Deceivers and Their Believers: Pop Psych on Dishonesty in Love

Book review: Duped, by Abby Ellin (Amazon / Book Depository)

Journalist Abby Ellin, an observer of human nature for her work, couldn’t believe she’d been so deceived. She’d been in a long-term relationship with a man dubbed “the Commander,” a military doctor prone to spinning impossibly tall (and borderline silly) tales and who was secretly writing prescriptions in the names of people close to him. Among other fabrications and exaggerations – including that he was engaged to another woman at the same time that he was engaged to and living with Ellin.

Understandably shaken from the experience, Ellin also found herself curious – she’s educated, savvy, and a journalist after all. She’s professionally used to questioning people’s stories. Even as she did occasionally question him, she was receptive to his techniques, although they’re not more complex than “he’d deny everything and spin it.” How did she get taken in? Is it the work of a sociopath, narcissism, what’s the psychology behind someone who so easily deceives?

The revelation of the Commander’s lies led her to undertake an exploration of the nature of lying and why some people lead double lives. In the course of trying to find answers and come to understand something about herself, she began looking at other situations – primarily in romantic scenarios of extreme dishonesty and double lives, but some others too. She loops in statistics and psychological studies that explain something about both duper and dupee, and tries to discern something about the human nature at the root of the impulses on both sides – both to deceive and believe.

This book is the pop psychology, relationship-centric result of that research.

Over the years, Dr. Phil has featured several women who lost their savings to Nigerian scammers or whose husbands turned out to be sex addicts or gamblers or bigamists. But the audience doesn’t identify with the victims. They’re spectacles, trotted out as cautionary tales. That would never happen to me, the viewer thinks smugly. How could she be so stupid?
It could happen to any of us, at any time. Duplicity is rampant and has been for eons.

Ellin presents situations – some that are thorough, documented case studies and some that are anecdotal, of others who have been duped and what’s known of the dupers’ motivations. I was somewhat disappointed in these examples – one that’s returned to repeatedly is a man, an animal rights activist, who released minks from a fur farm, was prosecuted for it and went on the lam. He did hide his identity from those he became close to, but it’s not in the same league of deception as Ellin’s was, and her experience is the one I find more interesting comparably because of its deeper psychological roots.

Hiding one’s identity because of a crime on your record is understandable (if not condonable). But Ellin’s boyfriend was actually a doctor, he did work for the Pentagon – he hadn’t worked at Guantanamo or performed the miraculous life-saving deeds he claimed, but he didn’t have anything dangerous to hide either, aside from that prescription drug problem.

The same goes for some stories where the motivation to deceive was as simple as cheating, the classic wanting to have your cake and eat it too: a stable, long-term relationship plus a passionate, exciting new one. It seemed odd to include these as double-life examples, or maybe the psychology behind them just intrigues me less. There are different kinds of duplicitous and I find myself drawn to the ones that don’t have banal explanations just beneath the surface. (I’m more interested in elaborate, hoax-type con stories like The Imposter or The Woman Who Wasn’t Thereso maybe the disappointment was fully on me.)

Ellin also explores the question of white lies and sugarcoating. She quotes different experts – neuroscientists, psychologists, authors of various stripes – with opinions on the topic and how much it counts as deception. It seems that much of the scientific evidence is backed up by something anecdotal from the author’s or an acquaintance’s life and this felt weak at times.

Unlike so many dupees, who refuse to talk about their ordeal because they feel so ashamed, I shared my story with taxi drivers. And my cello teacher. And my doormen. And my personal trainer, who’d spent ten years in jail himself … I felt that if I told people about it in my own words, I could reclaim the narrative … But I could feel people judging me. Not him, but me, as if I were tainted. 

This idea of the person who’s been conned being judged responsible for falling for it is a fascinating one and well-explored here, if some of the conclusions do border on provocative. Ellin posits that some responsibility, at least, falls on the shoulders of the conned, citing factors like “willful blindness”.

I was uncomfortable with a chapter exploring the work of Joyce Short, a former Wall Street bond trader who runs a website and writes books about what consensual sex means, with the premise that “consent is freely given, knowledgeable, and informed agreement.”

