I left the first Madoff auction feeling shaken. The day was long and tiring, with packs of aggressive reporters everywhere competing for this major story. But that’s not why I felt a little ill.
Thinking all day about a man who deceived so many out of so much resonated because, ten years ago, I also became the victim of a con man. Dozens of other women in many states across the country have also become his fiscal and psychic feeding grounds, but I never knew them personally, only heard about them or read of them — later — in press accounts of our stories. Alone, we nurse(d) our wounds.
He was less skilled and sophisticated than Madoff, but no less vicious. He, too, had his moments of fame — appearing on “American Journal”, a television tabloid show, and on the front pages of Chicago newspapers; he had bilked many locals by posing as a physician, with a fake business card trumpeting his imaginary but clearly impressive credentials. Anyone who knew anything about medicine would have known at once he was a fraud. But he looked and sounded like someone successful and accomplished, and that was enough to persuade women to agree to marry him after a few dates, even to get a local car dealer to send over a sports car “on approval.”
The world is divided into two: those who have never become a victim of crime, and those of us who have.
That my local police and district attorney laughed at me and dismissed my case only cemented my isolation. A sociopath doesn’t always sound like the brutal thug s/he is. He may dress well, sport the reassuringly upscale trappings of wealth, (paid for by his victims), and speak intelligently and persuasively to people with great power and wealth. Only after his carefully-laid trap has shattered your leg bone do you truly, viscerally understand what it feels like to be the victim of a predator for whom victim selection is normal behavior. Business as usual.
Con men succeed in their goals by winning our confidence. They behave with confidence, radiating energy, certainty, success. They are deeply, powerfully seductive in this respect.
We met when I answered his personals ad in a local weekly paper. “Honesty and integrity paramount,” his ad said. Indeed. Our four months together became a deeply disorienting, eventually frightening maze of his relentless and complex deceptions and increasingly bizarre behavior.
At first, of course, he was charming, good-looking, funny and fun. He was, in fact, very good company. Until he wasn’t.
We met for our first date at “his club”, (how he got in remains one of many mysteries), a private midtown Manhattan spot where he sat in a wing chair, his legs stretched out, perfectly at ease. He wore a waxed green Barbour jacket — a classic signifier of old wealth — a crisp white shirt, well-worn but well-cut jeans, highly polished classic black loafers. His short black hair was well cut and styled, his grooming and manners impeccable. We went to a great Italian restaurant nearby and settled in for a long, delicious lunch.
I was at a very low point in my life and vulnerable. I was lonely, working on my own, living far away from family and my oldest friends in Canada. Criminals choose their victims. They know what to look for. As someone who’s spent her professional life, since college, as a journalist — arguably someone skilled at sizing up character quickly — this would later cut me most deeply. I spend my worklife observing others. And how odd, how unsettling, how unlikely that I, now, was the watched one. Every inch of my life, my home, my friends and my behavior offered this criminal useful clues in how to manipulate me. And he did it, I am humiliated to admit, effectively. A truly frightening moment in my life that I had confided in him became a mental cudgel he raised whenever he needed to tighten his hold over me.
I had suspicions, from the start. I didn’t want to. After years on my own, like many divorcees re-creating themselves, I just wanted a nice, helpful, attractive man in my life. It was a role, initially, he was happy to play.
The con man knew intimately — as they all do — which emotional buttons to push, quickly creating in me a sense of dependence and gratitude. Two nights before I was to fly from New York to Sydney, blowing a ton of hard-earned money on the research for what I hoped would become my first non-fiction book, (and did not), I was so dizzy from anxiety I could barely sit up. He arrived at my apartment with a huge pot of homemade soup. Who would refuse such a gesture?
The snare was set.
It went downhill from there, a web of “generosity”, leveraging my naievete and hopefulness to further his own ends. It all crashed down the day I got a call from a credit card company asking if I’d activated my new card, which I’d misplaced somewhere in my apartment. He’d opened my mail, activated the card and been using it, forging my signature. The felonies were piling up, and I had no idea. I called him, trying not to faint in shock.”Did you steal my card? Have you been using my credit card?”
The man who’d been proposing marriage to me within weeks, persistently, switched from the three little words “I love you” to three little words no one ever wants to hear.
“It’s not provable.”
The only person, even with the queasy support of family and friends, who got how ugly this was was Bill, a gentle, soft-spoken former NYPD detective, now working as a private detective, introduced to me by an acquaintance. Within one day’s research, spurred by his own instincts, he knew exactly what I was up against and what furiously, practiced evil it was. The con man had done prison time in Chicago, picked up and started all over again in New York. “Get away. Now,” Bill told me.
The police in my small suburban New York town refused to take my case, laughing at my stupidity. The lawyer at the D.A.’s office — a man of…26?…shrugged at the evidence I’d gathered for a month, clear proof of six felonies. “There’s no damage here,” he said. I had not been beaten, raped, stabbed or shot. It was only fraud. Meanwhile, I was too scared to answer my phone, slept on a friend’s sofa for a week and learned from Bill how to tell if I was being tailed while driving, and what to do about it.
I see the world quite differently now, through a lens darkened at its edges. I am, essentially, a happy, thriving person with a partner I know well and trust deeply. Back then, for four months after I wriggled, exhausted and terrified, out of the con man’s clutches, I did not date. For 12 months, no man I did not know very, very well was allowed into my apartment.
Bill and I talked for hours about whether to push really hard for X’s arrest and prosecution — a man so brazen he called the D.A. to lie that I has harassing him. “He’s a professional liar and he’s really good at it,” Bill warned me. “If you get into court, he’ll just lie and if he goes free you’ll go crazy.” And so, like so many of his other female victims — ashamed and embarassed, worn out and unwilling to fight hard with authorities to do the right thing — I did not try to put X back behind bars, where he belonged.
It was a fascinating lesson in how the world really works. I learned that I was not safe, even within my own home. I learned that “the authorities” could, and did, shrug and laugh at crimes committed in their jurisdiction. The credulous are punished while some fortunate criminals simply select their next victim(s). Banks don’t care when someone abuses a credit card. Credit cards companies write off this small-scale thievery and DAs can easily exercise “prosecutorial discretion” — they don’t have to take your case.
I offered my story as a cautionary tale to women’s magazine editors and to the editor of Worth, a magazine read by the sort of wealthy women most likely to become a target. “You’re not a sympathetic victim,” the female editor said. In other words, I was too smart to have been so stupid.
I changed my locks, bank account numbers, credit card numbers. It was months before I — someone whose phone is essential to her work — could answer its ringing without the fear it was X screaming more abuse at me, terrified I’d have him arrested and doing whatever he could to scare me out of that choice. It worked.
And so I know, in some tiny way, how Madoff’s “investors” feel. The scars of self-blame for making a really lousy choice are slow to heal. Trust is a delicate thing. Like oxygen, we need it every minute of our lives to function in our social and professional relationships. But it is a great gift we choose to give, and, once abused, difficult to re-grow. Optimism is a lovely quality, much prized by Americans. I think cautious prudence is something of a wiser path.