When Charlotte Fridy died in 1919, she knew nothing about the First World War, which had claimed millions of lives since fighting erupted in 1914. She was 100, living just outside of London, England, and she had her wits about her. As such, she had a few questions about the food shortages, occasional nighttime explosions, and the abundance of khaki on the young men she knew. Her family and friends, determined to hide the war from her, had plenty of answers. None were the truth.
“Hers was the rare experience of having been spared all knowledge of the Great War,” the Middlesex Chronicle noted approvingly a week after her death in August 1919, tucking the geopolitical subterfuge in the middle of a story about her very long life. “Her friends having maintained a strict silence on the events of the past five years in her presence so that even this great catastrophe did not disturb the peaceful eventide of her long and useful life.”
It likely began simply enough. When the Germans began their march through Belgium in August 1914, Charlotte was 95 or so, and everybody thought the war would be over by Christmas. When the German forces unleashed their deadly gas on the battlefields in the spring of 1915, maybe her family thought Charlotte wasn’t long for this world. But the carnage continued, Charlotte endured, and the absurdities that came from reconciling those two realities began to pile up.
“I think the way you boys dress nowadays is simply terrible,” Charlotte apparently said about the all-khaki wardrobe her younger male relations wore, according to the Yarmouth Independent.
Charlotte’s relatives explained they were army uniforms, but left out the part about the active battleground. Charlotte was incredulous. It was nothing like the scarlet, blue and gold uniforms the “bewhiskered officers” of her youth had worn.
The newspaper coverage was positive about the Fridy family decision to lie, but most philosophers would not recommend this course of action. Even the utilitarians, who believe in maximizing happiness for the most number of people are “often against lying,” says Samantha Brennan, a philosophy professor at Guelph University, since it is not likely to work, and erodes the currency of truth telling.
Immanuel Kant was the absolutist on the matter. He felt lying was “worse than murder because it requires the use of the person’s intellectual agency against them,” she explains.
The taboo against lying is so strong because social interactions and language rely on trusting other people, she says. Brennan is close to an absolutist on the matter, but allows for specific exceptions — certainly when people’s lives are at stake, or when the lie is time-limited, and trivial — but even those small lies are slippery, and best avoided. All this to say, she does not support lying about the existence of a major global conflict.
“You’re going to have to lie about lots of stuff,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle commitment, an elaborate fraud.”
Fridy had worked for most of her life as a private nurse. She had no children, but spent her final years in “quiet seclusion” in her nephew’s home on a subdued street of Victorian-style homes in Hounslow. The borough of London is now known for its proximity to Heathrow Airport, but in 1919, it was a community on London’s outer edge, before you hit the ribbon of farmers’ fields and orchards that supplied the fruits and vegetables for the city.
Hounslow had long been a garrison town with a well-used barracks on the west side of the community, says James Marshall, the librarian in charge of local history and archives for the Hounslow Public Library. During the First World War, Hounslow was a bustling regimental infantry and cavalry depot.
If Charlotte Fridy was housebound — which reporting suggests — she might have missed the influx of new recruits, since the barracks was a hike from her home. Harder to miss, Marshall says, was the “grass aerodrome” where pilots trained for the new form of warfare. “It would be hard to escape the noise of the planes buzzing about Hounslow,” he says.
As the death toll mounted, and homefront restrictions began to pile up, there was much for her friends and family to explain. The Germans eventually developed “a fairly long-range biplane bomber,” Marshall says. On nights when there was potential for air raids, Charlotte’s family told her that it was going to be chilly, so it was best to wear an extra nightcap for warmth. The Chronicle noted that the closest visit of the “aerial Huns” was the “Brentford bombing,” which killed several people in the community a few kilometres away. (Hounslow was not bombed, but it was a “haven of refuge for many,” the paper noted.)
“Time and again,” Charlotte went to bed with three hats. When her sleep was disturbed, it was blamed on nearby powder mills, which she formed a rather “bad opinion” of, according to local reports. When Britain introduced rationing, Fridy noticed the lack of vegetables and sugar, but had no idea that a submarine blockade was to blame. As far as she knew, it was those daft shopkeepers, mismanaging inventory.
In the summer of 1919, world leaders signed the Treaty of Versailles to formally end the war, and by August, Charlotte had died, formally ending her family’s performance.
“She died happy in the belief that the world, if less well managed, was just as pleasant a place as it was when she was twenty-one,” the Yarmouth Independent noted.
There is a limited pool of experts who can speak about hiding geopolitical events from loved ones. Wolfgang Becker is the director and co-writer of 2003’s Good Bye, Lenin!, a critically acclaimed film in which the main character hides the collapse of the East German Communist state from his mother.
Becker had never heard of Charlotte Fridy, but sees the comic potential in some of the details, including blaming nighttime explosions on a nearby factory.
“They might have thought, she is just on the very last steps of her life, and they don’t want to ruin it,” he says. “And then she was living a month more and a month more, and things get difficult … It’s basically the same idea of Alex.”
The idea at the centre of his film came from his co-writer. Good Bye, Lenin! tells the fictional story of Alex Kerner, who grew up in East Berlin. His mother, an ardent socialist, falls into a coma before the Berlin Wall comes down, and when she wakes up many months later, the doctors tell Alex that any excitement might cause fatal health complications.
