Friday, July 08, 2022

There's imposter syndrome, and then there are imposters

 I've been fascinated recently with this article about a writer on the show Grey's Anatomy, who (necessary disclaimer--"allegedly") fabricated a cancer diagnosis and stole other people's experiences as her own as fodder for the show. Link to  Vanity Fair. 

We talk a lot about imposter syndrome--the idea that we're not deserving of the job we have, not worthy to be where we are in our careers, etc. But this is different; it's about an actual imposter, or maybe just someone who lies creatively.

I have only met one of these people in my life (that I know of), but it was memorable. Bear in mind that this happened a long time ago, pre-internet, at a small school that I wasn't teaching at (let's call it Academia U); she wasn't even in the humanities. But I knew her, and we were friends. Let's call her X. 

X had graduated from a top program, which gave her star power to me and to everyone in her department. She had written (co-written) the paper on a particular phenomenon. People sought her out. She was invited to keynote at more than one prestigious conference. Pre-WWW, who could check?

 She frequently told Academia U that it was lucky to get her, and, in fact, would regularly threaten to leave unless her salary was raised. She had job offers, she said. Academia U came through with a raise every time. 

But there was an odd problem when she went up for tenure: the school couldn't locate the publications that she claimed, beyond the famous co-authored one. Well, that was easy. She had mailed a disk with her manuscript (pre-internet, remember), and the disk was corrupted, but it was just about to be published. On another, the editor had gone on vacation and had just neglected to send the final copy to the printers. On another, some editorial intern had made a mistake that delayed publication. All just missteps.

 She had the worst luck, those of us who knew her agreed. All the editors apparently sent letters saying that yes, these were fabulous articles that would be published momentarily. That's not unreasonable: a letter on letterhead saying that a book or article is about to be published often appears in a tenure file. It's not clear to me whether the tenure process at that school in those days required outside reviewers or whether they accepted her manuscript versions (soon to be published, except for her accursed luck) as publications, but she got tenure & promotion.

But there was something else: for me, her dates didn't add up. One time when I went to lunch with her, during which she told me I could be as successful as herself --well, not as successful, but successful for the kind of person I was, I started to get uneasy. The prestigious conference in X city--wasn't that at the same time that she had said she had gone to visit a family member in city Y? If a disk was corrupted, why not send another one? Why wasn't her name showing up in the article index for her discipline, except for that one study? (Yes, I am petty. After that humiliating lunch, I went to the library and checked.) There were other inconsistencies, but when I called her on them later, she brushed them away and always had a ready answer.

Things came to a head when an official document appeared to someone official to have been forged. What! No, X would not do that, we agreed. Stupid government! They must have made a mistake. 

There was no publicity, and no court proceedings. But she quietly left Academia U for another academic job shortly after that. 

I don't know if there's a moral to this story, except that I'm now amazed that it took me so long to add 1 + 1 and get 2 out of it. Is it gullibility, naivete, or stupidity? Or is it simply trust that people are who they say they are and do what they say they do? I also recall being kind of impressed that she could keep so many stories straight for so long.

Do you suppose that this happens in academia more frequently than we think it does? Have you ever encountered an imposter or creative liar?


OMDG said...

I think it happens quite a bit. Some people are just really great at self promotion.

There was this one woman in my MD-PhD program who was found to be falsifying her data. Her degree and residency were rescinded, and she returned back to her home country and hasn't been heard from since.

My suspicion is that the person you're talking about was not as flagrant a problem. She was probably someone who talks a good game, and looks successful on paper, but then didn't or could no longer produce. Thus she ended up at a lower tier academic program in the end. Makes sense if you think about it. I'm sorry she made you feel inferior. That really sucks.

undine said...

Thanks, OMDG--that makes sense. It's worse when there's data involved, as with the person in your MD-PhD program, I think.

Your assessment of her career sounds exactly right: big hat, no cattle. That was my first and last lunch with her alone, by the way. At first I blamed myself for feeling so depressed afterward: she was trying to be so helpful! Why was it that everything she said was something to make me doubt myself? After a week or so I recognized that this was a more subtle variant of the mean-girl bullying I'd experienced in middle school and stayed well clear. Also, she stopped speaking to me after a few "you said X happened, but last week you said Y--I'm confused" conversations with me.

albe said...

I worked with somebody who turned out to have faked data. And then, it turned out he had basically lied about everything. We had a grant together. We had publications together. Then it all started to fall apart, as his faked data started to leak out in various ways. People caught on when co-authors asked for video of the data, he claimed to have lost the video file on an external hard drive in an airport, and he sent an audio file instead, which was CLEARLY and OBVIOUSLY him pretending to be both the interviewer and the participant. Papers were retracted. His innocent graduate student lost most of her cv. He voluntarily resigned from his tenure-track job. He is now a business school student at the University of Chicago, which yes, makes me throw up a little every time I think about it.

For years I would retrace everything that happened and think about the dozens of obvious red flags I had missed or outright lies I hadn't caught. Dumb stuff, like, he'd claimed to have taken a lot of graduate courses at the campus where I was a professor, but then when he came to visit, he seemed to be totally unfamiliar with the city. Didn't have any favorite restaurants or hangouts there, etc. Why did I not put two and two together? How had I been so clueless? But ultimately I realized, that is how scam artists succeed. It's not in our human nature to be fundamentally suspicious of everything our colleagues and friends say and do. Of course we're going to take people at face value, and it takes a lot to overcome that basic world view that people are who they say they are. So I no longer beat myself up about it.

Maya said...

Wow. That was wild! I'm always incredulous people think they can get away with stuff like this (also plagiarism, falsifying data, etc.) while also feeling a bit sad for how incredibly lonely and terrifying their existence must feel.

revanche @ A Gai Shan Life said...

I think generally people tend to take people at their word until there's a reason not to. That usually means that a half decent con artist will get away with most lies most times. And an experienced one like my dad will get away with it the rest of the time because people like them too much and it's socially too uncomfortable for whatever reason to call him out or stop supporting his charade.

And then too, folks who were conned aren't really willing to advertise it and so they can get away with it with an entirely new audience if they ever decide to go away.

undine said...

albe, that was a wild ride! Imagine thinking that someone wouldn't notice of you interviewed YOURSELF! Those red flags might not have been obvious because if we questioned every single assertion that someone made, we'd never get through the day. The not knowing geography thing reminds me of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception, where his father pretended to have gone to Yale? Princeton? but had no actual knowledge of the campus geography.

Maya--lonely and terrifying indeed. Most of us, if we even say we're sick when we're not, feel guilty about it; imagine lying about something with such large stakes.

revanche--all good points! If you call out someone like that, you become the target, in a way, for being That Guy about someone who's being charming.