Dvora Meyers | Longreads | January 2020 | 38 minutes (9,656 words)
In June, I woke to an alert from Facebook, a notification of a memory from five years ago. It was a photo of a woman in a park, leaning over, kissing the top of my dog’s head. The woman’s face was partially hidden but I immediately knew who it was — Chaya.
This photo was snapped at a picnic Chaya hosted at the park. The purpose of this gathering of friends was to celebrate her surviving “trigeminal neuralgia [and] CML,” as she put it in the email invitation, using the abbreviation for chronic myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow.
“I still have a road ahead but I have a lot to celebrate, and be grateful for,” Chaya wrote. The picnic was scheduled after Sabbath morning services at a nearby synagogue where she would be “benching gomel,” which is a prayer one recites after surviving something potentially fatal. A car accident. An illness. Even something as dangerously mundane as childbirth.
I can’t remember if the photo of Chaya and my dog was candid or if it was posed. It’s most likely the latter because my dog is notoriously uncooperative when it comes to looking at the camera for photos. It usually takes a treat in my hand to move her head in the right direction and keep it there. Anyway, it works better for the story if this photo was staged because, as we would learn nearly five years later, almost everything in Chaya’s life had been staged to elicit maximum sympathy. She had lied about almost everything about herself, including having cancer.
That Chaya had previously had cancer was one of the first things I remember learning about her. (Her name and identifying details, as well as the names of others, have been changed for this piece to protect their identities.) We met at Coney Island the July 4th the year before the picnic. Laura, one of my close friends, and I had planned a beach outing with a few others, and she invited Chaya join the group. Newly arrived to Brooklyn, Chaya met Laura through mutual friends, and though a newcomer to the city, Chaya was certainly not an unknown quantity. The fact that she could play Jewish Geography gave her, as it would later turn out, an unearned credibility.
I remember we laid on a towel on the sand when Chaya told me that she was in remission from cancer. She didn’t specify which kind. I don’t remember what we had been discussing but I do remember feeling taken aback. Why is this person I just met telling me this? Her disclosure created an intimacy that felt rushed.
I quickly pushed aside my initial negative reaction to Chaya and admonished myself. Why are you being such a bitch? So what if she shared this information about herself right off the bat? Maybe her experience with cancer was recent. And so what if it wasn’t? This dueling emotional arc — annoyance followed by a rush of guilt — accompanied many of my interactions with Chaya.
Thinking back, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t think of Chaya as sick, at least in some way. In nearly every subsequent encounter, she talked of some new ailment, a trip to the emergency room, a new procedure. I’d see her again at Friday night Shabbat services that our friends organized on a monthly basis — I was only there for food and socializing. Per my custom, I arrived near the end of services and lingered in the other room where the potluck dinner was being set up. Chaya started going to these services shortly after her arrival in Brooklyn, and the first time I saw her at one, she told me that she had made a late night run to the emergency room to deal with unspecified nerve pain. I thought that she was perhaps dealing with some sort of neuropathy fallout from chemotherapy treatment she had undergone in the past, but I didn’t ask too many questions. I simply assimilated any new health information I heard from Chaya into what I already knew about her past with cancer, with what I had learned about her at the beach on July 4th.
During this period, she also got closer to other members of the progressive Brooklyn Jewish community, including Jeremy and his wife Raizy, who first met Chaya at a Shabbat meal. Like me, Jeremy couldn’t recall a time when he didn’t think of Chaya as sick in some way. “I think it was always there,” he told me recently when we sat down to discuss Chaya. “From the beginning of when I knew her, she had been in remission for having cancer, which she struggled with as a child,” he said. (Chaya had told me that she was diagnosed and treated while she was in college.)
“Raizy and Chaya always had something in common as friends because they had some more [shared] background.” He paused briefly, then added, “In theory.”
“I don’t know what’s actually true — that they had grown up with an Orthodox family.”
It was just all so absurd, and even months after we learned that she had been lying, we would still say things that she had told us, as if they were true, before catching ourselves.
I, too, had heard the bit about having been raised as an Orthodox Jew. In 2014, Chaya Gchatted me, “didnt realize ur fam was also frum,” using an in-group Yiddish term that essentially means Orthodox. When I confirmed that I had indeed grown up in one of Brooklyn’s many Orthodox Jewish communities, she spoke about being raised by her grandparents in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, New Jersey. That prompted a “wow” response from me. To all Northeastern Orthodox Jews, Lakewood means extreme religiosity and stringent observance. It’s home to the Beth Medrash Govoha, a well-known place of study where men spend hours every day parsing the Talmud and other texts. Based on what she told me, it seemed that her religious background was far more Orthodox than mine had been — at least we had a television and went to the movies. “My family’s not that frum,” I wrote back.
