The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off

Gloria Steinem? Joe Klaas? Anne Kristine Stuart? David Icke? Bill Cosby? Erin Brockovich? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is sometimes used as a rallying cry by activists:

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.

The words are typically attributed to the feminist Gloria Steinem. Would you please explore its origin?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Gloria Steinem used instances of this expression in speeches by 1998, but the saying was already in circulation by 1990. Detailed citations for these dates are given further below.

This saying simultaneously modifies and evokes a well-known Biblical verse: John 8:32: 1

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

The earliest partial match known to QI was published in a Syracuse, New York newspaper in a 1978 article about a treatment program for alcoholics. A poster displayed in a residential facility presented a variant of the saying with the phrase “make you miserable” instead of “piss you off”. This yields only a partial match because of the reduced connotation of anger. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

On the wall at The Willows dining room is a poster that poignantly reflects the alcoholic’s struggle: “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

The variant above has continued to circulate. It appeared in the title of a 1988 religious book “The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Make You Miserable” by Jamie Buckingham. The body of the main text also included the expression: 3

Life is a comedy. Each day is a wonderful adventure, full of fun and laughter. Most important, remember this: The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

The first strong match located by QI was published in the 1990 book “Twelve Steps to Happiness” by Joe Klaas who labeled the statement his “favorite motto”. Klaas helped to popularize the phrase, but it was unclear whether it was pre-existing. Interestingly, this book dealt with the treatment of alcoholism; hence, it emerged from a milieu comparable to that of the 1978 citation: 4

Rest assured my favorite motto will come true. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Also in 1990 “Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations” edited by Sy Safransky was published, and it included a variant with the phrase “make you angry” instead of “piss you off” together with an ascription: 5

The truth will set you free. But before it does, it will make you angry.
— Jerry Joiner

In 1994 the best–selling romance novelist Anne Kristine Stuart included the adage in her book “Cinderman”. The words were emblazoned on a t-shirt which suggested wide distribution at that time: 6

She glanced down at the T-shirt she’d grabbed in the darkness: The Truth Shall Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off. Apt enough for today.

In 1996 “I Am Me, I Am Free: The Robot’s Guide to Freedom” was published by David Icke, a prominent exponent of alien world domination theories. Icke stated that he saw the saying on a badge: 7

I saw a badge made in America which said: “The Truth will set you free…but first it will piss you off”. Very true. When you first realise how the human race has been so massively duped, it is not nice to hear.

In April 1998 the periodical “Heterodoxy” reported on a keynote given by Gloria Steinem at a Stanford University “Herstory” event celebrating women’s history. Steinem used an instance of the expression: 8

Noting that the truth is what will set you free, but first it will piss you off, Steinem noted, among other things, that Mozart had a genius sister and that maybe some of his compositions are hers…

In February 1999 “The Pantagraph” newspaper reported on a speech delivered by Steinem at Illinois Wesleyan University in which she suggested that the adage should be placed on a button: 9

And women should learn their history and their struggles for basic rights, such as voting, she said. “I’m gonna make a button some day that says, “The truth will set you free, but it’s gonna piss you off first.”

In 2000 the “UWM Post” of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee discussed a legal controversy involving the quotation: 10

The controversy began over a Gloria Steinem quote contained as a “signature” in e-mail messages from Pichelmann. The Steinem message reads: “The truth shall set you free, but first it will piss you off!”

In 2004 the prominent entertainer and television producer Bill Cosby employed the saying while attributing it to a friend: 11

“People got upset because I made a call to stop the foolishness,” Cosby said. “Like a friend of mine used to say, ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.'”

In 2004 a Savannah, Georgia newspaper reported on an address by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich: 12

One of her tips: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

In conclusion, the earliest strong match in 1990 appeared in a book by Joe Klaas who used the designation “my favorite motto”, but it was not certain whether he constructed the expression. The statement may already have been circulating in the twelve-step cultural milieu. Perhaps future researchers will help to clarify this question.

Gloria Steinem, Anne Kristine Stuart, Bill Cosby, Erin Brockovich and others have used this adage in the 1990s and 2000s, but QI believes it was already in circulation beforehand.

Image Notes: Breaking chain image from Nemo on Pixabay. Gloria Steinem at news conference in January 1972. Public domain image from the Library of Congress accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Thanks to Andrew Old whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located the 1978 citation which was the earliest instance of a precursor saying. Special thanks to the Browne Popular Culture Library of Bowling Green State University.)

Update History: On September 21, 2014 the 1978 citation was added and parts of the article were rewritten.


  1. Website: Bible Hub, Article title: Parallel Verses of John 8:32, Translation: New Living Translation, Website description: Online Bible Study Suite. Bible hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed on September 4, 2014) link
  2. 1978 September 17, Syracuse Herald-American (Syracuse Herald Journal), Agency aids alcoholic: ‘Bridge builders’ work at Brick House, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1988, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Make You Miserable: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Jamie Buckingham by Jamie Buckingham, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 20, (Also appears in booktitle), Published by Creation House, Altamonte Springs, Florida. (Verified with scans in second printing May 1989)
  4. 1990, Twelve Steps to Happiness by Joe Klaas, Revised and Expanded, Series: A Hazelden Book, Quote Page 15, Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 1990, Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Edited by Sy Safransky, Quote Page 152, Column 1, Published by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1994, Cinderman by Anne Stuart (Anne Kristine Stuart), Quote Page 208, Harlequin American Romance (Harlequin Books), Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Verified visually; thanks to Browne Popular Culture Library, Bowling Green State University)
  7. 1996, I Am Me, I Am Free: The Robot’s Guide to Freedom by David Icke, Quote Page 92, Published by Bridge of Love, Newark, Notts, UK, Printed and bound by Pendragon Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  8. 1998 April, Heterodoxy: Articles and Animadiversions on Political Correctness and Other Follies, Volumes 6, Number 3, Editorial Statements Etc., Sic Transit Gloria, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Published by Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1999 February 12, The Pantagraph, Steinem: Feminism Misunderstood: Ms. Founder Tells IWU Crowd to Renew Social Awareness by Sharon K. Woulfe, Quote Page A3, Bloomington, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  10. 2000 December 1, UWM Post (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Article Title: Free speech lawsuit ensues over email quotation at U. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Article Author: Analisa Drew (U. Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Provided By: UNIVERSITY WIRE, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 2004 September 17, Spartan Daily (San Jose State University), Article Title: Bill Cosby speaks at San Jose State U., Article Author: Ken Lotich (San Jose State U.), Provided By: UNIVERSITY WIRE, San Jose, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  12. 2004 September 23, Savannah Morning News, Section: Coastal Empire, ‘Believe in Yourself and Your Causes’ – The Woman Who Brought Down a Utility Giant Addressed a Sold-Out Crowd of More than a 1,000 at the Smart Women Expo, Quote Page 1B, Savannah, Georgia. (NewsBank Access World News)