About the best thing you can do with certain experiences is use them as material, and I admire Ellin’s fortitude in telling a story that risks making her look like a fool. She does try to pre-empt unsympathetic reader reactions, but also pulls off the tricky balancing act of avoiding either self-justification or self-castigation.
After recounting her own story, she goes on to explore every imaginable aspect of dishonesty and dual identity: deception in the animal kingdom, the lying of children, polygraphs and methods of divining truthfulness in antiquity, Winnicott and Jung, the modal theory of the brain, case histories of psychopaths, con artists, double agents, undercover cops, drug dealers, adulterers and wanted criminals living underground.
Whether this exhaustive approach is an effort to understand what happened to her through breadth rather than depth or just an excuse to pad what began as a magazine article to book length, it threatens to diffuse the book’s focus to the point of becoming an Encyclopedia of Lies. It also risks conflating phenomena that are as superficially similar but ultimately unrelated as dolphins and sharks; the underlying psychology of fugitive ecoteurs is very different from that of frauds like her ex-fiancé.
More than half the book is devoted to the motivations of people who engage in elaborate deceptions — the “unavoidable question of why The Commander fabricated so much of his existence.” Which seems like a considerably less interesting and pertinent question than: Why did she believe him? The pathology of liars like Ellin’s ex is of clinical interest; the psychology that made her susceptible to his lies is universal (and of urgent topical relevance).
The Commander’s lies, described flatly, sound like stories an 11-year-old would make up: He was a Navy SEAL, always going on “secret missions”; he was friends with Barack Obama; he “judo chops” people. So how did an intelligent person trained as a journalist, a self-described congenital skeptic, fall for them? (Funny that the idiom “to fall for” applies to both love and scams.)
Ellin acknowledges a deep complicity, a deliberate blindness, on the part of the deceived. We believe what’s convenient, and Ellin wanted to be in love, plus The Commander always sprang for first-class tickets and five-star restaurants. In relating a case of “gender fraud,” in which a woman was shocked to discover that her boyfriend was actually a woman, Ellin mentions in passing that the victim “had always worn a blindfold when they were together.” Ellin doesn’t go in much for metaphors, but this one seems ready-made.