll make a good detail for the article.”
“That’s fine. I’ll pick my ass in a minute.” Then he unleashes his deep Texan laugh: heh, heh, heh. (He also burps and farts throughout our conversation; he believes the one-cheek sneak is “a little deceitful.”)
No topic is off-limits. “I’ve slept with more than five hundred women and about a half dozen men,” he tells me. “I’ve had a whole bunch of threesomes” — one of which involved a hermaphrodite prostitute equipped with dual organs.
What about animals?
Blanton thinks for a minute. “I let my dog lick my dick once.”
If he hadn’t devoted his life to Radical Honesty, I’d say he was, to use his own phrase, as full of shit as a Christmas turkey. But I don’t think he is. I believe he’s telling the truth. Which is a startling thing for a journalist to confront. Generally, I’m devoting 30 percent of my mental energy to figuring out what a source is lying about or hiding from me. Another 20 percent goes into scheming about how to unearth that buried truth. No need for that today.
“I was disappointed when I visited your office,” I tell Blanton. (Earlier he had shown me a small, cluttered single-room office that serves as the Radical Honesty headquarters.) “I’m impressed by exteriors, so I would have been impressed by an office building in some city, not a room in Butt Fuck, Virginia. For my article, I want this to be a legitimate movement, not a fringe movement.”
“What about a legitimate fringe movement?” asks Blanton, who has, by this time, had three bourbons.
Blanton’s legitimate fringe movement is sizable but not huge. He’s sold 175,000 books in eleven languages and has twenty-five trainers assisting in workshops and running practice groups around the country.
Now, my editor thinks I’m overreaching here and trying too hard to justify this article’s existence, but I think society is speeding toward its own version of Radical Honesty. The truth of our lives is increasingly being exposed, both voluntarily (MySpace pages, transparent business transactions) and involuntarily. (See Gonzales and Google, or ask Alec Baldwin.) For better or worse, we may all soon be Brad Blantons. I need to be prepared. [Such bullshit. — Ed.]
I return to New York and immediately set about delaying my experiment. When you’re with Blanton, you think, Yes, I can do this! The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. But when I get back to bosses and fragile friendships, I continue my lying ways.
“How’s Radical Honesty going?” my boss asks.
“It’s okay,” I lie. “A little slow.”
A couple of weeks later, I finally get some inspiration from my friend’s five-year-old daughter, Alison. We are in Central Park for a play date. Out of nowhere, Alison looks at me evenly and says, “Your teeth are yellow because you drink coffee all day.”
Damn. Now that’s some radical honesty for you. Maybe I should be more like a five-year-old. An hour later, she shows me her new pet bug — a beetle of some sort that she has in her cupped hands.
“It’s napping,” she whispers.
I nudge the insect with my finger. It doesn’t move. Should I play along? No. I should tell her the truth, like she told me about my teeth.
“It’s not napping.”
She looks confused.
Alison runs to her father, dismayed. “Daddy, he just said a bad word.”
I feel like an asshole. I frightened a five-year-old, probably out of revenge for an insult about my oral hygiene. I postpone again — for a few more weeks. And then my boss tells me he needs the article for the July issue.
I start in again at dinner with my friend Brian. We are talking about his new living situation, and I decide to tell him the truth.
“You know, I forget your fiancée’s name.”
This is highly unacceptable — they’ve been together for years; I’ve met her several times.
In his book, Blanton talks about the thrill of total candor, the Space Mountain-worthy adrenaline rush you get from breaking taboos. As he writes, “You learn to like the excitement of mild, ongoing risk taking.” This I felt.
Luckily, Brian doesn’t seem too pissed. So I decide to push my luck. “Yes, that’s right. Jenny. Well, I resent you for not inviting me to you and Jenny’s wedding. I don’t want to go, since it’s in Vermont, but I wanted to be invited.”
“Well, I resent you for not being invited to your wedding.”
“You weren’t invited? Really? I thought I had.”
“Sorry, man. That was a mistake.”
A breakthrough! We are communicating! Blanton is right. Brian and I crushed some eggshells. We are not stoic, emotionless men. I’m enjoying this. A little bracing honesty can be a mood booster.
The next day, we get a visit from my wife’s dad and stepmom.
“Did you get the birthday gift I sent you?” asks her stepmom.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
She sent me a gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue.
“And? Did you like it?”
“Not really. I don’t like gift certificates. It’s like you’re giving me an errand to run.”
“Well, uh . . .”
Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it.
“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.
I still tell plenty of lies every day, but by the end of the week I’ve slashed the total by at least 40 percent. Still, the giddiness is wearing off. A life of radical honesty is filled with a hundred confrontations every day. Small, but they’re relentless.
“Yes, I’ll come to your office, but I resent you for making me travel.”
“My boss said I should invite you to this meeting, although it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so.”
“I have nothing else to say to you. I have run out of conversation.”
My wife tells me a story about switching operating systems on her computer. In the middle, I have to go help our son with something, then forget to come back.
“Do you want to hear the end of the story or not?” she asks.
“Well…is there a payoff?”
