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How A Skeptical Journalist Got Engaged To A Con Man

"Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married," by Abby Ellin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married," by Abby Ellin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Journalist Abby Ellin has a reputation for getting the facts right. So it came as a surprise when she found out the man she was engaged to wasn't telling the truth.

She'd been skeptical when he talked about being a hostage in China, capturing Osama bin Laden and rescuing his ex-wife from Iran. But he was legitimately in the military and she figured someone had to do these specialized, top-secret missions — until she found out he didn't.

"Nothing was verifiable. And I was very suspicious. And I was always asking him questions and he got mad at me about that," Ellin (@abbyellin) tells Here & Now's Robin Young.

Ellin ultimately left the man she was supposed to marry. In writing her new book, "Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married," she discovered other women who've had to wrap their heads around living in a lie.

"How did they deal? How did they make sense of it?" Ellin says. "And yeah, it doesn't help that everybody else thinks you're an idiot and they think that there's something wrong with you, and that you're stupid and gullible and naive and all of those things."

Interview Highlights

On questioning her ex-fiancé's lies, such as secret missions in Iran and China

"I did ask him questions, of course. I said, 'What were we doing? When were we in Iran?' Because the time didn't match up and he said, 'In 1990.' I said, 'That doesn't make sense.' [He said], 'Secret mission, undercover operation, you wouldn't have heard about it.'

" ... But I also thought, you know, somebody has to do these things, right? I mean, isn't that what we learn from 'Homeland' and 'Zero Dark Thirty?' Somebody does it, so what better decoy than this little doctor guy, you know?"

On how Brussels sprouts revealed his lies

"I was at Johns Hopkins at the time, I was getting what I called my second useless master's in international relations. And I had professors there who were ambassadors and they'd been presidential advisers. I asked them if it was possible to have medals for operations that were not officially in existence. You know, that we weren't supposed to know about. And they said yes. So I was trying to verify all along. But nothing was verifiable. And I suspected something was off but I didn't know and I was thinking to myself, 'God, I'm just this mistrusting journalist,' you know, skeptic's skeptic.

"We went out to dinner in November. This is 2010 with my parents in Washington and we had Brussels sprouts and he raved about the Brussels sprouts. And they were happy, but they didn't really care, my parents, not like they made them. And we got outside and he said, 'God, that was one of the worst meals I've ever had.' And I thought to myself, 'If you could lie about something so inconsequential and lie so beautifully, then you could be lying about anything.' And I was out."

On finding out he was arrested for writing fraudulent drug prescriptions using her name

"I was elated because it validated everything I had thought. But I was also just, you know, devastated."

"I thought to myself, 'If you could lie about something so inconsequential and lie so beautifully, then you could be lying about anything.' And I was out."

Abby Ellin

On deception and sexual assault

"There is a woman, her name is Joyce Short, and her whole mission is to get laws passed for sexual assault by deception or what's called 'rape by fraud.' If you do not know what you're dealing with, that's akin to some kind of sexual assault. ... It's not a forcible rape, but it's some kind of brutality."

On the emotional toll the relationship took on her

"I did love him. Look, I was 42 years old. You know, I had run around the world. I had done what I needed to do. I thought, 'OK, I've never really wanted to be married but it's time.' So I met this person and he was this nice doctor. And I thought, 'He's good, he's decent, he's kind, he's funny, he's charming and he adored me.' That's all very enticing. And so when everything fell apart, it was unpleasant. The other thing is that I beat myself up because I didn't know which way was up. I was gaslit. I mean, that is the term: when someone tells you the sky is yellow and makes you think there's something wrong with you because you think it's blue."

On why she thinks people lie to such an extreme

"Some people, yes they are psychopaths, and they don't have any empathy and they don't care and they just spin tales. Other people are just bored. They're really smart. They want to see what they can get away with."

On getting duped — again

"God, I sound like an idiot. I'm not an idiot. It's not that, this was somebody else who I met, who was sort of well-known in New York and I adored him. He told me he was separated from his wife and that they couldn't get divorced because of their daughter. I mean, we went away together with friends. Again, it was the same kind of thing. It didn't make sense but that lasted, you know, a few months then I was out. I didn't need to stick around."

On why she think she was deceived twice

"I was trying to navigate the waters between being a journalist and being a person. My job and part of who I am in general, which is why I do this job, is because I'm questioning everything and I'm curious about everything and I'm fascinated about almost everything. So you can't be in a relationship and interrogate somebody all the time and be skeptical of them all the time. So the takeaway was, actually, yeah I have a pretty good gut. I just didn't follow it right away."

On what happened to her ex-fiancé

"You know, it's funny, he went to jail. He was there for about two years. Recently, I got a LinkedIn request from him. ... And I didn't accept it. No, I didn't. And this is progress because a few years ago I would have thought to myself, 'God, you know, maybe he can explain.' "

Book Excerpt: 'Duped'

by Abby Ellin

After learning the truth about my fiancé, I called everyone I could think of, trying to piece it all together. Very quickly, I started seeing dishonesty everywhere. And, perhaps as a way of dealing with the mess the Commander had made of my personal life, I became fascinated with the subject. Obsessed, actually.

I began noticing how little attention is granted the victims of deception, those “suckers” whose lives were upended by emotional fraud and had to rewrite their entire life histories according to a new reality. There’s scant support for people who’ve been hoodwinked, little to reassure them—us—that they’re not the only fool walking the earth.

Like Ingrid Bergman in the film Gaslight, whose husband has convinced her that she’s delusional when all along he’s set her up, the victims often lose faith in their ability to determine what’s real and what isn’t. (“Gaslight” has since become a psychological term, meaning to deliberately manipulate someone.) Being duped contaminates your entire sense of self. It throws you off-kilter, makes you question your perceptions about everything and everyone— lovers, friends, and acquaintances. Cocktail-party banter becomes a mental game of true-or-false.

And being blamed, and blaming oneself, for one’s own betrayal causes even more trauma.

In July 2015, I wrote a cover story about this kind of betrayal for Psychology Today. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get, but I suspected many women would write in. And they did. I received dozens of emails from people who’d been duped. Most, but not all, were women, ranging in age from sixteen to eighty. They shared their stories with me, begging for advice. How to make sense of their lives. How to trust again. They were grateful that someone had shed light on the subject and, more importantly, not blamed them for being taken for such a ride.

But secret lives are all around us, especially in today’s culture. Flip on the TV or surf the web and tales of gross betrayal will assault you: The respected Wall Street financier operating a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The friendly neighbor with three women imprisoned in his basement. A beloved comedian known as “America’s Dad” accused of drugging and sexually assaulting dozens of women. Married, anti-gay, family values–spouting politicians who solicit men in airport bathrooms. Political and environmental activists who are romantically involved with female group members, and sometimes have children with them—only to be revealed years later as undercover police officers spying for the state.

While leading a double life sounds like the stomping ground of psychopaths, moles, and covert agents with indeterminate dialects, plenty of “normal” people in appearance and affect keep canyon-sized secrets from those in their immediate orbits. These untold stories lead to enormous surprises, often unpleasant ones.

Excerpted from the book DUPED by Abby Ellin. Copyright © 2019 by Abby Ellin. Republished with permission of Ballantine Books.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 5, 2019.


Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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