The following is an excerpt from Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. The new book by Elizabeth Greenwood examines what it's like to fake your own death, the cottage industry that's sprung up around making someone disappear, and the paper trails individuals construct in order to be "reborn". In the passage below, the author explores how and why people fake their own demise and the differing ways that they go about it. Playing Dead came out out August 9 from Simon and Schuster.
Todd put me on Bluetooth when he called from the road on a Friday afternoon. He was on his way to a campground in Northern California. He had left work early to beat traffic and get a few hours to himself before his wife and his two daughters, ages ten and eight, arrived. A forty-nine-year-old software manager from Lafayette, California, an affluent suburb in the East Bay, Todd's soft, nasally voice skewed more surfer bro. He called me from the car with the windows rolled down because he couldn't talk to me at home or at the office. He couldn't talk in front of anyone else because we were talking about how he thinks of faking his own death.
"The only way to do it is at sea or to get blown up," he told me. "You do it on a boat and find someone to witness it. First, I'd take out an insurance policy so I'd be gone but would know my kids could get a college education. I would arrange a sailing trip somewhere in Southeast Asia and make it seem like there had been a drowning. I'd head to Thailand because you can live in Thailand for nothing. I've traveled there, and I know how easy it would be. You don't need anything, not even papers. I wouldn't want to take any money with me, but I'd have some on the side, a few thousand. Now I'd have to make money, and I would do it online. I know I could make enough money to support myself under the radar—untraceable internet ad sales or something. It'd only make about ten thousand dollars, but I could live off that, just me, in Thailand, easy."
Todd described himself as "a cog in the wheel." On the periphery of Silicon Valley, where billionaires are made overnight, Todd is uncomfortably in the middle. "The area isn't great for my career, and technical jobs are hard to get," he said plaintively. Depending on how hellacious the traffic, he spends fifteen to twenty hours a week commuting from the eucalyptus-lined suburb to his office in Marin County. As he sees it, "I will never be able to retire. Every penny goes into mortgage, family, bills. We will never be as comfortable as my wife wants." Todd would be happy to spend his golden years living on a houseboat, but it's not an option. "I mentioned that once to my wife, and she went ballistic," he said. Todd has the life he thought he wanted: two healthy children, a wife, a house in the suburbs, and a good job. But he feels trapped. The idea of faking his own death provides fodder for his imagination during his commute and in front of his computer as he fantasizes about lazing on a Thai island, away from his responsibilities. Once, he Googled "faking your death" and was directed to the site wikiHow, on which someone had posted crude steps a person might take. Step one of the article instructs: "Decide whether you really want to do this."
The thing that surprised me most about Todd was not that he wanted to fake his own death. I'd done the same Google search.
* * * * * * *
Faking your death—both as a concept and as an act people attempt with surprising frequency—first occurred to me several years earlier, when I was having dinner with my friend Matt. We had met teaching public school in the Bronx. That evening, as we sat in a cheap Vietnamese restaurant, I was feeling sorry for myself. I'd recently abandoned teaching to go back to school full-time, which meant foolishly taking out several dozen thousand dollars in student loans to heap upon the $60,000 debt from my undergraduate education, bringing the sum total to a bloated figure in the six digits. At the beginning of the semester, I felt alive and nourished and like I was on vacation after a career of corralling second graders. Then, a few weeks in, I realized what I had done. I'd screwed myself financially, big time (for the second time!), and had nobody to blame but the creep in the mirror.
In the dim crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight to Matt, who was exhausted and smelled slightly like the syrup from the school cafeteria. He looked less than amused.
I revealed my latest vision of the future over greasy spring rolls:
"So the plan is to become, like, a towering luminary and highly sought-after public intellectual, and, I mean, my TED Talk alone will obviously pay back my private loans, but in the very off chance that the film offers don't come knocking straightaway, I've come up with plan B: Belize."
"What does that even mean?" Matt asked, his eyelids sagging after a day of coaxing eight-year-olds into mastering fractions.
"You know, just slip through the cracks. Find a sun- bleached country with a rickety government and no extradition policy and kick back on the beach, avoiding the feds for the rest of my life."
Would Sallie Mae and the US Department of Education really deploy a repo team to a tiny Central American country in search of a certain debt-laden Rubenesque bottle blonde? What's a little $100,000 deficit to them? (Well, actually closer to a half million after the lifetime of accrued interest.) This conversation took place in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, when it had become evident that the middle-class ideal of playing by the rules in search of the American dream was for chumps. Flouting it like the goons on Wall Street was the only way to profit and evade consequences. Defaulting on debts was very much in the zeitgeist—plus I could score a vacation in the meantime. I was pretty pleased with my plan, though the fantasy was more of a pressure valve than a blueprint. The puritan in me, while realizing how the system is rigged, still paid her taxes and got regular teeth cleanings. But the idea of throwing on a wig and some shades and starting over was appealing, even though I was still relatively young at the time. I joked about it, but my student loan debt, though not unique in any way, made me feel definitively and inextricably fucked. Two options presented themselves: a Dickensian debtors' prison or a life on the lam.
"Or you could fake your own death," Matt said casually, shoving another spring roll into his mouth.
"Or I could fake my own death," I parroted back, the thought undulating through my skull like squid ink.
Why hadn't that occurred to me? Faking my own death. An untimely end would make a far superior story for the bill collectors than simply vanishing one day. Sloughing off the past, shucking the carcass of my impoverished self, to be reborn, unblemished as a sunrise. My "death" would not be a conclusion but a renaissance—a shot at an alternative ending. The dross of life would not inflict itself upon me: I could arrange and edit to suit my specifications. Faking death could be a refusal, a way to reject the dreary facts, a way to bridge the chasm between who you are and who you want to be. From bit player in your life, you become the auteur. From being pressed up against a wall, you carve a tunnel.