It would have been a lot easier to have kept my mouth closed and listened to her. It reminds me of an issue I raised with Blanton: Why make waves? “Ninety percent of the time I love my wife,” I told him. “And 10 percent of the time I hate her. Why should I hurt her feelings that 10 percent of the time? Why not just wait until that phase passes and I return to the true feeling, which is that I love her?”
Blanton’s response: “Because you’re a manipulative, lying son of a bitch.”
Okay, he’s right. It’s manipulative and patronizing to shut up and listen. But it’s exhausting not to.
One other thing is also becoming apparent: There’s a fine line between radical honesty and creepiness. Or actually no line at all. It’s simple logic: Men think about sex every three minutes, as the scientists at Redbook remind us. If you speak whatever’s on your mind, you’ll be talking about sex every three minutes.
I have a business breakfast with an editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine. As we’re sitting together, I tell her that I remember what she wore the first time we met — a black shirt that revealed her shoulders in a provocative way. I say that I’d try to sleep with her if I were single. I confess to her that I just attempted (unsuccessfully) to look down her shirt during breakfast.
She smiles. Though I do notice she leans back farther in her seat.
The thing is, the separate cubbyholes of my personality are merging. Usually, there’s a professional self, a home self, a friend self, a with-the-guys self. Now, it’s one big improper mess. This woman and I have either taken a step forward in our relationship, or she’ll never return my calls again.
When I get home, I keep the momentum going. I call a friend to say that I fantasize about his wife. (He says he likes my wife, too, and suggests a key party.)
I inform our twenty-seven-year-old nanny that “if my wife left me, I would ask you out on a date, because I think you are stunning.”
She laughs. Nervously.
“I think that makes you uncomfortable, so I won’t mention it again. It was just on my mind.”
Now I’ve made my own skin crawl. I feel like I should just buy a trench coat and start lurking around subway platforms. Blanton says he doesn’t believe sex talk in the workplace counts as sexual harassment — it’s tight-assed society’s fault if people can’t handle the truth — but my nanny confession just feels like pure abuse of power.
All this lasciviousness might be more palatable if I were a single man. In fact, I have a theory: I think Blanton devised Radical Honesty partly as a way to pick up women. It’s a brilliant strategy. The antithesis of mind games. Transparent mating.
And according to Blanton, it’s effective. He tells me about a woman he once met on a Paris subway and asked out for tea. When they sat down, he said, “I didn’t really want any tea; I was just trying to figure out a way to delay you so I could talk to you for a while, because I want to go to bed with you.” They went to bed together. Or another seduction technique of his: “Wanna fuck?”
“That works?” I asked.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the creation of possibility.”
I lied today. A retired man from New Hampshire — a friend of a friend — wrote some poems and sent them to me. His wife just died, and he’s taken up poetry. He just wanted someone in publishing to read his work. A professional opinion.
I read them. I didn’t like them much, but I wrote to him that I thought they were very good.
So I e-mail Blanton for the first time since our meeting and confess what I did. I write, “His wife just died, he doesn’t have friends. He’s kind of pathetic. I read his stuff, or skimmed it actually. I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring and badly written. So I e-mailed a lie. I said I really like the poems and hope they get published. He wrote me back so excited and how it made his week and how he was about to give up on them but my e-mail gave him the stamina to keep trying.”
I ask Blanton whether I made a mistake.
He responds curtly. I need to come to his eight-day workshop to “even begin to get what [Radical Honesty] is about.” He says we need to meet in person.
Meet in person? Did he toss down so many bourbons I vanished from his memory? I tell him we did meet.
Blanton writes back testily that he remembers. But I still need to take a workshop (price tag: $2,800). His only advice on my quandary: “Send the man the e-mail you sent me about lying to him and ask him to call you when he gets it…and see what you learn.”
Show him the e-mail? Are you kidding? What a hardcore bastard.
In his book, Radical Honesty, Blanton advises us to start sentences with the words “I resent you for” or “I appreciate you for.” So I write him back.
“I resent you for being so different in these e-mails than you were when we met. You were friendly and engaging and encouraging when we met. Now you seem to have turned judgmental and tough. I resent you for giving me the advice to break that old man’s heart by telling him that his poems suck.”
Blanton responds quickly. First, he doesn’t like that I expressed my resentment by e-mail. I should have come to see him. “What you don’t seem to get yet, A.J., is that the reason for expressing resentment directly and in person is so that you can experience in your body the sensations that occur when you express the resentment, while at the same time being in the presence of the person you resent, and so you can stay with them until the sensations arise and recede and then get back to neutral — which is what forgiveness is.”
Second, he tells me that telling the old man the truth would be compassionate, showing the “authentic caring underneath your usual intellectual bullshit and overvaluing of your critical judgment. Your lie is not useful to him. In fact, it is simply avoiding your responsibility as one human being to another. That’s okay. It happens all the time. It is not a mortal sin. But don’t bullshit yourself about it being kind.”
He ends with this: “I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining things to you for your cute little project of playing with telling the truth if you don’t have the balls to try it.”
