The appeal of escape is essential, regardless of gender. Dr. Laura Gold, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, observed, “I certainly have heard people fantasize about the power of the credit card: to just go to an airport and get on a flight somewhere far away from their lives.” Who hasn’t thought about repairing to a sandy shore and tending bar off the books, free from one’s history and mistakes? But because of children, family and an arguably overdeveloped sense of personal obligations, women’s lives seem far more intractable than men’s.
To disappear is to walk away and let somebody else pick up the pieces. But for a woman to do so is an act of resistance, as it entails rejecting the roles of mother, daughter, girlfriend, even caring attentive friend and neighbor that have been foisted upon her. To disappear requires cordoning off the consequences and compartmentalizing the past while ordering your next coconut daiquiri, or whatever your disappearance fantasy may be. To disappear is to put oneself first, while women have been socially conditioned from time immemorial to put themselves last.
From: The Disappearing Woman, Aljazeera America
In Manhattan's Garment District, the fumes of idling trucks and deliverymen's cigarettes smudge the edges of everything. The sidewalk reflection in the plateglass window blends into strips of sequins, boxes of Rit, feathers, and cloth swatches on the other side. Here you could design a disguise; here you could be anyone.
A brown skuzzy lobby that smells like a roller rink shares an address with a fabric wholesaler, and upstairs there is a honeycomb of offices belonging to a drag-queen costumer, a modeling agency, a fashion PR company, and Frank Ahearn, a forty-nine-year-old man who helps people disappear. Ahearn resembles a Hells Angel. Faded tattoos spot his thick forearms, and he keeps his long gray hair in a ponytail. The word freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders, and, with little provocation, he will remove his shirt to flaunt it in TV interviews. In person, he is much more relaxed than in our paranoid exchanges (he blew off interview requests for six months because he thought I was going to serve him papers) and warmer than he looks in the menacing author photo on his book How to Disappear, in which he is lit from the side like an aged Marlon Brando in tinted glasses. Ahearn's book is a how-to for people who want to "vanish without a trace," and it bills him as "the world's top expert" on the subject. Despite the book's large print and Ahearn's liberal deployment of the word fuck as noun, adjective, and verb, he has written an exhaustive guide to disappearing in the twenty-first century, and it sells over 150 copies per week online. Disappearing is on the minds of many.
From: The Invisibility Artist, The Believer
Women are funny. They’ve always been: Dorothy Parker, Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Mary Tyler Moore, Sei Shonagon, Gertrude Stein, your sister, your mother, the girl who sat next to you in English class. It’s embarrassing that we feel compelled to call roll this way. But ever since Christopher Hitchens wrote the 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” lady pundits have had their panties in a twist scrambling to prove him otherwise. Less incendiary than the title suggests, Hitchens outlines the reasons why women might be less hilarious than men in the aggregate, quoting Fran Lebowitz: “The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying a woman is pretty.” Hitchens muses that men may actually like a passive, unfunny woman, because “[Men] want them as an audience, not rivals.” And anyway, if a woman is funny, she is probably, “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of both.”
A year later, the same magazine commissioned an Annie Lebowitz photo shoot and accompanying article entitled “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” to put that bad man in his place. The magazine trotted out the big girls to prove their existence in a glossy full-page photo of Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Tina Fey in spread eagle poses in the back of a limo smoking cigarettes, popping bottles and looking vaguely distracted, enacting a wild night of bad boys on the town image, but in cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choos. A sharp contrast to Hitchens’ characterization, they were lithe, sexy, and shiksa (or at last half, in Rudolph’s case.) Their names read like an Emmy award red carpet roster, and their visibility and hilarity remains almost universally acknowledged.
From: Reviving Cabiria, The New Inquiry
Elizabeth Greenwood grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her first nonfiction book PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud will be available from Simon & Schuster on August 9, 2016. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Guernica, The Hairpin, Dissent, Take, and Poets & Writers and in the digital editions of The Atlantic, Esquire, The Paris Review, Al Jazeera America, and The New Yorker. She has been a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Omi Ledig House, the Edward Albee Foundation, ArtFarm Nebraska, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and the Norman Mailer Center. She teaches in the undergraduate creative writing program at Columbia University and the English department of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her leisure time pursuits include promenading with her small dog, eavesdropping, and plotting revenge.
Playing Dead is a perfect idea, a book that should already exist. You are an established essayist, so why a long form book and not a series of articles?
Why, thank you! I happen to agree. I actually set out researching and structuring the book as if it were a series of articles. The idea of a capital B book is so damn daunting that taking it bird-by-bird, as Saint Anne Lamott would say, made the task before me a bit more plausible. I examine the phenomenon of death fraud from a variety of angles—not just pseudocide celebrities, like your country’s John Darwin (who is indeed the subject of my third chapter)—but also from the perspective of the people who investigate it, help perpetuate it, support death hoax theories, and the family members who have been abandoned by a loved one (most typically a father or husband) who faked his death. The scope and depth of a book—which I’ve been working since what feels like adolescence but actually about five years—allowed me to go deeper, beyond salacious tabloid headlines to get to know people over a longer period of time.
The book is a sustained investigation - as this existed as a pitch first, did anything change in either the research or the writing?
