No one likes to be thought of as an easy mark. But, Liz Scheier argues in a recent New York Times op-ed, we love watching others get played. Moreover, we love liars—and, she insists, no one is impervious to the right con.
Scheier has experience with liars. As she details in her new memoir, Never Simple, she had been systematically deceived by her mother, Judith Scheier, throughout her childhood. As a teenager, Liz learned that her mother suffered from a personality disorder, which explained her extreme rages and affection, her relentless need for control. But it was only as an adult that Liz discovered the scope of her mother’s deceit. She cannot be sure, even now, whether central facts about her life—including her exact age and her father’s identity—are true.
In both her book (the preface of which is titled “Liars”) and her recent Times piece, it is clear that Scheier is fascinated by deceit—its subtle and hard forms, the many ways in which people justify it to themselves. She also seeks to understand why we are so drawn to obvious liars. In the Times, she defends the victims of the “Tinder Swindler,” the women who were roundly mocked for being taken in by Shimon Hayut’s dating scam—many of whom lost a good deal of money in the process. They were not necessarily stupid, Scheier argues; they were human. “Sometimes,” she insists, “we believe liars because we like the story they’re selling us about ourselves.”
Scheier’s mother, who passed away in 2019, had “constructed a fairy-tale” existence for herself and her daughter, in which they and Manhattan were the main characters. As a child, Liz had worshiped her mother: the brilliant woman who read her classics each evening in a style Liz describes as “whole-body storytelling”; who pulled her out of school “whenever something interesting was happening”; who made her feel “like the small, slightly ratty sun around which the galaxy revolved.” They made a blond, petite, clever team—a family unit unlike any of those Liz saw around her. She never met her father, only a revolving cast of fatherly figures. For years, she saw herself in the role her mother had created for her.
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This fairy tale fell apart for Liz, again and again. The older she got, the more burdensome she found the attachment of the “fearful and fierce, adoring and protective” woman who, Liz found, “was obsessed rather than besotted” with her daughter. Judith managed their lives through a combination of charm, mendacity, and terror—among other things, she somehow managed the rent on a sizable apartment in a doorman building half a block from Central Park, despite having “retired” from practicing law, or any other work, in her thirties. (Liz later learned that her mother’s erratic behavior had resulted in her being fired from her law firm.) And Liz had the chance to observe how many adults fell for her mother’s game.
More than her mother’s endless demands for love and—eventually—money, more even than the physical and verbal battering she had endured, Liz found herself haunted by her mother’s lies. When she was well into her thirties, she found herself profoundly deceived again by another loved one. Of course, no one could blame a child for taking the word of her own mother. But all this led Liz to understand and sympathize with the victims of what she calls “confidence artists.” As she writes in her Times op-ed,
Confidence artists can hook us because they can read us and they know how to make us feel smart and successful. It’s an effect that plays out in larger-scale societal grifts, too. . . . Those who buy into conspiracy theories such as QAnon revel in being the ones smart enough to see past the lies of a world where things are not as they appear. Skin care gurus and Instagram influencers make their fans feel seen and appreciated, even as they rake in endorsement money. And the owners of much-hyped digital apes and penguins gloat about being a part of the club, even though the NFTs they have shelled out for may turn out to be worthless.
People love seeing great cons play out, she suggests, because it makes us feel superior: “It’s intensely, guiltily satisfying to watch the scam . . . if we can reassure ourselves that in the same circumstance, we wouldn’t fall for that presentation or for that request for cash.” In this, Scheier warns, we are almost certainly fooling ourselves. Effective advertising, in both interpersonal and commercial terms, often crosses the line into crookedness; in falling for a product or a person, we may really be falling for a skillfully conjured vision of ourselves.
All is not lost, however—we are not doomed to be always and forever deceived in our fellows. In “A Neglected Genius,” a 2004 essay, Theodore Dalrymple offers a profile of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew who had for many years been one of the most famous writers in German (his works were translated into fifty languages). Dalrymple teases out themes in Zweig’s fiction, particularly the dangers of emotional dishonesty.
