Transcript

155:

Hoaxing Yourself
Transcript

Originally aired 03.17.2000

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/155

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Parents, here's all the evidence that you need that TV is bad for kids. Especially public TV. When Sean was 14, he loved watching those British TV shows that are always running on PBS. Masterpiece Theatre, Doctor Who.

Sean Cole

And then there was this show that I would stay up really late and watch, and tape, and watch over and over again the tapes, called Dempsey & Makepeace. Which was about an American detective who went to London because he had been set up at home. And he was teamed up with a woman, who was this aristocrat named Lady Harriet Makepeace. And I was really on her side, I thought, she's got it going on.

Ira Glass

You looked down on the American.

Sean Cole

Oh yeah.

Ira Glass

What Sean liked about Lady Harriet Makepeace and all the other Brits on TV was their aloofness. How they seemed above it all, how they looked down on Americans, which Sean did also. Convinced there must be something wrong with the nation that produced jocks and bullies who harassed him at school. And sometimes, joking around with his friends, he would talk with a British accent.

Sean Cole

And then it was just something that spiraled out of control. I know that eventually, I was just using an English accent literally from waking to sleeping. Morning, noon, and night.

Ira Glass

Sean spoke with a British accent from the time he was 14 until he was 16. And at some point, his mother took him to see a psychiatrist.

Sean Cole

He was just really, he must-- I don't know the different schools of psychology, but he was really very confrontive. And he was like, well, you've got to stop doing this, he said, because you're not British. And my mom just sort of sat over next to me, and she sort of went, yeah, to agree with him. And to sort of help him in showing me this.

Ira Glass

Sean was furious. He had an impulse to lecture the guy on how, in fact, he was British. And the only problem with that was, A, he knew very well that he was not, and B, his mother was sitting right there. She was sure to contradict him. It all just seemed impossible.

Sean Cole

Because that's what I was thinking. Like, there has to be a way that I could be British still.

Ira Glass

There must be a way that this is true, somehow.

Sean Cole

Yeah, exactly.

Ira Glass

Well today on our radio program, stories of people to tell a lie, and they get to the point where they believe the lie more than anyone else does. In other words, stories of people pulling hoaxes on themselves. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act one of our program today, The Sun Never Sets On The Moosewood Restaurant, in which two young men, both from small towns, try on new identities, false identities, and what they have to do to keep the lies going. Act two, Conning The Con Men. Nancy Updike reports on a federal sting operation and how it caught con men by setting up a con of its own. Act three, Outperforming the Performers. A girl gets her big break on Broadway by going into a coma. Stay with us.

Act One. The Sun Never Sets—On The Moosewood Restaurant.

Ira Glass

Act one, The Sun Never Sets on the Moosewood Restaurant. This is the story of two young people who, for a period in their lives, in their search to figure out who they were, pretended to be people who they were not. We'll hear from Sean Cole and Joel Lovell, starting with Sean. He grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, a town that was approximately 3,350 miles from London.

Sean Cole

It was second nature. It was first nature. To this day I have trouble saying, oh, I faked an accent for two years. I mean, I had an accent for two years.

Ira Glass

Sean, could I just ask you to take a deep breath and describe for me what you had for lunch today, or perhaps for breakfast this morning, in as close to the accent that you can remember.

Sean Cole

As close I can. OK. I'm going to take a sip of water here. Well, Ira, I had a salad. I had it at the Boston House of Pancakes-- er, Pizza, rather.

Ira Glass

What was the beverage?

Sean Cole

It was a Snapple, just lemon-flavored. I don't really like the peach.

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell's story began when he left the working class town where he grew up, in upstate New York. His parents owned a liquor store in a small town. He was the first member of his family to go to college, and it was an especially big deal because he got into an Ivy League school, Cornell.

Joel Lovell

It was one of those first days of college, you know, when to spend a lot of time-- everybody kind of moves in hordes, and you spend a lot of time in each other's dorm rooms. And there were about, oh, I don't know, 10 or 11 of us in this one guy's room. And we were just like sitting around, eating pizza and talking. And people were talking about where they were from and what their parents did, stuff like that. And there was one guy whose dad was a doctor for the Knicks. There was another guy whose father was an elected representative from New York State. And then this other guy whose father was on the World Court. Literally was a member of the World Court.

Ira Glass

Oh, my.

Joel Lovell

And so it suddenly seemed like this incredibly impressive group to me. And they seemed sort of worldly in ways that was just beyond my wildest imagination. And worldly beyond what I am now, frankly.

And I remember sitting there at the time thinking, oh my God, I'm so out of my league here. And then, completely unplanned, I suddenly said, as a slice of pizza was passed to me, this pizza with sausage on top of it. I said, I can't take that because my parents are vegetarians. And then everybody in the room sort of turned and looked at me. Because it wasn't even as if I said well, I'm a vegetarian. But I said, my parents are vegetarians. And there's a sort of puzzled look on everybody in the room. And I said well, and I am too. I've never eaten meat. I'm not entirely-- well, I mean, I have some ideas now about why I said that. But at the time I had no idea what I was saying. It was like suddenly I'd become possessed. And I had to think of something to say about myself that seemed interesting. And vegetarianism was the thing that I chose.

Ira Glass

Now, did you tell people that you were actually from England?