You know, surprisingly, I ended up adhering more to the proposal that I thought. While writing that stupid document took the better part of a year, and felt very much like a hall of mirrors and a compact of delusion, as I had no idea if I’d be able to pull the thing off, not much changed from the subjects I sought and corners of the world I wanted to explore. What did change, however, is how active my role became. I nosed around the black market of disappearance in Manila and became a more, ahem, active participant.
Things are always far more complicated than they first appeared. It was really easy and convenient to see an article about a white collar criminal like Sam Israel, who duped investors out of nearly half a billion dollars in his hedge fund and then staged his suicide in June 2008 off a bridge an hour north of New York. He wrote the message (and also the theme song from MASH) “Suicide is Painless” on the hood of his car. After about a month of living in an RV and shuffling through different campgrounds and seeing his own face on America’s Most Wanted one night, he turned himself in. Sam is in prison now, and we have been corresponding for years now, and the factors that propelled his decision and plan were far more labyrinthine. Guy Lawson wrote a phenomenal book about Sam called Octopus. Even Darwin, who is a bit of a tabloid punchline, had really thought through his exit strategy and afterlife. While faking one’s death might skew a bit more quixotic than would occur to many, he felt very pressed against a wall and his plan possessed its own internal logic.
When I first began reading about faked death, I encountered a tiny article from the Wall Street Journal in 1986 about life insurance fraud scams. One spokesperson from an insurance company mentioned that in one southeast Asian company, enterprising locals run black market morgues, where they keep dead derelicts on ice to sell for death faking purposes. When I reported in the Philippines, I was very eager to check out these morgues and see if this really was a thing, as it simply seemed unbelievable. Well, I am here to tell you that they very much exist. But the reason is not exclusively for death fraud—pseudocide is actually a tiny sliver of these businesses’ raison d’etre. The true motivation really floored me. How’s that for a cliffhanger?!
There's a sense that anonymity is a prize, a goal, in opposition to wanting to be known and famous. I'm guessing most of these characters needed to disappear because they had to?
You’re absolutely right, and maintaining that anonymity becomes one of the most challenging obstacles in the afterlife. Think about it: somebody who fakes his or her own death arguably has over-developed self-esteem, in that they believe they can get away with it. So hiding out in obscurity doesn’t really fit the profile of a death faker. The stakes are indeed super high when people fake their deaths. Usually it’s a prison sentence or monstrous debt. I first became enraptured with this topic from my own student loan debt (you see, in the US we believe that institutions of higher education should charge more than an annual middle class salary for tuition, and if one or one’s family cannot sign checks for seventy grand a year, then the teenage student should take on the fee themselves and spend the rest of their days in a kind of indentured servitude. That’s what we call FREEDOM!) So faking my own death for sure crossed my mind every time I logged on to my loan provider’s website and saw my balance increasing with the rate of interest instead going down with every monstrous monthly payment. However, after getting to know people like Sam who owed in the half-billion range and was looking down the barrel of a prison sentence, my little IOU didn’t seem so urgent.
Were any of these people in hiding when you met them?
Not yet! Anyone out there wanna chat? Though I did have several phone conversations with one man who called himself Peter Pan and alluded to the fact that he may or may not actually be Michael Jackson.
Was the motivation always criminal?
As the subject of my first chapter, the indomitable privacy consultant Frank Ahearn says, his clients who wanted to disappear usually owed money, had come into money or, as a distant third, wanted to take up with a man or woman who was not the husband or wife. My research very much reflected this pattern, especially in the financial imperative. People who typically get caught sought to erase some debt and collect a hefty life insurance payout simultaneously. As you can guess, things didn’t always pan out the way they imagined.
Some of these are notorious cases...
There's a timeliness to this project, given the possibility to invent different versions of ourselves online. You speak about constant surveillance and synthetic connectivity as a potential drive behind the desire to disappear.
I think so, also because it seems so impossible these days because we’ve sacrificed our own privacy for a steady stream of dopamine and also because we are spied on for real. So in that sense disappearing is the ultimate antidote to the way we live now. Since it seems so impossible, it becomes all the more enticing.
There's something cleansing, almost religious, about reinventing yourself. Were any of the faked deaths successful, in a sense that they successfully removed themselves from one history and established something new?
It’s hard to say, as most of my people had turned themselves in. But before that cold water bucket, everyone I interviewed spoke about this ecstatic moment of realizing that yes, they had gotten away with it and feeling absolved and free. A delicious moment indeed, if somewhat short-lived.
You note that men disappear all the time, and that this might be about escaping an event, a past, something criminal. For women you argue that disappearing might be about resistance.
From the evidence I gathered--from looking at the cases that crop up to interviewing fraud investigators, law enforcement, and the ancillary businessmen who help out the death faker-- this is almost a universally male phenomenon. Women just don’t do it nearly as much, or they do it better and don’t get busted. Women are saddled with caring for children, family, and community, and disappearing and just shrugging off is not an option. We are used to the image of the dead beat dad. Not so with mothers. So to reject responsibilities and social pressures and to just slink away is indeed an act of resistance. In Anne Tyler’s fantastic Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead, a mother of three and wife of a doctor, goes for a swim on a family beach vacation and doesn’t return. It’s the ultimate female fantasy.
I am drawn to the darkly comic. Faking death, to me, possesses a lugubrious slapstick quality. So the next project is very much in this vein but delves into a world far more extreme. That bun is still cookin’!
Elizabeth Greenwood website
US Publisher: Simon & Schuster
PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud on Amazon