The ease of movement made possible by modern life has given people an opportunity that was mostly unavailable to those who lived in more settled times: the chance to re-invent themselves outright. Because many of us live as strangers to each other, we can create imaginary life stories for ourselves and persuade others to believe them.
Governments put these possibilities to work in witness protection programs. Terrorists exploit them for more sinister purposes, as the world has recently been reminded.
Cities give their residents the gift of anonymity. People who grew up under intense scrutiny in small towns often say it's a blessing to walk through a city without being recognized. But this same freedom can also provide occasions for subterfuge. People who aren't doctors set up as doctors; sex predators find new populations of victims; and terrorists discover they can hide for months behind extremely thin veils.
Yet the art of assuming a false identity has in some places come to seem almost admirable. "The Runner," an article by David Samuels in the Sept. 3 New Yorker, depicts a young con man who entered Princeton University with an invented name and a fraudulent résumé. This sort of hoax, Samuels says, grows more common all the time -- and not just in the universities. In the last few years, the story about someone slipping a phoney résumé past a big corporation has become a commonplace of the business pages.
That has in turn spawned a peculiar new craft, professional reference checking. Edward C. Andler of St Louis, author of The Complete Reference Checking Handbook, earns his living by running down the untruths in job applications; he believes about a third of them contain lies, mostly about educational background. A magazine called Personnel Journal has published the guess that half a million Americans make false claims to university degrees.
Andler confirms something I've noticed in a fragmented way: Many institutions that demand references from potential employees never bother to phone the referees -- a point that many applicants eventually figure out. Andler thinks that references get checked in three of five cases, at best.
In his New Yorker article, Samuels argued that these hoaxes, more common today than they were a few years ago, express in a distorted version one of the persistent strains of American culture: "Self-invention is the founding subject of American literature. We celebrate the self-made man, and honour the dream of transcending one's origins; we are suckers for people who invent themselves from scratch." A culture that claims to value the authentic nevertheless finds fraudulence engaging.
Samuels renewed my interest in people who fictionalize their lives. I re-read The Great Impostor, the book that Robert Crichton wrote 42 years ago about Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1922-1982). In a sense, all the impostors we read about are failures -- a truly successful impostor will never become known as such. But Demara was both a success and a failure. Again and again he pulled off an elaborate hoax, masquerading for months or years at a time as a qualified psychologist, prison warden, schoolteacher, biologist, professor of philosophy, and doctor. When caught, he moved on to a new scam. But he was admired even by those he fooled. At the school where he taught under a false name, with false certification, everybody agreed he was the best teacher by far.
In a recent American video catalogue, an ad for the movie version of The Great Impostor (with Tony Curtis unconvincing in the title part) called Demara the "chameleon-like Canadian." He was actually from Lawrence, Mass. (whose public library proudly advertises him as Lawrence-born on its Web site), but he's associated with Canada because he first came to public notice as a Canadian Navy doctor.
Demara, having never been to medical school, stole the papers of a young Laval University medical graduate, Joseph Cyr. Our Navy, which in 1951 was more interested in acquiring a doctor than in checking his background, sent him right off to Korea aboard the destroyer HMCS Cayuga. There he performed superbly, with no knowledge except what he found in reference books. He did an emergency appendectomy while the ship bobbed around in rough waters, and he removed a bullet from close to the heart of a Korean.
The Navy public relations department heard about his exploits and alerted the Canadian Press, his story appeared across Canada, and the real Dr. Cyr read it. He broke the bad news to the Navy. Unwilling to look foolish, the Navy simply dismissed Demara, unpunished, on his promise to leave Canada. Recently, Pat MacAdam of the Ottawa Citizen reported that Dr. Cyr, at 78, is practising in Grand Falls, N.B., and still shaking his head in wonder at this bizarre incident in his past.
Why did Demara do it? He stole no money and never hurt anyone. Asked his motives, he said, "Rascality, pure rascality." But other remarks he made suggest he wanted to lead an exciting life without going through a lot of tiresome training -- and that he liked to prove himself superior to the people he duped.
The world in which elaborate frauds like Demara were celebrated in books and articles was a place that existed on the other side of the great divide, Sept. 11, when Western civilization suffered a traumatic blow to its assumptions and attitudes. Post-Sept. 11, the idea of imposture raises images of evil rather than rascality. When we hear of people misrepresenting themselves, we immediately think of the impostors who contrived to devastate New York and the Pentagon as well as thousands of lives and a whole society's sense of itself.
Slipping furtively through airports, showing false passports while claiming false purposes, taking advantages of democracy's generosity to foreigners, they blended in. They were strangers among other strangers, apparently harmless until suddenly that orange flower of death blossomed over New York, revealing evil behind their ingenuity.
They profited, no doubt, from the fact that North Americans of today are reluctant to suspect duplicity, as if it were unfriendly and maybe a little uncivilized to worry about whether someone is who he says he is. Imposture, no doubt about it, has its charms. But like everything else, it was altered by Sept. 11. Now the idea of building an extra self and perpetrating an imaginative deception seems darker and more ominous. It has acquired heavy and melancholy new baggage.