Sean Cole

No, no. Never that I was from Britain. But in a way, that I was British, you know. There was a real distinction there for me. Like I'd taken it on. Like I was culturally British now.

Joel Lovell

Well, I think what it was is, I think I did some sort of calculus that took like an nanosecond in my head. And I thought, I can't actually lie about what my parents do. But I think the connections that I was making were this. That somehow, because I was from this town in the sticks, if my folks were vegetarians, then the whole history that that suggested was that they were sort of these kind of leftist academic radicals who had sort of dropped out of society and gone back to the land. And I was living in this bumpkin town in upstate New York, and my folks were living some sort of life that was driven by their political philosophy, rather than I was just a guy who grew up in upstate New York.

Sean Cole

I did the old kid thing of wishing that my real British parents would come and tell me I was adopted and take me back to London.

Joel Lovell

So I'm sitting there in the room and all these guys are looking at me. And they're like, dude, what do you eat? And suddenly I realized, in that moment, how little I knew about vegetarianism. I kind of tried to be real vague about it. You know, we eat salads and lentils. I remember saying lentils a lot.

Sean Cole

And there was a gap, certainly, in my education. Because I would be using words that Americans just don't use. I would, instead of saying drug store, I would say chemist. Or I would try my best to remember to say bonnet instead of hood, or boot instead of trunk. But I often couldn't.

Joel Lovell

On the meal plan I ended up eating a lot of big piles of iceberg lettuce. And chickpeas.

Ira Glass

And during that time, would you find yourself sneaking to go to get meat somewhere?

Joel Lovell

Yeah, definitely. At first I would go really far from campus in order to have a BLT. There's this diner downtown in Ithaca, and it felt incredibly illicit. I'd be sitting there and I'd have some reading material or something with me, and I'd be the lonely guy in my booth. And I would order the BLT and I would watch it coming from across the room, with its toothpick in the top of it. And a side of French fries with this meat gravy on top. And when it landed on the table it would just seem like this incredibly wonderful moment. When you're doing something just totally unlike what anybody would expect of you.

Sean Cole

I was a nobody. I was living in an extremely small, kind of rural town, in the middle of nowhere. I guess, in a way, this was my way of travelling. And of being somebody. And sort of achieving an identity. Which I guess I didn't feel like I had. I didn't feel like-- I'm just sort of realizing this now-- but I guess I didn't feel as though I had anything that made me up.

Joel Lovell

I mean, what I realized fairly quickly is that if this is going to be believable, I actually have to believe in it. But I also began to, not only believe, but really sort of take on as my persona, all the stuff that I imagined was associated with vegetarianism.

Ira Glass

Like what?

Joel Lovell

Well, certain political convictions, and ways of dress.

Sean Cole

I wore ripped jeans and I wore combat boots. But I also wore a kind of stage jacket that you would see in a community theater production of Hamlet.

Joel Lovell

Yeah, I bought sandals. I very specifically remember going down to this thrift store in downtown Ithaca and buying a pair of fatigue shorts, which just seemed like I might as well have been Che Guevara at that point. As far I was concerned I was a dangerous leftist.

Ira Glass

Did you, at any point during this, find yourself in the following argument where you would say, I've never had a hamburger, and somebody would insist, oh, you must have had meat some point. And then you had to argue your side.

Sean Cole

Yeah, definitely. It wasn't pretty. And of course, I had grown up-- just to put this in context for a second, if you don't mind. I mean, not only had I had hundreds of hamburgers, and gone to the McDonald's drive through hundreds of times, but the counter point situation that I always think about when I remember this time was that, when I was a senior in high school, my family, for time saving reasons, decided that a great thing to do would be to go to Arby's Roast Beef. I don't know if you have those out in Chicago, I think they're countrywide.

So my dad and I would go to Arby's, on say, a Thursday afternoon or something. Or after I got out of school. And we would go in there and we would buy 48 Arby's roast beef sandwiches. And they would put them in this cardboard box. And we would bring home this giant box full of those tin foil covered Arby's roast beef sandwiches, and we would stuff them in our freezer. We would freeze the Arby's roast beef sandwiches and then we would have them there.

Ira Glass

Buns and all?

Joel Lovell

Buns and all, yeah. And so we would have them there as ready made snacks whenever we might want one. I mean, that's the kind of meat eating that my family was engaged in.

Sean Cole

The other things was that I had these run ins with doubting my British identity,

Ira Glass

Oh really?

Sean Cole

Yeah, as though it were slipping away. And I would really go nuts at that point. And there was one time it happened at home. I was at home, and I was like, oh my god, I have to do something. I have to affirm my devotion. I opened up the window and I psyched myself to do it. I was just like, oh man, if I don't do this, it won't come back. And I opened up the window, and then I screamed-- this is in the middle of the night, or, ten at night. And I screamed I love England, of course in a British accent, outside the window.

Ira Glass

And then you felt better? You felt like you had reasserted yourself?

Sean Cole

I felt like I had done something, at least.

Ira Glass

For England.

Sean Cole

Yeah. I had fortified my Britishness.

Joel Lovell

I would find myself in these conversations where people were saying, you've never had a McDonald's hamburger. What kind of American, 18 year old American, has never had a hamburger from McDonald's?

