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Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married
By Abby Ellin
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From Abby Ellin’s first date with the Commander, she was caught up in a whirlwind. Within six months he’d proposed, and they’d moved in together. But soon, his exotic stories of international espionage began to unravel. Finally, it all became clear: he was lying about who he was.
After leaving him and sharing her story, she was floored to find out that her experience was far from unique. People everywhere, many of them otherwise sharp-witted and self-aware, are being deceived by their loved ones every day.
In Duped, Abby Ellin studies the art and science of lying, talks to people who’ve had their worlds upended by duplicitous partners, and writes with great openness about her own mistakes. These remarkable stories reveal how often we encounter people whose lives beneath the surface are more improbable than we ever imagined.
GASLIT: A LOVE STORY
The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
—Gloria Steinem (Maybe)1
My ex-fiancé orchestrated the raid on Osama bin Laden.
He received a Purple Heart for his military service and a medal of honor from Golda Meir, which he tucked neatly away in a private vault. He thwarted a bioterrorism attack in New York City and saved the grandson of one of the world’s wealthiest men from an attempted kidnapping.
That I know all this is a privilege in itself. None of it was public. He wasn’t in it for glory; he made guest appearances at major events but refused the acclaim or even a paycheck. He didn’t write a book about his escapades, or sell his story to Hollywood. His goal wasn’t to become rich and famous but to keep his children—and all of America—safe from the “bad guys.”
“I’m not going to sit by while people are in danger,” he’d often say as he packed his bags for a secret mission.
It was wonderfully noble, except for one minor detail: none of it was true.
BUT THAT’S GETTING ahead of the story.
Let’s rewind to early 2006, when I was writing a newspaper article on detox diets, those lemon-and-hot-water cleanses said to eradicate toxins, inflammation, cellulite, and hangnails. I needed an expert to tell me if they were at all legitimate. Someone recommended a doctor with a posh Beverly Hills practice.
I am most comfortable interviewing people remotely, from behind the warm, safe glow of my computer screen. The roles are clear: I ask questions and the other person answers them. So it went with the doctor.
He told me that adherents of detox programs ran the risk of “hypervitaminosis.” These diets were, in essence, bullshit, he said.
He had me at hypervitaminosis.
The quote made it into the story, but the article was put on indefinite hold. Nearly a year later, when the piece was finally slated to run, I called the doctor to fact-check. Had anything changed? Was he still in Los Angeles?
“No,” he said. “I’m in the military now. A navy doc.” He had quit his lucrative practice and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to work at a naval hospital.
“How can you be in the military?” I teased. “You’re Jewish!”
He lobbed the ball right back at me. “There are seven of us,” he deadpanned.
I’d never known anyone who’d joined the military in later life. But then, I’d never known anyone in the military. The doctor told me he’d served years earlier and had reenlisted in order to open a hospital in Iraq for kids with cancer. He was a lieutenant commander. Soon, he would start a job at the Pentagon.
What a coincidence! I was planning on moving to the capital to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for what I half-jokingly dubbed my Second Useless Master’s. I wanted to write about global human rights issues, and this hospital project was a story worth pursuing.
“Keep me posted,” I said.
And so he did, emailing every few months with snippets of information. His emails were laden with medical jargon and slightly odd; the language was indecipherable to me. But I was still interested in the story, so I responded enthusiastically.
In December 2009, the emails began picking up in frequency. By late January, they had blossomed into daily, almost hourly, telephone calls. Apparently he, too, had felt a connection during our initial call; he confessed to visiting my website and watching various television interviews I’d done.
“You looked great in that green dress,” he said, referring to my appearance on a morning TV show. He waxed poetic on my sternal notch, the indentation in the middle of the clavicle.
We spoke deeply, honestly. The Commander, as I took to calling him, was fifty-eight, a former Navy SEAL, divorced a few years earlier. His two children, then five and twelve, lived on the West Coast with his ex-wife. It hadn’t been an amicable split, but he spoke to his kids often and visited frequently.