Chaya, though certainly Jewish, wasn’t raised in any Orthodox community, much less one as religious as the Haredi community that dominates Lakewood. She had lied, presumably in order to connect with me. She told other former Orthodox Jews the same thing. She always took the shortcut to friendship and intimacy, mirroring your experiences back at you. But what was reflected back always felt exaggerated in some way. Chaya was a funhouse mirror. And she played a constant game of one-upmanship. She’d see your Orthodoxy and raise you an ultra-Orthodoxy. In the Misfortune Olympics, Chaya always had to come in first — or last, depending on how you viewed this sort of thing. Her gold medal was you saying, “You’ve had it so much harder than me.” She needed you to hear you say that no one had suffered like she had.
And for all the time that I knew her, I genuinely believed her struggles to be true, and on top of that her family situation seemed desperate. She told me that her relationship with her mother was strained and with her father nonexistent (she spoke positively about her younger sister and then later her niece and nephew). She described him to me quite dismissively as her “biological father” or “birth father” and said that their troubled relationship started when she was a child. Chaya told me that Child Protective Services had removed her from her parents’ home, and during the course of being raised by her ultra-Orthodox grandparents, she claimed they formally adopted her. She added that her biological father suffered from Alzheimer’s, which was why her mother couldn’t help care for her. It troubled me that Chaya’s mother would choose to care for her husband over her own dying daughter. I felt even more sympathy for Chaya.
I’ll be the first to tell you that, compared to others, I didn’t do a lot for Chaya. Though we spoke on the phone or via FaceTime often enough, I visited her infrequently. Once or twice, I brought over Lizzie, my beagle mix, of whom she was very fond, but traveling with Lizzie — who is too big and too anxious for public transit — is tricky, and Chaya was a solid 45-minute walk from my place. When I showed up, it was usually sans dog. She seemed disappointed. Instead, I’d text her photos of Lizzie on a fairly regular basis or whenever she asked for them. Chaya would talk about wanting to get a dog often, but she felt that she couldn’t care for one. I even remember that for some time, she linked to Memorial Sloan Kettering’s therapy dog page as her Gchat status.
But with others, Chaya managed to extract significantly more time and energy. Jeremy and his wife were in near-constant communication with her, visiting about once a week. Pretty early into their friendship, Jeremy was already cooking for her and doing basic household chores. “It was because she said she had trouble with her hands,” he recalled.
Jeremy said that initially Chaya would offer to pay for some part of the food bill but those offers dwindled over time as she got sicker. By 2015, we had been told that Chaya had left her public-sector job and was subsisting off of disability payments and Medicaid. “At first it was that thing where I was making a bunch of food on Sunday and then split it,” Jeremy said. “She would often, at that point, she would either go in on [it] or offer to pay for half.
“I would often refuse. I would be like, ‘I’m making food for someone who’s sick. Let me just take care of you. You don’t have a job,’” he said.
Raizy and Chaya had dressed frum and went to her Orthodox-run building management company to persuade them not to raise the rent of a sick woman. When her computer broke, her friends all pitched in to buy her a new Macbook. When we learned Chaya’s favorite movies — the Twilight series — were leaving the streaming service she was subscribed to, Laura and I bought them for her. And then every year shortly before her October birthday, we all received birthday present lists with suggestions of things to buy. Most of the things were not particularly expensive and easy to order from Amazon — soft cotton shirts because we were told her skin itched excessively, pajamas, little trinkets, and stuffed animals.
On the night with Jeremy at the bar, I motioned to the restaurant across the street. Chaya and I had once gone there for drinks and guacamole. Jeremy was shocked that Chaya drank; he couldn’t recall her ever doing that in his presence. That got me doubting my own memory — had Chaya actually had an alcoholic beverage? Or did she order something else? But there was definitely guacamole. That much I’m sure of. After a brief pause, I said, “I think she had a drink. I know I paid.”
