The phrase “confidence man,” or “con man,” was coined on the morning of July 8th, 1849, in the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald. A short article there, entitled “Arrest of the Confidence Man,” detailed the apprehension of a crook named William Thompson, whose swindle involved approaching well-to-do individuals and engaging them in friendly conversation. After developing some rapport, Thompson would ask: “Have you confidence enough in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” As the Herald article has it, Thompson’s target, “at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger.”
Thompson was arrested when one of his former marks spotted him on the street and summoned a nearby police officer. After serving a sentence for larceny, Thompson fled Manhattan and reappeared in Albany, calling himself Samuel Willis, and resuming his confidence games. News of his exploits occasioned Herman Melville’s final novel, The Confidence Man, which takes place on April Fool’s Day, 1857. The setting is a Mississippi riverboat called The Fidele, and the action centers on an extensive scammer who, under a variety of disguises and assumed identities, tries to fleece a whole spectrum of characters from American life. It seems that something more fundamental than money is at stake for the Confidence Man. The game is trust, a concept whose role is ambiguous: society cannot function without it, and yet it is the precondition for deception. Given this dilemma, one of Melville’s purposes is to show how the swindle is a relationship—that it takes two to tango—and that the greed and vanity of a swindler’s victim are like an invitation to dance. But above all else, Melville’s novel raises the question of what motivates the con artist aside from opportunism and the chance to make a few dollars. As the narrator puts it, “Was the man a trickster, it must be more for the love than the lucre. Two or three dirty dollars the motive to so many wiles?”
No doubt many con artists believe themselves justified in their deceit because of the hypocrisy and greed of their intended victims. Often an integral motivational element for con artists is hostility towards the corrupt structures of society, either because of the manner in which it excludes or neglects them, or because its power structures exploit and waste their potential with little reciprocal reward. If a loophole can be found, then why not exploit it in return? Resentment and contempt can be as catalyzing as greed, ambition, and intellectual pride. Clearly, when all of these are active within a single individual who sees an opportunity to fleece a society’s enthusiasts or adherents, no further justification is needed. For victimized minds, two wrongs make a right.
But such swindlers are of considerably less psychological interest than the even more pathological types who appear to bear no resentment towards those they wish to fleece—and who acquire no wealth from their deceptive activities. Whereas traditional confidence artists appear to play the game consciously, with a view to revenge, exposure, or wily one-upmanship, there is a category of deceiver whose imposture appears to be motivated by the will to deceive themselves more so than others. In such cases, self-resentment and self-loathing may be more dominant than a vengeful or Socratic social attitude.
One of the strangest examples of this more pathological type of con artist is Tania Head, the woman who claimed to have been in the Sky Lobby on the 76th floor of the South World Trade Center Tower when the second plane struck. Together with an actual 9/11 survivor named Gerry Bogacz, Tania Head formed the WTC Survivors Network, a sort of trauma-support system. Eventually, she squeezed Bogacz from the board and maneuvered herself to the position of president. She gave guided tours at ground zero, telling groups and even the media of her harrowing experience: how she was thrown across the room from the explosive impact; how she emerged from unconsciousness to find Welles Crowther, the famous man in the red bandana, patting out the fire scorching her arm; how she was carried to safety just before the second tower collapsed; how a fireman guided her under a truck to avoid the falling rubble; and how she slipped into a coma only to awaken five days later in a hospital bed. She also told of how her husband, Dave, had been killed when the first tower collapsed, making her a double-victim.
The documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There chronicles Head’s rise to prominence in the world of 9/11 survivors and her fall from fraudulent grace. In many of the film’s interviews, we see her former friends and companions discussing how integral she had been in comforting them and helping them through the trauma, how compassionate she was, how strong and supportive and admirable. Over time, however, as Head grew more ruthless in her victimhood, her façade began to crack. Bogacz and others grew increasingly suspicious, and a series of articles and inquiries led to the discovery of the truth that Tania Head was unmarried and living in Barcelona on September 11th, 2001. When the planes struck, she was some 4,000 miles from ground zero. She never profited financially from her manipulations, nor did she appear to harbor any resentment towards victims of the terrorist attack—to the contrary, she seemed to long for the community her duplicity provided, and, clearly, she wished to be a leader of that community.
What if con artists of her inclination, who operate neither from umbrage nor for financial gain, fail to remember that their elaborate construction is untrue? What if the sham itself is an act of forgetting, one that, to put it another way, requires memory but interferes with accurate recollection? In constructing falsehoods of such magnitude, the imagination and the memory coalesce, and in order to avoid betraying the lie, the con artist is required to work up a wealth of detail both subtle and intricate, one that is founded on seized minutiae from a life not her own.
Counterintuitively, in fact, this work of forgetting may be the originating purpose of the deception: not a mere by-product of the urge to swindle, but an unconscious strategy to avoid enduring one’s own problematic inner depths. The perspective of such massive dishonesty impedes proper self-knowledge because it neglects the true contents of personality—which is to say that it remembers from a false starting point, and in so doing, occludes recollection of one’s substantial reality as an individual in pain. The mental energy required to hold the fabricated structure in place allows the fraud to escape the often distressing ordeal of self-awareness.