I told him about my ambivalence toward relationships, how they were really not my area of expertise. I’d just emerged from a brief and disappointing dalliance with a guy I’d known at summer camp. I’d been trying so hard to find a good man I hadn’t even cared that he was a Wall Street Republican who played fantasy football.
“I’m not going to learn anything or grow spiritually from another failed romance,” I told the Commander. “I’ve paid my dues. It’s time for something good.”
“I understand,” he said. “I’ve suffered enough, too.”
The demise of his marriage had been excruciating, which was why he’d fled LA. “I couldn’t stand the breakup of my family,” he told me. “I couldn’t bear to live in the city of my failure. The navy saved me.”
Moving across the country from your adored young children didn’t seem like Father Knows Best behavior to me, but I don’t have kids and have not endured a divorce. We’re all so fragile in our own unique ways. Anyway, it seemed like a good sign that his ex-wife was open to him spending so much time with his kids.
And I was impressed that he was so loyal to the country. Such passion! Such dedication! He didn’t care about money. He cared about people.
One of the main issues in his marriage, in fact, had been that he wasn’t earning enough to placate his ex. She sounded like such a diva. Both she and the other doctors in his office—he was a partner there—had pressured him to refuse Medicaid patients, but he wouldn’t. “I’m not going to turn people away just because they can’t afford it,” he said.
On our first date, in early February 2010, he took me to the Four Seasons in Manhattan—“somewhere celebratory,” as he’d put it. I wore a gray silk dress and thigh-high black suede boots; he’d just come from addressing the United Nations and was in navy whites. We embraced as if he were returning from Iwo Jima. The bartender was so moved that he plied us with free drinks (red wine for me, vodka for him). As a present, the Commander brought me a white navy cap—a “cover,” in military parlance. I slipped it on, feeling like Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman.
Granted, he was no Richard Gere. I’d only seen a few photos of him online, and most were from a distance. In person, he looked a decade younger, but his nose was beakish and he had an overbite and a mouthful of capped teeth. His shoulders hunched forward when he walked, as if he were mid-bow; he suffered from asthma and squirted nasal spray in public. But his smile was bright and wide, and his hair, though slightly receding, was a beautiful black and silver. He had not a centimeter of fat on his body. And he was entranced with me.
Later, over seared tuna and pinot noir, he confessed that the great trauma of his life was not becoming a brain surgeon, his true calling. He’d wanted to treat glioblastomas, one of the deadliest types of brain tumors, but he hadn’t received any surgical fellowships. My grandmother had died of the same cancer. How weird.
This hospital project was his chance to “hit the reset button.” “Who gets to start over at my age?” He beamed.
Then he told me that during the previous summer he’d been the medical director at Guantánamo, treating high-level terrorists. He lowered his voice. At Gitmo, a “country club for bad guys,” one of his patients was a Very Important Terrorist. He gave me a rundown of the VIT’s medical history: kidney trouble, diabetes, enlarged heart.
That made no sense to me. If it were true, wouldn’t the president want to take credit for his capture? That would guarantee reelection. Besides, a secret that big would never remain that way.
“The president doesn’t know,” he said.
That seemed even more absurd. I told him that was a stupid thing to tell a journalist.
“It’s not verifiable,” he said. “I’d deny it. It would be my word against yours.”
When I pressed further, he backpedaled: “Maybe it wasn’t bin Laden. All I know is what they told me.”
“You would know what he looked like! He’s six foot six!”
“They all look alike,” he said. His glance never wavered.
Every so often he still did undercover work, black ops, in conjunction with the CIA. He had a vault brimming with medals for operations that “did not officially exist.” “I’ll show you one day,” he said.
That was how he had met his ex-wife twenty years earlier. It was when she was being held hostage in Iran and he swooped in like Superman to pluck her out of captivity. “In 1990?” I said. “Why was she being held hostage?”
