Stephanie Wood fell in love with a wonderful man - but she discovered he didn't exist. Now she's telling her story and those of others who have suffered at the hands of narcissists, cheats and liars.
Cheryl vividly remembers the day in 2016 that her lover, the man she had once thought was the most gorgeous creature she'd ever seen, shrank into nothing before her eyes.
"He just turned into this little old wilted guy before me; it was like somebody had let out the balloon, he just disintegrated before me."
They'd met for lunch at a cafe. He brought roses for her. But he wasn't expecting what she had to say. Cheryl told him that she had learned the truth — that he was a fraud who had been lying about everything. "You're a monster," she said. "You have nearly killed me and you did it intentionally."
The man looked at her, he slumped, and then he asked her a question: "Okay, so are we going to have lunch now?"
She left him sitting there, pausing only to give the roses to a woman at the next table. Cheryl had finally taken back control, but not before the relationship had done her grave damage. "I was dying, I was literally dying," she says. During the time she spent with this man she was driven to a suicide attempt and her mental health has never fully recovered. She has never again been able to work full-time.
When Cheryl, who has asked me to conceal her identity, shared her story with me, I found myself clutching for tissues and self-control because I too allowed a monstrous, emotionally abusive liar into my life and, as a result, suffered terribly. I understand the cost of a relationship with a phony.
Small men can leave big marks. The damage my con-artist ex-boyfriend inflicted was far greater than the sum of its devastating parts. I had not only lost him (well, the man I had thought he was) and the future I'd hoped we might share; he stole things from me too. Not money. I like to think that, if he'd asked me for money, I would have seen him immediately. No, he stole more important things: my belief in myself, my belief in truth and decency, my trust.
To haul myself back to life, I realised there were questions for which I needed answers. I had to understand what had happened to me, why I had let myself stay in such a relationship, why I had turned my back on red flags that were evident from the start. And I needed to attempt to understand this man and his psychology: why do some people behave in such wicked ways?
Both the research I gathered for Fake, my book about my experience, including interviews with a number of women like Cheryl who have fallen for liars of one description or another, and the process of writing itself, led me to the answers and understanding I needed.
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Cheryl, who is now 61 and lives in a small Victorian town caring for her elderly mother, met her monster in the mid-1980s when she was 24. She worked in the Melbourne head office of a large company; he worked for the company as a sales rep in another town. "I've been hearing about a cute secretary," he said on the phone one day. Each time he called he flirted with her.
When finally she met him she thought he was "drop-dead gorgeous, charming, well-spoken". He moved to Melbourne and they started what she believed to be a committed relationship. He visited her at home, perhaps a couple of times a week, and they made love. He would have seen her more often, he told her, but he was always travelling for work, trying to build his career. "But you're the only one for me," he said. "We'll get married when things settle down." The explanations he gave as to why Cheryl could not visit his home or meet his friends and family were plausible. He told her, for example, that it was better he visited her because he lived with a bunch of blokes. Once, he took her to a house he said he lived in, but now she thinks it was his mate's place.
"I was young and naive," Cheryl tells me. She adored the man but as time wore on she became increasingly confused, depressed. "He would do what narcissists do, he would love-bomb me then disappear for weeks and I wouldn't hear from him."
Her anxiety built and, one day, driven to despair, she rang him at his office and threatened to harm herself. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, then ended the call. When, deeply distressed, she rang the office a second time, the man's manager answered and Cheryl told him what she was about to do. The manager rang an ambulance. Cheryl ended up in hospital.
"My boyfriend never even bothered to ring up to see how I was."
I think back to the person I was in my 20s — unsure of myself, convinced I had nothing to offer anyone — and understand why Cheryl stayed with this man, even after his treatment of her led her to attempt to kill herself. As I was, she was rattled by red flags, but I know why she remained. I can see it was barely a decision but a deep hunger. As I was, Cheryl was addicted to hope, to the hope there was a fairytale for her. And what neither of us knew is that, for these men, it is so easy to string a woman along with lies, to keep us believing they will deliver the fairytale. For some people, a lie is as straightforward as a yawn.