Ira Glass

Quite a legitimate question, I would add.

Joel Lovell

Absolutely, absolutely. And I would say, yeah, you know. I've just never had one, they scare me. And I would talk about the ways-- and I would make up these stories about how I'd come close a couple of times. How a friend of mine in high school had bought me a Big Mac and there I was, sitting on the front seat of his car, and I almost ate it, and then couldn't bring myself to do it. So there was all the drama that I lied about.

My mom and Dad came down to visit for parents' weekend, and they were really proud that I was going there, and really excited to come down. And they came down to visit.

Ira Glass

And really proud because you were the first generation to go to college, you made it into this Ivy League school, it was a big, big deal.

Joel Lovell

Right, exactly. Exactly. And so they drove down from Camillus, which is about between an hour and an hour and a half, they came down. And in that week leading up to parents' weekend, everybody's talking about their parents coming, and everybody's making reservations at restaurants, where to eat on Saturday night, and everybody's sort of planning on taking their parents to the football game on Saturday during the day. And it suddenly occurred to me, this real panic set it, that my parents would come down, and we would go to a football game and my dad would buy a hot dog. And somebody across the field would see Mr. Lovell eating a hot dog. And then, of course, the cat would be out of the bag.

And so I thought, I've got to make a reservation at a restaurant. At someplace either, A, where nobody else's parents will be, or at a vegetarian restaurant. And so what I did was make a reservation at the Moosewood Restaurant, which is in Ithaca. There's the Moosewood cookbooks that are out.

Ira Glass

Vegetarian cookbooks.

Joel Lovell

Exactly, yeah. And it's this nice little vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, and a slightly famous place. But then we got there. And I remember sitting down at the table in the Moosewood, and the bowls are these kind of carved wooden bowls, and everything about it feels like a vegetarian restaurant.

Ira Glass

And not just a vegetarian restaurant, but kind of a cartoon of a vegetarian restaurant.

Joel Lovell

Exactly. Exactly. And I was looking at my parents across the table, and they were dressed up and they were excited to be coming down, and I could tell my dad was sitting there and sort of perusing the menu and thinking, well, maybe this lentil salad will be good. Or whatever. And I could he was sitting there thinking geeze, I just drove an hour and a half, all I want is a steak, and a baked potato, and a beer. And there I was bringing them here.

But they were so game about it. They were so willing to go along with it because, for some reason, they thought I really wanted to bring them there. And I just thought, geeze, you know, these people, my parents, have really given up a lot for me to come there. I mean, financially they were really stretching themselves, and we were taking out all sorts of loans, and all of those things that people do in order to go to college. They never complained once about doing it. They just wanted to come down and see me there and feel all proud that I was there, and I was sort of hiding them out in this vegetarian restaurant. And I felt so bad about it afterwards.

And they never once complained. They went home, and I sort of imagine them stopping at a Hardy's just outside of Ithaca, getting a burger as soon as they say goodbye. But after that I just thought geeze, I've got to find some way to come clean about this.

Ira Glass

I mean, is it OK if your child decides to express themself in an alternate personality for a period of two years.

Sean Cole

I think there's-- it's funny, I never thought I would say this-- but I think there's nothing wrong with that. I never thought I would say it because I wish that I hadn't done it now. But maybe I learned something from doing it. I mean, I think that that is par for the course. Now I think that's part of growing up.

Joel Lovell

I think it was probably necessary for me at that time in my life.

Ira Glass

Because it gave you more confidence.

Joel Lovell

Yeah, and there was some ridge that that this allowed me to cross.

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell and Sean Cole. Joel Lovell is a writer in New York City.

Sean Cole

Sean Cole works in public radio in Boston.

[MUSIC - "MEAT" BY NOISE ADDICT]

Act Two. Conning The Con Men.

Ira Glass

Act two, Conning the Con Men. The American legal system, for the most part, does not uphold the principle of eye for an eye. If you steal somebody's car, the police do not steal your car in return. If they catch you selling marijuana, they do not sell marijuana to you as your punishment. But if you're in the business of running scams, authorities catch you by running a scam on you. This is the story of a con man who made millions by fooling people over the phone, until he was the one who got fooled. Nancy Updike reports.

Nancy Updike

The guy's name is David Diamond. That's his actual name. He was one of the most successful salesman in one of the longest running telemarketing scams in Los Angeles history.

Dale Sekovich

David Diamond was a salesman at a boiler room.

Nancy Updike

This is Dale Sekovich. He's been a Federal Trade Commission investigator for 29 years. He's the one who busted Diamond.

Dale Sekovich

He was living in a very expensive home up in the hills of Woodland Hills. He drove a custom Porsche Carrera that he had shipped over here by airplane from Germany from the factory. They lived very high on the hog.

Nancy Updike

David Diamond was just one of a whole bunch of guys making money hand over fist in an operation in southern California that was basically running the same scam over and over, under different names, for seven years. It was an investment scheme. Give us your money and we'll put it into this great 900 number business, or this online shopping network, or this hot new internet service provider. Needless to say, no one ever made a dime, except the people running the scam who cleared $40 million.

