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Adam Maida / The Atlantic (Adam Maida / The Atlantic)

The Identity Hoaxers

What if people don’t just invent medical symptoms to get attention—what if they feign oppression, too?

The confession, when it came, did not hold back. “For the better part of my adult life, every move I’ve made, every relationship I’ve formed, has been rooted in the napalm toxic soil of lies,” read the Medium post. It was published in September under the name of Jessica A. Krug, a George Washington University professor specializing in Black history. Krug had, she said, variously assumed the identities of “North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.” She was actually a white Jewish woman from Kansas. “You absolutely should cancel me,” Krug wrote in her self-dramatizing mea culpa, “and I absolutely cancel myself.”

Krug had cultivated her assumed identity over several years, and used it to speak “authentically” about race in America. The deception appears to have begun while she was studying at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Krug “used to identify as half Algerian, saying that her father was a white man of German ancestry who had raped her mother,” a fellow academic told The Cut. When Krug moved to New York, she became Afro-Latinx, and used the name “Jessica La Bombalera” for her activism. One of her former students said: “There was this theme in her teaching of being super-representative of her communities and saying that folks had destroyed it and gentrified it. Now looking back, she was talking about herself.”

One of the oddest aspects of the saga was that Krug’s assumed identity was so stereotypical as to be borderline unconvincing: She wore hoop earrings, crop tops, and “tight, tight cheetah pants” to class, and spoke with an exaggerated accent. She also took funding from a program designed for marginalized scholars. According to Gisela Fosado of Duke University Press, the publisher of Krug’s academic book, her scholarship “may not have ever existed without the funding that was inseparable from her two decades of lies.” And yet—the work was well regarded. The white, Jewish Jessica Krug could have had an academic career. What she would not have had was moral authority.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the case, however, is that it is not unique. In fact, Krug’s admission was prompted by scholars in the field discussing the case of H. G. Carrillo, who was also a professor at GW. After he died from COVID-19 in April, Carrillo’s family came forward to correct the initial tributes: The author of Loosing My Espanish was not, as he had always presented himself, a member of the Cuban diaspora, but a Black man born in Detroit. His birth name was Herman Glenn Carroll. This was news to everyone, including his husband.

Those who had nursed suspicions for years about colleagues and acquaintances soon brought other cases to light. Over the holiday season, the self-presentation of Hilaria Baldwin—the wife of the actor Alec, with whom she has five “Baldwinitos”—was questioned. Baldwin, who had long presented herself as nebulously Hispanic, admitted that she was born Hillary Lynn Hayward-Thomas to white, English-speaking Bostonian parents who have since retired to Spain. Before that came the academics Kelly Kean Sharp and CV Vitolo-Haddad, the attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, and the activist Satchuel Cole. All were white, but were assumed to be minorities in their professional and personal lives. The best-known example of all is Rachel Dolezal, who now goes by Nkechi Amare Diallo.

The superficial similarities among all of these cases are striking: mostly women, all educated and professionally successful, all working in fields engaged with questions of oppression and marginalization. And in all of these cases, somewhere along the line, empathy tipped into appropriation. It was not enough to feel the pain of marginalized groups; they had to be part of them, too.

Baron Munchausen lived an eventful life. He rode a cannonball, traveled to the moon, and was swallowed, Jonah-like, by a giant fish. When his horse was cut in two, he substituted a laurel tree for its missing legs.

You will not be surprised to hear that none of these stories is true. The 18th-century German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe borrowed the name of a real-life aristocrat for a series of fantasies. The actual baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, had told tall tales about his military career, and his name became a byword for exaggerated claims.

In 1951, the baron’s name was used by the British physician Richard Asher to describe a syndrome that he claimed “most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written.” A patient would arrive at a hospital with an acute illness, but no cause could be found. The presence of a large number of abdominal scars, from investigative surgery, was one clue to physicians that they were in the presence of a faker. But otherwise, such patients usually managed to string along their doctors for days or weeks; it took, Asher wrote, a “bold” emergency-room doctor to refuse them admission.

Asher argued that many of these patients were genuinely ill in some way, “although their illness is shrouded by duplicity and distortion.” He also noted that their lies had no obvious purpose: They did not want to defraud the state or solicit charitable donations. In pursuit of nothing more than attention and an audience, they were willing to tolerate painful and intrusive medical procedures. “The most remarkable feature of the syndrome,” Asher concluded, “is the apparent senselessness of it.”

