Archer: The sins of the father

A fantasist, an imposter and a conman - and that was just Archer senior. The tangled roots of a personality disorder
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The Independent Online

It is now certain that Lord Archer has been lying through his teeth on a great many subjects for a great many years. Perhaps he simply does not know right from wrong, or maybe he deliberately cuts the corners of veracity when it suits him. But this would be to underestimate the extent to which his personality is disordered.

Lying is normal, but lying all day long is not. The average person tells two lies a day, while someone like Archer tells dozens. They are involved in a minute-by-minute task of making up reality to suit themselves, and it starts very young.

There was a time and a place when all of us told our first lie, and another when we were told it was a bad thing to do. Yet this was soon contradicted when we were taught that lying can also be right. An unwanted phone call to a parent meant they asked you to lie and say they were not in. An unwanted present from granny forced you to smile and say thank you. Learning to lie is part of growing up.

From the age of three, children lie increasingly often; the more intelligent the child, the more lies. But by the age of five, someone like Archer is lying four times more often than normal. Frequent liars at this age are six times more likely subsequently to be convicted of a crime.

The benefits of normal lying in everyday life are obvious in the workplace. Studies of leaders show that they are better at manipulation and more Machiavellian than less successful people. Indeed, frequent lying can be indispensable in some professions.

As someone who has worked for most of the major television producers and national newspapers, I can testify that television personnel are far more mendacious than journalists. Television production has a culture in which people lie first and ask questions afterwards.

Recently, I ran into a producer I had not seen for 10 years. I did not recognise her because she no longer dyed her hair blond, but when I said so, she pointlessly denied her hair had ever been fair. She lies, therefore she is; it is her way of keeping her fractured inner life from falling apart.

Like professions, national cultures also vary in how much they foster lying. Five-year-old Japanese children are significantly more honest than American ones, and there are four times more psychopaths (the quintessential amoral liar) in America than in Britain.

But the main cause of pathological lying is not culture; it is parental care in childhood. Their mothers were often rejecting or cold, making them feel that only deviousness could get them what they wanted, that people could not be trusted to care about them. This makes it easier to treat others as pawns on a chessboard, with no feelings for the harm done to victims. Pathological liars are twice as likely to have had deceitful or Machiavellian parents themselves.

I was once referred a patient whose motto seemed to be "if in doubt, lie". On one occasion, having seen him arrive for his appointment on a bicycle, I asked if the traffic had been bad. He told me he had come by taxi. This was only one of many seemingly purposeless lies he told me. It turned out that his father had been very imposturous. Every Christmas Day he would leave my patient's family after lunch, claiming that he had to go to work. By accident, it emerged many years later that he used to fly from their home in Northern Ireland to London for Christmas dinner with his second family. My patient had learnt to lie as a way of life.

Archer seems to have had a similar role model in his father, William, who invented a heroic record for himself in the First World War, including awarding himself the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and pretended to have gone to Eton and Oxford. He made his living through fraud.

Archer doubtless learnt to be a con man from his father's example. But the closer you look, the more obvious it becomes that he uses lying to reinforce a carapace that covers constant feelings of insignificance. Yes, lying serves practical purposes for him, but above all, it is his way of making himself feel important.

From a young age, like his father, he has been misrepresenting his curriculum vitae so as to present himself as more academically successful than he is and of grander social origins than was the case. I know this from personal experience.

When I interviewed him in 1987 for a TV programme, I reminded him that he had taught physical education at my preparatory school (Betteshanger, in Kent) in 1965. He simply looked blank, as if he did not know what I was talking about, perhaps ashamed of his humble beginnings. Yet I know it to be true, not just because it is a matter of public record, but because our choir sang at his wedding and I remember him well.

Writing novels has been a brilliant method for making money from his duplicitous fantasies. Half of the 14 short stories that made up his last book were about deceptions, frauds or petty confidence tricks, all of them successful. Until his recent conviction, it was possible to interpret them simply as veiled accounts of his father. Today we know that it is a case of "like father, like son". Jeffrey Archer is not just a fantasist, he is a confidence trickster.