He told me a long, involved story about her dissident Iranian uncle and the government. When I asked why I’d never read any press on it, the answer was prompt: “Secret mission.”
“So, you put your life on the line and you get no public accolades?” In New York, where I live, people are reluctant to get out of bed in the morning unless there’s the possibility for some kind of acclaim. But this guy was working under the radar to make the world a better place. He was like no one I’d ever known, a regular Jason Bournestein.
“I want to have an impact,” he said. “As long as my kids are in danger, I’ll do what I have to do to make the world safe for them.”
The acid in my gut started churning a bit. Danger from what, exactly? If this had been a story, I’d have fact-checked the hell out of it. But he was right, there was no way to verify anything, since it was all sub rosa. And maybe there was something to it. Someone has to do these jobs in real life, don’t they? Isn’t that what we’ve learned from Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty? The Commander looked nothing like a CIA operative. But what better decoy than an asthmatic, adenoidal physician with bad posture? Such a perfect disguise! His stories were so ludicrous they had to be true.
I’m not a connoisseur of spy novels; I find the Bond movies a bit of a snooze. Nor am I a conspiracy theorist—except when I am. Let’s face it: things are not always what they seem. Eleven words are still missing from the Pentagon Papers. We don’t know the full story behind JFK’s death, or Princess Diana’s. Maybe the doctor was nuts. But maybe he wasn’t. I knew a bad product when I saw one, and he wasn’t it. There’s a whole galaxy of unknown unknowns, and I was intrigued.
After dinner, he invited me back to his hotel for that fabled drink. I went. I didn’t want the night to end. We kissed, got naked, rolled around on the bed, and then… nothing.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work,” he said. “I’ll do better next time.” He sounded like an overgrown five-year-old.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We’ve been drinking. It happens.”
“Not with me it doesn’t,” he said. “I promise I’ll do better next time.”
He had a key-shaped scar on his abdomen. I traced it with my fore-finger. “What’s this?”
He sighed and took a swig of water. “I got into a pole-vaulting accident in college.” He paused. “And I was shot.”
Shot? That’s when he told me about being held hostage in China, detained in a crawl-space room, and tortured mercilessly. Sometimes the guards beat him in the middle of the night, so he took to sleeping sitting up to remain alert. Finally—miraculously—after twenty-three days, he managed to escape. Thank God he’d been a long-distance runner in college.
He was still afraid of the dark and still slept in a reclining position, three pillows propped against the headboard, lights blazing and Food Network blaring. Sometimes he kept a tennis racket by his bed as protection.
“When was the US in China?” I asked. “What were you doing there?”
“Secret operation,” he said. “You wouldn’t have heard about it.”
AFTER THAT NIGHT, we spoke three, four, five times a day. He was reliable and steady. He did not pull the Great American Disappearing Act, a trick perfected by many a man involving telephones, emails, texts, and a sudden inability to use them. He called when he said he would and sent generous gifts: an enormous bouquet of flowers, a strand of pearls, a replica of a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis emerald-and-diamond necklace. They were “rehearsals” for when he could buy me the real thing. I was falling for him. And why not? It’s easy to adore someone who adores you.
And he did, that was obvious. “I would support you through anything,” he often said. “I would harbor you, I would protect you. You could tell me you were an ax murderer and I wouldn’t care, that’s how much I love you.” His twelve-year-old son welcomed me into the fold with a charming and surprisingly mature email.
We saw each other every ten days or so, sharing romantic weekends in DC, Maine, and Manhattan. He always bought first-class plane tickets and put us up at five-star hotels. He sent love letters and adoring notes on slips of paper. He was good and decent and exciting and noble. Intense, for sure, but that was okay. He was so passionate about everything! And driven!
And it was so easy. There were no games. On a trip to LA to meet his kids, I decided to put it out there. My biological clock had never thrummed loudly, but adoption always appealed to me. I’d already given money to an agency and was planning to move forward on my own. I wasn’t sure if I should continue as a single person or wait to see how things went with him.
