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Secret Skelly

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Tim Kreider shares a deeply personal story about a friend whose life was full of fuzzy facts. Tim's friend Skelly was a private guy, and his friends didn't push him on the details of his personal life -- even when they discovered the little lies he told to impress them. They all felt they knew the real him, and could see through the stuff he made up to dodge embarrassing realities. But when Skelly died unexpectedly, they came face to face with the fact that, despite how close they were, Skelly was living a life they never could have imagined. Which was the real Skelly? The self he shared with Tim? Or the private self he kept hidden from the world?

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Tim Kreider

Comments [14]

esme from chicago

As some have touched upon here, it is not at all uncommon for people with mental disorders, especially those falling somewhere on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, to hide their illness. It is less common for individuals who have hoarding disorder to hide their behaviors, but still wholly possible. Since this point seems to me the crux of the argument leading to the question of whether someone could truly know another person, i felt it was worth noting. Certainly everyone holds back some of themselves, and in some cases it can feel shocking how much. It is important to remember that knowing someone isn't quantifiable - there isn't a minimum threshold - which is why I believe we can feel we know someone intimately after a few days and others we can spend an entire life beside and know virtually nothing. I do think that Tim Krieder hits at what it does truly mean to know someone in his final, affecting anecdote about Skelly.

Dec. 03 2013 12:16 AM
esme from chicago

As some have touched upon here, it is not at all uncommon for people with mental disorders, especially those falling somewhere on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, to hide their illness. It is less common for individuals who have hoarding disorder to hide their behaviors, but still wholly possible. Since this point seems to me the crux of the argument leading to the question of whether someone could truly know another person, i felt it was worth noting. Certainly everyone holds back some of themselves, and in some cases it can feel shocking how much. It is important to remember that knowing someone isn't quantifiable - there isn't a minimum threshold - which is why I believe we can feel we know someone intimately after a few days and others we can spend an entire life beside and know virtually nothing. I do think that Tim Krieder hits at what it does truly mean to know someone in his final, affecting anecdote about Skelly.

Dec. 03 2013 12:16 AM
Mary from Texas

One possibility not yet discussed is that Skelly was an old-fashioned alcoholic. The fact that he was once a lawyer, but lost that job (involuntarily), indicates that he subsequently was employed far below his potential. The story about the missed appointment includes the detail that he was calling from a bar on a borrowed cell phone. Moving back in with his mom because he could no longer manage his bills, then being unable to pay for utilities and care for himself after she died, seems compatible with a deteriorating alcoholic. I remember cleaning up after a gentle drunk who sounded just like this, while working as a motel maid during college summers. The alcoholic/addict in my own family sounds a lot like this, too: the underemployment, unreliability, embarrassed cover-up lies, lame cover stories, and terrible housekeeping and self-care. It is devastating in someone who is otherwise kind and well-meaning. I fear that my own loved one, despite everyone's best efforts, will end up as Skelly did.

Aug. 07 2013 02:56 PM
Jeannine from Chicago

I do agree with Joye: that comment about women being the only people who were upset by Skelly's lies. One thing I think it's important to acknowledge is that women must be upset by such things, because we have to be more careful than men, generally. If I am talking to a man at a bar or a party or anywhere, and it becomes clear he's purposefully lying to me, it is scarier than I imagine it would be for another man. this person could lie to get me to come back to his apartment, lie to get information about me, lie to trick me into caring about him only for him to hurt me. I found the treatment of this issue very unfair. Maybe women were the only ones willing to get angry at Skelly for his lies because his male friends were too willing to pretend everything was fine. Because confronting him about it would be cruel and awkward, right? And nobody wants that.

And you know what? I have a Skelly in my life. I have a friend who I have known for years, who I know is a compulsive liar. I have seen other people (men and women) get angry or creeped out by him. I have fallen for his lies over and over again. I have wrestled with the same conflicts brought up in this episode: is he still a good person and a good friend if I don't truly know him? what is it that he's hiding, and should I be worried for myself, for him, or both? I have never called him out on his lies because of the same reasons Skelly's friends never called him out, because it seems cruel and I care about him.

But on the other side, how much are friends like me helping people like Skelly if we don't press them on their lies? their lies damage their lives, in Skelly's case even took it. My friend has a hard time creating real bonds with people, and even with his closest friends, among which I am one, our closeness has reached a limit because we simply do not trust him to state even simple facts about his life.

By ignoring their problems, by playing along, by pretending everything is okay when it obviously is not, what good are we doing? Isn't this tantamount to enablement? Skelly died alone in his disgusting house and it took weeks for anyone to find him. temporal moments in bamboo and snow is all well and good, but I don't want to be the person that finds my friend face down on the floor because I was too afraid to ask him if he's really okay.

bamboo and snow = who a person really is. I can't help but feel like this is an excuse, and that I'm a coward because it's the kind of excuse I've been using for too long.

as a side note, I also absolutely agree with Julie. I'm also close to someone who grew up in a hoarding house, and the patterns of lying about family life, sleeping away from home, not letting anyone come over, all of this is familiar. it could well have been the mother, and Skelly was trained to be a compulsive liar at a young age by having to hide it.

