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?




2 comments:

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.