A 2020 television series entitled The Undoing plays with these issues. Based on the novel You Should Have Knownby Jean Hanff Korelitz, the series stars Hugh Grant as Jonathan Fraser, a pediatric oncologist accused of murdering his mistress with a sculpting hammer. Nicole Kidman plays his wife, Grace, a clinical psychologist. Throughout, Grace struggles with the question of whether her husband is capable of such violence. One of the issues concerns the idea of her husband’s potentially pathological narcissism: a self-infatuation and lack of empathy so absolute that, essentially, he has no conscience, no qualms about ending the life of another human with maximum brutality. Is it possible that this man whom Grace has loved and trusted for so long has successfully concealed his sociopathy from her, when after all she is trained in diagnosing such disorders? If her husband is guilty—and all the evidence suggests as much—how is it that she never penetrated beyond his superficiality in order to see the moral vacuum within?
The suspense the series generates hinges around this question, since it reveals the contradiction that, in her own sub-clinical narcissism, Grace Fraser is perhaps more likely to be duped than a woman untrained in clinical psychology. Her strong belief that she is a good psychologist interferes with her willingness to admit that she might have mistakenly married and remained devoted to a man who for all these years has managed to conceal his extreme self-absorption, hollowness, and indifference to the feelings and emotions of other human beings.
But The Undoing raises an even deeper psychological contradiction embedded within the concept of narcissistic personality disorder. The contradiction is best described by Otto Kernberg in his book Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. In what would amount to an almost picture-perfect description of Hugh Grant’s character, Kernberg writes:
I describe patients with narcissistic personalities as presenting excessive self-absorption usually coinciding with superficially smooth and effective social adaptation, but with serious distortions in their internal relationships with other people. They present various combinations of intense ambitiousness, grandiose fantasies, feelings of inferiority, and overdependence on external admiration and acclaim. Along with feelings of boredom and emptiness, and continuous search for gratification of strivings for brilliance, wealth, power, and beauty, there are serious deficiencies in their capacity to love and to be concerned about others. This lack of capacity for empathic understanding of others often comes as a surprise considering their superficially appropriate social adjustment.
That final sentence in Kernberg’s description highlights a compelling question. If the pathological narcissist lacks empathy, how is he is able to adjust so well socially, to gain the confidence of others by fooling them into the belief that he is loving and compassionate, and even to seduce others into a devoted reciprocal relationship? If long-term social adjustment requires sensitivity to the emotions of others, if an enduring erotic relationship requires mutual understanding and a nuanced responsiveness to the physical and emotional needs of a partner, then how is a pathological narcissist able to pull off such relations? How does the narcissist dupe his spouse, children, colleagues, and friends into the belief that he is caring and compassionate, perhaps even selfless, when in fact the opposite is true?
Viewers of The Undoing may not immediately regard Jonathan Fraser as a con artist, especially not one possessed of the same motivations as a woman like Tania Head. Yet, like her, he is an extreme version of an intensive con artist, namely one who plays the long con with a small number of victims (as opposed to the extensive con artist, who fleeces one victim after another in an ongoing series of short cons). Jonathan’s seduction is a long-running scam, where the object he wishes to embezzle from his victims is not their money but their adoring gaze, their unqualified trust and devotion, their intimacy or sexual attentions. Jonathan’s example illuminates how a case of extreme narcissism can lubricate the human tendency to deceive others for selfish purposes, whether to acquire wealth, power, admiration, or some other questionable human currency. He charms a wholly fraudulent domestic world into existence, using his wife, child, and career as props to sustain the illusion of perfection and to facilitate his acquisition of other adoring feminine victims. When the extravagant construction is threatened through the interference of his latest mistress, he murders her in order to preserve the false and beautiful world he has constructed.
If Jonathan’s adulthood is one long confidence game, if seduction is not essentially different in structure from the swindle, then a view of con artistry can illuminate pathological narcissism, and a view of pathological narcissism can illuminate the mentality of intensive con artists. More specifically, the theory I wish to put forward here is that, in general, intensive con artistry is a narcissistic strategy for the avoidance of self-knowledge: a strategy that is sometimes called survivalism or the “survivalist mentality,” first introduced by Christopher Lasch in his books The Culture of Narcissismand The Minimal Self. The “survival” in these cases is emotional, not biological, and amounts to escaping from the difficulties and uncertainties of honest self-awareness, especially if the individual’s past is fraught with misdeed, trauma, or debilitating shame or anguish. To survive in this sense requires avoiding self-knowledge or any integration of the past within the present. “And we could, of course, say that Narcissus was in flight from self-knowledge,” as Adam Phillips wrote in his book Promises, Promises.
