My amazing fiancé and I would lie in bed ... and boy, did he lie
What is it like being in a relationship with a compulsive liar? Here is a woman who knows all too well
On being told that her fiancé had deceived her for the entirety of their relationship, Abby Ellin was strangely “elated”.
She says the call she received in 2012 from the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service, revealing that her other half had been falsifying his life story for years, was the universe’s way of putting to bed her suspicions about the “good guy” she had fallen for.
She had been duped.
The cogs had begun turning six years earlier when Ellin, a journalist then writing a piece about high-end detoxes, was put in touch with a doctor running a practice in Beverly Hills.
The article was shelved until a year later when she contacted him again ahead of publication, to find that he had re-enlisted in the navy as a military doctor, seeking to open a hospital in Iraq for children with cancer. A lieutenant commander, he would soon be starting work at the Pentagon.
Ellin was due to move to Washington to study for a master’s focusing on human rights – that hospital in Iraq, she was sure, would make a great story.
And so the pair kept in touch, trading e-mails every few months over the space of a couple of years: by January 2010, they were on the phone to one another for an hour every day, soon to be living in the same state.
It felt as though the stars were aligning, if you believe in that kind of thing.
“Which I don’t,” Ellin says, not least because “being a wife was never the most important thing to me”.
But at the age of 42 she could not ignore how desperately she wanted to settle down. “I had debilitating, aching bouts of loneliness, a hole in my chest so vast that neither food nor booze nor sex nor work could plug it.”
Usually, she went for creative types, but this 58-year-old “was a nerdy doctor. He seemed decent and kind. He was not cool, but he was smart, funny and charming and he adored me, all of which was a very intoxicating combination,” she recalls.
“I really did think that he was my reward for having met all these losers all those years.”
He said he had been through an excruciating divorce with the mother of his two children; for Ellin, who had seen her fair share of “disappointing” romances, the idea of getting hurt again was unbearable – they would not do that to one another, they agreed.
On their first date in February 2010, she spent hours rapt in his extraordinary tales. While serving in Afghanistan, he had operated on Osama bin Laden; received a Purple Heart for his military service; had been shot while held hostage; and tortured on a Secret Service mission in China.
“You wouldn’t have heard about it,” he told her when she pressed for details, a common response she would receive over the course of their year-long relationship.
According to Ellin, more than one boyfriend has “noted, wearily, that I’m a magnificent cross-examiner”.
So why did he lie? And why did she believe him?
Nobody wants to believe this could happen to them, Ellin says, not least someone like her, “cynical and mistrusting” and highly intelligent, nor his ex-wife, a doctor, nor another ex-fiancée who would later be discovered, also a doctor.
“No one really gets it unless they’ve been duped themselves,” she writes by way of explanation in her new book, Duped: Compulsive Liars and How They Can Deceive You.
“They don’t understand what it’s like to believe in someone and be utterly, completely mistaken. To discover that the person closest to you is actively working against you.”
For her part, believing in the man she never names, referring to him only as “The Commander”, was the product of two main things: quieting her own suspicions after being told by friends that she’d never settle down if she couldn’t just assuage her doubt; and that his lies were, for the most part, utterly unverifiable.
He worked in dark ops; by nature, this had to happen beneath a cloak of secrecy, Ellin told herself. Besides, much of their relationship existed outside of tales of terrorists on operating tables: they were living together in a Pentagon-owned flat in Washington DC, and engaged after five months.
But after a year, Ellin’s suspicions reached fever pitch: “I can’t live like this,” she told him, after a lie over Brussels sprouts, of all things.
At dinner with her parents, he had fawned over the dish. It was the best thing he had ever tasted, he said. Yet the moment they were alone, he told Ellin how revolting he’d found them. “I thought to myself: ‘If this man can lie about that so convincingly, he could be lying about anything.’”
She moved out of their flat and wrote him an e-mail: “I really don’t trust you ... Too many inconsistencies and fictions and unanswered questions and broken promises and impossibilities.”
She was sure that she could no longer bear the question marks hanging over their relationship, but “I beat myself up: I thought I might be ruining the best thing that’s ever happened to me because I’m so suspicious and mistrustful”.
A year and a half later, that call from the NCIS proved at least some of her suspicions to be right.
Her name was among those being used by a doctor working for the federal government to write fraudulent prescriptions for Viagra and Vicodin, an opioid painkiller, among other drugs. He was arrested, discharged by the navy in 2013 and voluntarily surrendered his medical licence. He was sentenced to two years and a day in prison.
Perhaps the most confusing part of The Commander’s yarns were the half-truths: he really was a doctor, he really was working at the Pentagon. Why all the wild embellishments?
Ellin, now 51, can only conclude that she was engaged to a pathological liar.
“He’s truly delusional. I think he believes half of the stuff he came out with,” she mulls. “I think he sees himself in these stories. He’d read John Le Carré and put himself in the role of the hero. But he was just Walter Mitty.”
The Commander has never provided a satisfactory explanation for his lies, a particularly egregious one being to tell another ex-fiancée from Jacksonville, Florida, that he was going on a secret operation to the Middle East, during which time he relocated to Washington and moved in with Ellin.
It took two years of her waiting for his return until she learnt the truth.
But he would never see things that way, Ellin says: even after being exposed, he has always found a way to absolve himself.
In the course of writing her book, Ellin has become friends with his former flames – at least the ones she knows about.
As for The Commander himself, he has declared bankruptcy, she says, and is now working for a humanitarian organisation.
The affair has left Ellin gun-shy when it comes to dating, even more so than before. She insists there is nothing The Commander could say to make the situation better, or even make sense.
When she reflects on their time together, it is done “dispassionately”: “The whole experience feels like it happened to someone else.”
Which, she says, it likely has. More often than we realise.
– © The Sunday Telegraph