Could you fake your own death? Could you try to leave your problems behind and start all over again?
Would it work?
In a book as funny as it is insightful, Elizabeth Greenwood offers a look at the issues involved in pretending to be a goner.
Playing Dead—A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud is a cautionary tale, to say the least.
Bottom line: you better think twice.
A full review follows. First, Elizabeth was kind enough to answer some questions by email. If you enjoy her lively answers, you’ll love the book.
NOTE: If you are out there and have successfully pulled off the business of simulating your own demise, this is your chance to explain how you avoided all the pitfalls she uncovered. So, if you are one of those, Elizabeth Greenwood would like to hear from you.
Question: By definition, you knew starting out on the research that you would never be able to interview anyone who was entirely successful at Playing Dead, right? Were you daunted by that fact? And did you have any idea when you started where the research would take you, The Philippines and England?
Elizabeth Greenwood: You know, despite the fact that no one in their right mind who has successfully faked his or her own death would ever come forward to speak to a journalist, I always remained hopeful and do to this day! So, if any undead out there want to chat, hit me up! I knew that reporting and writing this book would be tough for that reason, but also because there was no central narrative that already existed—I was exploring a world and taking a reader along for the ride. The Philippines and John Darwin’s native England were high on my list of places to visit, but I had no idea if it would come together. I got very lucky.
Question: Steve Rambam is such a great character in the book—and the whole process of negotiating your way into his inner circle took some effort. Were there any dead ends, so to speak? Somebody else out there you tried to track down or trips you made that didn’t yield a character like Rambam or “Canoe Man?”
Elizabeth Greenwood: Oh, I could fill a whole other book from the cutting room floor! In any type of reporting there is necessary excess because you just don’t know which lines of inquiry will be fruitful. But since this is my first book and since I became so derangedly invested in the subject, I went a bit further down a few rabbit holes. One story that didn’t make it into the book was about a banker in Oregon who staged his own suicide and got convicted with nearly 3,000 counts of identity fraud. He served time, and then decided he wanted to disappear again. I wrote about that story on the Powell’s Books blog. I was so fascinated seeing this second attempt, so fascinated, in fact, that the chapter I wrote about him weighed in at 20,000 words. My editor wisely counseled me to ditch this episode.
Question: Okay, there are a lot of mistakes you can avoid if you want to fake your death and do it well. Your book would be quite helpful for those who are thinking along those lines. You can’t leave a trail of evidence as you plan your death (like, buying a copy of your book) and you have to stay disappeared and not be overly curious how folks are reacting in the wake of your “loss.” Have you imagined the perfect staged death?
Elizabeth Greenwood: The perfect staged death is one that is clean, elegant, and not overly detailed. The story of Marcus Schrenker, an Indianapolis money manager who staged a fatal plane crash, for example, is cinematic and captivates the imagination, but unfortunately contains too many moving parts. Most people assume that faking a drowning would be fool proof because it may eliminate the onus of a body. But bodies do indeed materialize usually within a few days of a water accident, so a drowning-sans-body will always raise red flags for law enforcement. But going out for a hike one day and never returning? There you have a more open-ended scenario, and, sadly, many people do disappear while out in the woods.
Question: College debt and ennui? Wouldn’t either reason be enough? Just kidding. How did go about deciding how much of yourself to include n the story? Are there any immersion journalists you admire or have learned from? Or just non-fiction writers you enjoy reading? And have you written any stand-up comedy?
Elizabeth Greenwood: Ha! One thing I learned through interviewing people who had faked their deaths themselves with varying degrees of success is that your garden variety student loan debt coupled with a petite existential crisis is a tiny drop in the death-faking bucket. Sam Israel, the hedge fund manager from New York, staged his own suicide because he had absconded with half a billion dollars of investor money and was facing a twenty-year prison sentence. So, a tad different.
When I was drafting the book, I wrote everything out to its fullest expression, including all my “witty” (and not-always-so-witty) observations and ideas. Then, in the editing process, I cut anything that felt like I was tap dancing, or just throwing in a joke for a joke’s sake. I really wanted my presence on the page to illuminate certain emotional moments or intellectual paradoxes, but not to compete with the people I was writing about.
I worship Jon Ronson, Ted Conover, Susan Orlean, and Truman Capote. Janet Malcolm would probably not consider herself an “immersive” journalist but she is now and will forever be my hero.
Question: That moment at the end when you discuss the issues of entitlement by the “playing dead” perpetrators, when did that come to you? Did your views on the morality of this whole charade shift from beginning of your work to the end?
