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 There, so 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
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.