Since Diamond was one of the operation's top salesmen, he made $2 million in commissions in just four years on the job. He got 30% of whatever he talked a person into investing. That means he personally conned people out of more than $6 million. The FTC caught Diamond and the others in the operation essentially by conning the con men. They had volunteers pose as dupes and record their phone calls. Because the FTC brought a case against the operation Diamond worked in, some of those recordings are now part of the public record. I got Dale Sekovich to listen to the tapes with me, and talk about David Diamond and the FBI volunteer who caught him.

Dale Sekovich

The woman on the tape, I can't tell you her real name, but she uses the alias of Marge. She assumed the identity of a person who is named Marge. Marge was a real person who we in law enforcement and who people in the telemarketing business refer to as a mooch. A mooch is someone who will essentially buy anything from anybody who calls her on the telephone. In fact she did, over a number of years. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars--

Nancy Updike

The real Marge.

Dale Sekovich

The real Marge spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bogus prize promotions, investments, gold coins, you name it. So the FBI went to Marge and said, we really think that we need to take your telephone number away from you, because it's being used to ruin your life. So once Marge agreed to that, her telephone number was installed in the home of an FBI volunteer. And that volunteer, every time that phone line rang, the Marge line, that volunteer would pick up that telephone, and answer it, and pose as Marge.

David Diamond

Marge?

Marge

Yes?

David Diamond

It's David Diamond, how are you?

Marge

Oh, I'm OK. It's kind of warm here.

David Diamond

Yeah. I set you up a video and a package.

Marge

Yes, I have it.

David Diamond

OK. The video is with regard to Mark Erickson. Mark Erickson is the person who is heading up the program. And he is very successful in taking upstart companies and making them successful. You've probably heard of Hard Copy. He's the original producer of Hard Copy.

Marge

I've heard of it, yes.

David Diamond

OK.

Nancy Updike

You're smiling as you listen to this. What are you smiling about?

Dale Sekovich

Well I'm smiling because it's been a while since I've heard Marge, and she sounds so old, and so fragile, and such an easy mark, when in fact she's this sharp FBI informant. She doesn't look as old as she sounds, trust me. So that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is this whole Mark Erickson thing.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, is he a real person?

Dale Sekovich

Mark Erickson is a real person. He was named in our lawsuit.

Nancy Updike

And was he an original producer of Hard Copy?

Dale Sekovich

No. He was a segment producer and on the air reporter for Hard Copy for a brief period of time.

Nancy Updike

And is this sort of typical of the cons in the tapes that you've heard, that they'll try to associate what they're selling with a legitimate business or organization or television show, something that people have heard of.

Dale Sekovich

Exactly. They want to make this something people can relate to.

David Diamond

Here's the thing. You have to invest everything you've got, or do nothing at all. And I'll say that again. You should invest everything you have. You should transfer all of your investments into this program or do nothing. It doesn't make sense to do just a little bit. You should think about doing a million dollars in this program.

Marge

Oh. I don't know. That's a lot of money.

David Diamond

You need to liquidate every nickel you've got. You either want to be in this situation, you either want to be in the situation wholeheartedly and upgrade your investments, or you don't. My suggestion to you is just do the whole thing.

Marge

Well, I would never liquidate everything I have.

David Diamond

My question is, why not?

Marge

Because there's always gambles in anything like this.

David Diamond

Anything like what?

Marge

Well, any investment like this.

David Diamond

Like this? What does that mean?

Marge

Well, anything you invest in, there's always a gamble.

Nancy Updike

Now I want to ask you, you told me once that you thought he sounded nervous on this tape. And in this part where she's saying, you know, an investment like this. And he's sort of questioning her, well, what do you mean like this. I wonder, do you have any sense that he's suspicious that she might know what he's up to. I mean, did they know that volunteers are out there trying to trap them posing as dupes?

David Diamond

No. Since we talked about this tape last, I actually had a revelation that came to me as to why. I listened to over 40 individual tapes of David Diamond. Of conversations with Marge and conversations with others over the course of about a year. And one of the things, when you've listen to all of them, you find that David, in the earlier part of that year, was much more sweet and cautious, and trying to bond with these women. And patient. And sometimes would spend an hour on the phone with them. The tape would be an hour long.

But this tape was made towards the very end of that year period. Probably within a week or two of our raid. Having gone in on the raid, and searched David Diamond's desk that day, I came to realize that David Diamond was starting to question whether he wanted to do this anymore. He was starting to really have some concerns about--

Nancy Updike

Moral concerns?

Dale Sekovich

Moral concerns about what they were doing. And I believe that in these last couple of weeks, and it's kind of shown in this tape, he was becoming a little bit desperate. He wanted to make a couple of more big hits, and he just couldn't figure out why this woman wasn't going to write him a check. So he started getting frustrated. And it comes out in his voice.

Nancy Updike

What evidence did you see that he was starting to have moral qualms about what he was doing?

Dale Sekovich

David had become a born again. There were religious tracts all over his office, and posters on his wall.

Nancy Updike

Just recently?

Dale Sekovich

I don't know exactly what the time frame was. We do know that he had given a lot of the money that he had made to his church. And we believe that a lot of that was sort of a self-imposed penance, that he can justify what he was doing because he was giving his tithings. This money that he was taking from these poor victims into his church.

David Diamond

If $30,000 is what you made on every $5,000, and you put $50,000 into this program, that's $300,000 return. That's why I'm telling you, you need to do a million dollars in this program.