Elizabeth Greenwood: Yes, I experienced a big shift from when I set out. I saw death fraud as a victimless crime, especially if you choose not to commit life insurance fraud (which you should not!). But then I met family members who had been in some way caught up in a loved one’s ruse—like one woman who thought her dad had been dead since she was a toddler and then learned in her thirties he had been alive the entire time, or a young man who colluded with his father to cash in on a life insurance policy and wound up serving time in jail. Hearing their stories and how they had been adversely affected really threw the idea into new relief.
Question: I saw on your Twitter feed and comment or RT of an article about Lucia Berlin. Isn’t she incredible? Did you take any writing inspiration from her or other fiction writers? Are you developing a knockout crime fiction about someone who well, you know, fakes their own death in masterful fashion?
Elizabeth Greenwood: Lucia Berlin is everything!!! I’m so glad she’s getting the readership she deserves. I am simply in awe of fiction writers generally, and of crime writers especially. The ability to invent whole worlds from thin air simply floors me. Unfortunately, I have not been gifted the imagination of a novelist. I’m sticking with reveling in other people’s real lives for now.
Question: What’s next?
Elizabeth Greenwood: I’m currently at work on another nonfiction book for Simon & Schuster about people who pursue relationships with incarcerated criminals. Thus far, I’ve walked a bride down the aisle of a max security prison for her jailhouse nuptials, exchanged letters with a convicted murderer about the unsolicited marriage proposals she receives, and interviewed dozens of people holding down fulfilling relationships in the face of staggering obstacles.
More: Elizabeth Greenwood’s website.
Playing Dead is thorough rundown of all the pros and cons of trying to fake your own death.
Here’s the bottom line. If you’re planning to do this, you need a transporter beam to zap you away when nobody is looking and deposit you clear on the other side of the world following a complete surgical reconstruction of every distinctive human feature you possess. You’ll also need a doppelganger corpse to stand in for your “body,” right down to the DNA.
If you want to start over, it might be better to gain your “theoretically superior version,” as Elizabeth Greenwood puts it, through a complete self-reinvention right out in public while everyone is watching.
That said, it’s fun to read about those who have attempted to head down the road and try to go poof.
It’s not so easy. A quick spin through this book will dispel your dreams.
(Of course, by definition, Greenwood couldn’t profile anyone who had done it successfully. The ones who have managed to start anew are by definition unreachable and unknowable. They are presumed goners. Maybe it is possible.)
Greenwood follows her own curiosity about the “black comedy” of “manipulating your own mortality” and rails against her personal mountain of college loan debt to hilarious effect. (This is a very funny book; some Mary Roach-esque touches.)
Greenwood follows the case of Sam Israel III, a failed hedge funder who attempted “pseudocide” on the day he was supposed to be reporting to prison for a 22-year prison sentence. She interviews and grabs the highlights from fellow writer Frank Ahearn, who wrote “How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish Without a Trace.” Ahearn considers himself a “privacy consultant” and has advised on famous cases of missing persons, such as the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. A former skip tracer, Ahearn makes a convincing case that “death fraud” simply doesn’t work. There’s too much connectivity between death records and social security numbers these days. It wasn’t always so.
Greenwood interviews “elite private investigator” Steve Rambam, who contracts with life insurance companies to investigate suspicious claims. “When fishy death claims that exceed a certain amount get filed (think seven figures),” Greenwood writes, “Rambam hops aboard a plane, treks out to the scene of the crime, and finds where the bodies are not buried.” Rambam is a moving, busy target and becomes a recurring figure in the book. He’s tenacious and possesses “sheer hardheadness.”
She covers the death fakers who try to take advantage of true disasters like 9-11 and she visits in England with “Canoe Man,” who pulled off a fake death for an extended period of time and who seems confident he could have done it for longer. She visits with conspiracy theorists who are sure Michael Jackson pulled off a fake-death stunt and then jets off to the Philippines to see what it takes to go down this path of securing the documents that declare you officially dead. You won’t soon forget Snooky and Bong and Greenwood’s tour of the “death-faking hot spots” in Manila.
Throughout, the writing is brisk and witty. To wit, “I can come up with all the creative costuming and backstory, but establishing the cash flow necessary to sustain oneself is where things get hairy. Coming up with the funds and then finding a way to obscure them while waiting to commit another financial crime—insurance fraud—means going from MacGruber to Jason Bourne with a touch of Gordon Gekko overnight.”
And she closes with some thoughtful self-analysis about the morality of going down this road, including what it takes to ignore the impact on those you leave behind. (Remember, if you’re considering this, you want as few people as possible—nobody—to know of your “plan.” Everyone you tell will be questioned by the likes of Steve Rambam.) And she makes a good case that a law might not be a bad idea to further discourage such attempt death fakery, even if no outright fraud is committed in the process.
A fun, interesting read from start to finish—even if you are planning no such dramatic exits from your current world.