Why would anyone fake their own death? Some seek a departure from royalty, a career as a pirate, or a quiet life after taking down the Third Reich. Usually, theyâre chasing an escape from bankruptcy or bad marriages. But for some, it may seem that staging their own death is the only way to feel like theyâre alive.
According to psychologists and pseudocide researchers, many people who go through with the scheme feel pushed to the brink and hope to swap their formal existence for something better. Since the invention of the internet, their methods have evolved, and their motivations remain complex and intertwined. Digging into these motivations can reveal a lot about our understanding of life, mortality, death, reinvention, hopelessness, and even self-esteem.
âFor the vast majority of people who go through with it, the reasons are marital or financial, [and] they feel like theyâre pushed up against a significant wall,â explained writer Elizabeth Greenwood. While researching pseudocide for her book Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud, Greenwood found that most cases resulted from someone feeling totally stuck.
financial in nature. Whether attempting to scam off life insurance policies or abandoning mass debt, these schemers have faked everything from disappearance-by-canoe to murder by Tamil rebels.
Some were quite literally escaping, like writer and psychedelic explorer Ken Kesey, who faced prison time for weed possession when he left his truck and a note by the ocean and snuck into Mexico. Back home, the headline âLSD GURU SUICIDE!â hit audiences, but authorities ultimately didnât buy it.
Samuel Israel III, back in court after surrendering to the authorities.Photo: AP
Similarly but more malevolently, the former hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III, who defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme, attempted to stage his suicide on the day he was supposed to report for incarceration, leaving his car with a brief note written on it in dust (specifically, the M*A*S*H theme song title âSuicide Is Painlessâ) on a New York state bridge. Several weeks and one Americaâs Most Wanted appearance later, police tracked him down to a campground in Massachusetts, where he surrendered.
Greenwood pointed out that such people often seem to believe they can âleave themselves behindâ and then carry on as if their earlier self never happened. âThey very much have the idea that theyâll be able to surgically excise this one part of their biography, whatever it isâlegal trouble, bad decisionsâto get rid of that part and go on living their lives, or that it will be a temporary solution to a problem,â she said. âUnfortunately, the fact of the matter is, we are who we are.â
The idea of separating oneâs life into âlivingâ and âdeadâ portions, or just faking a death generally, may seem unfathomable to many of us. In some cases, of course, people who feel cornered into pseudocide never explain their reasoning at all, whether in connection to their âpastâ lives or the ones they hope to start anew.
As far as public record is concerned, it is still unknown why, for one, Nashville attorney William Grothe, who left his car and belongings scattered around before he called authorities claiming to be his own murderer, felt pushed to that extreme. Authorities quickly unraveled the ruse, and he was given five yearsâ probation, 32 hours of community service a month, and an order to pay $13,000 for the cost of the governmentâs search.
With regard to his behavior, Grothe reportedly testified at trial, âI went down to Shelby Park, parked my car, went through what in my mind was a ritual of exactly how I felt, dead to the world.â
The psychic state of those who fake their deaths may be extreme and under stress, but it mostly hasnât been considered a sign of mental illness or instability outright, whether or not particular catalysts to the act are reported. According to Dr. Marc Feldman, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama, however, there are certain psychological disorders that can definitely lead to such behavior.
Feldman, who specializes in factitious disorders (FD, formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome) and other behaviors linked to medical fakery, told Gizmodo in a phone interview, âA lot of people equate pseudocide with tangible reasonsâcrushing debt, a marriage situationâthat they want to escape before quietly coming back in an alternate identity. But there can be a tremendous overlap with factitious disorders.â
In general, persons with factitious disorder are known for feigning or exaggerating illness in order to gain attention from or control over others. Malingering, on the other hand, is characterized by âskillful planningâ to feign illness in order to gain a tangible advantage rather than an emotional one, and is not considered a mental illness, Feldman said. And because these motivations can overlap, itâs often hard for outsiders to distinguish the two.
Feldman also emphasized that no symptom or ailment seems to be outside the known range of factitious behavior. âI canât think of anything that hasnât been faked for emotional gratification, for satisfaction, or to counter boredom; it sounds so trivial, but people do it,â he said.
