Black Cards: All the Lies You Need to Love

Clancy Martin in conversation with Amie Barrodale

Love and Lies

In his latest book, Love and Lies, Clancy Martin argues that love requires deception and self-deception. He uses philosophy, literature, and his own life to argue the case. I am his wife, and I wanted to ask him the difficult, scary questions—like what should a married woman do if she has an affair and gets pregnant with the other man’s kid—but in the process I found that we all know the answers to those questions. The answer is: lie. But still, many people, when faced with the situation, are too weak; they tell the truth. So I tried to find a place—still difficult and scary—where I could ask questions that touched on the truth about love and our marriage, and I wasn’t sure what his answers would be. I am his third wife and he’s my first husband, and that’s part of what’s scary, of course. Did I marry a pathological liar?

Love and Lies
Barnes and Noble

Amie: What should a woman do if she has cheated on her husband, whom she loves. She did it impulsively, and it didn’t mean anything. Should she tell her husband, or not?

Clancy: I don’t think she should tell her husband immediately. She might feel better briefly after telling him, but she’s giving him all of her guilt to carry around. And she certainly shouldn’t tell him in anger—as an attack during a fight, or as a response to some mistake he’s made.

Could there come a time when she should tell him? Yes, I think when she can see that the caring thing to do is to admit that this happened. Or if this starts to become a pattern, she’d better let him know that they need to see a therapist and then, in that moderated context, “come clean.” But she’s already done some harm with this one-night stand—don’t exacerbate it.

Amie: Okay, but that’s what everyone says, and your thesis is that people in love have to lie more often than we admit. So shouldn’t you be coming down hard on the necessity of the lie? That a cheater should never tell?

Clancy: Deny, deny, deny is the standard wisdom for men—and maybe for women too. That’s not—

Amie: For cheaters, let’s say.

Clancy: Yes, for cheaters, and this woman has cheated. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that caring should be her goal—and that caring might sometimes require carrying the burden of a lie for a while. Later, caring might require telling the truth. We have to be subtle epistemologists if—

Amie: Okay, okay.

Clancy: Can I just finish my sentence? We have to work hard to understand each other if we want to be good lovers.

Amie: What if this woman who cheated finds herself fantasizing about it a lot. She’s never contacted the guy, and she never will, but she thinks about him every time she sleeps with her husband.

Clancy: Wow, good one. For the record, you’re my wife, and if this happens, please lie to me about it.

Amie: Wait, that’s a good answer. Why?

Clancy: Because I don’t think I could handle the truth, but I want us to stay married. So I’m asking you to be the strong one, since it’s your deal, your mental affair. If you feel like it’s starting to threaten the relationship—if the only way for us to continue to be happily married is for you to get the truth out—well, then I’d ask you to find a gentle, caring way to do it. Don’t just say: “I can’t stop thinking about this guy I slept with, he was fantastic and had a huge—”

Amie: How come you didn’t go into detail about our marriage, or your previous two marriages, in the book?

Clancy: Two reasons: respect for you and my two previous wives, and respect for my daughters. And also, I guess, fear that you guys would all love me less if I were too bluntly honest. But truthfully there are some things I would love to say, but can’t, because I know they would really hurt people I love.

Amie: I had a friend who used to talk about “black cards.” He described it as a little file folder of his honest feelings about people. I was in my twenties, and I said, “Do you have a black card on me?” He said, “Of course.” I said, “What’s on it?” He said, “Well if I told you, you wouldn’t be my friend anymore.” What I mean is, Is it your duty as a writer who is writing about his life to put your black cards on the page? Is it your duty as a loving husband to share your black cards with your wife? Or are black cards just things you keep to yourself? And why do people enjoy black cards so much?

Clancy: When he first read Love and Lies, Adam Thirlwell told me, “Write down all of your lies for a week.” I like this black card idea. Two things: I think writing always involves putting black cards on the page—especially, your black cards on yourself. Those are the really scary ones, aren’t they?

Amie: Well, no. It depends. Once you’ve put it down in one place, it’s not scary any more. It’s only the first time. Then it’s just out there.