Nearly five years after first meeting Chaya, my friend Laura texted me a screenshot of a conversation she had with Samantha, Chaya’s younger sister, on Facebook. Though the chat was conducted through Chaya’s own Facebook account, we had all been under the impression that her sister — not Chaya — was in control of her digital life since her health had taken a turn for the terminal. This process happened gradually; first the emails were signed by both Chaya and Samantha. Then, as her health worsened, Samantha was the sole writer, explaining that Chaya didn’t really use the computer much anymore and starting chats with “Samantha here” or “It’s Samantha.” After a while, you didn’t question it.
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Laura had privately reached out to offer support after reading a particularly grim update to Chaya’s Facebook account, and Samantha wrote back, “If I wasn’t living it, dint [sic] have the medical proof id think i was making this all up.”
Along with the screenshot from the private chat, Laura texted, “This is the third or fourth time either Chaya or her sister has specifically mentioned making this all up … I don’t know what’s going on, but I wish I could go over there and talk to Samantha and Chaya in person … if only to get a better understanding and try to help …”
There were parts of her story that weren’t adding up, and that hadn’t added up for awhile. Chief among them: Why was she still alive? It had been nearly two years since we learned that all treatment options had been exhausted and that our friend had started receiving home hospice care. I didn’t want Chaya to be dead. I just wanted things to make sense.
There were gaps in care that Samantha frequently emailed and posted about online. We were told Chaya had a night nurse who stayed with her until her aunt — her primary caregiver — arrived in the morning. But because her aunt was old and not in the best health, Chaya would often be left alone, so the family requested visitors during those times. These gaps usually took place on the weekend or after work hours on a weekday. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t receiving around-the-clock care, but I leaned into my own biases and chalked it up to the problems in our health care system. Chaya certainly wasn’t the only person in this country receiving inadequate care.
Despite these questions, I never doubted the underlying premise — that Chaya had cancer
Similarly, I thought there was a reason — a misdiagnosis perhaps — for Chaya’s continued existence in her mortal coil. When Samantha would reach out, I’d ask her if they were going to take their sister to the hospital to run more tests to find out what was really going on. Samantha would lament the difficulty of transporting Chaya, how she’d start vomiting and seizing in the car. I suggested the obvious: Call an ambulance. Again, she’d talk about how hard it was to move Chaya. This still didn’t make sense. No one is so medically unstable they can’t be taken to the hospital. EMTs don’t leave motorcycle crash victims with skull fractures and possible brain damage at the side of the road because they are unstable. But Samantha would bombard me with medical information until I would eventually let the matter drop. Samantha seemed totally overwhelmed. You see, in addition to Chaya’s terminal illness, she’d tell me how her own two young children suffered from a myriad of health problems. It seemed that the family had been dealt an unusually cruel hand.
Despite these questions, I never doubted the underlying premise — that Chaya had cancer. Once Laura, who initially made that cognitive leap, got me to jump over that stream with her, there was no going back. We either were right that she was lying about having cancer or we were monsters who doubted someone with cancer. If we couldn’t prove the former, we’d have to live with being the latter.
After Laura raised this possibility, we did something we hadn’t done the whole time we’d been acquainted with Chaya — list out everything she had told us about her life in chronological order. This was different than our previous calls, conversations when we discussed the unexplainable aspects of Chaya’s situation in fragments. We never took a step back and looked at the whole picture.
As we made our lists — the trigeminal neuralgia, the CML, the ovarian cysts, pacemaker, the problems walking, the desperately sick niece and nephew, the family difficulties, and more — it was immediately clear to both of us that all of this couldn’t be true. Job, if he heard Chaya’s tale of woe, would’ve been like, “This sounds like it’s a bit much.”
Not that we believed her to be 100 percent healthy either. We felt certain that she did experience some health fallout due to a birth defect.
While we were both motivated by curiosity — we needed to know — there were other reasons we pursued this so doggedly. Laura’s were nobler than mine and reflect the kind of person she is. She was primarily concerned with Chaya’s mental well-being and getting her help. That was certainly a factor for me, but it was not the only reason that I wanted to learn the truth. I felt duped and was humiliated, and I wanted to understand why, even if it meant that I also exposed myself for being that gullible at the same time.
And I was that gullible. The lies weren’t good. They shouldn’t have persuaded me or anyone else for that matter. But the lies didn’t have to be good as long as what she was lying about was something like cancer, because who lies about cancer? The outrageousness of the lie does most of the heavy lifting. You don’t even have to make it sound all that plausible once you invoke the c-word.