Munchausen syndrome is now known as “factitious disorder,” and has spawned a series of spin-offs: In Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a caregiver—usually a mother—makes up an illness or injury on behalf of a patient, or even causes the problem by poison or other methods; “Munchausen by internet” describes a syndrome wherein patients pose as sick or dying in chat rooms and online support groups.

From the start, Munchausen syndrome had a social component as well as a medical one. Asher wrote that his patients’ lies were not confined to their illnesses. One might claim to be “an ex-submarine commander who was tortured by the Gestapo.” Another would spin a tale about “being an ex-opera-singer and helping in the French resistance movement.” They latched on to the Second World War to create a heroic narrative, attaching their personal pain to a grander, global story.

The sickness fakers were not the only ones to do this. Half a century after Asher identified the syndrome, an extraordinary event took place. In April 1998, two child survivors of the Holocaust, Binjamin Wilkomirski and Laura Grabowski, performed together—on clarinet and piano, respectively—for a crowd drawn from the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and a local synagogue. The pair played a song written by Grabowski, “Ode to the Little Ones,” dedicated to all the Jewish children who had died in the Holocaust.

Three years earlier, Wilkomirski had published a memoir of his childhood, called Fragments in its English translation, that detailed how he had been separated from his family in Latvia at age 3, and found himself in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. The story, told through the naive eyes of a child, recounted how he had been brought to see someone at the camp who he was told was his mother. She gave him a crust of bread before he was taken away. He never saw her again. “At some point during this time, speech left me altogether and it was a long time before I found it again,” he wrote. After the war, he was adopted in Switzerland, but both his new parents and his new country, according to Wilkomirski, forced him to repress his trauma. His memories were brutal but hazy; he does not name the second camp he was taken to, but it was inferred by his publishers to be Auschwitz. Fragments was rapturously received, translated into several languages, and garlanded with prizes. Yes, there were awkward questions, but these were easily answered by Wilkomirski. Why did he not have a number tattooed on his arm, for example? Because he had been selected for experiments by Josef Mengele and had therefore escaped the usual mark inflicted on concentration-camp prisoners in Auschwitz.

Grabowski certainly believed him. More than that, she recognized him. After reading his book, she decided to go public with her own story of surviving the death camps, and of being left infertile after Nazi medical experiments. She wrote Wilkomirski a letter saying that she had been in some of the places he described in Fragments. According to Blake Eskin’s A Life in Pieces, the pair bonded over their memories of the same girl, Ana, and the blood disorders they both had, which they attributed to the medical experiments conducted by Mengele. The group of child survivors Grabowski met with in Los Angeles invited him to visit. When she met Wilkomirski, she said: “He’s my Binji, that’s all I know.”

It is hard to speculate what could have been going through the two child survivors’ minds when they met the first time in Los Angeles. Did it feel like relief—or a high-stakes poker game? Because, as it turned out, they were both lying. Wilkomirski had been adopted by Swiss parents, but he was neither Jewish nor a concentration-camp survivor. His childhood was miserable, yes, but in ways that were utterly mundane. Laura Grabowski wasn’t even Laura Grabowski. She was Laurel Willson, born in Seattle in 1941. Before claiming to have survived the Holocaust, she had posed as a survivor of satanic abuse, and had published a book on the subject, called Satan’s Underground, using the name Lauren Stratford. The reaction to Wilkomirski and Grabowski’s Holocaust deception, when it was finally revealed, was a mixture of horror, guilt, and anger. How could someone cheapen the experiences of those who had suffered real pain? What would drive someone to do such a thing?

A scar on history as big as the Holocaust attracts troubled people who want to affix their own suffering to a grand narrative, just as those first Munchausen patients did. Grabowski and Wilkomirski are far from the only Holocaust fakers: One woman claimed to have been raised by wolves, another to have been taken in by a convent after the liberation of Dachau; a man from Pennsylvania peddled a story about escaping from Auschwitz because, he said, of “fears that the history and horror of the camps would be forgotten.”

The pattern has been repeated with other historical events: In 2007, the head of a 9/11 survivors’ support group, Alicia Esteve Head, was exposed as a fantasist. She claimed to have been on the 78th floor of Two World Trade Center when the plane hit, and to have crawled through the debris and flames to reach safety; her fiancé, Dave, was in One WTC, she said, but he did not make it out; a dying man had given her his wedding ring, asking her to deliver it to his widow. Head claimed that her burning clothes had been extinguished by someone who didn’t survive, and she promised to give his parents a piece of them, because it was one of the last things their son had touched.

