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Fulfillment's Desolate Attic

On frauds


The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking

Adam Sisman

Counterpoint, pp.256, $26.00

It’s important to believe in yourself, at least if you want to be a successful con man. You need to believe in others, too. Finally, it’s important to be honest. As Mike, a con man in David Mamet’s movie House of Games explains to a curious psychologist: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” This moment of disclosure is a con, too. 

Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, two high-level grifters of recent memory, both failures, combined this self-belief with this openly given confidence. When the cons were over, they were scrutinized for the things that should have been the tell—bad hair, mostly. But ultimately they were successful both because, generally speaking, we trust other people to tell us the truth and because when somebody is offering us something, we take it. The essence of the con is that most people are a combination of innocent and venial. 

Can you believe in yourself too much? One only really knows the story of con men who are not successful and thus are exposed, sometimes repeatedly. A truly successful con, such as selling bottled water, exists on another level entirely. Debatably, the most taken-in mark of Elizabeth Holmes was herself. Maybe the oddest image from the collapse of Theranos, her blood-testing start-up, is of her wandering the labs with her un-house-trained husky, Balto, informing everyone that Balto was, in fact, a wolf. Image-obsessed as she was, it is unclear to me whether Holmes always lied, or if she had, instead, cultivated an internal reality to which the world around her simply failed to respond. Perhaps one ought to believe in oneself against the odds, but not against reality—another lesson from House of Games, which ends with the psychologist, at last unraveling the con, shooting Mike dead and thus firmly, definitively, bringing their interactions into truthful territory.

Not every con hopes to acquire money or fame. There are people who fake diseases, freely confess to crimes they did not commit, pour vast resources and time into writing entirely fake pieces of journalism, or place themselves at the scene of a historical trauma. The career of Robert Parkin Peters, the subject of Adam Sisman’s new biography, can be handily summed up by the book’s prologue, in which Sisman lists various details from Peters’s death certificate—occupation, date of birth, and presumed age—and then drily informs us that “none of these details was true.” Peters did not want money, did not want fame, and he did not want forgiveness or the chance to reform when those things were on offer. He wanted status and he wanted to have always had it. Specifically, he wanted academic status and the priesthood. One of these he had never had and one had been taken away from him.

Sisman was introduced to Peters in the course of researching his biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, discovering that Trevor-Roper had kept a fairly extensive file on this obscure figure from 1958, when they met for the first and only time, until 1983 (when Trevor-Roper, publicly duped by a forgery of Hitler’s diaries, may have lost his taste for following cons). It turned out, however, that Trevor-Roper was not the only person to have kept such a file. In fact, many people who had encountered Peters had also kept track of his movements afterward. Sisman’s book draws on their efforts, as well as his own.

As Sisman’s own book demonstrates, to record his behavior, difficult enough to do on its own, is the only way to try to understand a serial liar of Peters’s ability. “I realised early on in the process,” Sisman writes, “that Peters could only be known from the outside: his inner thoughts and feelings were hidden. . . . It seemed to me likely that he barely knew himself.” 

Peters was a serial monogamist whose marriages (at least seven, possibly eight) were sometimes in fact simply bigamist (at one point he claimed that he was impotent and thus none of the marriages counted); he consistently represented himself as an ordained member of the Anglican clergy, and sometimes (much less successfully) as a Catholic priest; and, finally, he desperately wished to be an academic and respected among scholars. Through no fault of Sisman’s, keeping track of all the ways in which Peters is lying and to whom is not always easy, particularly after one has finished the book. 

In point of fact, Peters had been an Anglican priest for a little less than a year, at which point his faculties were “inhibited,” and he was expelled from the clergy in 1955, three years before he met Trevor-Roper. However, his official status never seems to have influenced his behavior; in the eighties he lived for a time in South Africa and seems to have served as a clergyman there. (Sisman records that he was dismissed from one post in South Africa “for incompetence and incitement of racial and ecumenical tensions. To be dismissed for inciting racial tensions in apartheid-era South Africa . . . was a striking achievement.”)