“If you’re in this, great,” I said. “If not, that’s okay, too. Just let me know. I’m not interested in any more pain in the relationship department.”
“I’m mad for you,” he said. “I’m crazy about you. At some point I’m going to ask you to marry me, so I’m on board with whatever you want to do.”
A wave of calm washed over me, the antithesis of how I usually felt when men spoke that way. This was the first time I’d ever discussed marriage without wanting to flee. I’d been passionately in love once and “pre-engaged” twice, and both times a ball of rubber bands had traveled up my stomach and into my throat whenever the subject of marriage came up.
The Commander, however, was different. We were on the same page about everything: religion, career, money, family. The relationship seemed preordained, if you believe in that sort of thing. And even if you don’t, there were some mighty strange coincidences.
A few months before we’d begun dating, I’d gone to see a chain-smoking Yonkers psychic named Carmella, who owned a dog the size of a small horse. While the animal lolled about, Carmella received instant messages from the Other World and doodled them on a piece of paper until her pencil tip was down to the nub. She predicted that I’d link up with a man I’d known in the past. He would be wearing a uniform, and his initials were R, P, B, or D (apparently psychics often confuse letters).
“I don’t know anyone in uniform other than the FedEx guy,” I said.
“Not the FedEx guy!” she rasped. “You’re going to move for a man in a uniform. A professional man.” A few months later, I got back in touch with the doctor. His initials did indeed include an R, P, B, or D.
I was moving to Washington for grad school; his next assignment was at the Pentagon. I wanted to write about global human rights issues; he was opening a medical facility in Afghanistan. My first book had been about food and fat and eating disorders; he had a background in nutrition. We also both had weird eating habits. I’m a Diet Coke addict; Mountain Dew was his beverage of choice. That made me happy. Nothing’s worse than a sanctimonious non–soda drinker.
He led a big life of travel and adventure. I abhor routine. He talked of sailing the world, trekking Aconcagua, visiting the White House. Power! Excitement! And yes, love. Grown-up love. Not backbreaking, mind-numbing passion, which tends to induce craziness. But life-mate kind of love. The kind of love on which foundations are built.
The beauty of it was that he wasn’t the sort of man I usually went for, which is to say he didn’t know a Burning Man from a burning bush, nor did he care. He (non-ironically) liked the music of the 1970s Muzak band Bread. He was up at 5:00 a.m. As far as I’m concerned, nothing good happens before 10:00. I worried about our different nocturnal habits. But compromise is key, right? The person you end up with is rarely the person you thought you’d end up with. The person you have the best sex with is not necessarily the person you should marry.
(That department had cranked itself up quite nicely, by the way. He made up for that first flaccid night. The main problem now was that the sex went on and on and on. “That’s what you do to me,” he said. “I can’t get enough of you.”)
When you’ve been single long enough and dated everyone from heteroquestionable set designers to alcoholic chefs, you become flexible. All those years of men with empty bank accounts and woodchips under their fingernails, and now, finally: a doctor! The Jewish Holy Grail. He was so good with my parents, listening to their medical woes and commending them for raising a terrific daughter.
For years my mother had been wishing I’d embrace a nice dentist or lawyer, and I hadn’t been able to sprint fast enough in the opposite direction. It pained me to admit it, but maybe all along my future had involved a mezuzah, a stethoscope, and a drawer full of medals for operations that didn’t officially exist.
My mother, however, was a little confused about his job status. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “What doctor leaves a private practice in Beverly Hills? I wish you could call his ex-wife, but of course you can’t.”
I fumed. “Why do you have to question everything?” I said. “Why are you so mistrustful?”
But secretly, I wondered, too. He traveled often; for an old guy, he was in high demand. He dutifully called from Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he was doing things he would tell me about “when there’s a secure line.” My friends thought it amusing: the insatiably curious journalist involved with someone who couldn’t tell her what exactly he did for work. They knew it drove me bananas; I’ve been known to flip to the last page of a book, just to see how it ends.
