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A pediatrician’s frank talk about fibs

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1999 - Winter


Long before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report and possible presidential lies were the topic of the day, Diane M. Komp, M.D., professor of pediatrics, decided to explore the issue of lying: why people do it and whether lies are ever justified. Her book on that topic, The Anatomy of a Lie: The Truth About Lies and Why Good People Tell Them, makes only one small mention of President Clinton and the Lewinsky affair, yet the coincidence of the book’s release and the release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report couldn’t have been more appropriate, according to its author.

Her own soul searching inspired Dr. Komp to write her book, which was published in the fall by Zondervan, a HarperCollins imprint. Dr. Komp, a pediatric oncologist, has written five other books, including A Window to Heaven and Children Are … Images of Grace. She began to examine her personal standards of honesty after she came upon a memoir by American Civil War veteran H. Clay Trumbull titled A Lie Never Justifiable. Trumbull, a Yankee chaplain, describes how he would rather kill one of his Confederate captors than lie to him to cover an escape attempt.

Perplexed by Trumbull’s reasoning, Dr. Komp began to question whether there are, at times, good reasons for lying. She devotes a chapter to a Dutch family who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust and asks whether lying to the Gestapo is justifiable. She questions her own lie of omission to the mother of a child stricken with cancer. The cancer, she told the mother, had not progressed. But, seeing the mother’s need for hope, she left out the bad news—the cancer was not going away either.

While examining other people’s dishonesty and tracking her own “white lies” in a journal, she couldn’t help noting that while we condemn dishonesty in political leaders, police officers, doctors and others we expect to trust, many of us pay little heed to the impact of our own falsehoods. “There may be a personal price to pay in downsizing duplicity, but we can’t afford not to pay it,” Dr. Komp writes in her book.

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