A book of nonviolent true crime. That’s #19 on BookRiot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge, and when I saw Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married by Abby Ellin on their list of suggestions for that topic, I knew that had to be my pick. Because…reasons.
Abby Ellin fell in love. Known in the book only as the Commander, he was a self-identified doctor, an elite member of the US Navy who worked secret missions at places like Guantanamo and China. His work took him away for long periods of time, and as things began to not add up, Ms. Ellin began to question the Commander’s truths. ‘He had an answer and an excuse for everything,’ she said, a line I understood well. And luckily for her, the entire thing unraveled before they could get married. So much of what the Commander had told her about his life was a life, and he eventually served twenty-one months in prison.
Because of this, Ms. Ellin takes an intense look at people who are duped, and the people who do the conning: the why, the how, the how-can-we-avoid-this. She interviews experts in psychology, in social behavior, social scientists who have published studies about lying, heads of companies that purport to teach people how to identify liars (it’s harder than you would expect), all in an attempt to better understand not just what the Commander did to her, but why she so readily fell for it. Her questions, her shame, her guilt at her own possible complicity in her being duped, I understood well, because I’ve been in her shoes.
I won’t get into details, but years ago, I loved a man who lied to me, A LOT. About who he was, about what he was doing, about the path our life together was taking. His lies sent me and my family on multiple wild goose chases that wasted so much time and money, and for nothing, so that he could participate in self-aggrandizement one day more. It was infuriating, it was heartbreaking, it felt shameful beyond all measure. We so desperately want to believe the people we love, and it’s so difficult to pull ourselves away once we realize this is no longer healthy for us. I glanced at a few Goodreads reviews that seem to chuckle at Ms. Ellin and wonder how she could be so stupid, when the reality is, unless you’ve lived it, you don’t truly understand how easy it is to be duped.
My curiosity was piqued by her coverage of Peter Young, who, along with a friend, liberated mink farms in the Midwest in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, then went on the run for years. One of those mink farms happened to be in my hometown, and while I wasn’t living there at the time, I understand the effects are still felt in the area’s ecosystem to this day, since my father has spotted mink in his backyard from time to time. She also recounts the stories of other famous people known for living double lives, such as Charles Lindbergh, who, in addition to being married to Anne Morrow Lindbergh and fathering six children with her, had a 17-year relationship with a German hatmaker, a relationship with her sister, and a relationship with his secretary, fathering seven additional children between the three women. That’s some serious deceit (and also he was a garbage person for a lot of reasons, including his hatred for the disabled, but I digress).
And the upstart of it all is that it’s really difficult to detect who’s lying, either through training or specialized machinery (there’s a reason why lie detector tests aren’t admissible in court). Ms. Ellin’s conclusion is to go with your gut. If something doesn’t sound right, it’s probably not, and it might not hurt us to be just a little less trustworthy sometimes.