What a con artist can teach us about storytelling

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“total lack of scruples.”

In other words a “sociopath”, how nice.

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I don’t doubt that she is, but it’s such an overused word.

Not in this case, that is a textbook case of sociopathic behavior, she supplies ample evidence.


I will never understand cases like this. If a con artist works that hard, they expect a big payoff, but it sounds like this girl never even tried to score. She did steal, but it was always things like free medical care, or a few weeks’ room and board.

My guess is she’s in it for the thrill. It sounds like she’s completely sane, and just enjoys inventing an identity that people will believe. Pity she hasn’t started writing, I’ll bet her fiction would be pretty good.

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The New Yorker article misses for me one key point in this kind of con artistry: When someone tells you face to face that something awful has happened to them, in that moment you either by nature/inexperience or by their artifice (or both) pass over the fact that you have a choice to believe them or not. I worked with someone who told huge lies (with big fecking bells hanging off them) about public tragedies to extract sympathy, and I only caught on because she overplayed that sympathy hand with me. I had never disbelieved the actual lies, until I was informed me about some Internet research done on her. Interestingly, this woman told different people in the office different things (not managing narrative strands effectively, just distracting with the boldness of her lies, as well as her unpleasant personality), and if we’d all talked about this early on, we could have figured out what kind of person we were working with. So the lies have to be something that you don’t question to the point where you’ll try to advocate for them against other’s disbelief (“yes, she’s unpleasant, but she’s had all this stuff happen to her!”). Almost makes it potentially contagious.

I had a relative who was a con artist of a kind - he didn’t swindle people but he did work many jobs he had no qualifications for (papers were lost in the war back then, you see). He died before I was born, but when my parents visited him in the hospital near the end of his life they said, “We’re here to see Mr. X,” and after some rifling of papers the nurse at the desk said, “Oh, do you mean Dr. X?” He had the hospital staff convinced he was a pediatrician. It didn’t matter what they thought, I believe he died only days later. I don’t know whether to think its for fun or for a thrill or whether to think it’s just who some people are - they are driven to create identities the way others are driven to paint or teach or surf.

The thing is, we mostly project and see other people as reflections of ourselves. If someone catches onto this kind of lie very quickly you might want to watch them a little extra closely.


People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.

– David Mamet, The Art of Theater No. 11
(My emph)

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Wow, see my comment above about projection.

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I went through a training program shortly after moving to a new city. During the course of the training, I made a new friend and she had a much younger adopted sister who had come to stay with her around the time the training began. The girl had a reputation as a troublemaker, but then, my friend knew how fucked up their parents were so she had a lot of sympathy for her sister.

Then, one day she came to the class visible upset. I learned the sister had gone to the nearby military town and met two guys she’d met online, and then gotten horribly beaten and raped. There were bruises.

Or had she?

As time went on the story started unraveling. My friend got sucked into all the drama and then into the mystery of finding out what really happened.

In the end she kicked the sister out of her house, and I believe she married some military person and created a lot of drama for him.

I understand the way people seek drama and how, especially when your own emotional sense is not very nuanced, big obvious emotional empathy is super compelling. I’d never have the guts to tell a lie like that; I wonder what it feels like?


In may of last year (2015) my mother in law passed away. She and my father in law had been married for a little over 50 years and neither had dated much before meeting. He was absolutely crushed with her loss. A normally type A always in command sort of guy, he was suddenly lost and without focus. He lost an alarming amount of weight. My wife spent most of 2015 there with him, trying to help him with both everyday logistics as well as the emotional healing.

About 3 months after her passing he seemed to improve. Started to gain weight again. Wasn’t as needy from minute to minute. My wife was able to return to Seattle for a couple weeks at a time. Finally at Thanksgiving did he finally admit that he had met someone. Everyone was very supportive. Then we started to hear from the staff at his office that something about her seemed off. A quick search turned up dozens of aliases and nearly 40 addresses in a relatively short time. He linked in was an obvious fabrication with many awards all unverifiable. Someone at his office worked part time at the police station and was able to run her records within Polk county. Multiple arrests. Elder abuse and hiding funds from a senior citizen were the two most worrisome.

We showed him what we had found and he became very angry. His rebuttals were out of tone for him. In time we found that early on she had planted seeds of doubt about each family member. She had inoculated him against the most obvious attacks. But we kept at it for two months asking questions. Some of which sounded good enough that he asked her. Eventually we were able to show in print that many of her answers were lies. He acknowledged the lies but still couldn’t believe a young pretty woman would find him attractive (she is late 40’s, he is 74) and just couldn’t walk away. She was starting to ramp up things with talk of marriage and moving in. He kept asking questions thankfully.

Finally, this past weekend he questioned her about details he knew from our research, not from her. She blew up in a restaurant and screamed he was trying to steal her money and to stay away from her. The next day he received what looked like legal documents threatening all sort of bad things if he ever spoke about her to anyone or contact anyone she knew. He still doesn’t get that she was conning him. He gets now that she has problems. But can’t come to terms that the person he spent two months with was a fabrication that he could be fooled by.

tl;dr That was close. :fearful:

Edit: fixed typo


I had direct contact with a scammer like this. Fake stays in the hospital included!

As far as I can tell it was just her job. What she did to get by. And it was compulsive. Almost like she couldn’t stop herself. Even when confronted the lies would pour forth. It was amazing to watch really. PM if you want, it’s hard for me to talk about with somewhat doxing myself. :wink:

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No need for that, I just find it baffling.

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It is very baffling. She even lied about small things that made no sense. Small stuff and big stuff. It was very weird.


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