My friend Steve suggested I reach out to a private eye he knew. It was tempting, but I didn’t think spying would be a loving way to kick off a relationship. Besides, could a detective penetrate the hallowed walls of the Pentagon and the CIA?
My friend Jill suggested that this was simply The Lesson I Needed to Learn. “This is the universe’s way of telling you that there are some things you’re not supposed to know,” she said. “You have to learn to trust.”
I don’t believe the universe has a personal shout-out for me, or any of us. If it does, then its priorities are totally out of whack. That’s simply the excuse we use to pretend we have a modicum of control, because, let’s face it: shit happens because it happens.
Except. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe Jill was right. Maybe my attitude needed a complete overhaul. Maybe I just needed to salute the sun and inhale gratitude. Trust, after all, was a choice, was it not?
As a journalist, someone whose job it is to ask questions, I pride myself on my gut, my ability to suss out deception. I’m curious about everything, even when I’m not technically on the clock. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I like to get to the bottom of things, even—especially—when the bottom is muddy and cakey and teeming with snakes.
More than one boyfriend had said that my inquisitiveness was about as pleasant as a root canal. “You interrogate,” they’d say. “You should have been a trial lawyer.” (A friend put it more succinctly: “You’re exhausting.”)
They’re right. But I come from a long line of skeptics. Doubt is in my DNA. And my digging has usually uncovered good stuff: Drug addiction. Infidelities. Debt.
Maybe a state of denial is the place to live if you want to be happy, but I couldn’t reside there.
Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It just left her single.
A BRIEF WORD on marriage.
I am not the sort of woman who puts all her eggs in one trousseau. They’d be cracked and runny by now, anyway, and probably all over my face.
Meeting men was never a problem. They were everywhere: on buses and planes, in offices and malls, on city streets and online. But I found it hard to meet men I liked who liked me back.
I preferred first dates, beginnings. I don’t care for quotidian details. I was happiest casually dating one or two people at the same time, so I could keep both at arm’s length. Abandonment issues? Fear of intimacy? Gross insecurity? Doubtless all three.
But I’ve never longed to be a wife. I can’t even imagine uttering the words “my” and “husband” in the same sentence. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to desiring a nice big diamond, a beaded white gown, and a giant gala celebrating “me.” (I mean—us.) But that’s mostly about materialism and being a star, not the drudgery of long-term cohabitation, which never looked like much fun. Plus, I didn’t see the point of lingering in a relationship if I knew it wasn’t going to last. That’s just killing time, and what good is that?
The stories in my head weren’t about romance and weddings; they were about excitement. Passion.
Drama was my aphrodisiac, and it had fueled my relationship with an earlier boyfriend, Will, a luthier I’d met in Chilean Patagonia. He’d just battled Stage 4 tonsil cancer; the trip to South America had been his first hurrah since the diagnosis. We’d had one crazy romantic night together in a cabin with no electricity or hot water, and the next day I’d taken off for Machu Picchu.
Not long afterward, he’d bitten into an apple, and his jaw, already weakened from radiation, cracked in half. He’d returned to the States immediately, and we’d plunged headfirst into a relationship, commuting between New York City and the mountains of Virginia. He’d had to do a month’s worth of hyperbaric oxygen treatments before he could do jaw reconstruction surgery, to try to increase the blood flow to a necrotic area. We’d trekked all over the place trying to find the best hospital—Sloan Kettering? Duke University?—and settled on Chapel Hill. I was his Do Not Resuscitate person. This was all within the first three months of knowing each other, but it had felt natural. Who had time to waste when he could be disfigured for life, or die? Oh, the plotlines!
He wasn’t disfigured, and he didn’t die. But the relationship did. The commute was arduous for both of us; I had a life in the city, and he had a woodworking business in the country. We loved each other, but we couldn’t be together. Within two months, he met the “farm girl” he would later marry. I spent a good year on my couch, watching Sex and the City reruns and nursing my sorrow.
