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Stories of our lives

Margaret Barse
Career Document Images

My résumé gets shorter as I get older. Every year, more and more fragments of my past seem irrelevant, and indeed imaginary. I’m tempted to start over, the way the immigrants did when they arrived at Ellis Island and got new names, and no doubt invented new biographies for themselves. Nobody should be a prisoner of his or her own past.

This point of view is becoming quite popular. I have been inspired by the extraordinary story of Rep. George Santos (R-NY) who, taking his lead from the top, maneuvered his way into Congress by reinventing his entire biography, including education, religion, work experience and even his family background. Just about everything except his height, weight and DNA profile was fiction.

I have read a lot of résumés over the years. Few of them had much in common with the person whose name was at the top. Many showed signs of having been compiled by professional résumé services staffed by unemployed writers of fantasy and science fiction.

I suspect that very few résumés, including mine, would stand up to close examination. That must be the reason why we don’t have a word in the English language for this document. We are so embarrassed by its blatant falsity that we can only name it in French or Latin — Americans call it a résumé and the British call it a curriculum vitae — literally the course of one’s life.

There’s no disgrace in writing fiction: novelists, movie producers and advertising copywriters do it all the time, along with some other professions that we won’t mention. Lies are profitable and, on the whole, we swallow them without much resistance.

Over the past few years we have become accustomed to open and shameless lying by politicians. So perhaps Santos is not so very much out of line, just a little inexperienced. With practice in Congress, which must be the ideal place to practice, he will become more skilled, and perhaps even slightly believable. No wonder his fellow representatives are reluctant to throw him out. He has the potential to be a star.

We have moved far beyond the traditional practice of résumé padding. Now we are into wholesale résumé invention. There are numerous distinguished precedents. A few years ago, the English peer and politician Lord Archer was caught telling a spectacular string of lies about his past, many of which were published in Who’s Who. Almost every day we read exposés of self-taught doctors, fake lawyers and sham academics. How do we know anything about anybody? We don’t.

This is a great gift of freedom. A century ago, a person’s written “character” (as it was then called) followed him or her all through life. If you had a doubtful past, then that past was always present. Now, nobody has a past that can’t be deleted or improved with a few keystrokes. Every slate is a clean slate.

Looking at my own shrinking résumé, I can sympathize with the desire to rewrite it, or just to have it vanish altogether. Is life just the sum of one’s résumé? Obviously not. A résumé is a strait jacket, an enemy of imagination and possibility. I wish I had had the courage to inflate my personal history like Rep. Santos long ago. But it is already filled with such impressive qualifications, admirable achievements, prestigious awards, and heartwarming family stories that it is difficult to know what, without embarrassment, I could add.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.