On Writing "The Disease Of Deceit"

Hey guys! The last few days have felt like a week. For starters, on Wednesday I was memed.

The photo of me in the upper left corner is from 2008. I asked a photographer friend to take writer headshots of me because in my previous headshot—also taken by this friend—I looked stoned. (Narrator: She was stoned.) It was winter but we went outside to take the photos because the light was better. I was very cold standing out there in a flimsy black shirt. My eyes are clearly begging for the photo shoot to be over so I could put my coat back on.

Anyway, according to folks on Twitter, that photo is the third result when you search for “nice Jewish girl.” I’M SCREAMING.

This photo has also appeared in at least one online dating profile that was not my own. A guy I went on a couple of dates with many years ago sent this to me.

I hope it worked out better, dating-wise, for “Karly” than it did for me.

In slightly less hilarious news, a very serious reported personal essay I had been working on since the summer was published over at Longreads. (More on that below.)

Finally, this weekend is my birthday. I’m turning 37. Old enough to have wrinkles and young enough to get acne at the same time. You really can have it all.

Like many people, I live for stories of grifters and scammers. These stories are internet catnip, guaranteed to go viral within hours of publication. When they appear at the Cut (which is where I see them most frequently), I drop everything and read them immediately. Then I text a friend—she knows who she is—to discuss. Little did I know that while I was devouring and obsessing over these kinds of tales, I was living inside one.

Yesterday, “The Disease of Deceit” was published over at Longreads. It’s about a friend of mine who lied about having had cancer (and other things) for many years. Aside from my book, I have never worked harder or longer on a piece; I have never spent more time agonizing about an essay. In fact, I’m still agonizing over it. It is also the longest piece I’ve ever published that wasn’t a book.

Don’t worry—this newsletter won’t be 10k words. I hope it doesn’t hit 2k. I’ve probably said too much on this topic already but I do want to talk a bit about the process of writing the essay for those who are interested. (For those who aren’t, skip to the bottom where I will post a photo of Lizzie.)

So if you’ve read the piece, you know that it’s about a friend of mine who lied to me and several other people about having cancer. In addition, “Chaya”—as she is called in the piece—told us that she had other ailments which it appears she also did not have. And she told us some very tall tales about her family and upbringing. (“Chaya,” as the Hebrew speakers have probably noted, means “life.” I thought it was a fitting name for someone who had spent years telling her friends that she was dying.)

One of the rules that I set for myself going into writing this essay was that I wasn’t simply going to write what I knew because I knew too much. Not like in one of those spy movies where you’re fleeing a secret government agency because you learned something you weren’t supposed to know. What I mean is that because I had been directly involved in the story, I knew a lot about her interactions with others; people had confided in me as a friend, not as a reporter. So for the purposes of writing the essay, I didn’t rely on that knowledge. Everything I included in it that wasn’t about my own specific experience with Chaya came from formal interviews I conducted several months after the revelation. If I wanted to use something that we hadn’t covered in a formal interview, I reached out to the person and asked specifically if I could include it. I felt strongly that this was the ethical approach to writing about the experiences of other people who were betrayed by Chaya.

When Matt Giles, my editor, and I spoke about the essay shortly after I pitched it, we decided it should go beyond telling what is, without embellishment, a pretty wild story. We wanted to make trust the focal point of the piece—what happens when you’re lied to, when you realize you’ve been betrayed on an epic scale. While I couldn’t get inside her head to know what Chaya was thinking, I had access to my own thoughts. I knew the ways in which her deception impacted me. And I could ask my friends how it affected them.

As I noted in the story, my problems with anxiety pre-date the discovery of Chaya’s deception. If only I had just started dealing with an anxiety disorder in 2018; what a life that would’ve been! But learning about the deceit greatly exacerbated my pre-existing condition. Like by a lot. Like I got really paranoid. I felt that I couldn’t trust my own perceptions of reality, that I couldn’t trust my own memories. As I was writing the essay, I frequently reached out to other friends who were involved to corroborate my memories. I doubted everything.

I also got super anxious about mistakes in my stories and started reading and re-reading them in a very OCD-like fashion. Now, as I said before, I’ve been always anxious about my work but after I learned the truth, it went up several notches. (Shout out to Matt who really calmed me down when I needed calming as we worked on this story.)

And as promised, here’s a photo of Lizzie, one of the few characters in the story who went by her real name. (I’m not sure she would have had she been given a choice.)

Lizzie played a bigger role in this story than I let on in the piece; she was, I believe, the biggest reason that Chaya kept me around as a friend. After the truth came out, Jeremy, who had been much closer to Chaya, forwarded me an email that was sent by the sister-but-really-Chaya. It was a list of people who were allowed to visit her. Chaya made a big show of restricting access, of only letting certain people visit. She told me that she was dying and just didn’t have the energy for so many people so she wanted to limit visitors to those she felt closest to. While that made sense to me at the time, what never made sense was why I would be on such an exclusive list. We hadn’t been very close and there were others who had done far more for her and would continue to do more for her if only they were allowed to see her.

The email Jeremy forwarded contained one possible explanation. It said, “Dvora (when she wants Lizzie).” It appears that Chaya kept me around to have access to my dog. While I don’t really understand how someone could lie about cancer, I totally get someone lying to get access to an adorable dog. This is the most relatable Chaya has ever been.

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Photo credit: Ben Hancock