Thou shalt not tell, part 1

When I was a girl, there were certain things I knew instinctively children should not do: Lie to your parents. Play pranks that mess with people’s cars. Torture insects for fun. I strove to follow these and many other rules. I craved the thrill of being told by an adult I had done the Right Thing.

What I didn’t realize until I was much older was that, in striving to be perfect, I routinely committed the single unforgivable childhood sin: I was a terrible tattletale.

In my quest to show how Good I was, I took care to point out often and with enthusiasm how Bad my brother was. Dave was two years older than me, and an easy target for a tattler.

elbow 1

elbow 2

He was inexorably drawn to behavior that was forbidden, unadvisable, dumb. He crawled through drainpipes while wearing his Sunday suit. He threw rocks at passing cars right in front of our house. He made prank phone calls within earshot of our parents. It seemed as if he wanted to get caught. And so I enabled him in this pursuit, whenever possible.

My brother’s behavior toward me was cruel, though not surpassingly so. “Hey, Lis!” he’d say. “Robbie and Mike are coming over to play Monopoly in fifteen minutes! Set it up!” Excited to be included, I’d dig the Monopoly game out of the closet and hurry to arrange it on the living room floor. I’d count out four equal stacks of brightly-colored bills, lay out the property cards, and line up the tiny metal game pieces, carefully setting aside the little dog for myself and the top hat for my brother (as I knew this was his favorite).

Just in time, I’d have everything ready, and I’d sit expectantly, waiting for my brother and his friends to arrive. Tick-tick-tick, the time went by. After ten minutes, I guessed they were running late. After a half-hour, I thought they might have forgotten. Finally, I understood that there wouldn’t be a Monopoly game, and that was the plan all along.

monopoly man

“MOOOOOOMMMM!” I would yell. “Dave tricked me! He got me to set up the whole Monopoly board” – here I’d gasp for effect, tears flowing down my cheeks – “and they never even meant to play! He tricked me!” Thus the groundwork was laid. When Dave came home, he’d get in trouble – perhaps even get a spanking! – and I’d feel that familiar, warm sensation in my extremities that was the prize for being the better child, and for having made that fact known.

Some of my brother’s other stunts were more serious. One of the most famous in family lore took place in December of 1975, when my parents had gone away for a rare (and clearly deserved) vacation. They went to London for two weeks, leaving my brother and me in the care of a half-woman, half-wolf creature named Helen. She was a nurse at the nearby military base, and I remember three things about her: she served us potato pancakes every night, she had a boyfriend whose nose made a trumpet sound when he blew it, and she had been authorized by our parents to spank at will.

One morning after Nurse Helen had gone to work, my brother and I sat eating Sugar Pops at the kitchen table. Dave left the room, then came back and said brightly, “Hey! I just heard on the radio that school’s starting an hour late today because of the snow!”

I looked out the window, and sure enough, big, puffy flakes were floating earthward. “Wow!” I exclaimed, savoring this all-too-rare bonding moment with my brother. “That’s so great!” I happily went back to my Sugar Pops, while Dave turned on the TV, flipping around the dial to see if any cartoons were on.

At ten minutes to eight, Dave got up and put on his jacket and mittens. “Hey,” I said. “Where are you going? School doesn’t start for another hour.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’m going to play in the snow until then.”

“Okay,” I said. “See ya!”


Yes, I was a sucker. I was an irresistible target for my brother’s mischief; no matter how many mean things he did, I never learned to suspect his motives. It never occurred to me that he was tricking me, even though he did it over and over, savoring anew the enjoyment of a prank well played. No matter what anyone tells you, shooting fish in a barrel still conveys the thrill of the hunt.

At a quarter to nine, I put on my coat and mittens, and headed out the door for the three-block walk to school. When I entered the classroom, my teacher, Miss Finnegan – who I hated because she treated us like children – put her hands on her hips and shrieked, “Lisa, why are you late?”

“But, but – ” I stammered, utterly shocked at this turn of events. “I thought school was starting an hour late!”

“I don’t care what you thought,” Miss Finnegan lectured, hovering over me like a demented gargoyle in a plaid pantsuit. “You are late. Hang up your coat and go to your desk right now.” I slunk off to the coat rack, numb with embarrassment.

Reader, what would you have done? In adulthood, when I’ve told this story, I have been informed that no self-respecting child would even consider doing what I did, which was, of course, to TELL. It’s clear that, at least among my peers, tattle-taling is universally considered worse than whatever injustice might provoke it. Whenever I’ve told this story, noses wrinkle and lips pucker, and people I once thought of as friends say things like, “Oh, man! How could you DO that?”

Well, forgive me, but I was weak. I told Nurse Helen. And Dave, as I knew he would, got in trouble. Not only was he spanked, but he had to watch as I was allowed to drink an entire Pepsi that evening, straight from the can. It was almost enough to make me love Nurse Helen.

At one point, I did make a sincere effort not to tell on my brother. Admittedly, this strategy was born not out of any effort to live a nobler life, but because I had been tattling too much. My protestations were being met with, if not skepticism, then weariness, and I knew I had to cut back to maintain my edge. So I decided I would tell only when he’d done something specifically to me, not just when he was generally being bad.

My new strategy was sorely tested on the night my brother brought home the hedgehog.


– Continued next week –

6 responses to “Thou shalt not tell, part 1”

  1. Adriana says:

    Poor Lisa — and yet, what a lucky girl to have such a bad brother! I learned sarcasm through tattle-telling. Every time we tried to tell on each other my mom would say “you must be mistaking me for someone who cares.” I couldn’t believe she could be so lacking in a sense of justice.

  2. can’t wait to hear what happens with the hedgehog. i feel like i’m in a great brain novel. i love the photos of you and your brother, too. b

  3. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I can tell, just by the photos–that’s a kid who deserved to be tattled on.

  4. […] The story so far: Thou shalt not tell, part 1 […]

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