Marge

I don't know. I would never put that much in, in any program.

David Diamond

Do you have an obligation to yourself as an investor to make the most amount of money possible?

Marge

Well, you know, at my age it's really not that-- what do I want to say-- I have enough to live on for the rest of my life.

David Diamond

I understand. But is it still in your best interest to make the most amount of money possible if you can find to do it as safely as possible.

Marge

It's my obligation not to lose what I have.

David Diamond

Correct. But it's also your obligation to keep your money working for you, otherwise, what's the point.

Nancy Updike

When I heard this part of the tape, even though I knew that this woman, this particular woman, was not getting conned. That she was, in fact, conning him and trapping him, I started to get so angry. Because I was thinking, he is really trying to take all of this old woman's money. All of it. She's saying, I have enough to live on. He's saying, you have an obligation to make more. Do you ever hear things like that and just get angry, even though you know that she's in on the con, on the joke?

Dale Sekovich

Every time I hear these pitches I'm outraged. Because I am the person that spoke to people who really did send David Diamond tens of thousands of dollars that consisted of their life savings and now don't have any money, even to buy groceries. I've interviewed them. I've seen them sob. Yeah, it makes me very angry.

Nancy Updike

And what sort of recourse do they have?

Dale Sekovich

Slim and none. Slim and none.

David Diamond

We have public companies that want to take you public. So if you've got a public company that's passed judgement on it, it's not even me talking anymore. If Mark Erickson wants to do business with you it's not even me talking anymore. You have the ability to make an absolute fortune, and it doesn't make sense not to have every nickel you've got in this particular program. That's why I said it's an emergency investment situation and you should do at least fifty to a hundred, a hundred and fifty units while you have the opportunity.

Marge

Well, how much are you investing in this?

David Diamond

I'm not investing anything in this. My investment comes in the time that I put with my clients. Right. And the fact that when they make money, they reinvest with me.

Marge

Right.

David Diamond

That's the whole point.

Nancy Updike

You were smiling again. When she said how much are you investing. Is she just screwing around with him?

Dale Sekovich

Of course, she's playing with him. Yeah. I mean, she's trained to ask him those kinds of questions so that he responds with a misrepresentation.

Nancy Updike

But that doesn't sound like it's part of the script. That just sounds like her being mean in sort of a delicious way.

Dale Sekovich

Well, no. I think what we were trying to do, or her handler was trying to do, was get her to get him to say, oh yeah, I'm in it, and I've got my mother and my grandmother in it. And I'm putting away money for my child's education with it. Because then we could show later that he hadn't.

Nancy Updike

Did you ever talk to Marge about what it's like to do this. Do they ever sort of have fun, just thinking, I'm just turning the tables on this guy. He has no idea.

Dale Sekovich

I wish I could answer the question. I've never spoken to them. I'd love to get the answer to that myself. I'd like to ask that question myself. I think they get a lot of personal satisfaction though.

Nancy Updike

How often do you get a chance to catch a bad guy as just a regular civilian.

Dale Sekovich

Yeah, exactly. I do it too, I tape people using an alias in cases that I work.

Nancy Updike

And is it fun?

Dale Sekovich

I love it. I love to get these people to tell me stuff. It's like acting. There's a rush.

Nancy Updike

The rush of a con, the pleasure of it, is knowing that you have more power than the person you're conning. You know more. You know that it's a con. And let's face it, given the choice between being the mark and being the con man, nobody's going to choose to be the mark. But the problem is, the more confidence you have in your own con, the more easily you become a mark yourself. Con men get taken by other con men all the time. There just seems to be something about the particular arrogance of always being on the knowing side of the con that makes for a really, really good mark.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike, in Los Angeles. Coming up, the thrill of sitting close to the stage, and the evil that that can lead to. In a minute, for Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, pulling a hoax on yourself. Stories of people who think that they are fooling others until they're not anymore.

Act Three. Outperforming The Performers.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at act three of our program. Act three, Outperforming the Performers. It's a measure of just how hungry people are to create a community that a full fledged, tight knit group of friends could form out of a publicity stunt. Back in 1996, a new musical called Rent was moving from a small theater in New York's East Village to the big time, a Broadway house just a half block from Times Square. The show presented a romanticized view of what it means to be young and broke.

And to keep the magical air of youth and poverty in the house, the producers decided that every single night they would sell two rows of seats, the first two rows, some of the best seats in the house, for a price nearly anyone could scrape together. $20 a pop, less than a third of what tickets normally sell for on Broadway. Hundreds of teens and twenty somethings took the bait. So many, that if you wanted to get one of the cheap seats, you had to arrive at six o'clock a night before, get in line with a sleeping bag, and stay out all night.

Joe Gillis

See where they're standing? That's where we used to sleep.

Rebecca Allen

We would sleep all where those photos are.

Ira Glass

Joe Gillis and Rebecca Allen stand in front of the theater where Rent is still playing, near a row of life-sized pictures of the cast, mounted on a wall by the theater door.

Rebecca Allen

During the show we had to stay out there because they had to keep the marquee area clear.

Joe Gillis

So as soon as the show was over and they closed the doors, we'd all run over, and we all like, claim our spot because we'd all want to sleep under our favorite cast member.

Ira Glass

And so which one was yours?