I’ve never understood why marching down the aisle is seen as some kind of triumph. And it is seen that way, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—especially for women. We might be shouting from rooftops and marching for equal rights (as we goddamn well should), but make no mistake: marriage is still considered a victory for women, perhaps the ultimate one. (Consider the reality show Say Yes to the Dress, in which future brides and their coterie vote on a gown. But is there a Big Bucks for the Tux? No, there is not.)
Before my maternal grandmother died of brain cancer, she said her big regret was not seeing her grandchildren marry. I was twenty-three at the time, imperious and angry. This was a woman who had been separated from my grandfather for forty years. Why didn’t she regret not seeing us win Academy Awards or Pulitzers? Why was marriage such an indicator of life success?
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “She wants to see you settled.”
How did being married “settle” you? And how did my grandmother still believe that it did? It wasn’t as if my grandparents’ union was happy, and neither one of them had remarried.
Both my mother’s generation and my own pitied my single state. It infuriated me. An accomplished magazine editor, who’d been divorced in her twenties and was having a terrible time dating in her forties, put it to me this way: “Even if I never marry again, at least I can say I was married.” But I’d never defined myself in those terms. While I wanted a life partner, it never seemed possible to have a relationship and also maintain the independence so critical to my sense of self. I didn’t want to stay home with the kids. I wanted a big life, with options.
Even though I didn’t feel bad about my frequently single status, everyone else was concerned with it: cab drivers, my parents’ friends in South Florida, a former college professor who had never been married, my four-year-old pal Katie, the daughter of a friend.
“Do you have a husband?” she asked during her princess phase.
“No,” I replied.
“You should,” she said.
“It’s just better. Don’t you get lonely?”
How to tell her that yes, I’d had debilitating, aching bouts of loneliness, a hole in my chest so vast that neither food nor booze nor sex nor work could plug it? That I’d woken up every day for the past thirty-five years hoping that on this day the love of my life might make his entrance? How to tell her that I was most alone when in the wrong relationship—and most sure-footed when by myself? I’d mastered the art of doing anything on my own. I like my company. Being with another person? That was a real challenge.
Like many women who’ve dated extensively, I’ve spent godawful nights analyzing the situation. Why couldn’t I find anyone right for me? Was it my physical appearance? My personality? Was I paying karmic debts from my past life as Lizzie Borden?
Though marriage was never my goal, I did want a playmate, a lover, someone with whom to get into benign mischief. Someone I dug who dug me too: mutual digment.
By the time the Commander entered my life, I’d been actively trying to combat my issues. I would throw my cynicism to the side, stop the Inquisition, and open my heart. So I filed away the Gitmo thing, the Chinese torture, the hidden medals and super-secret missions. Not completely away, but in a synaptic cabinet beneath my amygdala. He was the best person I knew, a grown-up whose life philosophy matched mine in so many ways.
I wanted to trust him. I wanted this relationship to work.
WHEN THE COMMANDER
- "I have recommended this one to friends who've loved someone they turned out not to know... [Ellin] pulls off the tricky balancing act of avoiding either self-justification or self-castigation...Reading 'Duped' gave me occasion to second-guess even gentler deceptions; it may actually have made me a (slightly) better person."—Tim Kreider, New York Times Book Review
- Abby Ellin's writing is everything her fiancé pretended to be: witty, vulnerable, brave, smart, and honest.—Michael Finkel, author of the National Bestseller, The Stranger in the Woods
- "Candid and entertaining, Ellin's book offers insight into the socially and psychologically complex nature of deceit as well as the choices she made as a duped woman. Lively, provocative reading."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The author's hybrid of memoir and journalism works well for general readers, keeping things engaging and witty...A timely book for folks who wonder how we ended up in this post-truth world as well as readers of books
- On Sale
- Jan 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages