Have you ever thought about faking your own death? Sure you have. We’ve all rolled that around in our heads at some point. It’s fun to ponder a “suicide” attempt leading to a new life in Fiji. Faking one’s death also works great as a fictional plot trope, which is why it’s been used by creative geniuses such as William Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, JK Rowling, and the WWE’s Vince McMahon, who blew up a limousine for the cause.
For Worcester, Mass. native Elizabeth Greenwood, however, faking her death became more than a lazy-day thought exercise. Buried under a mountain of six-figure school debt, she started looking into what it would take to pull off a faked death (which officially goes by the excellent term “pseudocide”).
Her new book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud goes deeper than an empty grave on the subject. Greenwood meets with investigators, experts, those who (however briefly) pulled it off, children of the pseudocidal, folks devoted to the still-living Michael Jackson, and eventually Filipino connections who bring her face-to-face with her own officially-certified mortality.
Greenwood spoke with Signature about the inherent difficulty in pursuing the project, the main reason people get tripped up, fake MJ, and the role of hubris in pseudocide. First up, on a broiling hot day, the thoughts of two Brooklyn freelancers turned to lemonade…
SIGNATURE: I haven’t been outside air conditioning yet today–
ELIZABETH GREENWOOD: You shouldn’t. It’s awful outside.
SIG: I have to go to a lemonade stand soon, it’s for my daughter’s summer camp.
EG: What’s the going rate for a glass of lemonade these days?
SIG: A dollar.
EG: That’s not bad. I’ve seen some wild price fluctuations in the price of lemonade at Brooklyn stands. I passed one in Boerum Hill recently that was out of central casting. It was so funny. The kids made basil-infused lemonade with hibiscus and fresh berries…Go get some Minute Maid and be done.
SIG: Speaking of New York City kids, you spent a few years teaching in the public school system, how did the experience inform your writing career?
EG: My first job after college was at an elementary school in the Bronx, and then in a Manhattan high school, teaching ESL. Practically speaking, I’m grateful I no longer have to wake up at 5 a.m. and spend the day keeping twenty-seven seven-year-olds alive…
As a writer, especially of nonfiction, any way you get to encounter other people’s lives different than your own is so enriching. I was young and would feel resentful at my friends who had these office jobs that seemed so cushy. But over time, I began to feel so lucky I was doing this reverse commute, going to work with people coming home from the night shift, to a corner of New York City that few people of my ilk ever see. It was a privilege to get insight into these rich, diverse, interesting communities.
SIG: How did your career evolve after teaching?
EG: I always wanted to write, but I had no idea how to be a writer.
It seemed impossible. After my fourth year of teaching, I knew I wanted to make a change, so I started grilling everybody I could about their jobs — what they did and if they liked it. I cast a wide net for myself; I even took the foreign service exam. I went to a dinner one night and the woman sitting next to me described her job as getting paid to go to school and teach at Columbia. She was a grad student in the MFA program and received a fellowship covering tuition and a healthy living stipend. Getting paid to read, write, and research? Yes, that’s what I want to do.
I had no idea what an MFA program was and Columbia was the only one I applied to. For some reason they let me in. During that time, I started pitching the online editions of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I wouldn’t have done it without the confidence of institutional backing. It speaks to my low self-esteem, but I never would have become a writer on my own.
SIG: Playing Dead began at that time as well?
EG: It did. I had an article published in The Believer about a guy named Frank Ahearn, a privacy consultant in New York. I got an agent and pitched a bunch of ideas, including one about faking your own death. I’d been told it would be impossible to explore the topic as a book — how would you structure it? — but my agent felt the opposite. I got to do it as a book. So much fun.
SIG: This book took a while. What did the writing process entail?
EG: The initial germ of the idea, about faking your own death, came in 2010. It’s when I reached out to Ahearn. I got the book contract in 2012, finished school, and spent 2013 traveling and reporting. I was still teaching, tutoring, cobbling together an existence as freelancers do, so it took more than a year to write. All in all, it was a five-year deal.
SIG: Over those years, were you continually trying to synthesize what faking a death means in a big picture sense, or was it more keep digging and see where it takes me?
EG: The latter. Meeting, interviewing, and reporting on new people from new places meant my mind was constantly changing. I’d talk to someone like Frank and think I had a handle on it, but then I’d interview someone like private investigator Steve Rambam, and he flipped everything on its head. It happened constantly. Faking death isn’t something that can be examined in a straight-forward manner. I had to survey the field until I had a firm enough grasp on the array of experiences to make sense of what this is all about.
For example: It was one thing to talk to John Darwin, who successfully faked his death for a number of years. Then on the other end of the spectrum, Lisa Boosin. Her father pulled it off and she grew up laboring under the illusion that he was deceased. She didn’t find out the truth until her late thirties. I had to hear all the voices, all the complicated stories, to figure out where I landed.
SIG: You started out with a notion of faking your own death to get out from under whopping school debt. Where did the idea originate?
EG: I had this romantically glib idea that you could leave yourself behind, kick back, start a new life, and nobody would ever know. I saw faking your death as a victimless crime, a poetic one even. I was eventually dispelled of this notion. There’s the collateral damage, all the people who suffer from the act, as well as the criminal implications of fraud. But the essential thing I learned is, you can never leave yourself behind. Unless you’re a sociopath, you can’t cut ties with the life you’ve led and the people you love, which engenders a very different conception of what faking a death means.
That being said, I was just waiting in line at the post office for an hour for a package they didn’t have. I spent the time thinking about faking my own death. The fantasy is still alive and kicking. And I know how to do it.
SIG: Pragmatically, what comes through in Playing Death is that if you want to be successful, you have to be willing to walk away from everything, forever…
EG: Exactly. People get caught because they return to the scene of the crime. But in faking their own deaths, it’s often the plan from the beginning. Lay low for a couple of years and then return. It doesn’t work. People who are facing jail time, or in some sort of financial or personal hot water, think it’s a temporary fix. If they wait out a statute of limitation, or until the fire on the homefront burns itself out, then they return and everyone will be so thrilled they’re back that all will be forgotten. Sadly, it is not the case.
You have to leave it all behind, but it’s hard. Sam Israel III, who was facing years in prison for a $450-million Ponzi scheme, couldn’t walk away from his kids. It’s understandable, but you can’t cut corners. There are no half measures.
SIG: I like the line in your book that when it comes to faking a death, “Hubris might propel the plan, but it is humility that sustains it,” that is quite the Catch-22…
EG: You have to suffer from a massive ego to believe you can outwit law enforcement, private investigators, your own family, etc. The people I spoke to who attempted it were in fight-or-flight situations and in hindsight, the plans sound bananas, but it made some sense in their desperate frame of mind. Desperation begat hubris, which prevented them from stepping back, coolly evaluating the situation, and looking at the probable outcomes.
SIG: One disappointment I had in the world of death-fakers is a lot of the men are your garden variety lech, they simply want to ditch their wives and sleep with younger women on a beach somewhere, a far cry from the Don Draper creating a new identity kind of thing…
EG: It’s true, sex is often a driving force, but I still think going through with an attempt at faking death makes the men interesting case studies. However, the inherent paradox in faking your death is that if you’re successful, nobody knows. You’re dead. For all we know, there could be Don Drapers out there, quietly living their lives as a person of their invention.
The people I interviewed were, of course, unsuccessful and were looking for a quick escape. One guy who didn’t make it in the book told me this elaborate story painting him as the victim of a nightmare Kafkaesque scenario in which his wife framed him in a bid-rigging scheme after Hurricane Katrina to get custody of their kids, and that he had to do it to save himself. I was thrilled because I thought I’d finally found a hero and not one of these selfish scumbag guys. Long story short, everything he told me was a lie. The craziest thing was he gave me the name of an FBI agent, a police officer, even his ex-wife. I guess he thought I wouldn’t get in touch with them, but they all said, ‘he told you what?’ Again. It’s that level of hubris.
There are noble reasons for faking your death. In the early 1980s, Petra Pazsika, a young German computer science student, disappeared. She got on a bus and never came back. The missing girl case remained open. A few years later, there was a murder in a small town and the killer admitted to killing Petra as well, so they closed the case. In 2015, an older lady phoned in a disturbance in her neighborhood. The authorities came and asked her for I.D., which she couldn’t produce. She admitted to being the missing girl from 1983. She hasn’t spoken to the press, but she existed in the narrow zone of faking your own death, or technically, having someone fake it for her. She never took an alias, worked off the books, and lived under the radar. She totally captured my imagination because it wasn’t low-budget fraud. She wanted to get out and she quietly did it. In the end, all Pazsika had to do was register as alive with German officials. She fulfilled the poetic shoving off more than others.
SIG: Sometimes the reasons are totally prosaic. There was a lot of post-9/11 death fraud, like within days, which is obviously opportunism at its worst, but then there was consultant Steven Chin Leung…
EG: Leung wanted to keep on living his exact same life. He’d been living in the U.S. for years on an expired Chinese passport, and had been arrested in Hawaii for using a fake Social Security number. After 9/11, he registered himself dead and posed as two nonexistent brothers so he could keep working. It was a totally pragmatic play. He didn’t want to profit, he just wanted to stay in America for his job. He risked it all to stay here. Crazy.
