I once met a man on the internet who had served in the Special Operations Command. Actually, that’s a lie – one of a barrage that were only revealed when I finally met someone who knew him. as much as you could know him.
So it was a bit of a jolt watching Fakes – Monday night’s episode of Australian Story about serial fantasists and with artists in the online dating world – when one of the women interviewed by journalist Stephanie Wood mentioned: “He said he’d been in the SAS and was awarded a Purple Heart. He said he’d killed people in battle.”
They weren’t the same man, but the story was eerie. When serial liars start to overload their targets with shaky autobiographical details, they must eventually serve up some gripping “explanation” of why something is not quite right about them. Such as the cases in this episode: “He told me he was an orphan.” “He told me he had brain cancer.”
Wood herself spent 14 months in a relationship with someone whose person was all lies. Her de ella Good Weekend cover story de ella in 2017 about “Joe” expanded into a book, Fake, in 2019. Two years later she was still getting messages from women who’d been in the same boat (a yacht, obviously). She interviewed some for Australian Story, as well as clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw, who explains the personality disorders underpinning such behaviour, chief of which is narcissistic personality disorder.
Following the success of Catfish, the eight-season MTV show about people creating fake online personas, such of internet dating cons have crossed over with the cultural appetite for true-crime drama. Most recently, there’s The Tinder Swindler, which hit the top 10 on Netflix in 92 countries – but also many podcasts, including Who the Hell Is Hamish?; Conning the Con; Dirty John (which also became a TV series); Cold and Do You Know Mordechai?
This fascination explains why words such as “narcissist” and “gaslighting” have replaced the usual sympathetic murmurings from friends that “they’re just not that into you” (only one in 200 people is thought to be a diagnosable narcissist so we can’ you there have dated one), but accounts such as those in Australian Story are terrifying in the sheer scale of their deception.
Many of the women hadn’t been duped out of money. Often, the men were already in other relationships, but always they sought to appear to be a dazzling success story. “Being adored was his oxygen from him,” says one woman. I’m reminded of when the man I dated, who we’ll call Kane, ventured, “I get the feeling I’m your hero.”
In Kane’s anecdotes he always cast himself as the strapping, accidental hero, surviving on his quick wit, the Bear Grylls of suburbia. In the first few weeks we dated, he fixed things, proposed adventures, leapt out to open my car door and researched my interests at the library after work (he said). Yet I had this unnerving feeling, like driving with a car in my blind spot.
A few months into what had morphed into a tenuous friendship, Kane made an uncharacteristic error, introducing me to a girl he’d reconnected with from his school days. Claire and I hit it off and met up of our own accord. When we compared notes, his origin story completely fell apart. Suddenly, believing his story about the tour of duty in Iraq and brush with legionnaire’s disease seemed foolish. Race-car smashes, guns to the head, 10-1 barroom brawls, losing his virginity to a copper’s wife… all a bit dubious.
If you’re chortling that someone would take at face value such tall tales, well, I can only offer that I thought lying was a device for saving your skin, not for fashioning your own creation myth – though at one point, during my debrief with Claire, I had a vivid memory of blurting out an outright fib in the playground once. I remembered how, for a brief moment, it won me admiration. I remembered the feeling of power that gave me. And how easy it was.
But there are certain traits that do make us vulnerable to deception. Personally, I’d quit drinking and had convinced myself no one would date someone sober. Claire mentioned that Kane seemed to be targeting many of her single-parent friends to charm them on Facebook. It’s suggested in Australian Story that people who have come out of bruising relationships are also at risk; in Guardian UK’s Today in Focus podcast, it was suggested that the pandemic – and its associated loneliness – have made us even more vulnerable.
While dating apps usually offer no more protection than the ability to report someone, there is – as Wood says – a playbook, and the more people who know what to look out for, the better. Perhaps they have a scant internet footprint. They disappear for periods. They don’t introduce you to family or old friends. Claire described Kane’s life as a Venn diagram where no circle must overlap.
When I confronted Kane, he abruptly broke off contact. The next day, my ute – which as a mechanic (following his retirement from Special Ops) he had helped me pick out – was broken into. Over the next year, it was broken into a further four times. I’ll never know if he was him, and I remember overhearing the friend of a friend scoff at a party about the, “Oh, the old ‘I’m being stalked’ story.”
How to explain to people, 12 years ago, what we are only now learning: it wasn’t that he was obsessed with me, it was that he wanted to outsmart me. To outsmart everyone.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism