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Ms. Scheier is the author of “Never Simple: A Memoir,” a book about growing up in 1990s Manhattan with a brilliant, mendacious single mother.
A glamorous crew of hucksters and con artists is taking over our screens. The broke “heiress” Anna Sorokin (who is better known as Anna Delvey) flounces through New York City, swindling the wealthy in Netflix’s dramatization, “Inventing Anna.” The playboy Shimon Hayut (known as Simon Leviev) is accused of bilking vast sums from smitten women in Netflix’s true crime documentary “The Tinder Swindler.” A fiery-gazed Elizabeth Holmes hawks useless blood-testing technology in Hulu’s limited series “The Dropout.”
But for me, the scammers aren’t the real story. It’s not the beautiful people, the ruinously expensive clothes, the scandal and the cha-ching of money stolen or squandered. It’s the scammed. The stooges, the marks, the bamboozled.
That’s because I’ve been one of them since before I could talk. I grew up the only child of a brilliant, mendacious mother. She constructed a fairy-tale life for the two of us in Manhattan, one lie built upon the next: She refused to register my birth with the city, faked my Social Security number and kept her biggest secret — that she had been married to a man I’d never heard of — obscured. She had been a lawyer, but she told me she had retired from her law firm a few years before my birth, eliding the fact that most lawyers do not retire by choice in their 30s.
And she created a fictional man, Warren Steven Livingston, who she told me was my father. He had died in a car accident, she told me; his friends and family were gone, and almost all his possessions were buried or lost. At 7 or 8, I went through the phone book and called every Livingston in it, asking if anyone knew Warren Steven and might have a picture of him for me. Those must be some other Livingstons, she told me airily, knowing full well she had made the name up. I believed her carefully crafted false narrative, designed to keep me giving — time, attention, support and, eventually, money. And I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone in her orbit believed her.
My mother, who died in 2019, had borderline personality disorder, which can present itself as an intense fear of abandonment, great personal charisma and a propensity for manipulation and lies. And those tendencies served her, up to a point: She supported us with no job and no reliable income in one of the most expensive cities in the world, not through outright theft or deception but by playing a role.
For most of my childhood, my mother was a chain-smoking, rage-filled hermit who rarely left her bedroom. But over the phone, she sounded like the woman she once was, an upstanding, highly educated lawyer. Her skill at playing that role kept the help rolling in. A principal let me stay enrolled in a school I wasn’t zoned for; friends took me on their family vacations; social workers, caseworkers and even a long line of building doormen and handymen came by on their days off with flowers and offers of assistance.
In retrospect, it’s strangely validating to me that they were taken in, too. I was a child; of course I believed my only parent, the only adult in my orbit. And of course those lies — which formed the basis of my reality — were hard to shake in adulthood. But all these grown-ups had believed her, too.
It took decades for me to understand the scale of my mother’s deceptions. Even once I learned my father’s real identity, even once I knew she had been married for years longer than she admitted, even after her death, when I went through boxes of her belongings and found the school forms she’d filled out with my fake Social Security number, the letters she’d sent friends and family with patently false stories. I still found it shocking to have been lied to with such a straight, charming face.
So for me, these shows about swindlers are one long, agonizing cringe. Some of the victims come across as ignorant, greedy or naïve — or all three. Others are more sympathetic. Near the end of “The Tinder Swindler,” Mr. Hayut is the subject of a tell-all in a Norwegian newspaper, and a series of gleeful internet reactions about his victims flashes across the screen: “Gullible.” “Idiot.” “Suckers.”
Watching it, I thought: That’s me.
Why do we believe obvious lies? Sometimes, as these shows suggest, the reasons are simple: greed, desire. And sometimes we believe liars because we like the story they’re selling us about ourselves. In a telling scene of “The Dropout,” Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried) approaches the investor Don Lucas, who’s wearing a cowboy hat the size of a satellite dish. “This is America,” she tells him. “We’re cowboys, right?” The real-life Mr. Lucas not only invested; he joined Theranos’s board. She’s speaking his language and using it to assure him that he is who he wants to be.
In “Inventing Anna,” Anna (Julia Garner) chides Henrick Knight (Joshua Malina) for not immediately investing in her boyfriend’s questionable start-up. Does he want to be like her father, she demands — old, out of touch? Doesn’t he want to get in on the ground floor and leave a shining legacy as he draws inevitably nearer to death? He agrees to invest.
These confidence artists can hook us because they can read us and they know how to make us feel smart and successful. It’s an effect that plays out in larger-scale societal grifts, too. Just as Anna’s targets feel flattered, gratified to be clever enough to see the opportunity she’s offering, those who buy into conspiracy theories such as QAnon revel in being the ones smart enough to see past the lies of a world where things are not as they appear. Skin care gurus and Instagram influencers make their fans feel seen and appreciated, even as they rake in endorsement money. And the owners of much-hyped digital apes and penguins gloat about being a part of the club, even though the NFTs they have shelled out for may turn out to be worthless.
We’d all like to think we would have swiped left on the Tinder swindler and spotted the flaws in Elizabeth Holmes’s spiel. These shows are set up to make us feel superior, to yell at the screen, “How could you be so dumb?” It’s intensely, guiltily satisfying to watch the scam play out, if we can reassure ourselves that in the same circumstance, we wouldn’t fall for that presentation or for that request for cash. We would know better.
But I didn’t. They didn’t. Maybe you wouldn’t, either.
In some of these TV portrayals, the huckster is knowing and coldhearted, on the lookout for a sucker with weaknesses to exploit. Mr. Hayut is shown cajoling women into handing over thousands of dollars, then discarding them so he could live a life of luxury. (He has accused the filmmakers of spreading lies.) But Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin come across as less malicious, more blinded by their own ambition and vanity. They seem to believe their own stories or at least believe they are telling a truth that just isn’t true yet. They reminded me more of my mother, whose crippling fear of being left alone drove her to do anything, say anything, to keep those she loved close.
As I watched the fictional Anna deliver a stirring speech to a powerful lawyer, convincing him that she was destined for success, despite her lack of knowledge or funding, I recognized her mesmerizing tone, and I clapped my hands over my face, humiliated. My mother used that tone every time she needed me to swallow some absolutely implausible lie about her past. She had convinced herself it was true, and I believed her.
When you’ve been fooled once, you can’t be so sure you’ll never be fooled again. And my mother’s long, unhappy grift taught me this: Every one of us is vulnerable to the right con.
Liz Scheier is the author of “Never Simple: A Memoir,” a book about growing up in 1990s Manhattan with a brilliant, mendacious single mother. Her work has appeared in Slate and Publishers Weekly, among other places.
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Opinion | Anna Delvey and the Tinder Swindler: Why We Fall for Scams – The New York Times