âThey tend to have personality disorders, which just means they have long-term maladaptive ways of getting their needs met, with hurtful actions rather than words. The distinct majority do in fact have a personality disorder, like borderline personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder,â he continued. âFactitious disorder seems inexplicable unless you postulate that something is going on inside for the patient.â
To be clear, this isnât the same as what drives some people to fake their deaths for âsome sort of gratification,â Feldman said.
âLordâ Timothy Dexter, engraved 1805, published 1806; â…a full length portrait of the Eccentric Character with his Dog, engraved from Life, by James Akin.â
For example, it seems unlikely that self-appointed âLordâ Timothy Dexter, an 18th-century American businessman and noted âeccentric,â was experiencing FD (but possibly something else). Dexter, who as part of a lifelong campaign for admiration and upper-crust respect filled part of his estate with honorary statues (including his own), famously emerged from hiding during his own staged wake to berate his wife, who was in on it, for not mourning enough.
Nor would FD seem to apply for online forum user M Otis Beard, who staged his suicide online and then returned to general disapproval from fellow posters. As Wired reported, âAfter a gleeful pronouncement that ârumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,â Beard announced that his âlittle escapadeâ had been a method of testing the sense of community in the group and had been designed to offer a perverse sense of catharsis when the deception was revealed.â
In the case of faked suicide, which some experts refer to as âpseuicide,â Feldman said that the emotional weight and social stigma involved make it a particularly powerfulâand in some ways increasingly commonâmethod of deception and control. âFactitious disorder is not just about getting attention; it can be about manipulating people,â he said. âAnd thereâs nothing that pulls at you, that grabs you, like suicide.â
Feldman recalled a case in Michigan where a man was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and addiction, and âseemed to have done well enough that staff arranged an appropriate discharge with aftercare plans in place.â The next day, the manâs alleged father called and said he had died by suicide the evening after he was released.
Munchausen by Internetâ (MBI) is steadily on the rise. In short, heâs argued, people who traditionally have had to go to great length to present false ailments in themselves or in others (as with Munchausen by Proxy) with the goal of gaining sympathy, can now do so fairly quickly online; the same goes for false deaths.
âThe easy and ready access to the internet propagates MBI,â Feldman told Wired in 2009. âIn fact, I believe that MBI is more common than [Munchausen Syndrome] in âreal lifeâ … it is so easy to use the net to research medical conditions, post fallacious materials, and engage others without the need to literally enact an illness.â
Online, those behaviors can manifest as faking illness in the user or invented persons (a.k.a. âsock puppetsâ), faking othersâ deaths, or faking the userâs own. Feldman said heâs also come across reports of people faking their suicides online in response to perceived mistreatment or neglect by others. Some had gotten involved in online interest groups, or support groups for mental or mood disorders, he said, and then later on âsomebody else supposedly posts online that they died because the group wasnât [nice or] supportive enough.â
Over the past decade, it has seemingly gotten harder to fake maladies or death for yourself or others online, but people apparently keep trying. And whether or not a person suffers from FD, Feldman said, online medical hoaxers seem to come out of the network for recurring and psychically significant reasons. âMany of these people seem to be very lonely, and the internet offers a readily and continually-available source of unconditional support.â
With regard to the reasons that people enact digital or real-life pseuicide, there is similarly âa web of factors, both tangible and intangible,â Feldman said. âPeople may feign suicide to punish people, but also have a voyeuristic motivation to see how other people would react to their death. Weâve all fantasized about what would happen after we died, and who would come to our funeral,â he added.
Whether or not our careers and lifestyles are particularly risky, it seems the vast majority of people spend a lot of time thinking about death, anyway: their own, their families,â and how it relates to their ongoing lives.
According to researcher Sheldon Solomon, whoâs spent decades studying how we feel and react in response to human morality, this could help explain why pseudocide is an often intriguing and occasionally attractive notion.
