There’s a certain kind of person who, four or five days into the shock following 9/11, suddenly thought, “You know, this would be the perfect opportunity for someone to fake their own death,” and then spent way too much time contemplating just how that might be done. Elizabeth Greenwood, author of the new book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, is one of those people, although at 33, she’s too young herself to have taken that particular opportunity. Only one person—Steven Chin Leung—is known to have tried it. Leung, a freelance financial consultant for Cantor Fitzgerald, was out on bail on immigration charges during the attack, and afterward posed as two different (invented) Leung brothers to obtain his own death certificate and start a new life with a clean slate.
But we know about Leung because he failed, and that’s one of the paradoxes of Greenwood’s book. In her late 20s, working as a teacher and writer in New York while saddled with $100,000 in student loans, she idly considered taking the Don Draper route out of her dilemma and began to investigate the logistics. She talked to people like the gruff, bikerish “privacy consultant” Frank Ahearn—author of the bestselling How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without a Trace—and a two-fisted, globe-trotting life-insurance claims investigator with his own TV show and the comic-strip name of Steve Rambam. Both of them insist that ghosting rather than faking your death is the way to ditch your old life and responsibilities; death fraud, or pseudocide, is too difficult and too easy to botch. Everyone who considers it figures they’ll fake a drowning, not realizing that’s a red flag and that most bodies do eventually wash up. They underestimate the difficulty of cutting off all contact with their former lives, and even the architects of highly elaborate pseudocide plots tend to screw up some obvious detail, like forgetting to delete incriminating messages from their email outboxes or leaving behind a road atlas with the pages mapping their hideout location torn out.
Greenwood resembles the profile of known pseudocides in one respect only: She has money trouble. Almost all people who fake their deaths seek escape from debt and other obligations. Sam Israel II, a one-time hedge-fund manager, was facing a 22-year prison sentence for financial malfeasance and fraud when he jumped off the Bear Mountain Bridge near West Point into a construction net hanging beneath and then crawled hand over hand to the other side. But then the cops leaned on his girlfriend, proving Ahearn’s dictum that those who wish to jettison their old lives must learn to “never become attached to anything you can’t walk away from in five seconds.” Israel, like most of the death-fakers described in Playing Dead, was a middle-aged, middle-class man. Hanging out with a couple of insurance company investigators working the death-fraud beat in the Philippines—currently a hotbed of the racket—Greenwood asks them about the gender breakdown of the perps they’ve caught: Out of 50 cases, one woman. The guys, Snooky and Bong, have a theory for why this is: “They want to live with another girl!” And pseudocides typically want to do this on the proceeds of a hefty life-insurance payout.
The brand of existential discontent that prompted Dick Whitman to assume the identity of Don Draper is in short supply in Playing Dead, as are baroque revenge schemes like that engineered by Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The death fraud Greenwood researched mostly seems to be the stuff of drab, sordid midlife crises and sheer greed. There are a few exceptions. She scores her most intensive interview with John Darwin, a 51-year-old former British correctional officer and small-time real-estate speculator. He staged a kayaking accident and actually succeeded, with the help of his wife, in maintaining the fiction of his death for six years—including, astonishingly, five years spent disguised as a tenant-handyman living in the rental property next door to his “widow.” The houses were connected by a corridor that allowed the couple to sleep together each night.
The audacity of this escapade is so impressive that you can’t help hoping Darwin, who became a celebrity in the U.K. after he turned himself in, will be dashing enough to live up to it. Sadly, although Greenwood attempts to portray him as sympathetically as possible, he comes across as one of those elderly gentlemen who incessantly chuckles at his own feeble jokes, boasts of his personal charm and cleverness, and supplies anyone in earshot with a running commentary on the numerous much-younger foreign women who send him titillating selfies over the internet. (His wife, who did time for conspiring with him in insurance fraud, divorced him.) Greenwood notes a commonalty between Darwin and the other death fakers she’s studied: “Their ideas, while bizarre and demented, do possess a certain internal logic,” like the famed “reality distortion field” generated by Steve Jobs. “If you allow John’s ideas to wash over you,” she explains, “you can see how once the plan was hatched and the wheels were in motion, it seemed easier to stay the course.”
Famous death fraudsters tend to be grandiose egoists, guys who, like a lot of criminals, believe they are sharp enough to beat the system and deceive the experts. “Everybody I’ve caught on life insurance fraud,” says Rambam, “I tell them, ‘If you had put this type of effort, money, and dedication into your life as a law-abiding citizen, you would have made just as much money.’ ” But where’s the fun and romance in that? Greenwood herself isn’t immune to either, and through much of her conversations with Ahearn and Rambam, she prods them to acknowledge that, whatever the logistical challenges, simply disappearing lacks the panache of faking your own death. Eventually, though, she decides that the “hubris” required to concoct a pseudocide is at odds with the “humility” needed to really pull it off. “Staying dead in the long run means keeping a low profile, without any audience to receive the story of your clever caper.” It means working unglamorously, off the books, and making sure that photographs of your new self stay off the internet.
This discord may explain why death fraud proves so difficult to execute, and perhaps why its practitioners skew male. Greenwood herself, it’s clear from the start, never seriously entertains such a scheme, even if she does go so far as to obtain, with the help of Snooky and Bong, a counterfeit death certificate. Playing Dead belongs to that genre of popular nonfiction best exemplified by Jon Ronson, in which the writer latches onto an intriguing subcultural phenomenon and delivers up bits of book research alongside amusingly written first-person encounters with colorful people who believe odd stuff. The author, perplexed and often anxious, makes an extraordinary effort to suspend all common sense in order to empathize with these folks, as Greenwood does in a chapter on groups who insist that Michael Jackson faked his own death. It’s a form that above all requires a likable, self-deprecating, curious narrator, and Greenwood fits the bill, although her prose lacks the polish of Ronson’s deceptively casual wit.
She does, though, suggest that there is an aspect of her subject no investigator will ever be able to plumb: the ones who get away with faking their own deaths. “We learn only about the failures,” she writes. When she quizzes Rambam for his recommendations on how she might pull it off, he tells her to take a hike. Literally. “That’s a great way to disappear,” he off-handedly explains, “Especially if it’s a young or middle-aged female, because women are snatched off hiking trails all the time for real, and raped and killed and the body hidden. That’s semibelievable.” Women are more likely to be abducted and killed by a total stranger, and they are also more likely to need to abandon their identities to escape a violent former partner or stalker. Ahearn told Greenwood that he charges a sliding scale for clients in need of disappearing; those in this form of imminent danger, and all women, he sometimes helps pro bono. Darwin tells her that he thinks women seldom try to fake their own deaths because “men are normally more reckless, more adventurous,” while “women are more cautious and careful and think things through.” But how can we be sure of that? Maybe women do it as often as men do, Greenwood speculates, and maybe “they just don’t get caught.”
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood. Simon and Schuster.