We all shade the truth…at times. Exaggerate. Admit it, be honest, come clean. We make ourselves taller, richer, thinner, smarter, more of a fan of certain people and trends to curry favor with them and more exuberant about our accomplishments with others. These embellishments are basically harmless. We do so perhaps to fit in or impress.
Is it insecurity? Afraid we won’t measure up? We may do it in different degrees, depending on the people we’re with, circumstances at hand or our mood. The key is that hopefully we don’t inflate our talents and skills to the point that it negatively impacts or even destroys others’ lives. Think smooth operator or scam artist.
Sometimes, when we present ourselves as someone we’re not, we get caught. It can be embarrassing but not punitive. However, there are times when punishment can be severe and public as it was in the case of newscaster Brian Williams. He was suspended for six months from his position as managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News for misrepresenting events that occurred while he covered the Iraq War in 2003. He was subsequently demoted to breaking news anchor for MSNBC in a late-night slot. Then, he had a comeback, which often seems to happen in America, a land where we like to give folks second chances. And he’s been terrific in our opinion, so we’re happy it’s now worked out.
Second chances also happened to the late and former president Richard Nixon who resigned after orchestrating the Watergate break-in. Years later, he was lauded as an elder statesman and his crimes forgiven…by some.
Dupers who are really good at their game can deceive multiple times. The worst are those who lie and hurt others by, maybe, stealing their monies as Bernie Madoff did and why he got sentenced to a long probably forever Federal prison term or those cat fishers online who use the internet to pretend they’re in love with a vulnerable woman, take her money and then break her heart and bank account into a million pieces.
And then there are those who lead a secret life. What about some women who unwittingly marry a closeted gay or gender conflicted male who might be leading a secret separate life? The late newscaster Charles Kuralt who had a CBS show, “On the Road,” had a secret life for 29 years with one woman in Montana while he lived with his wife on the East Coast. Secret lives are said to be attributable to a great need to escape the humdrum of ordinary life, though Kuralt didn’t seem to have a boring life at all, we think. Maybe, he did.
We question what is going on in our heads that we allow ourselves to fall victim to this duplicity. Is it loneliness? Naivety? We ignore the red flags such as number of marriages, tall tales about net worth and accomplishments or promises of political, economic and social renewal.
Can we train ourselves to listen better, heed warning signals more, ask tougher questions and pay greater attention to our gut instincts to pick up on what’s staring us in the face?
We talked with someone who had been conned and lived to tell about it, Abby Ellin, author of Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married (Public Affairs, 2019) for her opinion. While she’s not a psychologist, criminal lawyer or investigator, she is a well-trained reporter who often writes for The New York Times. She came close to marrying a man whom she thought was a brilliant, talented Navy Seal doctor who had orchestrated the raid on Osama bin Laden, received a Purple Heart for his military service and thwarted a bioterrorism attack on New York City. There is even more BS. And here’s the rub. The doctor degree is accurate but not the Navy Seal stint or many other parts of the “Commander’s” resume as Ellin dubbed him.
In this age of narcissism and embellishment, it seems a good time to pull back the curtain on these Wizard of Oz types and see them for who they are. But how? Ellin spells it out in her book. It can hurt terribly but at least those who dodge a bullet can eventually get back their real life. She did. Here’s more from our condensed, edited conversation with Ellin.
Q: What’s the difference between the pretense in which we all engage in one way or another and the type your Commander perpetrated? What’s acceptable? When does it become pathological?
A: We all tell little white lies, and I’m okay with that. They make the world go around. We can’t live in a 100% “honest” world—remember that movie Liar, Liar, when the main character, played by Jim Carey, couldn’t lie? Disaster! Our egos are way too fragile for that. People want to hear the truth, but they want the truth to be what they want it to be. Pathological lying is lying for no good reason, either because the liar wants to amuse him or herself, or because they are deliberately withholding information to manipulate others. Some people believe pathological liars can’t help themselves—that it’s a brain issue. Whatever the reason, they cause enormous pain and confusion in the lives of people on the receiving end who can’t discern what’s true and what’s not. That’s a terrible way to live.
Q: When something sounds too good to be true, is that the clue that someone should become skeptical whether it’s a business acquaintance, new friend or a romantic partner?
A: YES! Sadly.
