Men Come With Warning Labels



Robert Levithan

“MEN COME WITH WARNING LABELS,” my friend Sally Fisher wisely quipped. “They are like cigarette packs. Read the label and apply the information or suffer the possible consequences.”

I had a date yesterday, a real date — conversation over soup. He is smart, funny, and accomplished, and we both do yoga. I joked with him about warning labels. Later in the evening, when discussing, with a men’s group I facilitate, the pitfalls of dating, I was struck by his warning labels: He was married for years and led a double life; he has not yet told the whole truth of his situation to his 15-year old son; and his online age is not accurate. There may be good justification for each of these choices, or they could represent a pattern that I know all too well: Facts can be inconvenient in the moment.

I grew up with untruths.

Lou was almost 6 feet tall. He had black hair, graying at the temples, slicked back with Brylcreem, fair skin, light blue eyes, and a big nose that edged between Roman and Sicilian. Although the family was Russian Jewish, the gambling ways and street smarts were pure Mafioso. Big-time Lou was the eldest of Jack and Fannie’s seven children, the patron saint, the breadwinner, the guy they all turned to for the answer.To me he was Dad. Although I was his third and last son, I always felt as though my uncles and aunts were his children as well.

You could always find Lou working, or doing something related to sports. It might be watching his older sons’ games and meets, or playing the ponies. When I was in junior high, Lou and I began to go to Yonkers Raceway for the trotters, although my mother thought we were bowling. To simulate veracity, we talked about our scores when we got home. On some other plane of reality I became a very good bowler.

Lou thought the truth was necessary only when it was kind. He omitted inconvenient facts and family history. He adjusted circumstance to fit his need.

For example, he changed the cause of his father’s death from syphilis to cancer for social acceptance. He seemed to own several businesses, and I never knew what to say about myself when I met his customers, as my mythic self was often a mystery to me and I hated to get him caught out in his lies. A simple factual answer regarding age or accomplishments might reveal one of his stories to be made up.

His habit of fabricating reality lasted to the end. After my mother’s death, he began secretly dating, but my brothers and I started piecing together the incongruities. He was seeing movies that he would never have seen. He said he played cards on Saturday nights, but card games are never held on a Saturday night in the suburbs. Once he admitted that his girlfriend existed, he tried to keep her from us. Finally one night, I dined with dad and PJ. When the check came, I felt his hand under the table thrusting a bill into my hand. I took the cue and paid the check with the proffered C-note without comment, but when we were alone I demanded to know what that was about.

“Well, when we go to dinner with PJ, you always have to pay the check, because I told her that I have no money other than Social Security and that my sons support me — that therefore I could never marry her.” That was Lou.

In the course of his long life, he covered up a suicide, protected criminals on the run, and participated in drug running and money laundering … all the while actually seeing himself as the most upright of citizens. It took some time for me to understand my own relationship to truth. Exaggeration, secrecy, and lies were the very fabric of my childhood, however subtle they usually were. My “aha” came when I was about 20, when I realized that getting away with things isn’t the greatest challenge; being honest is. Fortunately, I like a challenge.

As I live my life striving for honesty, I have also had to struggle with my childhood tendency to turn a blind eye to the perpetrator of dishonesty, particularly if he is a man I might love. Is it surprising that I am often attracted to men who might be called “trouble”? This new beau, on the surface, is the upright citizen, the good man I seek, yet there’s the pesky issue that his life has been less than transparent. He has a big warning label.

This time, I know what to do.

Robert Levithan is the author of THE NEW 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future. A psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, he also facilitates groups at Friends In Deed—The Crisis Center for Life Threatening Illness. He has written a sex advice column as The Sexual Ethicist, he was The Design Shrink for Oprah, and is now a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. His rather varied past experiences include dancing for Twyla Tharp, performing with Robert Wilson and under the direction of Roman Polanski, and driving a NYC Taxi. He is working on a memoir. See:

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