Feb. 01 2013 01:56 AM
Noah from Delaware

Are we to assume that there was shit all over the place? Or is it something more horrid? What is that something that the guy says he'll never reveal about what he saw? Does that somewhat ironically go against the theme of the episode?

Jan. 22 2013 02:51 AM
Joye from Temecula CA

Just listened to this podcast, found rather insulting Tim's comments about 'the only people upset by Skelly's lies were women'. Rather large demographic to be so dismissive. And of course it would be easier for Tim to not feel betrayed -- Skelly wasn't trying to get in his pants. The brilliant line from Clueless comes to mind, 'you know how picky I am about shoes, and they only go on my feet'.

Also, Tim discovered the deception and chose to play along. When women do this in romantic relationships, they are considered fools. To belittle these women for having a measure of self-respect leaves me with a low opinion of this gentleman.

Otherwise a thought-provoking podcast, one of your best. Science should involve the entire person, not just the multi-syllabic bits.

Jan. 09 2013 02:32 PM
Sato Moughalian from New York City

This was a very sad story, and we seem to all be focussed on Skelly and possibly his mother. I too had the experience of befriending a pathological liar. She was my college roommate, the daughter of a psychiatrist and now, evidently, a clinical social worker herself. It was an enormous blow, when the moment finally came that I comprehended the web of lies, but in retrospect, it said something about my own state (something that was worked out many years later, in therapy), that I was willing to live in cognitive dissonance with all those known unknowns. I wonder if there is any kind of parallel in Tim's story?

I was very touched by this part of the episode, and hope that at some point Tim can share with us the step beyond...just what it was that attracted him to be friends with Skelly in light of the missed appointments and untruths that were bound into that relationship. I didn't quite comprehend the whole picture. I heard about the frustrations, but not nearly as much about the attractive aspects. And it would also not surprise me if Skelly's parental environment helped form his world view and subsequent illness. But I feel, somehow, that this story is not complete, both from the point of view of Skelly's deterioration and from Tim's involvement with him.

Thanks for offering to us this thought provoking story.

Nov. 03 2012 02:40 PM
Sam

I wish it would have said that it doesn't matter who was the "true" Skelly. I wish Jad and Robert knew more about mental illness when talking about it. It's not uncommon for mentally ill people to hide their illness. Would you want to be known as the "mentall ill" friend or person? Mentally ill people know more than those who aren't mentally ill what kind of stigma and bulling comes with being labeled as mentally ill. Please do your fact-checking homework and consider all viewpoints before giving what are perceived as "truths" in your show. The kind of information given actually perpetuates the discrimination and misunderstanding of mentally ill people. So many are loving and friendly like Skelly. He was just a good guy who happened to battle with an extremely sad and incurable disease. Please don't act like you can't accept that or demand you know who the "real" Skelly is. There are many different flavors of people in our lives and does it matter if who we interact with is who they "really are"? Do we all even know "who we really are"? Everyone tells lies every day. Even little ones that have no impact except to make people feel better like, "Thank you, I really like this gift", when in fact you don't, etc.
Not all mentally ill people know that they are sick, and some can't accept it. They deal in many different ways. Unfortunately, the more people know of their disease the more likely they are to take their lives, a really sad outcome. It took great courage and intelligence for Skelly to craft a life for himself such that he could continue to live, and thanks to the people who allowed themselves to be Skelly's friends. They played a great part in Skelly's "real" life. It was real. Please don't diminish Skelly's life or your friendship with him because he was secretive. Be thankful he trusted you and think about what you learned from him. Many mentally ill people have a hard time trusting anyone.
Radiolab used to be very scientific and for that reason I really enjoyed listening. Recently, Radiolab only has given opinions and hasn't brought on real experts to help us understand situations. This case, as with the "Yellow Rain" case, could have been greatly improved if Radiolab had collaborated with experts in the field. For example, please contact NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, or other professional organizations or doctors. Please do not perpetuate myths that only hurt mentally ill people and their families. Mentally ill people may hide their illness out of dignity. As a society we owe every human being dignity. Please bring us that message, not the message that Skelly's friends never knew him and that his living situation was weird and gross. That is not helpful or kind.

Oct. 13 2012 04:21 PM
cat from Canada

This story was very touching, yet very hard to listen to since it struck a very personal chord.

I too am fiercely private. I keep different groups of friends, who know next to nothing about each other. I rarely talk about my family to them, and vice versa. Most importantly though, I have been struggling with severe mood disorder all through my life, and one of the most persistent symptoms is hoarding and the inability to keep the house in order. Outwardly I appear quite normal, and the only clue anyone could have to my little "secret" is that I never allow anyone into my house; this is also the only time I'd lie, to keep this secret of mine safe.

