Everyone lies. This simple declarative sentence was the premise for the TV show House, a medical drama based on Sherlock Holmes and starring Hugh Laurie as a misanthropic, drug-addicted genius who ferrets out the cause of unexplained illnesses, typically after figuring out what fact the patient had omitted. But what happens when life imitates art? When the person sleeping beside you at night turns out not to be the person you thought they were?
Enter Abby Ellin, whose years-long romance blew up when she discovered her fiancé was not the Greg House cum James Bond doctor-spy he portrayed himself to be, but rather, a run-of-the-mill government bureaucrat (though he was a doctor) with a drug habit and a side piece he was simultaneously engaged to even as he and Ms. Ellin were planning their own wedding. Ellin uses that experience as a jumping off point for Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married.
This slim tome, which clocks in at just over 200 pages, begins with a recitation of Ellin’s romance and engagement with a man she calls “The Commander.” The Commander was a world-class bullshit artist who also gaslit Ms. Ellin at every turn, manipulating her, questioning her love when she questioned his actions, and causing her to doubt her own belief system. It is excruciating reading, but at the same time, the stories he wove were so absurd (briefings with President Obama, clandestine trips abroad, etc.) you cannot help but wonder why it took Ms. Ellin so long to listen to her intuition (she is a reporter for crying out loud!) and dig a bit into her beau’s tales. When she did, they unraveled quickly, and she was left picking up the pieces of her shattered psyche.
How does a well-educated professional fall victim to such a con? The answer is in a line Don Draper (who is referenced only in passing - a glaring omission if you want to meditate on double lives) dropped in Mad Men - “people tell us who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be.” In other words, and as Ellin discusses, self-deception is real. The warning signs about the Commander were staring her right in the face from the start, but she ignored those red flags for two reasons that make manipulators successful - people are trustworthy and people crave love. Those two facts make us vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of us.
Ellin turned the lemons of her own experience into some lemonade - she published an essay in Psychology Today about her experience of being duped, which forms the backbone of this book. She also got a lot of reader feedback, including from people who had also been duped, and their stories are added to the mix. But either the stories she received were not that compelling or those that were the authors refused to grant a release for, because what she shares in most instances is just plain old lying. The animal rights activist who went on the lam had to hide his identity from people at the risk of arrest. The married white collar professional having an affair with his co worker (who was also married), gets divorced while his paramour leads him on that she too is getting divorced, but never does.
Ok. Awful behavior? Sure. But reading these stories, they felt run-of-the-mill, and that was part of the problem I had with this book. On the continuum where, on one end are the little white lies we tell every day (shaving a year or two off our online dating profile or adding an inch or two of height), and on the other, widespread fraud on the level of a Bernie Madoff or a double agent like Kim Philby, is an enormous middle that Ellin lumps into “duped.”
To be sure, the book is well-researched, and throughout, Ellin feathers in broader context, how we live in a “post-truth” world where everyone from the President to your significant other can suck you into a vortex of “fake news” that makes you question your own perspective (not to mention your sanity). Other riffs I liked included a discussion on the wonkiness of polygraphs, how we overestimate our ability to identify lies, and why we will continue believing a lie even when presented with evidence to the contrary. One story she shares of a woman whose roommate faked a terminal cancer diagnosis for five years is stomach churning in its telling but also left me wanting more of the other side of the equation - not just the feeling of violation experienced by the duped, but the motivation of the duper.
Perhaps it is my cynical nature, but when, about midway through the book, Ellin shares her second duping - at the hands of a man she calls “The Cliché” - I really shook my head. Or maybe it is simply because the macro-lie she fell for with this guy, about how he and his wife were about to be divorced, is de rigueur and one that should have raised an immediate red flag - particularly because of her prior experience! In fairness, Ellin did suss out her beau’s lies more quickly this time, but as the book reaches its closing, you come to realize it is less about the murky world of con men (for that, I highly recommend Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game) and more about the challenges of trusting people you love, or want to love.
Indeed, the post script to Duped left me sad. Years after the Commander’s arrest, imprisonment, and release from custody, you see how much space he continues to take up in Ellin’s mind. She, along with her brother, receive LinkedIn requests from him (she gives serious thought to meeting up with him, which is just jaw dropping to me) and the Commander’s ex-wife’s mother finds him on Match.Com, spinning the same bullshit tales he sold her daughter. His ex-wife (with whom Ellin becomes friendly) sees him sporadically, only to watch him lie to their daughter about yet another pretend secret mission he must go on that will preclude him from seeing her.
It is understandable why Ellin and others she highlights have become jaded about love. To her credit, she eventually realizes the thing she wants most from the man who screwed up her life - closure in the form of an apology - is simply not in the cards. Instead of pining away, she engages in her own cliché of sorts, getting under someone to get over someone, in the form of a carefree Brazilian man fifteen years her junior she beds while on vacation in South America. It might not erase the experience of being duped twice, but I am sure it gave her some nice memories.
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