Fraud and Flattery

Audrey Thompson

It is surprisingly easy — effortless, even — to commit fraud. I don’t mean the kind of fraud where someone tells you they will do a great job pouring cement and you have to follow them around asking questions like, “Why is there a big hole where the cement is supposed to be?” and then, instead of fixing the hole, they patch it up with badly angled scraps of board. That kind of fraud takes forethought, sneakiness, and a certain bad-cement personality that I seem to have met with a lot lately. Cement-type fraud is willful fraud. What I am talking about here is the kind of fraud where, even though it is perfectly obvious that you are a messy person, people are persuaded that underneath it all you are no doubt an immaculate person much like themselves. When I say effortless fraud, I mean that you don’t have to do any work. Other people do the work by reading flattering reflections of themselves into what you say.

After Rick read my story about making Ivan throw away an egg poacher that he never used, he sent me email commiserating with Ivan but identifying with me. “Poor Ivan,” said Rick, “he gets all my sympathy,” adding, “making him throw things away, you sound like me! Heartless, but neat.” Just as a side note, I deny that I am heartless. Entirely due to me, that egg poacher is almost certainly leading a bustling and happy life in a new home, poaching eggs on a weekly basis. But that is not really the issue; it is not fraud if someone thinks you are heartless when you are more or less an angel of egg-poacher mercy. From the standpoint of fraud, neatness is the issue. The question is how Rick came to think of me as neat. Rick has been to my house; he has been to Barb and Joe’s house when, in their absence, I have stayed there with the kids. He knows that I am not neat and cannot fake being neat for even very short periods of time. Nevertheless, upon reading my story he was convinced of my neatness because it reminded him of his own.

Sometimes people who don’t have much evidence one way or the other seize upon whatever slight evidence they find in support of their intuition that you share their virtues. On my web page, there is a photograph of me sitting on a rock. It is the only picture on the page that suggests an affinity with the outdoors, and it is not exactly an action picture; it shows me sitting on a rock. Recently, however, I got an email from an avid hiker pleased to note that, like himself, I am obviously very athletic and outdoorsy. I did not disabuse him of this notion since, after all, he has never met me and why shouldn’t he think that I am athletic and outdoorsy? I have some aspirations in that regard, just as I have aspirations to being heartless but neat. It is nice to have people think these things and they seem to want to. It is not my fault if they haven’t noticed that the vast majority of pictures of me show me sitting in messy surroundings in the great indoors.

Sometimes, you’ll explicitly deny whatever other people assume, but they still will insist upon seeing you in light of their preferred virtues. This is true even if they ought to know better. When I was a master’s student, my father asked me why I was studying philosophy of education. “Is it to make money?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “there is not much money in philosophy of education.” To clarify why anyone would study philosophy of education, I spoke movingly about all the non-monetary reasons that one might have for pursuing master’s and doctoral work in the field. I talked about understanding the issues confronting a democratic order that assumes that education can solve racism and poverty; I talked about thinking critically; I talked about exploring new ways of listening and learning and partnering others in the construction of knowledge. It was a decidedly noble and uplifting explanation that did not mention money once.

At the end of it, my father nodded consideringly. “I’m glad we had this little talk,” he said. “Now I understand why you are spending all this time studying philosophy of education.”

“You do?” I said. “Why?”

“To make money,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said.

I have to say that looking at things this way — noticing that, inadvertently but nonetheless successfully, I am fooling people into thinking I am neat, rich, and athletic — makes me a little nervous; I am beginning to remind myself of my brother. Naturally, Chuck himself will regard this as a wonderful development. Almost certainly, he will write to congratulate me on our similarity. He will sound relieved. He had always suspected that we were kindred spirits, he will say; he knew that I could not possibly be as disappointingly normal as I seemed.

My brother likes to pretend to be normal, but he would never for a moment claim to be normal. He does not really think of other people as normal, either, so it is not entirely clear who he thinks he is fooling. But he likes fooling them, whoever they are. Fraud is almost his favorite thing.