Eventually, Cheryl found her way to the office of a private detective. She was in tears. She thought she was betraying the man she loved. "Look love, how about we look at it this way," the private detective said. "We're just going to prove you're wrong."
My world fell apart late in 2015. A mutual acquaintance alerted me to the fact that the boyfriend I'd regretfully just dumped had been cheating on me from the very first day of our relationship. I discovered photographs of him scattered through another woman's social media pages. The one that inflicted the greatest wound: a pic she had obviously taken of him sitting on a country resort's veranda, relaxed, reading a book I'd given him for his birthday.
I'd met this man — I'll call him Joe — online. He had spurred me to the hope that together we might grow decrepit and grey but had let me down so many times and led me into such a state of distress and anxiety that I realised continuing the relationship was madness. But I thought I was still in love with him. I'd believed everything he told me.
He said he had a small sheep farm a couple of hours south of Sydney and, from fairly early in our 15-month relationship, he started to stand me up when things went pear-shaped there. A bore was pumping out mud and he needed to fix it. A fence had come down that he needed to repair. He poisoned himself with sheep drench.
One day he texted to say his dog had been bitten by a snake and he was at a country vet's, cradling the fading kelpie. He wouldn't be able to make it to my place for dinner as planned, he said. Over the next two days, he sent me a barrage of texts updating me on the dog's condition. Multiple times he said he was just about ready to drive to the city to see me; multiple times he delayed his departure. When finally he arrived at my apartment and I comforted him, he had tears in his eyes.
Thanks to the other woman's social media pages, I learned that he'd actually been having a lovely, loved-up time with her at the country resort. No sign of his dog. No snake. As I dug through her pages, the head-spinning horror was endless: photograph after photograph, evidence of the scale of Joe's manipulation and deceit from the very first day of our relationship. But the discovery of his romantic fraud was just the beginning.
As I first described in a Good Weekend magazine article in 2017, my inquiries uncovered the extent of Joe's fake life: the man I had believed was in love with me, an affluent former architect who lived in a house on Sydney harbour with his children, spent time at the farm when they were with their mother, and was also a highly successful property developer, was a great pretender. He was, in fact, bankrupt, had a record for using a forged document, had nearly ruined his former business partner, and seemed to have no fixed address.
But in a sense, the story, my story, really started after that article. Squadrons of messages flew into my inbox. Some people wrote to express their incredulity that such a person even existed in the world. Missives landed from a number of people who recognised the man I had described in my story. Some who knew this faux farmer agreed to meet with me and allowed me to record our conversations. I drank negronis and shared battle scars with the other woman.
And something astonishing became clear: the behaviour of my ex-boyfriend was not so unusual. Dozens of women, a few men, wrote long, intelligent and candid notes to me outlining their relationship experiences with similar characters. From the anecdotal weight of the messages I received it seems there is in the world a silent epidemic: emotional abuse perpetrated by an army of liars, cheats, grifters, charlatans, con artists, imposters, narcissists, fantasists and flim-flam men. A disproportionate number lurk on dating websites and apps. It is clear to me that the disordered behaviour of people like this is a far more common cause of relationship breakdown and trauma than anyone could imagine.
The detective that Cheryl had hired gave her bad news about her "boyfriend". "Everything was a lie," she says. "It was like being king-hit." He did not live where he had told her he did. He was engaged to another woman. Cheryl took a hammer to a china Buddha he had given to her.
She had a breakdown. "What is to become of me?" she asked her psychiatrist. "You're never going to work again," he said. "We can get you a housing commission flat and a pension." I am appalled that this is what any doctor would have said to their patient, but cheer when Cheryl tells me that she decided to study and went on to win a university medal.
Over two decades in therapy, not once did her psychiatrist suggest her ex-boyfriend might have a personality disorder, perhaps narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, he focused the sessions on her issues, on the fact that she was immature, delicate, depressed.
Cheryl blamed herself for what happened and remained convinced that her ex-boyfriend was the love of her life. "I just sort of shut down. I didn't have anything to do with another man." And then, two decades later, she made a decision she would come to regret: in 2013, she looked him up on LinkedIn.
