The Radical Honesty movement

The last word: Nothing but the truth

Radical Honesty is based on a simple premise. [Brad Blanton, founder of the movement], a 69-year-old psychotherapist, claims that everyone would be happier if we just stopped lying, if we just told the truth, all the time. That would be radical in itself, of course—a world without fibs. But Blanton goes further. He says we should toss out all the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. To him, it’s the only path to authentic relationships, the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

My interview with him turns out to be unlike any other in my years as a journalist. Usually, there’s a fair amount of butt kissing and diplomacy. But with Blanton, I can say anything that pops into my mind. In fact, it would be rude not to say it. I’d be insulting his life’s work.

“I was disappointed when I visited your office,” I tell him. (Earlier, he had shown me a small, cluttered single-room office that serves as the Radical Honesty headquarters.) “For my essay, I want this to be a legitimate movement, not a fringe movement.”

“What about a legitimate fringe movement?” he says.

Blanton’s movement is at least sizable, if not huge. He has sold 175,000 books in 11 languages and has 25 trainers assisting workshops and running practice groups around the country.

I practice too. When he veers too far into therapyspeak, I say, “That just sounds like gobbledygook.” “Thanks,” he replies. “That’s fine.”

“Do you think it’s ever okay to lie?” I ask.

“I advocate never lying in personal relationships. But if you have Anne Frank in your attic and a Nazi knocks on the door, lie. I lie to any government official. I lie to the IRS. I always take more deductions than are justified.”

I start in at dinner with my friend Brian. We are talking about his new living situation, and I decide to tell him the truth: “You know, I forget your fiancée’s name.” (This is highly unacceptable—they’ve been together for years; I’ve met her several times.) “It’s Jenny,” Brian says.

Luckily, Brian doesn’t seem too upset. So I decide to push my luck. “Yes, that’s right. Jenny. Well, I resent you for not inviting me to your and Jenny’s wedding. I don’t want to go, since it’s in Vermont, but I wanted to be invited.” “Well, I resent you for not being invited to your wedding.” “You weren’t invited? Really? I thought I had.” “Nope.” “Sorry, man. That was a mistake.”

A breakthrough! We are communicating! Blanton is right. I’m enjoying this. A little bracing honesty can be a mood booster.

By the end of the week, I’ve slashed my routine lying by at least 40 percent.

One thing becomes quickly apparent, though: There’s a fine line between Radical Honesty and creepiness. It’s simple logic: Men think about sex every three minutes, as the scientists at Redbook remind us. If you speak whatever’s on your mind, you’ll be talking about sex every three minutes.

I have a business breakfast with an editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine. As we’re sitting together, I tell her that I remember what she wore the first time we met and that I’d try to sleep with her if I were single. I even confess to her that I just attempted (unsuccessfully) to look down her shirt during breakfast.

She smiles. Though I do notice she leans back farther in her seat.

When I get home, I keep the momentum going. I inform our nanny, Michelle, that “if my wife left me, I would ask you out on a date, because I think you are stunning.” She laughs. Nervously. “I won’t mention it again,” I say. Now I’ve made my own skin crawl. But I carry on.

While getting my hair cut, I stop my barber short when he starts telling me how he doesn’t want his wife to get pregnant. “You know, I’m tired. I have a cold. I don’t want to talk anymore. I want to read.” “Okay,” he says, wielding his scissors, “go ahead and read.” Later, I do the same thing with my in-laws when they’re yapping on about preschools. “I’m bored,” I announce. “I’ll be back later.” And with that, I leave the living room.

Radical Honesty can save a whole lot of time.

I can say this for Radical Honesty. Whenever I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves. In fact, all my relationships could take a whole lot more truth than I expected.

But the giddiness I experienced at first wore off pretty quickly. A life of Radical Honesty is filled with a hundred confrontations every day. They’re small, but relentless. “Yes, I’ll come to your office, but I resent you for making me travel.” “My boss said I should invite you to this meeting, although it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so.” At one point, my wife told me a story about switching operating systems on her computer. In the middle, I had to go help our son with something, then forgot to come back. “Do you want to hear the end of the story or not?” Julie asked. “Well … is there a payoff?” I asked.

“F— you.”

“That’s good,” Blanton says to me when he hears the story. “I like that. That’s communicating.”

Adapted from the book The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs. ©2009 by A.J. Jacobs.

Something that strikes me as particularly meta about Mr. Jacobs’ experiment with Radical Honesty is that by virtue of being a novelist doing research, people he associates with are likely already immune to the occasional odd behaviour on his part – or at least are more willing than the average person to forgive him and chalk it up to the innate wackiness of his job. I don’t think I can envision a world where lying is a thing of the past.