Short’s story is that a partner lied to her primarily about his religion, leaving her to feel that the man she’d loved hadn’t existed. The argument is that what he did to her in their relationship, because of this deception, is akin to rape. “Rape by fraud,” as she phrases it, telling Ellin she’s a victim of “sexual assault by deception”: “At the point at which you sexually defile them by lying, you’ve committed a fraud. Before you go to bed with that person you have a responsibility to straighten out the lies you told. Because they’re counting on those lies to be truth.”

This rubbed me the wrong way. Ellin does due diligence in examining both sides of this idea and the slippery slope it represents, classifying her own abuse as emotional rather than sexual, but it’s bothersome nevertheless. I’m not sure that it particularly belonged in this book, which overall tries to do a bit too much at once.

The writing tone is chatty, bloggy, women’s magazine-y. I appreciated the statistics and psychological studies incorporated as she makes her points, but the tone isn’t one I enjoy. It has a shallowness, as in lines like this, a thought she had while dating someone post-Commander: “Men with daughters don’t jerk women around, do they?”

Seriously? This man’s deception is that he’s not separated from the wife he swears he’s separating from. That isn’t shocking (am I cynical?) and such lines are ridiculous, especially since she’s done too much research elsewhere to let an eye-roller like that through. It doesn’t fit with the research-backed book it seems the author wanted to write, but which gets bogged down in the anecdotal.

Ellin writes at one point, “So I did what any Cosmo reader would do.” As a non-Cosmo reader, there was a lot that didn’t hold my interest, or that read as too shallow to be taken seriously. It makes some good points and distills some well-collated data, but I’d hoped for something that went beyond mostly relationship lies and had a more streamlined focus. Readers interested in a Cosmo / Sex and the City-style tone, dating drama, and a broad pop psychology take on liars should be pleased. 2/5

Duped:
Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married
by Abby Ellin
published January 15, 2018 by PublicAffairs

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

14 thoughts on “Deceivers and Their Believers: Pop Psych on Dishonesty in Love

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    1. That was exactly the case – some interesting ideas and themes but as a whole it felt insubstantial for something book-length. And yes, I think that particular thesis is borderline offensive as well. I get that learning someone you love isn’t who you think they are is traumatic, but the idea of calling that rape upset me quite a bit.

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  1. Excellent review! I had to read a great deal of pop psychology book proposals/manuscripts last summer at an internship, and I found many shared the same problem you’ve highlighted here – easy to read and fun at times, but overly anecdotal and sloppy. Not sure if my problem is with the genre or just individual writers.

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    1. Thank you! I know what you mean about the genre, I guess they often feel like they should’ve stayed magazine articles and would’ve been fine that way. Pop psychology might’ve even been too strong a word for this one, I’m not sure…it started as memoir, then used a bunch of statistics and studies interspersed with stories until it FELT pop-psychy. But something wasn’t working. I also tend to have a problem with these kinds of books and this underlined it for me!

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  2. Interesting subject and a mysterious affliction which reminds me of a strange experience I once had, short-lived thankfully, but never understood and not sure I really want to, to be honest. We need to listen more closely to and trust our intuition and move on quickly from these kinds of experiences, rather then dwell on them, at the risk of attracting that which we lend our predominant thoughts to. Great review.

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    1. I’m sorry you had what sounds like a disturbing experience with this! But I understand – sometimes these people, and their psychologies, are better put in the past and not dwelled on or picked apart to figure out if it’s detrimental to us. But you’re absolutely right, trusting gut feelings and intuition is so crucial. In almost every story of this type I’ve heard, there’s always some quiet little voice or funny feeling telling you something isn’t right. I don’t know why we just ignore it, I’ve been guilty of that too. Glad you liked the review, and thank you!

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    1. I know, the style didn’t work for me either despite my being very interested in the topic. I tried to show what it was like because I think it is a style that appeals to a lot of readers, just not for us, I guess!

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  3. Something about the way this book has been packaged made me nervous it would be too shallow. I’m also generally wary of books that try to explain something as complex as deception, since I don’t expect them to be able to reach a comprehensive, satisfying answer. I’m glad to have your review to reassure me that I’m not missing out by passing on this one!

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    1. You were more perceptive than me then! But I can’t resist con/hoax stories even though they often end up unsatisfying. This one was the most shallow of any I’ve read, it just has such a women’s magazine vibe, which I’m not a fan of in the first place, but especially when applied to this topic it didn’t work for me. It’s not a huge time investment if you’re super interested in the stories, but neither are you missing out if you move along!

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