I couldn’t wait to meet Abby Ellin for lunch at Michael’s Today. Earlier this week, I devoured her new book, Duped — Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married, in one night. The award-winning scribe, who holds the distinction of being one of very few journalists whose byline appears in multiple sections of the New York Times, has written a genre-defying work that is quite the page-turner.
Duped came about after Abby wrote a cover story in 2015 for Psychology Today about her ill-fated relationship with a man she calls The Commander. This guy constructed an outrageous web of lies that included claims he headed up super-secret missions for the CIA. He claims to have played a critical role in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
When The Commander proposed, he told Abby he could get Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to host their wedding. Despite numerous red flags along the way, (she was suspicious but friends told her to ‘go easy on him’) Abby got engaged to the faux Jason Bourne and moved to Washington, DC to be with him only to see the whole thing unravel and discover he was a complete fraud.
When her story was published, Abby was inundated with messages from readers (male and female) recounting their own harrowing and heart-breaking tales of being duped. She knew she had something but even more importantly, Abby wanted to know why certain people lead double lives. They lie about anything and everything. And why otherwise intelligent, well-adjusted people are taken in by scams that in hindsight, are absolutely ridiculous. In her case, she explained, “I was trying so hard not to be that New York media person. As journalists, we are told not to trust.”
Duped was published by PublicAffairs earlier this year and garnered rave reviews. The timely tome helped Abby score a spot on the Today Show as well as the Times’ podcast and three hours on Coast-to-Coast radio. Abby is also the author of Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in On Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help.
In Duped, Abby writes with searing honesty and laugh out loud humor (which was also in evidence during our lunch) as she recounts her struggle with believing everything The Commander was telling her versus her reporter’s instinct to find out what the hell was really going on . (“I wanted to trust him,” she writes. “I wanted it to work.”) I had to ask her about one incident in the book where she writes about going out to buy a 2.5-carat cubic zirconia. Rather than wear the tiny diamond The Commander proposed with. (“I hated the one he gave me; I’ve had larger pimples.”)
Why did she buy the ring? Her reasons for buying the fake ring reflected her own inner conflict at the time. “Two reasons,” she said. “One, I could be someone who got my storybook wedding. And two, I was going to get the story of the super-secret stuff going on in the government.”
Abby got neither of those things, and a few years later, she met another faux Romeo, a painter. (“Maybe he wasn’t even a painter.”) she dubbed ‘The Cliché’ in the book because he told the frequently trotted out lie about being separated from his wife. This guy also had another woman “for sex” on the side. “But I love you!” he told her. “I really debated over whether I wanted to include it in the book,” she said. But the truth won out. “In both cases, I left as soon as I discovered I was being duped.”
When I asked her if it was hard to reveal such painful details of her personal life in the book, she said, “Monetize suffering. That’s my motto.”
In addition to her candid revelations about her own experiences in Duped, Abby incorporates other people’s stories as well as an impressive amount of research on the science of lying to give the reader a real sense of how pervasive liars and lying is in Today’s culture.
“I’m the through line,” she said between bites of salad niçoise. “A lot of people have said they wanted more of my story, I could have written a memoir, but I really wanted to find out why [lying] is so pervasive.”
We could have devoted the entire lunch to discussing “gaslighter-in-chief” Donald Trump. “All politicians lie but at least they are not as egregious [as Trump].” Abby told me she took a lot of heat on social media from readers who accused her of making the book “too political” in her analysis of Trump. Her response: “How could I write a book about lying and not include Trump?” Beats me.
Over the course of our lunch, we covered a lot of ground including the fact that we all lie all the time every single day but “we have to trust every day.” We lie to our kids. “I was bummed when I found out Santa Claus didn’t exist and I’m a Jew!” Abby joked that our mutual friend Judy Twersky, who had arranged for Today’s get-together, is always telling “white lies” about “how fabulous I look. I choose to believe her.” We all agreed we are living our own version of a double life: the carefully curated Instagram and Facebook page reveal nothing about the realities of everyday life. “Who puts up a bad picture of themselves?”
I asked Abby what she thought of heroes’ welcome Tiger Woods has received. in the media since winning the Masters (as well as being honored at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the serial liar-in-chief). Why is it, I asked, that male celebrities who lie are usually forgiven by the public (except maybe Bernie Madoff) while famous women are finished?
Does anyone think Lori Loughlin’s career will ever recover from her role in the college cheating scandal? “Women aren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “Elizabeth Holmes [was vilified] for using her wiles to get Henry Kissinger to invest in her company.”
So what was Abby most surprised by writing and researching Duped? “I don’t think I realized how likable liars are. They’re the popular kids, their fun to be around, they have the best stories.”
“Do I think people are basically good? No, I think people are basically people,” she said as we sipped our cappuccinos and she ate her vanilla ice cream.
If you think all of this is rife for the big or small screen, you’re right. The book was optioned by First Look Media. A podcast and a script based on Duped is in the works. The takeaway from all this? Abby didn’t miss a beat. “The biggest lie is how easily we deceive ourselves.” Ain’t that the truth.
Seen & Heard Around the Room
Jimmy Finkelstein on Table One … Mickey Ateyeh on Table Two … Steve Mosko and Matt Blank on Three … Alec Baldwin with a fellow and lady we didn’t recognize. Alec’s wife Hilaria (who is now a blonde) came in midway through lunch and lots of air-kissing ensued …
On Table Five: Discovery Inc.’s group president Henry Schleiff and Tammy Haddad who were no doubt talking about a new project. I wanted to go over and ask Henry what he thought of the Court TV reboot that is in the works but never got a chance to chat with him. Next time. In case you didn’t know, Henry made Court TV one of the hottest cable networks of the nineties. It launched the television careers of Nancy Grace, Dan Abrams and Savannah Guthrie, all of whom covered the big trials of the day including OJ Simpson’s ‘Trial of the Century.’ In a way, we have him to thank for the Kardashians. Think about it …
CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman with Eva Mohr and a well-dressed gent we’ve seen before but can’t quite place. Anyone? … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with Alex Hitz and Brooke Hayward on Eight … MediaVillage founder Jack Myers On Table 11: Manolo Blahnik’s president George Malkemus and Footwear News’ Michael Atmore who get this week’s award for being the two most dapper gents in the dining room! on 12 … Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew with Jared Cohen and Andrew Wiley at her favorite spot, Table 14 … President of The CW Networks Mark Pedowitz on 15. Thanks for greenlighting Riverdale. I’m hooked! … NBC Universal’s David Corvo on 17 … UTA’s Adam Leibner on 18.
See you back at Michael’s in a few weeks!