Confessions of a Confabulator

I am currently reading Walter Kirn’s true crime novel about his relationship with the con man who called himself Clark Rockefeller. If you have never hear of “Clark Rockefeller,” or don’t know his story, it basically comes down to this: 17-year-old comes to America from Germany, works through a variety of identities (most of which allowed him to mooch off of others) until eventually settling on that of an orphaned Rockefeller. Eventually convicted first of custodial kidnapping* of his daughter, and later the many-years-ago murder of the son of his landlady, he describes himself as a “confabulator,” someone who makes up harmless inventions. A habitual liar, in other words, who generally lies to make himself more interesting than he really is. (If you are interested in the details, the Wikipedia entry under his real name is a good place to start.)

Whoa, do I know the type. Not the true psychopath that he turned out to be, but the inventor of identities and stories that were so incredible you almost had to believe them, because really, who would make that up and expect people to believe them.

This is not something I talk about often, because it remains a source of embarrassment for me, but I went through a period of serious confabulation** from about 13 to about 16. I made up an imaginary boyfriend, an imaginary birth family, and created elaborate narratives around both. I have long since come to grips not just with what I did but why. I won’t go into great detail, because it’s mostly pretty childish and mundane (you can probably guess that enjoying the attention was part of it), but I will say that I winced a little at what Kirn relays as James Ellroy’s opinion of “Clark”: “a case of the artistic temperament operating unrestrained by the strictures of honest intellectual labor.” It’s no coincidence that my need to confabulate eased as I started writing with any real direction, or that I was later drawn to fandom and tabletop gaming.

Karma’s a bitch, though, and for a while, I found myself…accumulating? Attracting, even, the same sort of person. Not liars in the sense of conning people or cheating on lovers or getting a job dishonestly. Rather, people who were clearly embellishing their lives. This person made their past job sound a little cooler than it really was. That person pretty much invented a past career from whole cloth. This person had a really…interesting romantic past. And I will admit that my own past has made me simultaneously more suspicious and more gullible. On the one hand, I have a pretty good nose for what I call the spackle lie: the lie you tell to smooth over something that doesn’t quite match on the edges, the lie that you have to tell or else admit to the first lie. On the other hand, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt even when something seems improbable, because I know so well the temptation to embellish just a little, to make yourself sound just a little cooler.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons I get so frustrated when people treat any imaginative activity for which one is not being paid as childish and a waste of time. Imagination isn’t something that goes away just because you turn a magic number, and if there isn’t a way to get that “honest intellectual labor,” it can twist in some not-so-healthy directions.

I started this thinking I would have some startling insight, and, well, it didn’t so much happen, but still: the various books and true crime episodes I have seen about Mr. “Rockfeller” have been interesting, if at times a little too close to home.

*Not the actual legal term, but you get the idea.
**I use the term not to make my actions sound better – I will freely admit I was quite the liar in many aspects of my life – but because it so well describes that particular type of lying.


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