“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” (Sir Walter Scott, 1808).
Perhaps you read the best-selling book The Woman in the Window by author Dan Mallory, writing under the pseudonym AJ Finn. Apparently Mallory got caught up in a tangled web after creating a false persona in the editing field. He lied about his professional skills and experiences, falsely stating that he had earned a PhD from Oxford. He fabricated lies about having brain cancer on a university application and told the same to publishing colleagues. He wore an eyepatch claiming to lose sight in one eye after an operation on a brain tumor. His cancer provided an explanation for long work absences. His brain tumor “sort of cleared up,” baffling co-workers. Although his family was alive and well, he claimed that they were all dead as an explanation for his grades while completing his master’s degree.
When Mallory’s lies were discovered, he admitted that he never had cancer, and had used the illness to cover up for a mental illness. He was ashamed of his bipolar disorder and kept it a secret. He stated that depression, delusional thoughts, morbid obsessions, and memory problems forced him into periods of absence from work. Assuming that he is finally telling the truth, this doesn’t explain his unnecessary lies about his family and accomplishments.
Did you watch the movie Catch Me If You Can? It is based on the life of Frank W. Abagnale, alias Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams, and Robert Monjo. He was one of the most famous con men, forgers, imposters, and escape artists in history. Among his many personas, Abagnale co-piloted a Pan Am jet, masqueraded as a supervising resident of a hospital, practiced law without a license, passed himself off as a college sociology professor, and cashed more than $2.5 million in forged checks, all before he was twenty-one.
Why did he do it? In an interview he said the following, “It begins with my parents’ divorce and its dramatic effect on me. I ran away and suddenly found myself a teenager alone in the world. I had to grow up very quickly and become very creative in order to survive. But what started out as survival became more and more of a game. I was an opportunist, so when I saw an opening I asked myself, Could I get away with that? Then there was the satisfaction of actually getting away with it. The more I got away with, the more of a game it became a game I knew I would ultimately lose, but a game I was going to have fun playing until I did.”
It turns out that many people will lead a double life based upon secrets and lies. Lots of people have fantasies of being wealthier, more accomplished, or more admired than they currently are. False personas bolster the ego. But when deception is taken to the level of a dual life it can damage relationships, careers, and lead to criminal consequences. This behavior can spiral out of control, creating high-risk situations that are dangerous to themselves and others.
Are these signs of mental illness? Not necessarily. You don’t have to have a mental disorder to lead a double life. Consider people who make a living out of having a secret life such as spies, undercover police, and certain military personnel. They mean no harm.
If not mental illness, why do people create a life of deception? Both Abagnale and Mallory give clues as to reasons people might live a double life: shame, a need to survive, opportunity, and the enjoyment of playing a game and the satisfaction of playing it well. Some people are just greedy hedonists who believe they feel entitled. Personal pleasure is their primary life objective. They may not intend to hurt other people, but don’t get in their way. They may feel that rules don’t apply to them and that morals are more fluid than set.
My heart goes out to the innocent partners or family members who find that they have been betrayed. They may be entirely surprised to learn of this double life after years together in what they thought was a stable, honest and open relationship based upon trust. Perhaps they didn’t know that their partner gambled, was a substance abuser, was sexually unfaithful, committed fraud, or was hiding money in multiple accounts. The betrayed partner will never trust the same way again.
The truth is that some people are so good at secrets, lies and deception that there is little you can do to protect yourself. You may find yourself the victim in a tangled web. Deception is fostered by secrets. I recommend that you seek social support and voice your suspicions rather than be bound by secrets. You don’t need solid proof of wrongdoing. Close relationships should be based upon full disclosure. If you suspect that your partner is hiding something, talk it out rather than be silenced.
Do you suspect someone is leading a double life? Protect yourself if possible.