Narcissus was that beautiful youth who became enamored of his own reflection in the clear waters of a fountain. Because he had left behind a string of abandoned lovers and admirers, the gods condemned him to fall in love while denying him the possibility of consummation. The surest means of achieving this was by causing him to love his own reflection. Since he already used others merely as paraphernalia for his autoeroticism, the gods only intensified his condition to the point where it became unbearable (as is often the case in Greek myths, the punishment mirrors and magnifies the crime). Thereafter, Narcissus was only able to see in the world that which was capable of reflecting his image. Puzzlingly, despite his excessive self-gazing, he failed to develop any self-awareness. Instead, his obsession with his image somehow acted as an interference. He operated in total alienation from society, and yet, alone with himself, he could not penetrate beyond his spectacular vanity to the depths within. Put another way, he was stunted in his personal development and never generated any substance, earnestness, or continuity in relationships. As a result, he had to escape self-knowledge in order to avoid bearing witness to his own horrific and ever-growing emptiness and alienation both from others and his own self.
Eventually, desperate at his inability to possess the object of his desires—himself—Narcissus plunged a dagger into his own breast and sank into the water, taking his reflection with him. His suicide marks the paradoxical culmination of self-knowledge and self-ignorance. In a bad epiphany, he came to know that, being pure surface just like the image he gazed at, there was nothing within but a void. His “self-knowledge” was equivalent to the vertiginous realization that self-knowledge was impossible for him: thus, he was subject to a mad loop, an existential mise-en-abyme. Instead of anchoring himself in committed, mutual relationships, and instead of devoting his life to objects of enduring value, Narcissus became enamored with superficial contingencies, and fell into spinning anxiety and despair when he finally witnessed the dark, inner abyss he had spent his life concealing from the surface of his thoughts.
So long as Narcissus remained in a state of self-deception, he remained safe from any awareness of the chasm within, that absence of soul that was his interior. Likewise, the energy of the pathological narcissist involves constructing a series of situations in which the world is able to mirror him in new ways, so that he never has to confront the dread of his own raw mental condition. Having failed to develop a “narrative self” to serve as a foundation upon which to weather the vagaries of life, he has nothing to rely upon except for mimicry of his own reflection. This is why Christopher Lasch’s concept of survivalism is so rich. As long as the narcissist can continue finding objects and persons who will reflect his desired image back to him without seeing him for what he truly is, he can continue living in oblivion, improvising a pasteboard paradise to conceal from himself the fact that he is in the hell of absolute solitude.
Among all the contradictions that stand out in the myth of Narcissus as I’ve just described it, perhaps the most beguiling is the question of how a pathological narcissist can simulate empathy. How can a self-deceiver, someone so deficient in self-understanding, believing his superficial qualities to be substantial ones, have enough insight into the substance of other personalities in order to dupe them? Let me propose that for such a figure, the world and the people in it fulfill the function that water has in the original myth.
The paradox becomes less beguiling when we realize that, being morbidly vainglorious, the extreme narcissist can easily recognize the vanities of those around him, picking up on the prosaic narcissisms to which we all succumb from time to time, since narcissism is an element of every human personality. Misapplied desire—for wealth, reputation, power, or any trapping capable of boosting our pride—easily recognizes and exploits the misapplied desire of others. The narcissist can reflect the environment precisely because he sees in the environment his own reflection. Once again, his social adjustment is the result of whirling mimicry rather than grounded reciprocity. If so, it is not the substance of others that the pathological narcissist sees and attends to, but their own superficial predilections.
Each new mark provides the fraud with a new opportunity to remain a stranger to himself. The maneuver that keeps the narcissist from the edge of debilitating dread, in other words, involves postponing the revelation that he is self-gazing when he looks at others. In such cases, so long as desire is victorious and the object is achieved, the narcissist can slowly aggregate conquests, always seeing as new what is actually a repetition. The intensive con artist, quintessentially, asks for the very thing he does not deserve: trust. If he gains it, his reward may be money, admiration, leadership, or power, yes, but also something much more significant and contradictory: greater pride. But what does this pride consist in? Precisely in being recognized for what he is not. It is a pyramid scheme, and the larger the pyramid grows, the more devastating its potential collapse, the more pathological and desperate the deceiver becomes. To take pride in being what one is not is the purest form of self-deception. The illness, seen from this point of view “is especially problematic, since it fosters the very problems against which it is a defense. … This vicious circle is characteristic of much mental illness.”
This last quote comes from the book Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School, and Psychoanalytic Theory by C. Fred Alford.Tania Head and the fictitious Jonathan Fraser both meet all the classic criteria for a pathological narcissist Alford sets forth in that book. He writes, for example, that narcissism is usually seen as “an infatuation with the self so extreme that the interests of others are ignored, others serving merely as mirrors of one’s own grandiosity.” He adds that, in addition to strong tendencies toward interpersonal exploitation—the essence of a con artist’s game—typical also “is an orientation of entitlement, the notion that one is worthy of great admiration, respect, and reward regardless of one’s achievements.” The game that both of these deranged figures play has, I believe, one true and profound motivation: to see others seeing them as they are not. And what could be a greater indemnity against witnessing the emptiness within? Yet it must be admitted that we all share narcissistic tendencies. And just as the greed of others is an invitation for extensive con artists to play their fraudulent, short-term games, the sub-clinical narcissism we all enjoy is what makes the intensive, pathological confidence game possible.