Zweig was born in 1881 into a well-off Viennese family and ended his days as an exile from Nazi Germany. In his memoir, The World of Yesterday, Zweig wrote of his wish to model himself after his father, whose success he attributed to a civilized age that rewarded men of truly good character. Zweig was struck by the fact that, despite the respect accorded him by his wealth, education, and gracious manner, his father “refused all public distinctions and honorary posts, and . . . never sought or accepted any title or honor.” Crediting this policy to a virtuous “secret pride,” Zweig adopted it himself:
Never having asked for anything, never having had to say “please” or “thank you,” [my father’s] secret pride was more to him than any outward sign of distinction. . . . Because of the same secret pride, I have myself always declined any honorific distinction; . . . for it is to my father that I owe the only good of which I feel certain, the feeling of inner freedom.
Zweig thus carefully avoided falling prey to a type of flattery, the kind of subtle, transactional relationship that might tempt him to compromise his integrity. He was afraid of abandoning his principles in favor of a collective “party line” held by some committee or association, but also of succumbing to emotional manipulation—especially in the form of being persuaded that he was more than what he was. He was determined to maintain this “pride,” which was really a kind of humility that allowed him to preserve an independence of thought.
In Zweig’s fiction, we see other risks of emotional duplicity. His one full-length novel, Beware of Pity, is set immediately before World War I and tells of a handsome young cavalryman posted in a provincial Hungarian town. There he meets the crippled daughter of an ennobled and wealthy Jewish peddler. As Dalrymple writes, “by his well-meaning but shallow expressions of sympathy for her, the cavalryman arouses hopes of a different kind of a relationship, false hopes that he does nothing to dispel until too late.” The young woman’s disappointment leads to disaster; as Dalrymple writes, “With brilliant clarity, Zweig traces the consequences of well-meaning emotional dishonesty—consequences far worse than what would have followed an initial callousness.”
In Zweig’s novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, an aristocratic English widow, Mrs. C., falls madly in love with a young Polish nobleman. He manipulates her into giving him a large sum of money, which he then swiftly gambles away (shades of the Tinder Swindler). But while it is tempting to scoff at Mrs. C., Zweig seems to credit her feelings—she truly cared for the unworthy man, and was taken in by his force of expression, and wished to sacrifice for him. Her general reserve indicated the sincerity of her feelings; in Dalrymple’s telling,
Mrs. C.’s passion is so great precisely because she is normally a self-contained Englishwoman. . . . The nearer emotional life approaches to hysteria, to continual outward show, the less genuine it becomes. Feeling becomes equated with vehemence of expression, so that insincerity becomes permanent. Zweig would have dismissed our modern emotional incontinence as a sign not of honesty but of an increasing inability or unwillingness truly to feel.
In other words, we must distinguish between shallow, thoughtless, or calculating expressions of emotion, and deeper feelings that may appear more subdued. Zweig was not suspicious or a cynic, in Dalrymple’s view; he merely guarded himself against cheap sentimentality and emotional dishonesty in all its forms. Zweig, like Scheier, might have sympathized with the Tinder Swindler’s victims, even as he would have been disgusted by the crassness and triviality of modern dating.
Enduring Love and Forgiveness
Zweig thus addresses themes that appear in Scheier’s writing and in doing so offers models of humility and properly channeled passion that contrast with the fleeting and insincere blandishments or bids for attention that often pass for friendship or romance. Ultimately, Scheier is able to cultivate this in her own life; she marries a childhood friend she deeply trusts and starts a family (something she previously had believed herself incapable of doing). She also forgives her mother, even dedicating the book to her.
Scheier’s memoir tells of navigating extreme emotional turbulence; it doesn’t quite dispense lessons. Reading her story is somewhat akin to looking over a friend’s shoulder as she flips through a family photo album and tosses out occasional explanations; some moments are dwelt on at length, but I found myself curious about incidental characters who appeared and were quickly discarded—her godparents, for example, who come to the rescue at times but whose relationship to her mother is never explained.
There are other threads that are picked up but left unexamined; Scheier’s mother loved Passover, for example, but Scheier, who became more religiously engaged as an adult, doesn’t ever quite explain what the holiday—or Judaism—meant to either of them. But she does explain how she learned to choose the people in her life, and to distinguish between genuine, steady affection, and superficial or manipulative bonds.