July 11, 2006

Saga of Me and the Con Artist

She was the most unlikely of con artists, a chaplain at a major teaching hospital, working in, specializing as she would come to tell me, in oncology and psychiatry. I was of course, a psych patient, and in terrible shape at the time, bouncing between seclusion and restraints and occasional periods in a regular room -- without a roommate, though all were technically double occupancy. She -- But let me call her Berrie, a name not unrelated to hers but wholly unlike it. One of the stories Berrie would later tell me -- which I now know might never have been true -- is that after we met (I had asked to speak with her) she queried the nurses about me and they peremptorily dismissed me with the comment, "Why do you want to take time with someone like her?" The implication being that I was so beyond the bend that nobody could reach me or would want to.

At the time --several months after my discharge and several months into our friendship -- this oh so casual imparting of such information took my breath away. I tried to get Berrie to clarify what she meant, what they had meant. But she insisted that this wasn't the point. It didn't matter what they meant by what they'd said, what mattered was that she, the Great Berrie, ignored them, saw my value as a human being, and discovered -- tah dum! -- the lost human soul within. Here, she gave me a huge, sunny side up smile.

At that instant, and only for a nanosecond but one that etched itself in my consciousness, I saw something I didn't quite like, something that didn't square with the much loved chaplain image that Berrie projected. I saw vanity coming before compassion, her own self-aggrandizement superceding the simple human decency that says you don't tell someone something like that for no reason but to make yourself look good! And most surely you don't lie and say it happened when it didn't, just to put yourself in a good light! But it turns out that that is most likely the truth of the matter.

Yet from the first, despite any misgivings I might have had about the boundaries she was crossing, I enjoyed Berrie and her funny, wise, intelligent conversation immensely. It struck me as entirely plausible, when I told her about our book, which was at the time still being written, though under contract at St Martins, that it was true she had a memoir of her own at, as she confided in a whisper, modestly, S & S (Simon and Schuster -- i.e. a better, bigger publisher).

It seemed she'd nursed her parents through their final illnesses and that was how she'd gotten into chaplaining...Or so she said. Knowing what I know now, I have no idea if what she said at any time during our friendship was true.

She said she'd been around the world twice. I believed her. She said she'd been kidnapped with her nephew by the Sendero Luminoso in, where was it, Peru? And had by dint of sheer desperate deception rescued both him and herself, though at grave peril. I believed that too. She had studied massage therapy with Chinese masters and Tibetan massage with ditto. She had been in Indonesia and lost friends there to the tsunami. In the US, she had been married to a famous financial analyst of unpronounceable name, or vaguely mentioned so as to be unrecalled, who was often featured on CNN but never when I watched it; she had wanted children but could never have them but nevertheless had homeschooled her husband's disturbed young son and had raised him to be a fine young man, who of course turned on her later on quite unfairly, a betrayal that she took in stride as long suffering and patient as she knew herself to be.

Then I found myself suffering from various small but annoying ailments. These were indeed minor, but I needed Berrie to accompany me to a routine pap smear, which was my first and which terrrified me. She was a great help, I have to admit. That turned out to warrant an internal ultrasound and a "probably normal but let's just do it in case" endometrial biopsy for which Berrie also said she would be present, if at all possible, though her volunteer chaplaining might call on her at the last moment. Note that Berrie was always penniless. At 55, she claimed she could not find a decent job -- would not take a menial one -- and so she "accepted" money from me, sent at vaguely worded hints she dropped in moments of need. Yet, I never wondered how she paid the rent, bought food, or kept gas in her car, let alone dyed her hair, cut her hair (claimed she did it herself only after I told her I chopped my own) bought toilet paper and personal care items, large bags of cat food and so forth...

This is when Berrie suddenly went silent. I didn't hear from her for a week. I called and called, but her she never answered her phone, which screened all calls all the time. Finally I received the usual notice of a blocked call, and knew it was Berrie at last from the slight, forced-sounding cough that preceded her speaking. She hinted that she was unwell but proceeded to forced-cheerily inquire as to my life and health. Eventually she got around to letting on that she had been hospitalized for 6 days, for "tests" as an indigent patient, tests like two endometrial biopsies and an internal ultrasound (which, by the way, I had also endured, and all alone...). She had had a brain MRI and an EEG and, and, and...and her blood was low, in fact she was anemic...pretty low in fact, and it was not responding to iron for some unknown reason. Note again that one of my related gynecological conditions had been a sudden steep drop in hematocrit, resulting in anemia, easily corrected by supplemental iron. But I did not see any pattern at the time, I just felt bad for Berrie and worried.

