RelationshipsAre Men More Likely to Play Dead Than Women?
A conversation with author Elizabeth Greenwood, who dove deep into the world of death fraud.
In Elizabeth Greenwood’s new book Playing Dead, she interviews Steve Rambam, an investigator specializing in death fraud. Rambam has caught almost everyone he’s set out to find. “I don’t believe somebody is dead unless there’s an acceptable level of documentation,” Rambam tells Greenwood in the book, “and by that I mean the New York City coroner took fingerprints, there’s a DNA match, and there’s a video of the person being run over by a car.”
Only one person has escaped Rambam’s bounty hunting. She is a Mongolian woman and she is living happily in France, safe from extradition. She faked her own death with the help of her friend’s husband, the local police captain, and promptly fled the country. “She got the hell out of dodge,” Greenwood told me, and she’s never coming back. We were talking about the differences between men and women who commit death fraud, or “pseudo-cide.” Greenwood also writes about John Darwin, a Daily Mirror fixture who faked his own death after he and his wife accrued massive debts. Unlike the Mongolian woman, Darwin stayed very close to home—in his home, actually. Eventually Darwin and his wife moved to the Philippines, but he was apprehended when he attempted to fake amnesia and return to his old life.
Greenwood makes it very clear that Playing Dead is not a guide to faking your own death, but if you could derive any general rule from Greenwood's research it would be to fake your death like a woman (and don't try to stage a drowning). The male fraudsters were often very eager to recount their frauds to Greenwood, in great detail and with bravado. Greenwood doesn’t think that personality type is as prevalent in women. She observed that many men found it difficult to sever ties completely with their loved ones. "Even the idea that you can call your mother once a year on her birthday—you can’t do that," Greenwood explained, "because if your crime is large enough, and if enough people are still looking for you, there’s going to be someone watching your mom on her birthday just to see if you call." If you're going to fake your own death you can't have your loved ones and eat them too. You have to play dead like the Mongolian woman and cartwheel out of your relationships forever.
John Darwin exemplifies the male profile of the death fraudster. “It’s typically a guy who gets himself into some hot water, either legally or financially, and finds himself having this fight-or-flight response,” Greenwood explained, “They think that they can disappear for three years and come back.” A lot of the fraudsters Greenwood met were middle-aged men pursuing “the palm tree lifestyle,” wherein one flees to Margaritaville to live out the statute of limitations on one’s sins. It’s a fantasy fueled by the media; it’s Dick Whitman switching dog tags with Don Draper, or it’s Anthony Hopkins wandering through a beach town in a jaunty fedora at the end of Silence of the Lambs. In reality, you can’t come back from the dead without a lot of hassle and probably some jail time. (There is also no statute of limitations when you defraud the court.)
Women, Greenwood told me, are more likely to be on the run from more dire problems. Men play dead when they’re facing legal, financial, or romantic doom. Women fake their own deaths when they fear for their lives. In Playing Dead Greenwood meets with Frank Ahern, a “privacy consultant” not unlike the one Walter White seeks out in Breaking Bad. Men have to pay for Ahern's services, but he doesn't charge women—most of them are on the run from stalkers or abusive relationships.
Greenwood came close to filing for death to evade her student loans, but ultimately decided against it. “My loans, which at the beginning seemed so oppressive, didn’t seem like that big a deal anymore after talking to people who were in actual life or death situations.” Greenwood explained that down the road she might consider faking her own death if the situation were extremely urgent, like it is for Ahern’s female clients. “I think I'd do it if I was going to jail for a murder I didn’t commit—or if I was going to be murdered. Murder would have to be involved somehow.”
Greenwood's research certainly made it seem like more men than women fake their own deaths, but it could also be that women are just more likely to stay gone. “One of the inherent paradoxes of writing about fake death is that the hallmark of people who are successful in faking their deaths is that we believe they have passed,” Greenwood says. “So it’s totally possible that women fake their deaths in equal numbers, but they’re just better at it.”