Duping stories seem to find Abby Ellin. Ellin, a journalist, has amassed a slew of them in her new book, “Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married.” Her book is timely, and for many people it can feel all too personal. Ellin also sees duping as an obvious tie-in to the Purim story. She recently told JewishBoston: “Queen Esther was the biggest duper of all. She’s allowed to be a duper for the good of the Jewish people. Was she duping for a good reason? Arguably yes. But where’s the line?”
As the title conveys, at the heart of “Duped” is Ellin’s own story. With candor, humor and a touch of disbelief, Ellin reveals how a divorced doctor who purported to be a former Navy Seal involved in secret military missions and counterterrorism operations captured her heart. This was 2010, and he was 58 to her 42. In the book, Ellin calls him “The Commander,” and after a whirlwind courtship he asked her to marry him. She said yes, and with some trepidation moved from New York to Washington, D.C., to be with him.
Almost from the start, red flags came up so often that in 2011 Ellin finally left him. “My mother and I didn’t understand why The Commander left a private practice in Beverly Hills to work for the Pentagon,” she said. “He was always off on a super secret mission.” After her time with The Commander, the Brookline native said she came to live by the watchwords, “Trust, but verify.” However, she added, “Sometimes I think verify, but don’t trust.”
Ellin asserted that everyone has a duping story. “All I have to do is tell someone about my book and she’ll say, ‘I have a story for you,’” she said. That happened with a woman named Diane, who told Ellin the story of her roommate, Amanda, who faked having cancer for five years. “It was an extreme case of Munchhausen syndrome and ended up being the ultimate duping,” Ellin said. Diane did everything for Amanda, short of accompanying her to chemotherapy sessions, which were, of course, non-existent.
Ellin said the story that surprises everyone was the revelation of Charles Lindbergh’s ruse. Lindbergh maintained four separate families on different continents. Ellin speculated that there must have been something enticing for Lindbergh about always living on the edge of being discovered.
But duping is not all black and white for Ellin. She discusses the nature of lying in its many forms in the book. “I’m a fan of white lies,” she said jokingly. “Really, I’m OK with white lies as long as it’s not from close friends. I want the truth from my close friends. We want the truth, but at times we want it to serve our own purposes too. That brings us back to Queen Esther, who was duping to save her own people. Or take the example of a Nazi coming to the door during World War II searching for Jews. Do you tell them you’re hiding Jews? I think it’s acceptable in certain instances to lie.”
At another point in the book, Ellin quotes a professor who says it may be easier for men to lie than for women. For her part, Ellin said there is a difference between men and women lying. “Men will often lie to make themselves look better, and women will generally lie to protect people and their feelings,” she said. That was certainly the case with The Commander. After Ellin broke up with him, she found out he was engaged to another woman at the same time they were together. A year after the breakup, The Commander went to jail for writing fraudulent prescriptions for painkillers. He eventually declared bankruptcy, and Ellin never heard from him again.
After reading Ellin’s book, you can’t help but think duping seems to be in the drinking water. She pointed out that deception is everywhere. “It’s certainly in our politics,” she said. “People on both sides of the political spectrum are deceiving each other. No one believes anything. It’s in our culture. Look at the television shows we watch. Tony Soprano was in the mafia. Don Draper took on another identity; Don Draper wasn’t even his name. Dexter was a serial killer, and Nurse Jackie was a drug addict.”
Yet to function in life, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt. “We have to believe that people are telling the truth,” Ellin said. “Society would not function otherwise. We believe our doctor really has a degree. We believe planes are going to take off and not take a nosedive.”
She explained that as painful as her relationship was with The Commander, it left her relatively unscathed. “I left The Commander after a year,” Ellin said. “I was lucky there were no kids, no mortgage and our finances weren’t entwined. I was suspicious the whole time, but I had nothing to lose. But having gone through this experience, I almost understand why people stay with someone like that. It’s made me more understanding.”