He said he was an instrumental part of the raid on Osama bin Laden. He said he was close friends with President Obama. He said he worked at the Pentagon and Guantanamo Bay.
He said a lot of things. The Commander, as he's called in Abby Ellin's memoir Duped, was a liar. And reader, she almost married him.
In Duped, Ellin candidly describes her whirlwind engagement with the Commander. A successful journalist for the The New York Times, Ellin had been single — and perfectly content with that status — for most of her life. Ellin first spoke to the Commander for a story in 2006, back when he was working as a doctor at a private practice in Beverly Hills. They reconnected in 2010 when Ellin was 42, and were engaged (and broken up) within the year. At the end of their relationship, Ellin knew something was up, but not what. In 2012, when the Commander was arrested for writing fraudulent drug prescriptions and sentenced to two years in prison, she learned what.
Duped provides an answer for anyone who watches Debra Newell fall for the clearly criminal John in the show Dirty John, based on a true story, and wonders: How? How could a person fall for a liar? Hold back your judgment, Ellin requests — the victim already knows what you're thinking. "There’s nothing that anybody can say about me that I haven’t already said about myself. You want to call me an idiot? I’m an idiot. I can call myself that," Ellin said on the phone with Refinery29, laughing.
Expanding the scope beyond her own story, Ellin seeks to uncover the machinations of con artist relationships in Duped. She investigates the psychology of scammers, and the tactics they use to trick people out of their better judgment. If it happened to Ellin, it could happen to you. We spoke to Ellin about Dirty John and the con-man she once loved.
Refinery29: How did you get to that place where you could turn your experience with the Commander into a book?
Abby Ellin: "I'd written profiles in the New York Times' Vows section, so I thought it was going to be something like, 'The Writer of Other People’s Happiness Finally Gets Her Own.' I was always looking at it as a story. That’s a warning sign — when you’re more into the story than the relationship. After he was arrested, I said, that's the story. The story is how this man was a total pathological liar. And how I fell for it. Not forever, and I didn’t lose money. But enough."
I underlined that line in your book — when you wrote, 'Not everything is copy.' You were living what you knew was a story.
"I did, I really did. That’s part of my own culpability here. He had a big life. I was interested in what he was doing. I was trying to change my life. And here I am, going back into who I should’ve been with all along, a nice Jewish doctor. So I was thinking, 'It’s all about the story.' I’m glad you got that. I don’t know if everybody understood that’s what I was saying."
I think it’s because I found so much of your book so relatable. What you dreamed of and what you wanted for yourself. You wanted something big, and that’s what he was promising. Can you give a picture of some of the stories he’d tell?
"Oh, god. That he had met his ex-wife when she was held hostage in Iran. That she’d been kidnapped and he had to rescue her. He’d told me that he had been held hostage in China, which was why he’d screamed in the middle of the night and had to sleep with the lights on and the TV blaring. He’d told me that he had a secret vault full of medals for operations that did not exist. The thing is, he really was a doctor. He really had been in private practice in Beverly Hills. He really had been in Guantanamo and worked at the Pentagon. The lies were so wacko, they almost made sense.
"I'll tell you what he didn’t tell me. That he’d been engaged to another woman while he was engaged to me. He didn’t tell me that he’d had two ex-wives."
Did he believe the lies he was telling you?
"Yes, I think he’s seriously delusional. He would lie in bed and read John Le Carré spy novels. I kept waiting to read the plot of a book or see a movie that turned out to be his life. My response would be, ‘You obviously took your life story from that.’ And he’d say, 'No, they took it from me.' I kept waiting for that."
He wanted his life to be a book, too.
"That’s why we were compatible."
The Commander left behind a trail of duped women. Why are women more susceptible to being duped?
"We are taught to be married. We are taught to be coupled. We are taught to compromise. There’s so much pressure on women to be coupled, and some women will do anything they have to to achieve that."
Many of the duped women in your book adopt a kind of radical singleness. Can you go into that?
"It’s PTSD. Dealing with it. In my head, I go back and forth about dating. After my relationship with him ended, I ended up seeing a couple people. It was more to prove to myself that I could get back on the horse, and I was still out there. Then I sort of stopped recently, while I was writing this. I realising I wasn’t interested in it in the slightest."
In dating, you mean?
"I guess I can’t envision how it would work. I have to change that in my head because I don’t want to be alone, necessarily. On the other hand, I’m really good on my own and it’s much easier for me. A lot of people get their identity through their partners. I don’t. I never have."
There's a scene in Dirty John when Debra is in the bathroom and people are gossiping about her for dating John. After reading your book, I felt so much more empathy for people who get duped. How do you hope we respond to people like Debra?
"I want people to understand how it happened. I see it as a form of emotional abuse. It's something called coercive control — it’s a crime in England and there are people working to make it a crime here.
"I also really want the duped to understand their responsibility. I’m not letting anyone off the hook. Certainly not myself. I don’t think I made anyone look worse in that book than myself, other than the Commander. You have to take responsibility. I want women to be their own advocate. If they see something that doesn’t seem right or feel right, you find out what that is and you ask questions."
If a person thinks her friend is involved with a liar like the Commander or John Meehan, how do you recommend she get through to them?
"It’s funny. When I would bring up my suspicions about the Commander to my friends, they’d tell me that I was being too suspicious. I think you have to just say to them, 'Look, something doesn’t sit right with me. This doesn’t feel right.' But know that they’re not going to believe you until they believe you."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.