Head told this story, over and over, while working as a tour guide for the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. None of it was true. She was likely not even in New York on 9/11—she was registered at a university in Spain at the time.

Head was not a traditional con artist, though. “No one has suggested that Ms. Head did anything to profit financially from her position as an officer with the Survivors’ Network, the nonprofit group for which she helped to raise money,” The New York Times reported in its story questioning her claims. She really did have a scarred arm, although the origin of the injury is unknown.

My hunch is that any sufficiently traumatic event creates characters like this: the Bataclan killings in France, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina. We hear more about the Holocaust hoaxers and the 9/11 fakers because these are internationally famous, political tragedies. A high number of conspiracy theories swirl around them, such as the neo-Nazi lie that there were no death camps and the internet-friendly insistence that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” In both cases, there are also groups of gatekeepers dedicated to keeping the historical record clean.

Yet even as the last real Holocaust survivors reach old age, the hoaxes continue. In July 2019, a 31-year-old German blogger named Sophie Hingst was found dead after having been exposed for inventing 22 relatives and submitting details of their deaths to Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. When Derek Scally, a journalist from The Irish Times, confronted Hingst after the deception was exposed, she spun a tale of family troubles, saying that her mother had been a “madwoman” who shot herself, and that she had discovered her body. But Scally found Hingst’s mother in the German phone book: “My daughter has many realities and I only have access to one,” she told the reporter.

Scally decided that Hingst was mentally unstable, rather than a scam artist. A therapist friend had told him “that Germans claiming to be from Jewish families touched by the Holocaust was not an unusual phenomenon. The need to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators in such a context was, he said, often linked to another trauma in a person’s life.”

The writer Anne Karpf, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor herself, puts it another way: “If you are [a] victimized, miserable, turbulent person because you’ve been adopted, because you’ve been badly treated, you aren’t necessarily going to get the kind of sympathy which you’re going to get if you are a Holocaust survivor. In the hierarchy of suffering, it’s at the pinnacle.”

The notion of needing “to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators” is what sent me down the rabbit hole of identity hoaxers. You would be surprised at how many there are: the “pretendians,” who claim Native American ancestry, including the former Klansman who reinvented himself as a best-selling “Cherokee” author; the Syrian blogger “Gay Girl in Damascus,” who turned out to be a straight American man named Tom MacMaster; Scott Peake, who presented himself as a fluent Gaelic speaker from a remote Scottish island when he took over the Saltire Society, which promotes Scottish culture. (He was really from South London, and couldn’t speak Gaelic.)

Within this galaxy of hoaxers, the academics and activists who attempt “reverse passing” are a distinct group. “Passing” has historically referred to the practice of nonwhite people adopting white identities or being read as white, allowing them to bypass the racial segregation of housing, jobs, and services. But the racial reckoning in the United States in recent years has asked white Americans to see themselves as perpetrators of centuries of injustice, and Black Americans as victims of that injustice. “Reverse passing,” also called “blackfishing” or “race-shifting,” seems intriguingly common in university humanities departments and leftist activist spaces, where many subscribe to the worldview outlined by Robin DiAngelo in her best-selling book White Fragility: “White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it.” Perhaps the subconscious reasoning runs like this: White people are oppressors, but I’m a good person, not an oppressor, so I can’t be white. (The right-wing version of this argument is different: I’m white, but don’t feel like an oppressor, so I reject this ideology.)

In individual instances, there can be financial or professional benefits to “reverse passing.” Ayendy Bonifacio, an assistant professor of U.S. ethnic literary studies at the University of Toledo, told me that for an academic such as Krug, “embodying that same identity that she writes about, and teaches, could lend her more cultural credit, to a certain extent, but also more trust from her readers, from her students, from other scholars in the field.” Watching a video of “Jessica La Bombalera” made him wonder whether Krug’s performance, in one sense, reflected a failure of solidarity, an inability to generate empathy without identification. Yet, he noted, discussing issues such as racism, gentrification, and police violence while posing as a person of color was “not just a performance of identity, but also a performance of other people’s traumas.”

As with Munchausen-syndrome patients, though, there did appear to be trauma in Krug’s life—just not the one she claimed. In her Medium post, she wrote of the “abuse” and “alienation” of her childhood. “The mental health professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that [creating a false identity] is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years … I have not lived a double life. There is no parallel form of my adulthood connected to white people or a white community or an alternative white identity.” She claimed to be, in the popular phrase, living her truth—even though her truth was a charade. (Krug has since disappeared from social media, and I was unable to contact her for comment.)