* * * * * * *
Our instinct for reinvention is as old as time. The founding myth of the Talmud features Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai faking his death so that he can escape Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the first century AD: "Pretend you are sick, and let everyone come to visit you. Bring something rotten and place it with you, and they will say you died." It's a theme that resurfaces frequently in literature.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 story "Wakefield," for example, a man leaves his London home "under the pretense of going on a journey" but instead takes an apartment around the corner where he can watch his own life progress without him, from a ghost's perspective. Huck Finn smears pig's blood around a cabin and plants clumps of hair on an ax, orchestrating a hoax to "fix it now so nobody won't think of following me," and sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, unencumbered by the adults who would want to "sivilize" him. Juliet downs a tincture to make her "stiff and stark and cold, appear like death," to leave her family's warring tribal politics and live happily ever after with her lover. Men in crime novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy disappear or fake their own deaths regularly, like their cultural predecessors in pulpy noir paperbacks. Gillian Flynn's 2012 bestseller Gone Girl is plotted around a staged murder. Gossip Girl's steely robber baron Bart Bass returns from the dead in the penultimate season, a classic soap opera trope. Don Draper on Mad Men ditched Dick Whitman in the Korean War and assumed a dead man's identity. And everyone's favorite antihero, Walter White on the TV show Breaking Bad, hired a consultant to deliver him to a new life off the grid. To become invisible is to cast yourself as both the villain and the hero of your story.
Today disappearing seems virtually impossible. This, I think, is what accounts for our renewed fascination with it. We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data stats that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder. Disappearing means disconnecting—unimaginable yet totally captivating. Precisely because it has become less feasible, that deep urge to be anonymous, or even to be someone else, exists ever more powerfully within us. The desire to disappear doesn't go away just because times change and technology strangles us. That we cannot fulfill the urge as easily is perhaps the greatest tragedy.
And yet the fantasy persists. Dr. Ze'ev Levin, a New York University psychiatrist and professor who specializes in personality disorders, tells me just how widespread this impulse is: "There's this fantasy that many of us have that if we moved to a different place, our lives would be different. It's not unusual for people to say that things are terrible in New York, so if I moved to Australia, things would be better. I think there are universal fantasies we have about wishing we were somewhere else, and someone else. Taken to an absolute extreme, erasing your life assumes you will then be reborn as something different. If I died while I was alive, I could come back as something other." Dr. Levin sees this tendency of avoidance cloaked in a daydream as an evolutionary trick that prevents us from confronting and examining the uglier parts of ourselves. "We are structurally designed to not want to look at what's upsetting," he observes. Actually going through with such a deceit and making the fantasy concrete would indicate antisocial and manipulative behavior, but as Dr. Levin says, "Fantasizing has nothing to do with being a sociopath."
Perhaps Todd's plan for faking his death will remain in the realm of pure fantasy. But were he to put his plan into motion, Todd fits the prime demographic for a death fraudster. As a middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white man with a family, Todd represents the person most likely to fake his death. I'd noticed this disproportion in the demographics, and I wondered if there was anything to it. Privacy consultant Frank Ahearn and author of How to Disappear told me that the majority of his clients who sought to leave their lives behind were men, and J. J. Luna, author of How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life, told me that "far more men than women!" seek his "invisibility" services. In the 1996 guidebook How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, disappearance enthusiast Doug Richmond writes, "To a man of a certain age, there's a bit of magic in the very thought of cutting all ties, of getting away from it all, of changing names and jobs and women and living happily ever after in a more salubrious clime!"
But why do these seemingly privileged men, who enjoy every perk that DNA has to offer, feel so hemmed in that they must go off the radar entirely? Perhaps it's because although men still out-earn women, they then entangle themselves in financial trouble trying to enhance their fortunes. Maybe they shrug off because they feel less responsibility to see their children grow and flourish. Women shoulder the burdens of family and community—they take care of dying parents, snotty kids, shut-in neighbors—anyone before themselves. Though that might be relying too heavily on conventional wisdom about gender roles, the numbers speak for themselves: faking death seems to be a heavily male phenomenon. After combing through the stories and examining the traits that men like Todd share, I noticed that they all seemed to feel emasculated, made impotent, by their mundane lives. So, not earning enough money, they invest in a harebrained scheme. Underwhelmed with their monogamous sex lives, they take up with other women. Faking death seems to be not only a way out but also, counterintuitively, a way to be brave.
* * * * * * *
I thought about my conversation with Todd. His plan didn't surprise me. He sounded pleased with himself, like he had thought of everything—the drowning that would eliminate questions about a body, the insurance policy, the "untraceable" business model—but my research had taught me that his plan was really a pretty standard pseudocide. Water accidents without a body washing up onshore always raise red flags for law enforcement. Or as Steve Rambam, a private investigator who consults for dozens of life insurance companies says, "Ninety-nine percent of faked deaths are water accidents. In most drownings, the body is recovered. So why was this body not recovered?" Any insurance company requires a seven-year wait period to pay out claims where no corpse has been produced. And being "untraceable" on the internet is simply a pipe dream. Todd would likely get busted before he could even order a Singha beer.
But what did surprise me about Todd was his lack of sentimentality. I kept expecting him to qualify his plan somehow, to say something like, "Of course, I would never actually go through with it because I love my daughters too much." Sure, he'd accounted for them, mentioning the insurance policy that was to pay their college tuition. During our conversation, as the wind muffled his voice over the phone, as he drove by himself on a highway three thousand miles away, I kept waiting for the hesitation. But I didn't hear any.