Clancy: I guess there will always be more black cards, and for me writing is in part about exorcism, self-exorcism. But the second thing I wanted to say is that your friend’s black cards probably changed all the time. And that’s what we have to remember about these “truths” and “deceptions”: our feelings, our subjective lives, are so complex and elusive. People who think they have a simple and stable set of views—truths!—about other people or themselves simply aren’t thinking at all. And dogmatism—especially when it comes to the people you love—is the very worst kind.

Amie: That reminds me of the movie we saw the other night, Force Majeure. A family on a ski trip is hit by a controlled avalanche. The smoke from the avalanche pours over their table at lunch on the mountaintop. But as it’s coming, the smoke looks like snow, and they think they are going to die. The mother wraps her arms around her children. The father picks up his gloves and his iPhone and runs. The two spend the rest of the movie dealing with the “truth” that has been revealed. And it seems manifestly true: the man is a coward and the woman has seen clearly. When friends try to encourage her to see it differently, suggesting for example that they are all okay, and that maybe they should move on, she is intractable. In the final scene, they are on a bus going back down the hillside, and the driver is taking sharp turns and having trouble with the gears. She forces him to stop so she can get off, and everyone on the bus follows her. But then on the roadside, night falls, and thirty people are on foot in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go. For the first time in the movie, it is manifest that this woman does not know what to do. That she has been alarmist. That she has caused a ruckus over nothing. It was a movie that presented two equally valid “truths.” And showed the way the self-righteous adhesion to one truth could tear apart a good marriage.

Clancy: For me the question becomes: When we learn things about our loved ones that cause us to dislike—or even to hate—those loved ones, what should we do? It will vary from case to case, which matters: there shouldn’t be one simple answer to the toughest questions about relationships. One friend says in Force Majeure, when the married couple has left the room, “They need therapy!” People always say, “Go to therapy!” We have become very simpleminded in how we think about love, and yet it matters to us more than anything. But here’s my answer: the woman in the movie thought she was seeing the naked truth. She even had it on video. But I would ask her, “Are you being as tough on yourself as you are on your partner? Can you withstand the same withering scrutiny? Look at your own motivations: Do you admire your motivations?” It’s a very good case study, because this woman in the movie, like many of us, was completely blind to her own failings. Forgiveness, care, commitment: that’s what we demand from our parents, what I hope we offer to our children, and I think ought to give to our spouses.

Amie: Okay. We’re married. We’re involved in this big, pleasant lie. We make each other feel better, and I think you are good for me, and that I am good for you. We hope we will stay together, but your previous two marriages ended, so we know it could all end. So we have this precious lie. Wouldn’t some people say, “If you see it like that, why not just divorce now? Why get married at all?” Wouldn’t they say we’re just weak and stupid? How do you justify it?

Clancy: I have a bunch of precious lies. That I’m a good father. That I’m a good teacher. That I’m a good person. That I can become less selfish with effort. They aren’t exactly lies, of course—they are something more like fictions, they’re beliefs—very intimate, fragile, necessary beliefs. Hopes. Our marriage is something I believe in. It’s not a “lie” or a “truth,” that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Amie: But some people would say, “If you know it’s a belief, why not destroy it? Is it just weakness? Clinginess? Why not just raze the whole foundation of your life and live in an abandoned parking lot?”

Clancy: Some days—like when my wife is asking me really mean questions—I want to do just that.

Amie: Wait, but that was totally a leading question. You’re supposed to say, “If you really believe that, why bother tearing apart the outside. A parking lot and a four-story building aren’t so different. Maybe live in the one you prefer.”

Clancy: I think that’s right, but I also think it’s less complicated than that. I am happy with, feel loved by, not lonely (most of the time) because of, feel the strong satisfying need to care for: you. So the rest of it to me is learning not to make the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and doing my best to care for you, and not worrying too much about whether it’s weakness or strength.

Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (FSG, 2009) as well as many books on philosophy, and has translated works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and other philosophers. A Guggenheim Fellow, he is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and also writes for The New York Times, London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where he lives with his wife, the writer Amie Barrodale, and three daughters.

Amie Barrodale’s first short story collection is forthcoming from FSG in 2016. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s.