âThe preponderance of pseudocide is for fraud purposes,â Solomon said. âBut you could also imagine, from a psychodynamic existential point of view, that for some folks it could be an attractive way of wiping the proverbial slate clean in a life that, from oneâs own perspective, doesnât seem to be meaningful, and from which itâs hard to derive the feeling that you have value.â
In most cases, our posthumous fantasies imagine that weâre greatly missed and treasured, which aligns with what Solomon and his colleagues have discovered about basic mindsets in life. âOur view, based on our work, is basically that people, by virtue of being consciousâand therefore, to varying degrees, aware of the inevitability of their own demiseâgo to extraordinary lengths to perceive that life has meaning and that we have value.â
Awareness of oneâs own impending demise is, of course, incredibly common, Solomon said. Itâs also fundamentally human.
âOn one hand, itâs great being smart enough to know that youâre here; in our final moments, itâs tremendously uplifting to be alive and to know it. But on the other hand, if youâre smart enough to realize that youâre here, youâre smart enough to realize that, like all living things, your life is of finite duration and could end at any moment for reasons you canât anticipate or control.â
âIn the overall scheme of things, youâre an inconsequential speck of carbon-based dust, born in a time and place not of your choosing, for a tiny amount of time, before expiring in an unfathomably large universe. Thatâs demoralizing and potentially debilitating.â He points to social anthropologist Ernest Becker, noting how we are drawn to belief systems that âprovide social rules that enable us to perceive ourselves as people of value in a world of meaning.â
âIf weâre able to do that,â Solomon continued, âthatâs what Becker calls self-esteem.â
And self-esteemânot to be confused with psychological narcissism, Solomon points outâis particularly helpful in buffering our anxiety about death. In numerous studies, Solomon and his team have found that being reminded of death brings out our cagey, defensive side, makes us more aggressive toward nature and non-human animals, and exacerbates existing mental disorders or fears.
Our discomfort with death also seems to make us âsquander non-renewable natural resources,â eat more, and go shopping moreâbehaviors that could fit Kierkegaardâs idea that we are âtranquilized by the trivial,â Solomon said. âIâd add social media to that category.â
Most of us have grown up surrounded by the phrase âself-esteem,â but its meaning has often gotten lost along the way, Solomon said. âPeople have said itâs self-indulgent; we would respectfully disagree. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of Oneâs Own, âWithout confidence we are as babes in the cradle.ââ
âItâs almost common sense masquerading as psychological insight,â Solomon continued. âTo have the capacity, or even audacity, to accept oneself ultimately on oneâs own termsâŠ Iâm not sure what higher aspiration one could have as far as psychological well being.â
At the end of the dayâhowever many weâve got leftâit also seems likely that we humans, as existentially insecure as weâre prone to be, shouldnât rely too heavily on advice like âfake it âtil you make it,â or on other peopleâs definitions of success. In the history of pseudocide, and of human life generally, there are many poignant examples of how compromising our lifeâs values can send the whole thing off the rails.
In 1974, for example, British member of Parliament John Stonehouse went missing and was presumed drowned off the coast of Miami following two decades of âambitiousâ political work. He was found alive a year later, and while speculation during his absence that he was a spy would later turn out to be true (one of many astonishing details in the case), it was still âprobably not the reasonâ he faked his death, the Guardian explained in 2013.
Stonehouse, who had fled to Australia with his secretary, and had some accounting issues with a charity he was involved in, addressed the House of Commons in October, 1975 regarding his actions. He described a âpsychiatric suicideâ that occurred before he faked his death, and often referred to his real self in the third person:
âI assumed a new parallel personality that took over from me, which was foreign to me and which despised the humbug and sham of the past years of my public life. The collapse and destruction of the original man came about because his ideals in his political life had been utterly frustrated and finally destroyed by the pattern of events beyond his control which had finally overwhelmed him …
There seemed no escape from the awesome pressures, which were squeezing the will to live from the original man. Everything he was living and working for seemed to be damned âŠ The original man had become a burden to himself, his family, and friends. He could no longer take the strain, and had to go.â
We may never know for sure why another person chooses to end their lives on paper, or how to make sense of the division once they do.
Because only when we work to create our own sense of meaning and value can it eventually take hold in the only reality, the only life, that most of us can ever expect to knowâeven if some of us become more focused, perhaps from fear and anger toward life or death, on controlling how it ends.