Joe Gillis

I slept under Daphne once and I think I slept under Anthony another time.

Rebecca Allen

You're sleeping on the pavement while people walk by, ignoring you. And you're like, yeah, I'm just like those people in the play. You don't really think that.

Ira Glass

But a small part of you thinks that.

Rebecca Allen

A small part of you thinks that. And will identify more with the play, the more you can be like it.

Ira Glass

When they were in line, everybody would hang out all day. Grab some food at McDonald's or at the diner across the street. And the fans who didn't show up at the theater on any given day would communicate through an email list with hundreds of Rent heads on it. Most of them were suburban kids like Joe and Rebecca. Students. Joe says that he was closer to the Rent fans than to his friends back in high school. It was on the Rent line that he first came out as gay, long before his friends back home knew. For lots of teenagers, this was the first community that felt like their own.

It's easy to see why they like the show which unironically celebrates what it unironically calls the bohemian life, in French. A life of poverty and love and art. The setting is contemporary New York. The characters are homosexuals, homeless people, interracial couples, drug addicts, flailing artists, and doomed HIV positive lovers. The mood of the show is at once fantastically idealistic and desperately tragic. Several characters are dying of AIDS. And among the throngs of young people who are drawn to the magnetic pool of Rent's message that you should live each day like it's your only day on Earth was a young student who we'll call Stephanie. All of our interviewees also agreed to call her Stephanie.

Catherine Skidmore

We met about two and a half, three years ago, when we were both interested in the musical Rent. We belonged to the same mailing list online. And she drove up to New York with some friends from college and they stayed in my apartment while they went to see the show.

Ira Glass

This is Catherine Skidmore, a friend of Stephanie's and one of the ringleaders among the Rent fans. She was a founder of one of the big internet mailing lists about the show. She's young, used to run in computer hacker circles. One of her tattoos is her social security number in binary code. Now she works for a web start up. Stephanie was one of the many people she got to know, back during the heyday of Rent.

Catherine Skidmore

I lived the closest to the theater out of anybody. And I think I was the only person in the line who had her own apartment, so I used to let friends stay with me when they drove up.

Ira Glass

How often would you let somebody stay with you?

Catherine Skidmore

I think every weekend or every other weekend. It got turned into the hotel Catherine.

Ira Glass

She says Stephanie let everyone know that she had a medical condition called autonomic neuropathy. And she said it was terminal. She told this people on the line and she told it to members of the cast of Rent.

Catherine Skidmore

When she was in New York she used to come to the stage door and ask the actors to give her tours backstage, or ask them out for lunch or dinner. When she would email us Stephanie would say, I'm not feeling great. Could you ask the cast to send me a card, could you ask them to email me.

Anthony Rapp

I first got a letter that she kind of sent the same letter to several of us in the cast in New York.

Ira Glass

Anthony Rapp played the lead role in Rent.

Anthony Rapp

She was a young aspiring actress, student who was suffering from an illness, and that the show brought her great comfort. And she didn't know how long she had to live. You know, my heart went out to her, as all of our hearts did.

Gwen Stewart

You know, my heart just went out to her. It really did.

Ira Glass

Gwen Stewart was another cast member.

Gwen Stewart

And whenever she came to the show I would make sure that I would try to spend a little time with her. We'd gone out to dinner a couple times, and we'd sit around and talk, and I called her on the phone. I gave her my home number. And it was to the point where I literally made a point of praying for this girl each and every night.

Anthony Rapp

Well ultimately what we were hearing was that she was about to have this major surgery and that she was very scared about it. And that she came to New York right before she was going to have it. That was when Gwen Stewart and I went to lunch with her.

Gwen Stewart

She said that she was contemplating suicide. And I'm a spiritual person, and I'd gone as far as to look up all these scriptures to support life and to support hope and faith. And I would give them to her and tell her to read her Bible. And a lot of the conversations were like that. And then, you know, if it got a little too heavy, we'd swing it around to Rent.

Anthony Rapp

And at that lunch she brought out some medical paraphernalia. Like a syringe, and like an IV tube thing. She went off to the bathroom to supposedly administer herself some medication.

Ira Glass

After her lunch with the stars in New York, Stephanie flew back to the city where she was from, where she dropped in on a touring company of Rent which happened to be performing there.

Anthony Rapp

She was getting to know them and befriending them and telling them her story and they held a prayer circle for her the night before her supposed surgery.

Ira Glass

You mean just backstage at the theater?

Anthony Rapp

Yeah, she was backstage and she was there with the cast and they held a prayer circle for her.

Ira Glass

Perhaps you've already figured out where all this is going. In the end, Stephanie did not turn out of any kind of terminal condition. What's remarkable about her story is how far she was able to push the lie, and how compulsively she did it, almost like it was out of her control to stop herself. As she got sicker, her friends in New York started to get emails from someone named Monica, who claimed to be a friend of Stephanie's.

It was Monica who wrote them when Stephanie went into surgery. Monica gave lengthy accounts of Stephanie's condition, and urged them to organize get well cards and calls from the cast. Catherine later collected all of Monica's and Stephanie's emails into a massive document that she calls the log of deception. With her roommate Jen Eldridge, who also met Stephanie on the Rent line and considered her a close friend, Catherine stood at her computer and scrolled through the log.