With that in mind, I'd like to thank Tim Kreider and his group of friends, who likely had been among the few things that kept Skelly grounded whether they knew it or not. Social interactions are extremely important to mental health, and it definitely sounds to me that Skelly had a turn for the worse when he's become more isolated. In my understanding, this sort of situation is in fact rather common for people with mood disorders. I am currently seeking professional help and I do find myself wishing that I've had more courage to reach out sooner; and while I can't speak for Skelly's reason for not seeking help, I do think Tim's comment about the mentally ill is quite telling. Mental illnesses are just like any other illness- they have causes, symptoms, and they can be controlled or even cured. Yet Tim seemed to equate "mentally ill" with "insane" and "complete incompatibility with normal social life", which is only true for the most severe cases. I cannot help but think that, if this stigma had not existed, more people would have opened up more readily and found help that they needed.

Oct. 01 2012 10:39 AM
April from New York City

It's not uncommon for mentally ill people to be able to hide their illness, and even forget it themselves, when around friends. His lies may have been true to him in some way. He could have been keeping several worlds spinning at once. I agree with previous commenters that friends are important for "normal" people, and even more for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, prejudice against mental illness and the mentally ill in this society, where it's usually mentioned in relation to violence, for example, mass shootings bring up "schizophrenia", which then = murderer, even when violence is rare in mental illness in general, and in schizophrenia mainly occurs in paranoid schizophrenia. The mentally ill are more often victims of violence than perpetrators. Studies have shown that use of the word "stigma" in relation to mental illness increases stigma, exactly the kind of double bind that Bateson and others related to schizophrenia. None of which touches on this wonderful in spite of it all man's life: its mystery and even heroism. The image of the row of snow laden trees may have been on his mind when he committed suicide, if he did. That part wasn't clear to me. Hopefully the way we're taught to deal with mental illness will make it less necessary to hide it, allow it to be discussed - would his friends have been scared away if he had? And decrease the incidence of the kind of end to which he came.

Sep. 27 2012 04:31 PM
Andreas from Sweden

As someone that has seen (and cleaned out) an apartment in the state that Tim's story suggests, it was interesting to hear the other side of the story. In my case it was in relation to a job between schools so the morbid curiosity tempered the compassionate reflection that came to dominate afterwards, I can't imagine what that must feel like when you're close to the person. Unfortunately it's not really that uncommon when things go of the rails, in this case it was an old man that after losing his wife, lost his last connection to the outer world and it wasn't until after a few years when either the neighbours complaints finally became too loud or he died (I can't remember) the situation came to light.

As to what someone in the comments to Jads clarification on the "Yellow rain"-episode said about getting more details to really envision how the house looked, I can see why Tim was hesitant to elaborate on that, I doubt that I had done that either if I was in his place although I can see why it might be tempting as a listener.

Sep. 26 2012 05:03 PM

Wow, what a story. I am really touched by the sensitivity, respect and kindness of Tim Kreider and his friends. What a lovely and decent human being!! I have known liars and they are an odd bunch. The funny thing is when some of their outlandish tales turn out to be true! Anyways, great story and comments. All the best, Anna

Sep. 26 2012 06:18 AM
Hillary

While I never knew the man & only know of the story from this radio show, I humbly put forth what I consider a more likely scenario than that postulated by Mr. Kreider (ie, that Skelly was profoundly mentally ill all the time they were friends but carefully concealed his severe pathology for years). In my professional experience as a clincial psychologist, I would suggest that yes, Skelly had probably been living with mental illness for quite some time, but the severity of illness was rarely at the degree at which they learned of post-mortem. It is probable that he struggled perhaps with mood disorders that were serious but more or less manageable for much of his life, yet only rarely (if ever, prior to the last period of his life) were his episodes tinged with psychotic features. Mood & thought disorders tend to wax and wane over the lifespan; this is a common clinical feature of these illnesses. In my experience, the more plausible scenario is that it was only after the death of his mother that Skelly had a break with reality. At least this is what I've seen in many severely mentally ill individuals, some of whom did eventually take their lives -- a major stressor (often a loss) precipitates a severe episode. I would also venture to guess that Skelly's dear friendships very likely prolonged not only the quality of his life but also the length of his life. Strong relationships are an incredibly important protective factor against psychiatric symptomatology. It is possible his friendships may have actually kept him alive longer than he would have otherwise lived.

Sep. 25 2012 10:37 PM
Julie

Why does anyone not bring up the fact in this story that it is just as likely his MOTHER was the hoarder in this situation? People can live in hoards - without plumbing, without electricity - for YEARS. It is just as likely that his mother was the one who was mentally ill and once she died he just never cleaned up. I mean, of course it's possible that all of this happened after she died but his behavior - sleeping at other locations, spending a lot of time away from the house - is sort of behavior that's more commonly attributed to someone who lives in a hoard but isn't a hoarder themselves.

Sep. 25 2012 11:29 AM

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