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.
- 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 biblehub.com on September 4, 2014) link ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