Jen Eldridge

Yeah, oh, where's my favorite one. Yeah, Monica emails are good.

Catherine Skidmore

Find the one about the coma. That's [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Jen Eldridge

The suicide one.

Catherine Skidmore

The suicide one's good, too. There's coma and suicide.

Ira Glass

They decide to go for suicide.

Catherine Skidmore

Here we go. This is an email from Monica on Friday, November 7, 1997, at 9:00 PM. Where she says, she sent this directly to me. I'm at Stephanie's, I just followed the EMTs out to the ambulance. Stephanie tried to end it all tonight. I found a syringe and an empty container of morphine. She didn't know that I was coming to check on her, blah, blah, blah, they say she'll be OK, and I caught her just in time. She really went all out, and I don't know how much of this she planned or how much--

Jen Eldridge

And keep in mind, this is a weekend she knew that all of her friends were converging in New York at Catherine's apartment. Like we were all going to be there together when this email came. And I think we were all in different levels of transit when you got this email and started just being very upset. And trying to get contact, and everybody's in cars and on trains trying to get there.

Ira Glass

And then what happen once you all knew that she was--

Catherine Skidmore

We tried to call the hospitals, and we tried to call 911 to see if they had a record of it. I called Kenny.

Ira Glass

Oh, you tried to call her in a hospital and you couldn't find her.

Catherine Skidmore

We could find her. No hospitals in her area had records of her being checked in. So we just said, oh my god, she's somewhere and we can't get to her, and we don't know what to do. And nobody knew what to do.

Ira Glass

It's amazing how un-thought out it is. What did she think you were going to do once you got that email?

Catherine Skidmore

I don't know.

Ira Glass

And so your evening together, like where all of you were going to be together hanging out, ended up being completely--

Catherine Skidmore

It was pretty miserable. Yeah, it was really miserable. We went, I guess we saw the show. Everybody bawled their way through it and cried their way through it. And went and told the cast members, of course, because that's what we thought she'd want us to do.

Ira Glass

There was one person who always got Monica's story. Josh Safran, who at the time was boyfriends with the star of Rent, Anthony Rapp. Josh not only doubted that Stephanie was sick, he felt horribly guilty for doubting her. This was his problem in a nutshell, he says. Anthony was all about trusting and loving people. He was all about cynicism and mistrust. Fortunately for him, his friends Sean and Michelle also doubted Stephanie.

Josh Safran

So we were suspicious. We were talking more about it for a few days, but then she goes to the hospital, and she goes into a coma.

Ira Glass

That is, an email from Monica said Stephanie was in a coma. And when this happened Catherine, who wasn't doubting at all, made a decision.

Josh Safran

I talked to Catherine, and Catherine was like, even though she doesn't want us to go there, even though Stephanie doesn't want any visitors, we're going to go. She's in a coma. We should be there. And I said good. And I said, tell Monica. And as soon as they told Monica, Stephanie woke up. As soon as that happened, Sean and Michelle and I were positive that we got her.

Ira Glass

Why? Why, what did that mean to you that she woke up at that moment.

Josh Safran

She woke up so they didn't have to come. That was Monica, the way she phrased it in the email was, oh, she's better, you don't have to come. She'd like to see you in a few days. It was so obvious that she was pushing off. So we needed to find a way to make sure.

Ira Glass

How to make sure. Well, it turns out that we live in a country where, if there's an emergency requiring a plumber or an electrician or a mechanic, people turn to professionals. But when it comes to detective work, deep down, we all believe we're capable of it.

Josh Safran

It really became a crusade. I mean, there were three days where none of us slept. We only worked on this. And that was insane. It's embarrassing to think about it.

Ira Glass

They called dozens of hospitals in the city where Stephanie lived, asking if she was a patient. They researched the disease she supposedly had, they pored over old emails looking for clues. Finally they decided to call the elusive Monica who no one had ever spoken to. It turned out that there was in fact a real Monica who went to school with Stephanie, and after some spade work, they found her real last name.

Josh Safran

We called information, and there was that number. She existed, she was there, we immediately were like, oh [BLEEP]. This was the moment of crisis where we were running around the apartment, freaking out, thinking we are terrible people. Because if we call this number, and this girl's like yes, Stephanie's in the hospital, but she's much better, then we were terrible, cynical people for-- like, it was everything that is wrong with the world and wrong with us. How could we ever think this. How could we spend so much time on it, how could we be such a horrible person.

So I called the number, and Monica answered. And I was so nervous. I remember it was in my dingy little kitchen with the plastic countertop, and I was so nervous that I was shaking the plastic countertop, and things were falling all over. And Monica was like, I've heard about you, but there's all this loud noise. So nervous. I said, how's Stephanie? And she said, she's doing better. And I was like, OK, thank you. And I hung up the phone because I didn't want-- I couldn't deal with it. But immediately Michelle, Sean, and I were like, she's doing better, she really is sick. But then we thought, but wait a minute, maybe not.

So they were like, you have to call back. And I'm like, I'm not going to call back. We just found out we're horrible people, she really is ill, blah, blah, blah. So they were like, but she didn't sound concerned, she didn't sound worried, call back. So we waited 10 minutes then I called back and I was like hi, I'm sorry Monica, it's Josh again. Look, when's the last time you saw Stephanie? She said, I saw her in class this morning. And that was it.