I know my e-mail to the old man was wrong. I shouldn’t have been so rah-rah effusive. But here, I’ve hit the outer limit of Radical Honesty, a hard wall. I can’t trash the old man.
I try to understand Blanton’s point about compassion. To most of us, honesty often means cruelty.
But to Blanton, honesty and compassion are the ones in sync. It’s an intriguing way to look at the world, but I just don’t buy it in the case of the widower poet. Screw Blanton. (By the way: I broke Radical Honesty and changed the identifying details of the old-man story so as not to humiliate him. Also, I’ve messed a bit with the timeline of events to simplify things. Sorry.)
To compensate for my wimpiness, I decide to toughen up. Which is probably the exact wrong thing to do. Today, I’m getting a haircut, and my barber is telling me he doesn’t want his wife to get pregnant because she’ll get too fat (a bit of radical honesty of his own), and I say, “You know, I’m tired. I have a cold. I don’t want to talk anymore. I want to read.”
“Okay,” he says, wielding his scissors, “go ahead and read.”
Later, I do the same thing with my in-laws when they’re yapping on about preschools. “I’m bored,” I announce. “I’ll be back later.” And with that, I leave the living room.
I tell Blanton, hoping for his approval. Did anything come of it? he asks. Any discussions and insights? Hmmm.
He’s right. If you’re going to be a schmuck, at least you should find some redeeming quality in it. Blanton’s a master of this. One of his tricks is to say things with such glee and enthusiasm, it’s hard to get too pissed. “You may be a petty asshole,” he says, “but at least you’re not a secret petty asshole.” Then he’ll laugh.
I have yet to learn that trick myself. Consider how I handled this scene at a diner a couple of blocks from my apartment.
“Everything okay?” asked our server, an Asian man with tattoos.
“Yeah, except for the coffee. I always have to order espresso here, because the espresso tastes like regular coffee. The regular coffee here is terrible. Can’t you guys make stronger coffee?”
The waiter said no and walked away. My friend looked at me. “I’m embarrassed for you,” he said. “And I’m embarrassed to be around you.”
“I know. Me, too.” I felt like a Hollywood producer who parks in handicapped spots. I ask Blanton what I should have done.
“You should have said, ‘This coffee tastes like shit!’ ” he says, cackling.
I will say this: One of the best parts of Radical Honesty is that I’m saving a whole lot of time. It’s a cut-to-the-chase way to live. At work, I’ve been waiting for my boss to reply to a memo for ten days. So I write him: “I’m annoyed that you didn’t respond to our memo earlier. But at the same time, I’m relieved, because then if we don’t nail one of the things you want, we can blame any delays on your lack of response.”
Pressing send makes me nervous — but the e-mail works. My boss responds: “I will endeavor to respond by tomorrow. Been gone from N.Y. for two weeks.” It is borderline apologetic. I can push my power with my boss further than I thought.
Later, a friend of a friend wants to meet for a meal. I tell him I don’t like leaving my house. “I agree to meet some people for lunch because I fear hurting their feelings if I don’t. And in this terrifying age where everyone has a blog, I don’t want to offend people, because then they’d write on their blogs what an asshole I am, and it would turn up in every Google search for the rest of my life.”
He writes back: “Normally, I don’t really like meeting editors anyway. Makes me ill to think about it, because I’m afraid of coming off like the idiot that, deep down, I suspect I am.”
That’s one thing I’ve noticed: When I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves. I feel my resentment fade away. I like this guy. We have a good meeting.
In fact, all my relationships can take a whole lot more truth than I expected. Consider this one: For years, I’ve had a chronic problem where I refer to my wife, Julie, by my sister’s name, Beryl. I always catch myself midway through and pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve never confessed to Julie. Why should I? It either means that I’m sexually attracted to my sister, which is not good. Or that I think of my wife as my sister, also not good.
But today, in the kitchen, when I have my standard mental sister-wife mix-up, I decide to tell Julie about it.
“That’s strange,” she says.
We talk about it. I feel unburdened, closer to my wife now that we share this quirky, slightly disturbing knowledge. I realize that by keeping it secret, I had given it way too much weight. I hope she feels the same way.
I call up Blanton one last time, to get his honest opinion about how I’ve done.
“I’m finishing my experiment,” I say.
“You going to start lying again?” he asks.
“Oh, shit. It didn’t work.”
“But I’m going to lie less than I did before.”
I tell him about my confession to Julie that I sometimes want to call her Beryl. “No big deal,” says Blanton. “People in other cultures have sex with their sisters all the time.”
I bring up the episode about telling the editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine that I tried to look down her shirt, but he sounds disappointed. “Did you tell your wife?” he asks. “That’s the good part.”
Finally, I describe to him how I told Julie that I didn’t care to hear the end of her story about fixing her computer. Blanton asks how she responded.
“She said, ‘Fuck you.’ “
“That’s good!” Blanton says. “I like that. That’s communicating.“
Esquire Editor-at-Large A.J. Jacobs is the author of A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, published by Simon & Schuster.