Worried that the collapse of the East German regime could be deadly for his mother, Alex recreates the state in the family’s 10th-floor apartment, getting old furniture from storage, scrounging for East German products from dumpsters and creating fake newscasts with the help of his friend, that he plays for his mother on VHS tapes, under the pretense that it is live news. One news item is produced to explain the Coca-Cola sign his mother spots outside the window: the fake reporter, Alex’s friend, explains the exciting new discovery that the patent is actually from East Germany.
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Becker says he is a typical German — very direct. Not so direct that he would tell you the terrible dinner you cooked for him was disgusting but with the really important things, family relationships, he says what he means. If he were faced with a similar situation as his main character, Becker says he would tell his mother the truth as her condition improved. “I think you can’t keep people away from the truth even if it is tough.”
Becker says that the trouble for Alex comes when his mother recovers enough to walk outside and sees the spoils of capitalism. Alex and his friend create another TV segment on East Germany welcoming financial refugees from the West. Becker says that they flipped archival footage to make it look like the trains were coming from west to east, an old trick from the Nazi propaganda machine.
“Of course the Nazis produced newsreel stuff from all the successful battles in the east or the west, of course they were lying like hell,” he says. “But there was one rule for the cameraman, they always had to be on the southern side of the battle, so when you saw German soldiers running from left to right they were invading Russia,” just as it might look on a map.
While Alex does everything out of love for his mother, it soon becomes obsessive and manipulative, and requires a large supporting cast. In that way, he is not unlike the East German government, Becker says. While there may have been “positive socialist ideas” in the beginning, he says, it soon became all about control.
The secret police was known to listen to phone calls, read mail and had files on millions of East German citizens.
After the film premiered, people sent him similar stories of people who were unaware of sweeping changes, like the Japanese soldier who came out of hiding in 1974 on a remote island in the Philippines. The soldier was unaware that the Second World War was over, and that his country had surrendered decades earlier. Becker also mentions the Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful, where a father lies to his son to try to protect him from the reality of the concentration camp they are in: “A father tells his son, this is just a big game, the winner will get a ride on the tank,” Becker says. “This is a difficult film to make.”
The Benigni film won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Becker’s film was also a box office and critical success, nominated for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes. Stories about people who lie to protect their family seem to have a long track record of captivating audiences. Charlotte Fridy’s story eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean in September 1919. (By that time, her last name had morphed into the day of the week.) The Toronto Star ran a small wire article explaining that “fearing the effect because of her advanced age, Miss Friday’s relatives kept all news of the conflict from her.”
The story was widely viewed as charming, but Brennan, the professor, says it wouldn’t have “any light” in it if Charlotte was a younger woman. She says that lying to the elderly is a “particularly pernicious” problem. It’s not unheard of that families might want to “wait out” a relative’s lifespan with an “unpleasant truth.” But Brennan says you might be wrong about what your relative thinks, “and it doesn’t treat her as a full person.”
Older people tend to be treated like children in all sorts of cases she says, “whether it’s sex in senior citizens’ homes, or retirement homes … We’ve got lots of cases where we deny agency to the elderly, and this is another.”
Earlier this year, director Lulu Wang explored the issue of a family lying to a grandmother in The Farewell. The film, based on Wang’s experience, features a young woman who is shocked by her parents’ decision to not tell the family matriarch she has terminal cancer. As one character says: “Chinese people have a saying — when people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.” Instead of letting her in on the news, the family moves a cousin’s wedding ahead as a pretense to gather one last time. Just like the case of Charlotte Fridy, they are motivated by a desire to protect their loved one.
Charlotte’s predicament makes Brennan think of The Truman Show — the 1998 Jim Carrey film where Truman Burbank is raised inside a film studio masquerading as his town. Everything is fake, including his family, friends and co-workers. He is the only one unaware he is starring in a long-running reality show. Brennan says it’s a “horrifying” premise for a philosopher to consider.
“It doesn’t matter how happy the people are,” she says. “It’s a horrible way to live, it takes away one of the most important things in life, which is having true belief.”
The ability to lie changes with technology, and so does the ability to detect the lie, even if the latter doesn’t always keep pace with the former. In 1919, Charlotte’s family had to keep the newspapers away from her. In 1990, the fictional Alex uses television to legitimize his narrative. In 2019, the internet and social media can be harnessed by people who deliberately set out to lie, aided by Photoshop and other editing software, Brennan says.
A reality can be easily shaped and quickly spread, and our relationship to the truth is further complicated by figures like U.S. President Donald Trump, who disparages media coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news.” In Germany, Becker says, the Nazi-coined word Lügenpresse — or “Lying press” — has come back into vogue by right-wing populist parties unhappy with coverage from mainstream news organizations.
“This is the way they try to stay away from facts,” Becker says. “They just blame them, and say, well the facts are not right, the analysis is not right, the opinion is not right, it’s just left-wing policy, and we have the real facts.”
Becker is developing another film, based on a positive lie at the end of the Second World War — that’s all he can say. A few years ago, a film critic noted almost all his films have a “bit about forgery in a positive sense.” Even he wasn’t aware of his tendency, and he’s not sure why he’s drawn to it. “Why do I like fish more than meat? I don’t know,” he says. “Why do I like music in minor more than in major? I don’t know.”
He’s not going to come up with some lie to answer the question.