My Little White Lie

So a couple of months ago one of my best friends happened to be in DeKalb, Illinois, the town where we both grew up, and eating at a local Mexican restaurant called Rosita’s. And it occurred to him that there are still a lot of people we went to high school with that are local to the area, and he wondered whether if he sent up a bat signal would people get together for an evening of food, drinks and conversation? So he picked yesterday, Friday May 29th, and shot off the flare, which is to say he posted an open invitation to our high school classmates on our class Facebook page. He even offered to pick up the drink tab. The actual event was last night, and about a dozen of us ended up having a very pleasant evening together. It kind of unwittingly turned into a fascinating social experiment, because that particular set of people probably never would have gotten together while we were actually in high school 39 years ago (our 40th anniversary reunion will be next year). But now which side of town you grew up on or which middle school you went to or which group you hung with didn’t seem to really matter all that much anymore. Just having gone to the same high school together now seemed like an ample stake on which to tether our shared life experiences.

Anyway, this event for some reason called to my mind a little white lie that I told to a number of people 39 years ago. Everyone was excited about being done with high school and making college plans, and so that was a big topic of conversation in those last waning days of high school. I had been accepted to BYU (I don’t precisely recall, but I think that may have been the only school I even applied to; my dad was a big proponent of me going there). Of course my close friends all knew this. But for some reason when more casual acquaintances asked me the inevitable question of where I was going to go to school, my response was “the University of Illinois.” It’s true that I had visited Champaign-Urbana many times, my older sister was attending there, and I eventually would go to law school there. But none of that changes the fact that what I said was a lie; I was going to BYU, not the UoI.

If this happened today, I doubt I would be so reckless as to tell such a fib. Last night photos and commentary on our dinner were appearing in real time on Facebook, and this morning I woke up to quite a few more. But there was no Facebook or internet back in those olden days.

Why did I do that? I am honestly not entirely sure. It wasn’t planned, at least the first time it happened. I’m not aware of any conscious thought having gone into it. And I ended up loving my time at the Y. So feel free to psychoanalyze this in the comments.

But I do have a guess. Saying I was going to BYU would have immediately outed me as a Mormon. Now, today I could imagine not feeling as though I wanted to personally have to bear the weight of all of the Church’s public policies, such as its stance with respect to gay marriage, with which I disagree. But I don’t think anything like that was really in my head at the time.

Rather, I think my concern was with our aggressive proselytism. I didn’t want anyone to think that my friendship was just a ruse to try to get them to become members of my Church. I’ve known lots of Mormons who are friends with people for only so long as their joining the Church remains a live possibility, but when a firm disavowal of interest comes, there goes any pretense of friendship. And I really, really, really didn’t want anyone to think my friendship with them was conditional on their reactions to or feelings towards Mormonism. That our convert-at-all-costs mentality had the potential to color how people perceived me as a friend apparently led my adolescent brain on the spot, unbidden by my actual consciousness, to formulate and communicate my little white lie in an effort to head off that perception at the pass.

I regret telling the lie. But I still possess the feelings that generated it. I would hate for anyone ever to think that my friendship was not genuine, but rather a cynical ploy to boost the baptism numbers.


  1. “I’m a Mormon — but I’m not one of those Mormons!!” I suppose we’ve all made or wanted to make that disclaimer at some time. As I grow more confident in presenting myself as I really am (and therefore as not like what I really am not), that particular urge almost never comes anymore. I’m glad it’s (almost entirely) gone.

  2. I hope I get there, Ardis. When I return home to California, it’s hard for me – the negative feelings in my family about the church are deep, and the church’s stance and politics over the last few years have only widened the gulf. I end up going out of my way to remind everyone I am still me, and have not traded in my brain, despite the tension between my personal beliefs, and my church’s official position. It’s hard.

  3. Conditional friendship is a common problem and in lots of venues, but Mormons certainly have our share and more. It can be a problem in several directions, inside and out. As NOT “one of those Mormons”, when Mormon family and friends find out the conversation turns awkward or stops. It feels like the relationship might be conditioned on my acting or talking in a certain by-the-book way. But when non-Mormon family and friends find out, the conversation opens up. I find that Mormonism–church, culture, theology–is really interesting and people have lots of questions, so long as they’re not being preached to. The standard opening is like this:
    Non-Mormon: “XYZ that Mormons talk about doesn’t makes sense.” [Offered after hints that it might be OK to talk, but offered tentatively and with an escape route.]
    Me: “No, it doesn’t make sense.” [Hurray! The escape route isn’t needed. We can talk.] “But you might think about it this way.” [More than just OK, this might get interesting.]
    Pretty far from the golden questions, but that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

  4. Kevin, what did you tell them a year later when you were stepping away from school for two years to engage in “aggressive proselytism”?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    These weren’t close friends, so I wouldn’t have seen them a year later. And I’m certainly not claiming that my little lie was a rationale thing to do.

  6. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I find that I “fib” like this all the time. I’m not hesitant to discuss my beliefs (although, like Ardis, not being one of THOSE Mormons is a typical refrain). However, I find that my mention of my religion derails any conversation. As soon as people find out I’m LDS, that becomes the topic of discussion. From a proselytizing perspective, that’s exactly how you want it. But from the perspective of someone who is trying to be a co-worker, a friend, or to otherwise just get along in society, you might just want the conversation to stay on the path it is on. Sometimes there’s an interesting discussion you don’t want to derail.

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Another thought, Kevin. No idea how BYU was perceived back then (before the formal, yet dubious, rankings that exist today) but would there have been reasons related to academic prestige at the time?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Turtle, thanks for articulating better than I was able to do the kinds of things likely underlying my fib. (No, in my case academic standing wasn’t an issue.)

  9. We were all a lot different back then……..

  10. Being from New Mexico, this is all so familiar and I’ll lay claim to both Kevin and Turtle’s explanations as my own inchoate thoughts of that era. It feels much more coherent after reading this personal essay. I used to think it was just a persecution complex. I am also half Mexican and I knew the sting of being a minority and my little white lie was to suggest that I was just one quarter Mexican, instead of half. Being told that my church was a cult, just seemed to fit the narrative that I was valued less by society. I personally valued my faith much more than my heritage, (at the time). So I just lumped the discomfort all together along with being from a trailer house in the country. The end result was to avoid any topics that related to any socio-demographic info in the getting to know you stage. Once we crossed over to BFF territory, then I was all about the golden questions. I had two friends in college that were baptized. In retrospect, I was definitely one of *those Mormons back then. (I used to defend the church’s position against the ERA initiative.) Long term memory serves me well and I wonder how much of me is the same as that version of me. Because I really get this quote by Gerard Way– “Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.” The new me is all about owning it.