In later days the picture got worse and worse. She needed a heart stress test or something, She needed a mammogram, but couldn't pay for it. She needed a lung biopsy for her unremitting cough. Finally, I said that she was pretty sick and needed a doctor to pull all these symptoms together, that she had too many doctors and that no one was seeing the whole picture. The very next day she called to tell me, in an excited voice that her floor had almost collapsed and that maintenance people had awakened her in the middle of the night, in an emergency, claiming that the old a/c system ahd slowly been pouring freon into the space beneath her floor and the ceiling below, which was threatening to cave in. She had been smelling some odor all week and had called maintenance time after time, saying she smelled freon, but to no avail, they said it was only rotting food. But of course, she had no food, seeing as she was so poverty stricken. And lo and behold, she had been proven right! Not only that but...I filled in the blanks as she no doubt anticipated I would: Freon had poisoned her. That was why she had been so ill! So the mystery was solved and she could now get better, without any further intervention...

The next day or a few days later, she called again. Another crisis! The window had blown in during a bad rain storm and the wall had partially collapsed, bringing in dirt and plaster onto her desk and papers and worst of all her beloved computer and 4 in one printer-copier-scanner-I've forgotten the last function. (Now how the hell she had the money to purchase one of those I didn't even think to ask...but it certainly hadn't been bought a few years back when she did have money, as they weren't around then). So the unspoken problem was a ruined laptop. and printer...and who possessed an unused older Macintosh Powerbook she wasn't using at the time? Guess who.

So I offered to clean the hard drive and lend, no, give it to her...And did so...Until one night things started gelling, small things, like an inconsistency about something her cat did, that my cat does and I know her cat does not do. I noticed that things that happened to me suddenly happened to her soon thereafter but worse or better, depending on its nature...And the pieces began to fit together into a truly frightening scenario of a chaplain who had been conning me from day one, who had picked me out in the pssych ward as an easy mark, perhaps had read my chart and analyzed it and knew before we met that I was a choice target. I understood suddenly that Berrie was a con artist and a pathological liar, that nothing, nothing at all that she had told me could be relied upon to be the truth.

This was scary indeed, and I thought about what she'd been doing to other even more vulnerable people in her life, like a possibly mildly mentally retarded couple I'd met who also helped her out. And the other psych and oncology patients she had in her care. With a friend's encouragement, I went to the police, and they said nothing could be done about it, except that they would call her and sugggest that she return the computer and printer and not have anything to do with me again. This succeeded, but alas, I fear she had some influence on them as a chaplain without a psych history (that I know of, or that she would divulge,) I am sure she convinced them that I was merely paranoid and that she completely understood...

Well, that is only part of the saga, but it is the story of my life as a gullible. I have been taken and taken and taken time and again. For someone who is so often paranoid, I do trust awfully easily, don't I? I wonder how that can be. Thanks for listening! Do you get taken in as readily as I do? How do we protect ourselves? Is it just poor judgment? My ex-best friend knew Berrie was a con artist at her first and only minutes long meeting, as did Lynnie. I had no idea. I dunno how they knew, what triggered their suspicions and what I missed. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Posted by pamwagg at July 11, 2006 07:01 AM


Pammy darling,
From so many things that you've told me throughout the years(Yes! It's been YEARS since I sent my congratulatory letter to you, and the rest is history.)I believe that your trusting nature is indeed your Achilles heel. Think of all the people you have welcomed into your home with open arms who have stolen from you, blatantly asked you for money, and above all else LIED to you from the getgo. You asked if anyone else had had an experience similar to the one you described. I for one can say an emphatic NO! Frankly, I'd be terrified to let a stranger into my very private little world. I would like to believe that I am warm and kind to others, but you are truly the most generous and open hearted person I've ever known. Although you may now feel that you were an easy target, when all is said and done, you have the knowledge that you have unselfishly helped many people. The people who were the recipients of your kindness have nothing but shame.

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at July 11, 2006 11:55 PM

Dear Pam,

These con artist are more common than you think. I don't think they believe themselves to be con artists. Maybe they're just users of people. Maybe they feel inadequate themselves and then prey on people they think can help them.

I've come across my share of these people. A couple of them are my relatives.

You're not paranoid, but rather intuitive.

I've developed an intuitiveness about certain types of people and I would say users and manipulators raise a huge flag in my consciousness. I keep my distance from them. They're not sincere and are simply doing what they do best... use people for their unmet needs. These people use flattery and can find your weak points to target their prey.

Pam I would say, listen to your gut instincts. I don't really know you, but I think you're on right on target on this one.

These users need to be kept at arms length. Also, don't allow these folks to make you feel guilty and will also possible make you think you're just being paranoid. I've become pretty ruthless about users and manipulators. They don't deserve my time.

Best regards,

Posted by: yaya at July 11, 2006 12:45 PM

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