Once I noticed the Krug case, further examples kept coming to my attention. On September 18, the Black Lives Matter activist Satchuel Cole was outed by the website Black Indy Live for passing as biracial while being white. Cole, who uses they/them pronouns and legally changed their name in 2010, was well known in Indianapolis as a community leader, and acted as a spokesperson for the family of a Black man killed by police. There may be childhood trauma behind their story too: A 1994 article in The Indianapolis Star quoted someone of the same age and former name as Cole, whose sister had just received a 30-year jail term for killing their abusive mother. (The mother had also been complicit in their stepfather’s sexual abuse.) In the activist community, Cole had claimed that their biological father was Black, but after the Black Indy Live story was published, they posted on Facebook: “I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use.”

A month after Cole was unmasked, Kelly Kean Sharp resigned as an assistant professor of African American studies at Furman University, in South Carolina, after her claim to Mexican heritage was debunked. She had described herself in her Twitter biography as “Chicana” and took part in panels on the experience of being Latina in academia. (Furman confirmed to me that Sharp had quit, and had no forwarding address for correspondence.)

The third story belongs to CV Vitolo-Haddad, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who reacted with outrage to the news of Krug’s deception, calling her a “Kansas cracker” with a doctorate in “performing blackface.” Soon after, an anonymous Medium post alleged that Vitolo-Haddad, who uses they/them pronouns, had claimed to be Cuban and Black “while distancing themselves from their upbringing in a wealthy Italian family in Florida.” Name and appearance changes along the way had helped this impression—CV came from the initials of their first and middle names; Haddad came from a previous marriage—while photos from Vitolo-Haddad’s teenage years show them with paler skin and straighter hair. In their own Medium post, Vitolo-Haddad wrote: “I have let guesses about my ancestry become answers I wanted but couldn’t prove. I have let people make assumptions when I should have corrected them.” After this, California State University withdrew its offer of a tenure-track position to Vitolo-Haddad. (Vitolo-Haddad could not be reached for comment; they told Inside Higher Ed that they had benefited only “socially” from their racial identification, and had not applied for scholarships or fellowships reserved for people of color.)

The ur-example of this phenomenon is, of course, Rachel Dolezal, who was heavily involved in Black grassroots activism in Spokane, Washington, until she was revealed as the daughter of white parents. She had darkened her skin and adopted traditionally Black hairstyles, dyeing her naturally blond hair. And yet what was remarkable was the tenacity of her belief: Growing up, she said, she had always drawn herself with darker crayons. Dolezal’s deception was revealed after she complained of hate crimes, and it led to her dismissal as an instructor in Africana studies at Eastern Washington University.

The 2018 documentary The Rachel Divide traces Dolezal’s identity issues to her childhood, when she was raised by white parents (alongside a white brother) whom she loathed, and had adopted Black siblings whom she loved. She has claimed that her parents were religious fundamentalists who made her live as an “indentured servant.” Her brother accused her of fabricating sexual-assault allegations against him. (The charges were dropped.)

There is something of Wilkomirski’s story here: A childhood that was traumatic in sadly mundane ways became the prompt for Dolezal writing herself into a historical narrative of oppression. Like the other academics claiming a trauma that wasn’t theirs, she had found a type of suffering that had meaning beyond herself, a type of suffering to which people would pay attention.

Fakers and charlatans have a long history. Some are clearly motivated by greed, some by expediency. Others watch a small deception twist and grow, until the pretense consumes their life. The racial-justice movement in the U.S. led by Black Lives Matter has created new opportunities for nonwhite Americans, as have affirmative-action measures, and these have inevitably encouraged a few chancers to play the system.

Yet something more complicated, more psychologically knotty, is clearly going on with the racial identity fakers described above. As I read more and more of these stories, patterns began to jump out. Most of them are intelligent and highly educated. They use their new identities to claim a public voice—speaking on panels, writing books, leading protests. They choose to work in fields related to their borrowed oppression. The intensity of their identification could seem almost parodic to outsiders; Vitolo-Haddad once brought sage to class to “cleanse the space of whiteness.” They police other people’s identities, accusing them of not being “Black enough”—an intriguing psychological tic, given that they are not Black themselves.

They are also typically female. Marc Feldman, the American psychiatrist who popularized the term Munchausen by internet, has noticed that most of the cases of factitious disorder that come to his attention involve women. Perhaps female patients are just more likely to make themselves available to researchers, he told me, or maybe women are more likely to turn their pain inward. “When they act out, men tend to act out in really overt ways, and end up predominating in prisons over women,” he told me. “Women tend to act out in subtler ways. They act out within the system. And it may be the medical system, or it may be another, but they’re not overtly sociopathic.”