Q: What are first signs to tip you off that this person isn’t who they say they are? Is it catching them in a first lie or not meeting their friends and family for months or longer? Is it your friends who see through the person and are telling you run the other way? And what is it about us that we ignore the warnings of others and stay put?
A: All of the above. To answer you last question, it’s as I said: We don’t want to believe the Emperor has a bad case of eczema, a hairy back and is running around in the buff. We have to believe in the good, in others—we HAVE to trust. Society won’t function without trust. We have to believe that the person behind is going to pause at the red light, that the surgeon operating on us really has a medical degree, that our partner doesn’t have another family around the corner. Trust is our default mechanism. Without it, we can’t function. Along with white lies!
Q: Is there something in a certain person’s personality, behavior or life that makes them more vulnerable to a significant betrayal?
A: Studies found that smarter people get duped more easily than those who are less smart, precisely because they’re smart. They think they are immune to deception. “I’d spot it from a mile away!” they think. They don’t realize how vulnerable they are to their vulnerability.
Q: Can you share why and how most of us try to diminish and rationalize the dissonance we may feel so we really try to believe what’s not believable, what you term “cognitive dissonance?” Why do we want to believe what is so unbelievable?
A: We can’t imagine that anyone would manipulate us to such an extent—especially if there’s no financial gain. The man I was engaged to, the liar who ultimately went to jail a year and a half after I left him, didn’t get a dime out of me—so what was the point? He really was a doctor, he really was in the Navy, he really was trying to open a hospital for kids with cancer in Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t have to fabricate these heroic exploits—but he did. And it made NO SENSE. I couldn’t figure out why he would do it, other than to make himself feel better about himself.
Q: At a time when many meet as strangers online rather than get matched up by friends or meet in school or at work, what do you recommend people do to check the credibility of possible connections? Are there good questions to pose?
A: Well, there are verification apps online—like Intelius or Instant Checkmate—and that can help you uncover background info. But if I felt really suspicious, I would hire a detective! Let a professional do the work. My motto is Verify--but Don’t Trust.
Q: In your case Abby, did you initially lose your ability to know what was real versus isn’t true after you were manipulated by the Commander? And why do you think you allowed this to happen to you?
A: I have a pretty good gut. I suspected he was lying the whole time I was with him—and it was only a year--but couldn’t verify it. The lies were about secret missions and working with the CIA. It was only when I discovered he was lying about something I could verify—something common, like enjoying a meal he really hated—that I realized I was right all along. And I left. I realized that my gut was pretty good, and I actually learned to trust it. While I was with him, though, I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. And that was crazy making.
Q: How would you characterize your Commander? Narcissist? Yes! Pathological liar? Yes! And does it really make a difference to put a label on his behavior or does doing so aid in your recovery, help explain why you were attracted to this type of person? Take all the onus off you?
A: I go back and forth on this. I feel that if we label this behavior as pathologies, I think this is more common than people realize. Not everyone who lies pathologically is a psychopath, though most psychopaths lie. But the onus has to be on me to some degree for not leaving sooner. I tried to verify his lies but couldn’t do that, and I left the minute I could. But I didn’t trust him from day one. Really, I should have never gotten involved with someone I did not trust. This is not to “blame me,” by the way. Or shame or condemn. It’s just to acknowledge that we are responsible for our own lives. We have to take care of ourselves because no one else is going to—especially women.
Q: Did you need lots of time to recover since you write that most liars leave behind a massive trail of psychological and emotional wreckage?
A: I left him after a year. A year and a half after that, he was arrested for writing fake prescriptions for narcotics, using my name fraudulently (among other people’s). I was ELATED—I had been right! He was no good. But yes—it took me a long time to trust people in business and personally. I don’t think that is so bad, actually. By default, I’m suspicious—I’m a journalist, after all. But I tried to give the benefit of the doubt personally. I don’t do that anymore.
Q: Here’s a long series of questions. How did you and how does someone learn to trust again? Are you able to relax and meet someone new now without over analyzing their personal story? Do you trust yourself again to make better decisions? And to do so, does it require doing a better job of listening to instincts and distinguishing between those folks who deserve the benefit of the doubt from those who don’t? If it doesn’t meet the smell test, as we say, should we walk fast?
A: YES YES YES YES. Like I said, I have a good gut. Now I listen to it more.