Many years ago, Chuck brought up the idea of Joe and Ivan both coming to work for his company. “It would be fun to have them there,” he said. “It’d be nice to all be in the same town and even the same workplace. But it would never work, of course,” he said regretfully. “They wouldn’t be able to get a job there.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I would think Joe could get a job there in a minute.” In addition to being smart, Joe has the right credentials. Chuck and Joe and Ivan are all software engineers working in graphics design, but Ivan studied physical anthropology, Chuck is trained as an architect, and only Joe has an electrical engineering degree.

“If he had interviewed there when I did, he could have gotten a job,” Chuck agreed, “but things are different now. When I interviewed, I only had to talk with three people. Now you have to interview with at least twenty people.”

“What difference does that make?” I asked.

“It is not that easy to fool people into thinking you are normal,” Chuck explained. “You can do it with two or three people but not with twenty. It takes a lot of work. Joe could never do it. I could do it better than Joe, but even I couldn’t do it with twenty people. No, it’s just lucky that I got the job when I did.”

Chuck defining normalcy

What is interesting is that Joe is a lot of people’s idea of normal, though it is true that he seems to understand my brother remarkably well. Still, Joe does not “pretend” to be normal; he does not have to pretend. He does not have sock monkey “constant companions” and he does not send me doctored photos of myself with my arm around a rubber toy called Buddy. It is odd that Chuck thinks of Joe as someone who, unlike himself, really couldn’t quite carry off normalcy in front of a crowd.  Highly abnormal Joe

Still, at least Chuck’s fraudulence — such as it is; I cannot imagine that it is at all successful, but he is convinced that people far and wide consider him “normal” — is practical. Pretending to be normal got him a job, or at least he thinks that it did. By contrast, I know people who, for no reason that I can discern, like to give false names at the pizza or sandwich counter so that, when the name is called for their order, they can go up and pretend to be “Sarah” or “Ted” when really their name is something else. This is not entirely effortless fraud, but it is certainly on the low-effort side. What is significant about it is that it is entirely without practical or other value. It is sort of fraud for its own sake. Pure fraud, if you will.

Usually, even non-criminal fraud has some point or value or purpose. For example, you might engage in character fraud to enhance your power or prestige. My mother practices this kind of fraud. She told two of her oldest friends that I was world famous, which is going to be news to the world when it hears about it. I found out myself when I had lunch with Mary and Mary Jane. I have known them all my life and I see them about every other year or so. Last time I was in Peoria, Mom and I went out to lunch with them. Halfway through the meal, Mary asked, “Could I have one of your business cards?”

“Oh yes!” said Mary Jane. “I want one too!”

“Well, you can have one,” I said, “but why would you want one? Are you going to write to me at the office?” Both of them have my home address.

“No, I’m not going to write to you at the office,” said Mary. “Your mother told me that you’re world famous and I thought it would be nice to have one of your cards.”

I looked at Mom. “What exactly do you call ’world famous’?” I asked.

“I know what world famous is and you are world famous,” said Mom. “Can I have a business card too?” she added.

I pointed out that she was my mother and did not really need a card either as a souvenir or for information about how to get hold of me, but she was insistent, so I gave her one.

While I was at it, I don’t know why I didn’t give her a hundred cards. It would have been a good way to get rid of them. You have to order business cards in batches of five hundred or a thousand or something, and, despite my worldwide fame, I have only been asked for ten of them. I still have most of my outdated business cards as well, so that’s another nine hundred and eighty or so. Outdated business cards are not all that useful unless you are a former earl. Martha Grimes’s Melrose Plant uses his old business cards to impress people so he can ferret secrets out of them and solve murders. There is no strong likelihood that my old business cards are going to help me solve murders. In keeping them, I wasn’t really thinking along those lines. I just hate to throw out anything that might possibly still have a use. A lot of outdated stuff can be used for years. Ivan and I have paper napkins from our wedding that say “Ivan and Audrey, 1983” in silver gilt, and they are quite useful. If you give your guests coaster napkins that are clearly nineteen years old, they raise an eyebrow but they still use the napkins. By contrast, it is hard to think of the pretext upon which one might foist ten-year-old business cards on one’s guests.