It was his persistent faking of academic credentials, however, that troubled Trevor-Roper. Had Peters been content to live in bigamy, or as a priest, Trevor-Roper probably would have simply collected his goings-on and not felt any need to interfere. When Peters eventually acquired a mentor who wished to rehabilitate him, Trevor-Roper despised the man as “sanctimonious” and “a great ninny.” The rehabilitation didn’t take; Peters went on to start first one failed, unaccredited school, and then another, slightly more successful. But Peters never made a lot of money off of these ventures, and while he seems to have been a nasty and abusive employer, the book does not suggest that what was being taught there was bogus or useless. 

Academia relies on the idea that the people within its domain, ultimately, are telling the truth. You prove you are a truth-teller by offering your credentials at the door. False statements can, with care, be successful at entering into the stream of citation and thus acquiring the status of truth. Take, for instance, the rather infamous case of the meeting of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, which has circulated as true since 2002 and which seems to have probably been a fabrication from an academic who felt embittered and overlooked, and who had manufactured similar cases to embarrass people he felt had slighted him. But even true statements can be transformed into free-floating falsehoods simply by being altered through repetition and scholarly games of telephone.

Thus in Peters we encounter a con man whose ultimate aim seems to have been access to a different kind of con. The scholarship that he managed to produce was boring and inessential, but not false, though had he managed to stay in one place long enough it is certainly possible he would have turned to fabrication. But what Trevor-Roper objected to in Peters so strongly at same time seems to have been his least harmful lie: to be a colorless and uninteresting academic. And perhaps that is the most puzzling aspect of a thoroughly puzzling man. Why lie so much for so little?

Serial liars invite identification. This is one aspect of the con, but it is also how they are understood in retrospect: usual human badness, blown up to fantastic size. In many cases, I find this disrespectful to the amount of work a successful con artist has to put into a con, not to mention the cynicism that they have to bring to their relationships. Nonetheless, in the case of Peters, distinguished not only by the quantity of his lies but by what seems to have been a genuine sincerity about their content, it seems true. In his behavior he is both baffling and intimately familiar.

To say this is not to downplay the trail of damage he left in his wake. To pick one point among many, every marriage he solemnized was, as Sisman puts it, “unlawful.” His sincere conviction that he should nonetheless get to preside at nuptials and otherwise perform priestly duties does not really mitigate the chaos into which he threw various people’s private lives—people who would never know him and could not even correctly be said to have been conned by him. This is to say nothing of Peters’s own marriages, the one child he left behind him, or the people he convinced to take classes for worthless credentials.

But deception may be one of the trickiest of sins simply because it is not always easy to know who it is who is lying, or to whom their lie is ultimately told. The Act of Contrition tacked up in a  confessional near me involves the promise that I “firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” Do I mean this? I do, but it’s also true that I make this act knowing it is pretty likely that I will not only sin again but that I will probably sin again in the exact way that sent me to the confessional in the first place. If I show up to confession the next day, and the next day, and the next day, having committed identical sins each time, I am in something like Peters’s position. And much as I’d like to present that as a thought experiment, it isn’t entirely. To resolve to change is to make a declaration about your future behavior that you cannot substantiate in the moment no matter how genuine your intention might be.

There’s something about Peters I find oddly affecting. It wasn’t that he just needed a break—he got them. It wasn’t that he just needed someone to believe in him—if nothing else, it didn’t get wives one through seven much. He certainly does not seem to have been a lovable trickster, becoming vicious whenever he seemed to get the upper hand. But something about his desperate attempts to make himself over by mere declaration alone, his need to have been always already credentialed and respected, the fundamental smallness of his ambitions, the rubber-ball quality with which he responded to setback and discovery—all this is, if not lovable exactly, too familiar to reject.

“I lied, I tricked, but I remained faithful to God,” Peters told the Sunday Pictorial, shortly after he had been found out by Trevor-Roper that first time. In wife number four, however, he “had found the first REAL thing in [his life],” and they would start again “overseas, without lies, without fraud.” Nothing came of this. But who’s to say that, speaking to the paper, in his heart of hearts, Peters was doing anything but telling the truth? If there is any lesson to be learned from the con, perhaps it is only that the truth can be its own sort of lie.

B. D. McClay is a senior editor at the Hedgehog Review.

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B.D. McClay's writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Gawker, The Baffler, and other publications.