Erika Girardi sat on a pristine soft gray couch with her friend Kyle Richards, and unloaded the latest stressor in her life: Erika’s estranged husband, the once powerful legal titan Tom Girardi, had confronted a burglar that had entered his Pasadena mansion. Also, she said, he needed eye surgery. It was not explained why he needed eye surgery, so Kyle and viewers of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills had to deduce it was a result of the confrontation. But maybe it was unrelated, especially since Erika also mentioned Tom has glaucoma. But the break-in! She learned of it at 6 a.m. after receiving a call at 3 a.m. from Pasadena Police. Her son, an LAPD officer, had gone over to help at some point and ended up rolling his car five times on his way home because of snow. This was the second story she’s told this season of a member of the Girardi family dramatically rolling their car in an accident. Years ago, Tom had an accident that caused a broken ankle, but the story changed this season to him driving off a cliff and being unconscious for 12 hours with severe head injuries that forever changed his disposition. That her new story aligns with his legal team’s apparent strategy had been labelled “fishy.” As Erika spun her latest yarn, Kyle understandably looked befuddled, while still tried to make the far-fetched, detail-starved story make sense.
It’s hard not to feel Kyle’s confusion. Too many details seemed unlikely, including the fact that it doesn’t snow in Pasadena. The closest area to Pasadena that gets snow is Mount Baldy, which is an unincorporated town in the San Gabriel Mountains 36 miles away from Pasadena that has about 300 residents. When Richards seemed incredulous about snow in Pasadena, Girardi added that her son lives “further out,” seemingly to quell any doubt. Richards didn’t press any more, but made her thoughts known in a solo confessional. “This story obviously sounds unbelievable. That’s the only word I can think of. It sounds unbelievable,” she says. “Does that mean I don’t believe her? No. But it’s unbelievable.”
It’s not that this story is impossible, but it certainly seems improbable. That’s been the overall tone this season of the hit Bravo reality series, which has heavily revolved around the messy public legal battle surrounding Tom Girardi and his now–ex-wife’s possible involvement in his crimes. Tom stands accused of stealing millions of dollars from his clients for whom he won substantial sums in court, allegedly using the money to fund the Girardi's lavish lifestyle that included two private planes and Erika’s dance-pop singing career under the name Erika Jayne. His clients include the family of victims of the Lion Air Flight 610 crash that left 189 dead off the coast of Indonesia in 2018, and a burn victim who survived a Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline explosion with severe, lifelong injuries.
Even as public opinion turns against Erika and her stories get more outlandish, most of her fellow Housewives are supporting and defending her… even when they admit her stories are literally unbelievable. “The story is bonkers,” says Housewife Dorit Kemsley. “There are details missing. But I don’t believe for one second that Erika is lying.” The question many are screaming at their TV screens as this plays out: Why not? Why is it impossible to believe that a famous millionaire on reality TV accused of callously stealing from vulnerable people to fund her lifestyle may be lying? Especially when we know reality stars will definitely lie on camera even if they know those to whom they’ve lied will be watching. Why is it wrong to question something that’s extremely questionable, even if it’s one of your close friends? Why are they forcing themselves to believe her?
The mental gymnastics the majority of Erika’s castmates and friends perform to make her stories plausible has been frustrating to watch. It was especially apparent in a recent episode during a double date between Kyle, her husband Mauricio Umansky, Dorit, and her husband Paul “P.K.” Kemsley. As the women attempted to explain away the break-in and the car crash in which Tom might have sustained both brain and ankle injuries, the men howled with laughter and disbelief. “Let me tell you something,” Umansky said. “There’s lies all over the place.” Lies has been a dirty word among the Housewives, but now the women were being confronted by their trusted partners who were saying what almost everyone is afraid to—and it clearly made them uncomfortable. Aside from co-stars Garcelle Beauvais and Sutton Stracke, who’ve become the voices of the unconvinced audience, the rest of the cast is doing the most to make it all make sense, and to stand by Erika.
According to Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena (where he assured me there is absolutely no snow), what we’re seeing on screen is a manifestation of groupthink.
“We’re talking about a dynamic where people are in a group, and they're all kind of joining in together to believe her, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” he told VICE. “It feels safer to them to join with the group, even if it's based on falsehoods, in order to maintain membership in that group.”
Howes further explained that maintaining the status quo of a group leads to denial of evidence, with the women likely thinking “it's probably better for me to just go along with the crowd here than to stand out and be the one dissenting voice that says, ‘No, I think you're wrong. I think he did it.’” Given how Beauvais and Stracke have been thrown under the bus or threatened by Erika for pointing out the Grand Canyon–sized holes in her stories, this seems right on the nose.
“Right now, that one person is being ostracized because she’s the dissenting voice, so she stands out as the bad guy among the crew,” said Howes. “Even though privately or behind the scenes they all can kind of agree with her, but to throw them under the bus when [Erika is] around is a matter of psychological safety.” He said disagreeing with Sutton now as a collective likely feels safer to them than the alternative—and if later on, they’re all found to be wrong, the blow will be softened because they’re in a group. “They can gather around one another and console one another, as opposed to being one person who's this rebel, who's stepping out and calling bullshit on the whole thing,” Howes said. And if Erika is ultimately found to have been a more active participant in her husband’s wrongdoing, her supporters can shift the narrative and say they were duped by their friend—thus becoming victims themselves and gaining public sympathy. They’re rewarded either way, to some extent.
“[Their] priority is their friendship over truth,” said Howes. “So, We're all gonna stand behind [you] when you say that the sky is green and elephants can fly. We're gonna stand behind you because our friendship means more than truth. And so in the end, that'll be an easy thing to kind of lean on and say, ‘OK, well I guess we were all wrong, but we did it for a good reason, because we love you.’”
It may seem like a smart strategy, but as viewers continue to watch this season, it feels hard not to see right through it all. We may never know if Erika was involved or fully aware of Tom’s crimes, but seeing who is working overtime to maintain the social order and feed others to the wolves to protect themselves, rather than speak up on behalf of the victims, has been fascinating to watch. To paraphrase a threat made by Erika, viewers are going to remember who stood by Erika, and who didn’t, and those who played both sides.