What I really mean is that it would be hard for me to think of such a pretext. My mother could come up with a pretext in no time, so I think I may give the cards to her. She is always mailing me stuff that she can’t bear to throw out but can see no reason to keep. To get rid of it without losing access to it, she sends it to Ivan with instructions to “guard this with your life,” which he does. If I sent her stuff, she would not guard it with her life; she would throw it out or give it to Ivan. But if I mailed her all my business cards with instructions to give them away to friends and strangers, she would be bound to warm to the plan. She and Chuck are a lot alike. It is not a problem for them to think outside the box.

Most people who know them know this about Mom and Chuck. I’d have thought that, knowing this, Mary Jane and Mary would have wondered what Mom had in mind when she referred to me as world famous. After all, it is only because Mary and Mary Jane have known me since I was in diapers that they have heard of me at all. But perhaps it was wondering what Mom meant by “world famous” that led them to ask for my card. Maybe they thought it would provide a clue to how Mom’s mind works.

Probably a lot of people are looking for clues like that.

When Mom was having trouble with deer eating her hostas a couple of summers ago, she asked Mary if she knew of any way to protect her flowers. “Spraying them with coyote urine might work,” Mary said. “Deer are afraid of coyote.”

“So am I,” said Mom. “But even if I weren’t, I don’t know how I could talk them into spraying the hostas. How do you do that? Wait around for the coyote to show up and then gesture towards the hostas?”

“Most people just buy coyote urine and spray it on their plants themselves,” Mary told her.

“Oh. I wouldn’t have thought of that,” said Mom. She did not buy the coyote urine, which I was relieved about. I doubt that gardening companies collect coyote urine by waiting till coyote show up and then gesturing in a friendly fashion towards little plastic cups.

My surprise at Mom telling Mary and Mary Jane that I was world famous was not due to supposing that she wasn’t proud of me. She has always been proud of me. Years ago, she came up with a business plan specifically organized around showing me off to strangers. “I know what would be a good idea,” she said. “You and I could open a bookstore together. You would be the manager and do all the actual work.”

“What would you do?” I asked.

“I would sit in the office at the back and read mysteries and if I saw any customers I would beckon them into the office and show them baby pictures of you,” she said. We did not pursue this plan; my Dad and I figured that there would be more money in philosophy of education.

Mom is proud of me, but my impression until now has been that she thought that my talents had peaked at an early age. When I was an undergraduate, one of Mom’s friends remarked on something I had done that was apparently intelligent and she replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. When she was two, she could count to twenty!” She told me this later, to show how proud of me she was.

When one of my students asked me about my intellectual history last year, I told her the counting story. “You wouldn’t think it to look at me now,” I said, “but I used to really know my numbers. When I was two, I could count to twenty! What you see now is nothing compared to what I was then.” Thomasania was very taken with the counting story and, in perhaps an excess of irony, began calling me “Countess.”

I mention this just to let you know that if you run across references to me suggesting that I am among the landed nobility, there was no intentional fraud involved. Except for the fact that it would be so excruciatingly uneventful, I would write the candid story of my life; I would call it, “Innocent Bystander.” The main point of the book would be how it is not my fault. When you hear from people that I am rich, famous, athletic, tidy, and titled, keep in mind that I am not the one who said so. However they got that idea, it is not my fault. Anyway, for all you know, I might recently have become both neat and organized. That is my long-term plan, and if people want to think so in the meantime, I don’t like to interfere. Perhaps that fantasy is what helps them get by.

Note: Although a few aspects of this story may have been tweaked for dramatic effect, the story is nevertheless almost painstakingly true to life. In a recent, supposedly admiring email, Dolores congratulated me on using so many photographs in my Moab narrative, saying that they “added to the ’factual’ story.” As I pointed out in my no-nonsense reply, my stories are not “factual.” They are factual without quotation marks. Although it happens that the only photograph I have to accompany this story is fraudulent, that is strictly a coincidence.

Audrey and a buddy

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