I asked Feldman whether it might be appropriate to think of these women in terms similar to the ones he would use to describe his patients. They were suffering from “social Munchausen syndrome,” if you like: faking social injuries in the same way that a classic Munchausen patient would fake asthma or cancer. “Every once in a while, I get an email saying, ‘Could this be Munchausen by internet, [when someone] lies about their identity, but doesn’t seem to lie about illness?” he said. “And that’s always presented me with a quandary, because technically Munchausen syndrome has to do with faking illness or even, in some cases, inducing it. You’re onto something that I haven’t paid a lot of attention to.”

As an outsider, it’s easy to empathize with whatever pain drives fakers to rewrite their history, particularly because the cost is commonly cutting their family and childhood friends out of their life. But people closer to these hoaxers, and closer to the pain they cause, tend to have a less forgiving view. When I spoke with two men who knew Satchuel Cole, the Black Lives Matter activist, personally—Laron Anderson of Black Indy Live and the Indianapolis music producer WildStyle—what emerged was a story of power, manipulation, and control. Both described Cole as a zealous gatekeeper of the Indianapolis Black and queer communities. Posing as Black gave Cole authority, the pair said—at the expense of genuine members of these groups, who were afraid to question someone above them in the local hierarchy. As for Krug, “from what I hear, her work was good,” Brandi Adams, who will join Arizona State University as an assistant English professor this fall, told me. “But she also made life difficult for a lot of Black and Latinx scholars, which is inexcusable. During the deception, she made other scholars feel that they were not Black or Latina enough. She was policing Blackness.” In the U.S., only 3 percent of college professors are Black women, and the community of Black scholars with whom Adams associates was gripped by the Krug news.

Other academics working in Black history and related fields have expressed a separate concern: that these fakers will be used to undermine the integrity of the discipline as a whole—just as fake Holocaust victims have been used by anti-Semites to claim that the Shoah never happened at all. “I have hesitated to share my suspicions,” the anonymous blogger who outed Vitolo-Haddad wrote, because “I do not wish to give fodder to people who have other grievances with CV, or with Black studies and Black liberation struggles.”

As for how the hoaxers get away with it, there is a strong taboo in liberal circles against questioning anyone’s identity, or their experiences of trauma. Doing so is taken to be the same as questioning all trauma. The left, in particular, respects this because of its awareness that some people think that racism is routinely exaggerated, that sexual-assault allegations are overblown, that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Trans activism has a taboo on “deadnaming”—mentioning, for example, that Caitlyn Jenner was once Bruce—and this norm has spread to university websites and news sources, which sometimes scrub references to a person’s previous identity. This act, motivated by kindness and respect, has the unintended consequence of impeding efforts to check court records or high-school yearbooks, and making it harder to compare successive versions of a person’s life story. Then there are the fluid power dynamics at play: Although Black Americans have, on average, lower incomes and social power than white Americans, a tenured professor (no matter their ethnicity) has immense power within a university department. It takes a brave graduate student to question their identity, just as it takes a brave doctor to express skepticism about a Munchausen-syndrome patient.

And then there is the fluidity of race itself: What makes a person Latino or Black? One grandparent? Two? The questions quickly begin to verge on segregationist “one drop” rhetoric. The whiteness of academia itself inhibits questions. “People like Krug go under the radar because of the incuriosity of academia and how little we talk about people’s race and ethnicity, in part because there is a dearth of people of color in academia,” Bonifacio, the University of Toledo professor, told me. Skeptical onlookers also worry that making the argument that someone does not “look Black” or “sound Black” reinforces troublesome stereotypes. “When I looked at [Krug], I thought: There are people in my family who look like you, and I would be offended if people were like, Who are you?” Adams said.

We can all understand the hoaxers who pretend to be someone else with malign intent: the con artists, the charlatans, the cads. The inexplicable, and haunting, cases are those people who seem to believe their own stories: the sick patient tortured by the Gestapo, the little boy separated from his mother in a death camp, the white girls who decry “blackface” while curling their hair and passing as Latina or Black.

Right now, there are people out in the world claiming pain that isn’t theirs—and hurting others in the process. But many are doing so because of the pain that is theirs. During our conversation, Feldman told me something shocking. “I think we’re missing the vast majority of Munchausen-by-internet cases,” he said. “Because in the vast majority of cases, the deceptions are successful.”