SIG: Playing Dead takes a U-turn in which you spend time with people who believe Michael Jackson is still alive, including Pearl Jr., a woman who connected you via phone to “Peter Pan,” an MJ impersonator — probably Pearl Jr. herself. I just want to know how you, as a journalist, were able to keep it together?
EG: It probably says a lot about me as a person, but when I was with the “Michael Jackson is alive people,” particularly Pearl Jr., I let their beliefs wash over me. I pushed back and asked for clarification, but as any of my friends will tell you, I’m very gullible. It’s double-edged as a journalist. It’s an unpeeling process for me. In the moment, I took Peter Pan’s calls thinking this could be Michael Jackson. Part of me wanted to believe, which made it more enjoyable. Later, listening to the recording, it’s like wait a second, I didn’t take their ideas at face value. But no, I didn’t have a problem taking the Michael Jackson people seriously. Even if they have wacky ideas, I respect passion. They weren’t crazy people screaming from rooftops. They’re reasonable professional people who have dedicated a tremendous amount of energy to researching his “death.” They just have unorthodox ideas about Michael Jackson. It’s refreshing to be around people who are so sure of something, so certain. It’s kind of cool. Or it was before Trump anyway.
SIG: For me, John Darwin abandoning his kids (and grandkids), claiming it was no big deal because they’re all adults, somewhat overrides the incredible fact he got away with it and lived upstairs in his own house for years…
EG: What John did is fairly unforgivable. There’s a part of him that despite all his bluster — saying his kids had their own life and he needed his back — is compartmentalizing. I’m not his psychotherapist or cleric, but I think a part of him knows. When I was with him, there was an undeniable sadness. The way he copes with his decision is by doubling down. I saw a lot of the human calculus that goes on. It’s not nice or pleasant, people get hurt.
SIG: Half-assed plan or not, do you think Playing Dead will dispel the idea of faking one’s death as a solution to life’s problems?
EG: I know what you mean, but I don’t think so. I tried to be judicious, to show the consequences and the difficulties in it for sure, but I think humans have an evolutionary coping mechanism to say, ‘This time is going to be different.’ It’s why we all fall in love again after having our hearts broken. The prudent thing to do would be to retire from relationships, but we all think we’re the exception. We can take our knowledge of things that went wrong the first time and make it better the second go-round.
SIG: To that end, you do provide a blueprint, which seems to require the long methodical behavior of a serial killer…
EG: There would be some synergy, a serial killer who fakes their own death.
SIG: How would you categorize your time in the Philippines getting a certificate declaring yourself dead?
EG: Prior to that trip, I’d been interviewing experts and people who had faked their deaths, people who know how to make this happen. This was the chance for me to take what I’d discovered and put myself on the line in a way I hadn’t. It was scary, not because I was in danger with the people I was working with, but because I didn’t actually know the legal or professional ramifications of what I was doing. It’s like writing a book, can I pull it off? I flew halfway around the world and what if nothing works out? Fortunately, those parts of the book were fulfilled.
When I got my own death certificate, it threw the whole thing into relief. “Oh fuck, this is what it means to be dead!” It’s so eerie, like walking across your own grave or something. There’s no way I could ever actually go through with it.
SIG: My sense is it’s easier today to fake your own death than in the pre-Internet past, but you’re also much more likely to get randomly caught, is that a fair assessment?
EG: It depends on what your motives are. I looked into a lot of historical cases going back to the early days of life insurance. Back then, fraud was committed in very analog ways, like calling your name into the obituary section. It was easy to be discovered then too, because people wouldn’t travel and their neighbors would see them. We’re always being surveilled today, carrying phones in our pockets that make us targets, but unless you are an extremely enterprising person, the likelihood has always been you’ll get caught. The main reason is perennial. Going away for good is impossible for most of us.
SIG: Lastly, has faking your own death reached its conclusion with you? Or will it continue to be a source of fascination and you’ll become the go-to expert?
EG: I would love that title, there are worse mantles one could assume. I am, however, working on a new nonfiction book that isn’t about faking your death. It’s about people who form relationships with inmates, although one interview subject who got married in prison had faked his own death. The world of fake death has sunk its claws into me.
My ultimate fantasy is that after Playing Dead comes out, someone who successfully did it and is now presumed dead, will read it, go to my website, and anonymously email me to meet up.