The professional networking site alerts users that people have been looking at their profiles. Her ex-boyfriend emailed her. She replied. A flirtation began. "I told him, 'you need to understand that if I get involved again and find out that you are cheating on me, it will kill me'." He said, 'I will not lie to you'."
They got back together again. "I went back because I thought that the first time round I was the problem."
In the second incarnation of their relationship, the man said he was now a mining executive based at a remote mine site for weeks at a time where there was no phone or internet reception. He described the mine site in great detail, he talked about a foreign engineer who was soon to arrive in a helicopter, he talked about the mess hall and all the blokes in it, he talked constantly about a young Aboriginal man he was mentoring. He said that on his rare visits home he lived with an ex-girlfriend in a platonic house-share arrangement.
Cheryl was hopelessly in love with him, but for the next three years, she lived on tenterhooks, stricken with anxiety. He visited her even less frequently than he had when they were first together in the 1980s and 1990s. When she tried to stand up for herself or demand more of him, he'd go silent and she wouldn't hear from him for weeks.
One day when the man visited her he told her she was "bloody expensive", that he'd flown in from the mine just to see her for a few hours. "I understood he had a career and he loved his career and I didn't want to interfere with that."
Eventually, on the edge of a breakdown, Cheryl hired a second private investigator. There was no mine site. "It was a complete and utter fabrication," says Cheryl. The "ex-girlfriend" with whom her boyfriend shared a house was actually his fiance. He didn't work. "He was sitting at home in his trackie daks watching TV."
She contacted the fiance. The woman told Cheryl she didn't know what he did all day — "he certainly doesn't do any housework". She said she wasn't surprised that he'd been seeing someone else; in fact she suspected he had a "harem" of women. She didn't have sex with him. "I won't have the rough sex he wants."
For the second time in her life, Cheryl was thrown into a world of pain. "It was just like an elevator had dropped from beneath me." Alongside her grief, heartbreak and anger, another emotion thrust itself forward: a sense of shame, a sense of foolishness.
I feel silly that I stayed in a relationship with dodgy Joe for as long as I did. Anyone who has been in a similar situation feels the same way. "It took me way longer than it should have to see through his complex web of lies. I was left feeling just so stupid and humiliated when I worked it out and broke up with him," one woman told me. It was by far the most common sentiment women who contacted me expressed: How could I, an intelligent woman, have fallen for that?
It has taken me two years of research for Fake to see that there are a great number of colliding factors to explain why we fall for romantic con artists, and silliness is not one of them. For a start, our brains can be our worst enemies — at the outset of a relationship, neurotransmitters and hormones flood our dopamine reward system, altering our physical and emotional responses. At the same time, the brain circuitry responsible for critical judgment is not working as well as it should. One Harvard psychiatrist I interviewed described the early stages of love as though all the equipment keeping a ship on course is out of commission.
And, as time passes and we become more immersed in a relationship, the brain plays other tricks on us. For example, the field of cognitive science tells us about the "anchoring bias", in which we come to rely too heavily on one piece of information about something at the expense of other, more relevant information. In my relationship with Joe, I relied on two fundamental "anchors" — that I had seen a harbourside address on his driver's licence and I knew for a fact that his grandfather had started a major Australian company.
But above all else, men like Joe have thrown out the rule book. Most are likely to have a personality disorder, showing characteristics ranging from grandiosity, a need for admiration, excessive self-centredness and a lack of empathy, to manipulativeness and deceitfulness. They are incredibly smart and utterly shameless. As Cheryl said to me, "How can you watch out for something when you don't know it exists; when it's beyond your worst imagination?"
But it's vital we learn more about the existence of these types of people because the damage they can inflict can last a lifetime. "He ruined my life, so many wasted years blaming myself," says Cheryl. "I will never have another relationship. I'm lonely, I'm really lonely, but I'm not going to risk it."
Fake , by Stephanie Wood (Vintage, $40), is out on July 2.