February 6, 2017

Jonah Lehrer was about to go on stage before 1,000 people in the summer of 2012 when he got the news: Another writer just discovered that he put made-up quotes from Bob Dylan in his book.

“I’d been a lifelong Dylan fan, and I’d been familiar with the proximate versions of what he’d said,” Lehrer said of getting the call backstage before a St. Louis appearance. “So I put in those approximations to make it sound better, as if I’d actually done my homework. And then I forgot they were there.”

Before he was outed as a serial fabricator in 2012, Lehrer was one of America’s most sought-after young journalists, with bylines in publications such as Wired and The New Yorker and a slew of books on popular neuroscience.

Lehrer recounted the moment that destroyed his journalism career live for The Moth, a live storytelling show distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. Over 11 minutes, Lehrer described the shame that came with being exposed as a fabulist, telling his wife about episodes of fabrication and trying to move on as a father in the months after.

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When he arrived home from his trip early, Lehrer stood outside the front door knowing that “once I opened it, my life would never be the same again.”

I open the door, and there she was, sitting on the couch in a ponytail and her pajamas. I called from the airport, telling her I was coming home early, that I had terrible news, but now I have to give her all the sordid details. I remember the way she listened and tried not to cry. I told her that night to leave me, that I wasn’t worthy of her and never would be. That I would be sad for a long time and she deserved so much better. But she stayed. And because she stayed I have a story to tell.

That career, Lehrer ultimately realized, was driven by “a mixture of insecurity and ambition” and came at the cost of being a good father.

I went from living a very busy life full of deadlines to one in which I had nothing at all to do. But I did have a young daughter, which meant that I was stuck with childcare by the process of elimination. And the sad truth was, up to that point, I’d been a bad father. I was always gone, on the road more than I was home, and when I was home, I was always staring at a screen, which is probably why my daughter said apple more than she said ‘Dada.’

Gradually, he came to grips with the loss of his career and reconnected with his daughter. It wasn’t easy at first. He felt his lowest after failing to put his daughter to bed and listening to her cry herself to sleep. Then he started to cry, too.

It was there, in that hallway, that I finally felt the full scope of my mistakes. I wanted my daughter to my redemption, my consolation, and she wanted nothing at all to do with me.

Over time, Lehrer said, his family became a source of comfort that give him flashes of surprise happiness — such as at Costco, where his son watches the store mechanics in rapture.

Our attachments bend us in funny ways. I’m grateful I got bent. I learned about love. My family taught me about love. And that has been my great consolation.

You can listen to Lehrer’s full monologue here, beginning at minute 24.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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