If he had asked, I would have confessed all my sins…
I wasn’t arrested or “coming down to the station for a chat because I had nothing to hide.” I didn’t have anything to hide.
My first polygraph was voluntary: Very little was at stake.
♦ ♦ ♦
I meet the polygraph professional after hours at the juvenile court complex. He’s the only guy in town who does this, so he’s pretty popular.
Maybe busy is a better word.
The Guy — hereafter, TG — is friendly and fit in a 60-year-old way, with his tucked-in polo shirt and close-cropped gray and white hair. He warns me that as soon as we walk through the door to the testing room, everything will be recorded.
We chit-chat for a while as he gets his computer set up. That’s my first disappointment — no old school polygraph machine with the arms like a record player scratching out responses every time I breathe.
When I mention this, TG responds with something like, “I use that one when I’m trying to get a confession. The sound doesn’t get to you if you aren’t guilty, but after a couple rounds of questioning, if you’ve got something to hide, you get more and more annoyed by the sound.”
I feel robbed. It’s too bright in here.
There’s no two-way glass and no one blowing smoke in my face — and now I don’t even get the cool machine.
And TG, he’s too nice. He gives me a list of questions to answer, then we go over them to eliminate ones that need explanation. Is anyone in your family involved in illegal activity? I have some suspicions but no charges are pending.
That’s not a good question for the polygraph — no clear yes or no — so we throw it out.
TG keeps explaining every detail of what he’s doing. I feel like I’m in a special education classroom or an instructional video on the correct procedures for lie detecting.
If I move, the test is ruined. By yawning or twitching or belching, I’ll be invalidating everything.
Two straps have to go around my chest.
“May I lean in? I’m going to just put this behind you. Now again. Is that OK?”
I'm very sensitive to intrusions on my personal space, so it almost feels like we're doing something kinky.
I’m sitting in a circa-1985 metal frame chair with the same vinyl red padding on each arm as on the seat. There are hand towels for my forearms to rest on so that sweat won't interfere with the test readings. There are sensors hooked up to three of my fingers — but nothing on my temples to actually read my thoughts.
Fingers spread out, feet firmly on the floor. There’s a blood pressure cuff on my arm that will be inflated halfway during the tests.
Why? To make me feel trapped, like in that machine at the pharmacy where you worry you’ll be stuck forever just for wondering what your systolic and diastolic numbers may be.
I’m to stare at a blue paper taped to the wall. Just stare. Don’t turn my head for any reason. If I feel gas, just let it pass. If I move, the test is ruined. By yawning or twitching or belching, I’ll be invalidating everything.
The message is clear: Only criminals move.
♦ ♦ ♦
We do a practice run.
I must say ‘No’ to everything, even the question where ‘Yes’ is the right answer. The trick question, to measure what it looks like when I lie, shows a series of numbers with one missing — either seven or eight. I’m supposed to say the list is correct, even though I know it isn’t.
This is hardcore secret agent-level truth detection. Dozens of years of science, confessions, crime-fighting, and bluffing have led to this moment.
I’m terrified of wrongful imprisonment. To be the only one who knows the truth and have to live every day in a cell, wondering, Why, god, why?
The real test is done in triplicate with 10 questions — though only two of them are of importance to the organization paying for my polygraph.
Below are some of the questions:
Do some people call you Eliana?
Some people call me mom, others say I’m a bitch, but Eliana works.
Since turning 21, have you knowingly had sexual contact with a minor?
[Trying not to vomit in my mouth and ruin the test.] The last time I was attracted to a minor was probably in junior high. There is absolutely nothing less sexy than a teenager. Nothing.
Are ants animals?
I should have studied before this test. No one told me to study!
Have you ever used illegal drugs?
I feel so boring when I answer “No.”
Does it show up in my heart rate when I think about lying to make myself look like I have a torrid past?
Are you hiding any illegal activities?
My husband downloads movies illegally. I almost always jaywalk.
I know, I look innocent and law-abiding — that’s all part of the scam.
Would you be telling the truth if you said you were being honest?
I know what I’m supposed to say, but I can’t help my overactive brain from parsing this last one — the “would” and the hypothetical being applied to a situation that is actually happening.
I am telling the truth.
Aren’t I? Am I missing something?
♦ ♦ ♦
I am law-abiding, except for jaywalking. I vote — even for things I don’t care about.
I got pulled over in my Honda Accord one day and surprised a cop who wasn't expecting to see a chubby, white, middle-aged woman behind the dark limo-tint windows. He had a hard time recovering his cool and thinking of something to ticket me for.
And yet I’m terrified of wrongful imprisonment. To be the only one who knows the truth and have to live every day in a cell, wondering, Why, god, why? My penchant for news of the DNA-exonerated and obsession with films like The Life of David Gale, Hurricane, and Just Cause may have made my worries worse.
Sitting hooked up for gadgets to monitor every aspect of my mind and body, in a small room without any distraction, I see how a person could lose herself — or the truth — for a moment.
We take a break after the first real test, then complete two more rounds of the same questions. The whole time, I'm terrified of tilting my head to the side or having an involuntary finger twitch.
Each polygraph test takes about two and a half minutes, with the cuff on my upper left arm inflated to 50 psi the whole time. It’s uncomfortable and makes me ultra-aware of each beat of my heart. When the last question is complete, TG releases the pressure and I get to relax for a minute.
It felt like a moment from 1984, right before you get a cage with a rat in it stuck to your face.
Finally the detection phase is over. TG unhooks me, piece-by-piece, as efficiently and gentlemanly as he harnessed me to his laptop in the first place.
Again he asks, “Any questions?”
Only now does he confirm that I have passed the polygraph.
My results will be sent on to the interested parties. We’re done here.
We shake hands and he escorts me outside.
I’m not sure how to end things. Thank you for subjecting me to intense scrutiny? Hope to see you again, next time I’m under arrest?
I opt to keep it basic, given that he’s still in a position of authority over me till he’s signed an affidavit attesting to my honesty.
♦ ♦ ♦
The sun’s still out; less than an hour’s passed. I wasn’t being tortured. I wasn’t even in trouble.
Yet it felt like a moment from 1984, right before you get a cage with a rat in it stuck to your face.
If TG had asked, I would have confessed all my sins: every time I’ve watched an illegally-downloaded movie, how I have figured out which final exams need to be scored to make a difference in semester grades (and disregard the rest)...
I’m pretty sure my examiner could have detected the truth without a single wire or monitor — maybe just by sniffing the air.