Ira Glass

They contacted Stephanie, let her know that they had talked to the real Monica. They knew there was no coma. After some hedging, Stephanie finally admitted she wasn't dying. The next week, Catherine used her plane ticket and went to talk to Stephanie in person.

Catherine Skidmore

I had a list compiled of questions from our friends on why she did this, how sick was she, and she basically admitted that she did this as a cry for attention of sorts and it went overboard. And then once she started telling us all of these lies about what was going on she didn't have any way to back out of it. Then she kept going and she didn't feel like she could stop at any point during this.

Ira Glass

Stephanie declined a request to be interviewed for this radio story. Jen remembers that before everybody knew the truth about Stephanie, it was a regular thing to get panicky calls from her between midnight and 2:00 AM.

Jen Eldridge

She would call me crying in the middle of the night that she was just ready to kill herself, couldn't deal with stuff. And I honestly think that when she called me and said these things, that it was genuine. It was just sort of something that went along with it and we would talk about it when she needed to and needed to be upset and cry. And there were many conversations about how she just didn't know how to deal with it anymore. And as I look back on it and I wonder if some of those I don't know how to deal with it conversations were really about she didn't know how to tell people that she had done this. I think there was a point for her when she realized that this was going to blow up in her face.

Ira Glass

A word now about the plot of the musical Rent. It is, of course, about terminal illness. One character dies, another nearly dies. Anthony Rapp.

Anthony Rapp

It's very much about what people do in the face of all that. And in the case of the show, the group of friends really bands together. And so I don't know. I guess maybe on some level Stephanie thought that we would appreciate the plight of somebody who was young and facing something dire like that.

Ira Glass

And then everybody would band around.

Anthony Rapp

Yeah.

Ira Glass

In a way it's like she's casting herself in the show.

Anthony Rapp

Yeah, sure.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's like, what does a fan want from a show. Especially the kind of fan who comes back again and again. It's like somehow they want to get closer to it. They want to get inside it. They want to be in it.

Anthony Rapp

I know when I see a show that I love, I want to be in it. Seriously. It brought out the best in people. It did.

Ira Glass

In fact, the script of the show provided a model for everyone on how to act with Stephanie. Both for the fans who saw the show dozens of times and the cast who sung out their hearts every night about the importance of sticking by your friends when they're dying. Stephanie got her wish. Not only did she get sympathy and attention, she got it from the very people who she watched on stage, in Rent, time and again. When Catherine went back through her old emails, she noticed how often Stephanie was asking to deliver a message to the cast, or asking about the cast.

Catherine Skidmore

Afterwards, it was just pretty sick to read back and see it. That she really didn't care about her-- we thought we were her friends. She really cared more about the cast and their reaction.

Ira Glass

You know the point in the show where Angel dies and then all the other characters come forward and give little tributes.

Catherine Skidmore

Yeah, a eulogy.

Ira Glass

Give little eulogies. Do you think that Stephanie fantasized about all of you-- you do.

Catherine Skidmore

Oh, absolutely. She had emailed us and said, when I go, when they put me in the ground, I want so and so to sing the reprise of "I'll Cover You" from the show at my grave. It would be great.

Gwen Stewart

When I first realized that it was all a lie, I was very angry.

Ira Glass

Again, cast member Gwen Stewart.

Gwen Stewart

Very angry. And that's why I didn't speak to any of them. Because I had allowed a bunch of strangers to come into my life and I'd opened my heart to them.

Ira Glass

After this, did you change your attitude toward the fans in general?

Gwen Stewart

Not really. I mean, I didn't give out my number anymore. But I still signed autographs. I still took the time to talk to people, and took pictures, and all that other stuff. I didn't open myself anymore like I did. I felt betrayed. And I had to make sure that I didn't allow anybody else to do that.

Ira Glass

After all this happened, did you want to pray for her, still.

Gwen Stewart

Oh, I did. I did. Because I realized that sickness and death were the least of her problems.

Ira Glass

Back on 41st Street, Rebecca and Joe, who knew Stephanie, but not all that well, say that Stephanie was just doing a more extreme version of what a lot of people did on the line.

Rebecca Allen

It's not surprising to find out that something you think about someone in the line is a lie, or just like, a little off. Sasha, please, don't get me started. For example, this is my good friend Joe Gillis. But that is not his name. And how long did I know you before I knew that was not your name.

Joe Gillis

When did you figure out that was not my name?

Ira Glass

What is your name?

Joe Gillis

My name is Joe Falduti.

Ira Glass

On the line there was a Bridget, whose real name was Laura, a 15-year-old who everybody thought was 22, and many gay teenagers, who are out only on the neutral ground of 41st Street.

Joe Gillis

I mean, I actively knew it was not real life. And I actually would say, my Rent friends and my real friends. But it's really weird how something that was so not real affected real life so much.

Ira Glass

In a way, a play does too.

Rebecca Allen

That's what theater wants to do. They want you to become emotionally involved and care about something, and then leave it and go back to your real life.

Ira Glass

Which is what Stephanie did on the Rent line. She got everyone emotionally involved, made them care about something. And then, she went back to her real life.

Credits.

Dale Sekovich

You know, I do it too. I tape people using an alias.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.