Fake it Till You Make it

My review of Elizabeth Greenwood’s nonfiction book, Playing Dead: Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor shortened it a bit, so for your reading pleasure I offer you the full-length version here:

We’ve all felt it, the desire to run away from the tedium of our own lives. Some days you can’t help but notice that the train you ride to work could just as easily take you someplace else. When I was a kid my dad would, on occasion, get a faraway look and claim he’d always intended to join the merchant marines.

As Playing Dead author Elizabeth Greenwood speculates, we may be even more inclined to dream of disappearing now, in the age of trackable smartphones and constant surveillance. “We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data sets that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder,” she writes, and she has a point.

But what about leaving for real? Faking your own death – the closest thing to suicide without actually dying? It’s a funny thought, but who would try it?

Greenwood, that’s who. In her introduction, the young journalist explains the reason she first got fixated on the subject: She was drowning in some $100,000 worth of student loans. She had no hope of paying off her debt in this lifetime – so why not “die”? The idea came up in a jokey conversation with a similarly stretched-thin friend, who one imagines forgot the conversation moments later. Greenwood, who began researching death fraud that evening at home, did not.

She sets out to learn how she might fake her own death by seeing how others have done it. Or rather, how they’ve tried and failed, since as she points out, it’s impossible to prove a negative – anyone who has successfully faked their death is not available for an interview because, well, we think they’re dead.

She meets the folks who get paid to investigate insurance fraud, which remains one of the most popular reasons for pulling a fakey: simple greed. Steve Rambam is a no-nonsense, classically hard-boiled detective who maintains that simply disappearing is easier to do than faking your death, and vastly preferable. Pretending to die is not strictly illegal, but fraudulently claiming a life insurance policy certainly is, as is using a fake identity, which is the only way you could do anything after you “died.”

By the book’s end, Greenwood makes her way to the Philippines, where corrupt government agencies make faking your death easy and fairly commonplace, on a quest for her very own death certificate. For those familiar with gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, this is a Ronsonesque stunt, and though Greenwood is an entertaining writer she doesn’t quite have his genius for dry understatement. She knows how to tell a good story—and there are lots of them here—but when she writes about herself, her prose can be a bit overcooked. “In the crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight…” she tells us.( Translation: Girl was broke.)

Still though, the stories. We meet John Darwin, the U.K. man and his wife who lied to everyone, including their grown sons, by pretending he had died in a boating accident when he was actually living in his own rental property next door, in disguise, for nearly six years. His motive was a mortgage insurance policy, and he eventually turned himself in. But the suffering he caused his family was, in Greenwood’s words, the “collateral damage” that he doesn’t ever quite own up to.

She also introduces us to the Believers, the utterly devoted contingent of people within the Michael Jackson fandom who believe that the King of Pop faked his death and is sending them messages from beyond the fake grave via lyrics in his posthumously-released songs. Greenwood doesn’t share their beliefs, but she doesn’t make fun of them either. That would be “…taking a cheap and dreadfully obvious shot. … It takes a lot more courage to believe doggedly in something so outlandish and weird. The believing itself is the point more than the outcome. It’s faith.”

In the end, it’s this largeness of imagination that makes Greenwood’s book a success. Whether these death fraudsters strike you as clever schemers or fascinating in a fringe-weirdo sort of way, Greenwood makes them human, which has a lovely way of showing us how expansive life is—even in death.

To Stand and Deliver

I wrote about a nonfiction book called The Battle for Room 314 for the winter issue of Utne, which has just come out. (The book will be published in early February.) I don't know if the magazine will post my review on its website, so I've decided to share it with you here:

When his work raising money for an education nonprofit left him feeling only somewhat fulfilled, Ed Boland quit his job mid-career, got a teaching degree, and went into the trenches as a ninth grade history teacher at a struggling public high school in New York City. After a year, he wrote this book about it. There are so many stories of big-dreaming middle class teachers (who are usually white) toughing it out in poor, underserved, and sometimes violent city schools (whose students are overwhelmingly black and brown) that it has almost become a genre unto itself—and one that could easily be unpalatable if handled poorly.

Happily, Boland is modest, likable, and realistic about, well, reality. He knows that “Being a whitey with a savior complex isn’t going to help [my students].” Problem is, it’s hard to know what will. Boland devotes whole weekends to making creative lesson plans, and he has diverse educational experience to draw from, as both a former Catholic school kid and a Yale admissions officer. But in a chaotic environment where most students are performing way below their grade level, he finds it hard to tell whether he’s making a difference.

A gay man in his forties with clear memories of the way feminine-seeming boys were bullied in his own high school, Boland also harbors dreams of helping his gay students who are being tormented by their classmates. But he soon finds that connecting with them—indeed, with most of the students, most of the time—is a tricky proposition, and his attempts to do so are often met with anger and rejection.

As an author, Boland has a charming way with words that makes the book entertaining to read, even laugh-out-loud funny—as when he shamefacedly admits to understanding only “Sesame Street Spanish.” As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that his snappy approach isn’t just stylistic, but actually goes a long way in making the dire situations he describes easier to read about. The plain facts, when presented in stark language, are shocking: The public schools of New York are more racially segregated than in any other system in the United States, Boland reports. In his “worst” class, the one he focuses on in the book, he teaches a girl who worked on the street as a prostitute in the seventh grade; another girl whose homeless mother had pulled her out of a worse school in order to tutor her on the subway for a year; and a few students who are already members of drug rings and notorious gangs. Getting kids with problems like these to sit still and pay attention to a lesson on the Silk Road is a tall order.

Boland describes his students vividly—so vividly, in fact, that one wonders with a wince if any of them will read the book—and he concludes his story with an update on all of them some years down the line. The results of his experiment in teaching are dispiriting and absolutely beautiful, in turn.

Grow up!

nieman I reviewed philosopher Susan Neiman's fine nonfiction book Why Grow Up? for the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. Have a look here. (Susan was kind enough to comment on the review on this blog, under the post "Go Forth," to which I have responded.) Neiman's book is a kind of critique of our youth-obsessed culture, with several of the main ideas of the Enlightenment explained in plain English and illustrated with personal and contemporary examples. Highly recommended, especially to anyone who sometimes suspects that growing up is synonymous with giving up.