Love and Lies
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  • Mark

    I admire the attempt to take a more utilitarian perspective on truthfulness in relationships, rather than the deontological view of action in erotic love that most people promote. That being said, I have two major concerns with your argument.

    First, you’re looking at the matter almost exclusively from the perspective of the person who has done something that, if discovered, will hurt the other person in the relationship. If you look at it from the other person’s perspective, I think Freud’s conceptions of delusions vs. illusions are extremely important. Illusions, things that you believe to be true but may or may not be, are not necessarily detrimental for a person to believe, but delusions, factually false beliefs, are much more dangerous. I believe the rationale behind the distinction is that a belief that is factually false is more likely to butt up against an experience that makes the falsehood of the individual’s beliefs apparent and that forces the individual to revise his or her beliefs, and that this discovery of the falsehoods of your own beliefs is particularly damaging. Your views would be more in line if the true faithfulness (or whatever else is being lied about) of your significant other never had the chance of being revealed. I think you’re on solid ground, morally and philosophically, if you cheat, the person you cheat with is immediately disappeared into nothingness, and your own memories are immediately dissolved. Otherwise, since I would hazard a guess that in many, many cases of infidelity, the discovery of infidelity is from something other than honesty, and that the result of that discovery is significantly more damaging to the individual being lied to and to the relationship than any discovery by truth-telling, you’re assuming that the cheating liar is immune to missteps that reveal their actual behaviors.

    Second, you completely miss the point that our expectations about the results of our actions inform our actions. If you construct a moral framework in which the most ethical behavior after behaving unethically (acting (falsely) as if no infidelity has occurred) is identical to the most ethical behavior after behaving ethically (acting (truthfully) as if no infidelity has occurred), then you’re creating a situation where any consequentialist will view the obviously less moral behavior of cheating as morally identical to the more moral behavior of not cheating. This is clearly an undesirable outcome, and this belief structure then makes it more likely that people will cheat and then lie, which in turn makes it much more likely that the partner will discover the infidelity in the most damaging way possible, and in the way that is most likely to lead to the end of a relationship.

    I think you, Clancy, have taken an interesting (and immensely problematic) view of a reasonably common set of behaviors, and I think that you, Amie, are brave for trusting someone who thinks his ability to deceive someone interminably morally neutralizes his behavior that requires deceit. That being said, I think your argument is deeply flawed from a philosophical perspective, and the ramifications of your arguments are clearly detrimental.

  • smartastic

    Who designed this cover? It’s lovely.

    • FarrarStrausGiroux

      The jacket was designed by Rodrigo Corral.

      • smartastic

        Thank you for replying. Corral is an incredible talent. Every time I like a cover, it ends up being his.

  • Amie Barrodale

    Mark, relationships are stupid. Internet comments are stupid. But until I am ready to go live in a cave, the best I can do is not go around calling strangers stupid.

    • Mark

      I don’t believe I was calling anyone stupid. Clancy is making a moral claim that suggests people ought to lie more to the people with whom they’re in relationships. He makes his argument based on philosophy and social science. I responded with my own differing opinion, noting that I believe that his beliefs encourage unethical behavior and likely have, in the main, negative consequences for the people to whom cheaters/liars are lying, even though he claims the opposite. I considered Clancy’s book (and this article) to be an argument against more traditional views of truth, duty, and ethics; in response, I noted why I believed that his arguments were wrong. I never said anything about Clancy’s intelligence, I only assessed the strength of his argument. I’m sorry that your interpretation was that I was calling either you or him stupid, but I intentionally only addressed the arguments within the book and above article.

      • Amie Barrodale

        I think in the book–I’m not sure if you’ve read it–Clancy is just saying that we should acknowledge the lies we tell.

        Then in this article, I was just trying to push him to say things that would make us uncomfortable, because that’s my way. So I brought up cheating.

        I think he just said, “If it happens that you cheat on me, I’d rather not know.”

        In my introduction, I generalized about what I perceived to be the prevailing opinion, based on advice columns I have seen here and there. I should have probably said, somewhere in there, that if someone cheats on me, I want to know.

        But–to get back to your point–I think the old cliche about the similarities between bravery and stupidity were what was on my mind — you told me I was brave. I heard stupid.