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Truth be told, it's sometimes easy to believe in lies


www.sltrib.com The Salt Lake Tribune (08/08/2004)

Brooke Adams

Human condition: Mark Hacking, others show that a need to trust someone can trump any doubts.

He called it the worst day of his life, and Mark Hacking was telling the truth.

As strangers, friends and family fanned out in Memory Grove on July 19 in search of his missing wife Lori, Hacking must have realized his darkest secrets were about to unravel in public.

Everyone would soon know what he knew: he was a fake and, he would admit to his brothers five days later, a killer.

For the moment, Mark Hacking kept up the pretense. "It's hard, because when I'm searching, I'm not looking for somebody sitting on a rock or walking around," he told reporters. "I know I'm searching for someone who is hurt."

As the awful truth of that statement surfaced, so did disquieting questions. How could those who thought they knew him best not detect his many lies? Did Lori die simply because she had discovered the truth about Mark? And what of our own lies - what damage might they cause and how far would we go to maintain them?

Dorie Olds has some answers.

She knows what it's like to live with a liar and a killer and not suspect a thing. Her former husband is Mark Hoffman, who killed two people when his masterful forgeries of rare documents were about to be exposed.

The motive to trust and believe, she said, is much stronger than the drive to doubt.

"You trust that person, you believe what they say," she told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Why would I think Mark was lying to me? He loved me, he married me, this was a person who cared about me. There is no other place to go than that the person cares and is going to do right by you.

"If someone is good at this and wants you to know certain things about themselves, that's what you'll know," said Olds. "Until you've been there, you can't understand how good these guys are."

Jed Erickson, associate director of adult services for Valley Mental Health, said those deceived aren't at fault. "It is less a consequence of people being naive and gullible and easily duped [and more that] these people are skillful and adroit and capable of keeping things hidden."

Hoffman, for instance, easily passed a lie detector test about his role in the 1985 pipe bomb killings of Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen Sheets.

Hacking came up with graded papers and even a diploma to substantiate his fictional college career, and even offered solid advice to others about getting into medical school.

Calculated, cold-blooded measures to cover the ruse and avoid exposure are well-documented. Consider the case of Jean-Claude Romand, for whom living a lie began simply enough.

The Frenchman faked passage of a medical exam and then an entire medical education, a 10-year post as a physician at the World Health Organization and a comfortable salary actually drawn from his parents' bank accounts and various investment scams.

Then, as his secret life began to collapse, Romand murdered his wife, two children and his parents, failing only at his own suicide.

"When you get caught in that endless effort not to disappoint people, the first lie leads to another, and then it's your whole life," Romand said in court, according to author Emmanuel Carrre's account of the case, The Adversary.

If, before that final night, Lori Hacking encountered odd circumstances or uneasy feelings she likely waved them off - just as Florence Romand and Dorie Olds did.

Hoffman, Olds said, "always had a good answer for why this was happening or why that was happening."

Once, she came home early from work and found her husband there, not in class at Utah State University. He offered a plausible excuse.

"To this day, I don't know if he was enrolled and was going to school," she said. When Hoffman failed to qualify for graduation, he claimed the school had made an error.

"I wanted to believe certain things," Olds said. "I knew there was something off, but I wanted to see the things that showed that he loved me."

Robert Stott, a Salt Lake County prosecutor who worked the case, says Hoffman was "kind of like an onion."

"He had these layers of personality," Stott said. "To some people, he appeared an average Joe, a normal person with normal religious and normal business views."

Others saw through that layer, but still considered Hoffman a wonderful finder of rare documents.

"Take that away and you found the real Hoffman was living the biggest lie of all," Stott said. "There were layers upon layers of what his true moral standing and character was. It depended on who you were and how well you knew him which side you saw."

The paradox is that often, the easiest people to fool are those to whom we are closest, experts say.

"You don't want to entertain these thoughts, that the person you're probably closest to, your most intimate partner, could lie," said Sally Caldwell, a Texas State University researcher who focuses on romantic deception. "It's just like you don't want to entertain the thought that the guy next door to you could be a serial murderer."

Faked degrees, hidden debts, secret lovers - the ways we try to fool one another are endless and commonplace. And you don't have to be a full-blown psychopath or have a personality disorder to be a good liar, as victims of white collar crime and cheating spouses can attest.

Paul Ekman, emeritus psychology professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, has spent around 40 years studying deception. He believes lie-catching held little evolutionary payoff and thus went undeveloped in humans - something modern life has done little to change.

Ekman says our ability to have intimate relationships depends on a general preference for trust over doubt and in some instances, a willingness to collude in a lie to avoid having to face its consequences - that a husband is having an affair, for instance.

The truth, little white lies, gray areas, dark secrets: Most of us travel at least some distance on this spectrum of honesty.

And at the personal level, many of us have "hidden stigmas that we manage and control and don't necessarily present to all audiences," said Douglas Porpora.

"Culturally, we are less committed to the truth than we think we are," said Porpora, author of Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life and a sociology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "A lot of us think we hate liars, that we are committed to the truth, but in actual practice, we don't think that. There are all kinds of circumstances where truth is not the highest value to affirm."

And there are circumstances where the truth is difficult to accept, as the family of Mark Hacking is learning.

"It has taken me a long time," said Olds, who admits initially having a hard time acknowledging her ex-husband's duplicity. "There wasn't one moment, but little pieces coming together. It is more of an unfolding. I'm not done with that process."