I couldn’t fathom lying about cancer. I would be too afraid to tell that kind of lie, not just because I would feel terrible about deceiving the people closest to me but also because I would be scared that I might potentially speak one of the things I fear the most into existence. To say that I had cancer when I did not have it would surely be tempting fate into giving me cancer.
So much of our relationships are based on trust in ways that we never think about because it does its work unseen
But of course it had to be cancer. “Cancer has a particular intrigue because of its inherent drama. Everybody knows what it is and that it can be deadly, and people who triumph over it are heroes,” Marc Feldman, the preeminent expert in factitious disorders, told me. And cancer is the go-to disease for those with factitious disorders. (I have no knowledge of Chaya’s mental health diagnosis or whether she has a factitious disorder, and Feldman’s opinion was not offered as a diagnosis of Chaya.) Factitious disorder is a category of disorders that encompasses a range of disease fakery, from those who lie about having a disease to those who induce symptoms and illnesses in themselves to those who do it to others. The most well-known type of it is Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is when a caregiver — typically a mother — intentionally sickens someone under their charge — usually a child — in order to get attention and sympathy.
Early in our investigation, Laura and I realized that we couldn’t prove that Chaya didn’t have cancer without her medical records, which we were never going to get. But we could unspool the other parts of her story that we believed to be untrue.
Do you think she’s still working, Laura asked me, specifying the name of the public-sector job in her question. (I’m leaving it out in the interest of keeping Chaya anonymous as possible.)
Did she ever work there? I replied. Chaya was the only source we had that she was employed there. In fact, I don’t have proof that most of my friends do what they claim to do for a living. I just accept that they spend all day doing exactly what they say they’re doing.
So much of our relationships are based on trust in ways that we never think about because it does its work unseen. This functions well because most people tell the truth about the major things. (We all lie at times to get out of a social engagement so that we can stay home and watch Netflix instead. But if you’re a friend reading this and I told you I couldn’t come to your party because I wasn’t feeling well, it was definitely true that time.) But when someone comes along and blows up that unwritten social contract, you really start to think about the way that trust operates in your life. The invisible suddenly becomes visible, like in those Alias-style TV shows and movies where the secret agent DOES SOMETHING to reveal the hidden lasers crisscrossing the room so she can slither around them like she’s Sydney Bristow or Britney Spears in the “Toxic” music video. Discovering Chaya’s lies did that for me. I started to home in on all of the ways that unverified information brings me closer to others. I’ve never asked for confirmation about where someone went to school, who their cousin is, or where they worked. I just trust them.
About a week after Laura first texted me, she found Chaya’s employment records online, which are publicly available. Chaya had been telling one truth and one lie about her job: specifically, that she had worked — and still did — in the public sector, and that she was making six figures, outearning much of our friend group.
I followed up with a call, via my Google voice account, to her employer and asked to speak to her. The switchboard operator didn’t hesitate and transferred me. My heart pounded, and I began to sweat into my couch cushions. What am I going to say? I thought. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. Fortunately, I got her voicemail. I listened to the outgoing message for a moment and hung up. We had done what we had set out to do, and with proof that she was still working full-time and at full salary, we could at least debunk the claim that she was sleeping all day in bed and living off of disability.
Laura and I discussed whether I should go over to Chaya’s apartment to confront her. Laura urged me not to, concerned for my well-being as well as for Chaya’s. Maybe she would hurt herself if directly confronted. Maybe she would hurt me. We had no way of knowing how she would react because nearly everything she had told us about herself was false. We were flying blind.
Instead, we decided to reach out to her sister — her real sister. Even though we realized by now that we had never been talking to her, we had determined that Samantha did, indeed, exist. Laura found her work number and called. When Laura told her what was going on she was shocked. “She had no idea,” Laura recalled. “She said Chaya has health problems but she doesn’t have cancer.
“I also mentioned to her that she’s been telling us that Samantha’s kids were also very ill.” That part also wasn’t true. Neither was the Orthodox upbringing with their grandparents and so many other things.
When Laura told me what she had learned from Samantha — the real one — I went from feeling relieved that we had been right to being angry in a matter of seconds. I suppose a miniscule part of me believed that there was going to be some explanation that would account for everything — or almost everything — and that I hadn’t been lied to for five years. But once that last shred of doubt was gone, I was furious. For me, the lie about cancer was not the most egregious one; it was all the ones that she had told me about her family and upbringing. Chaya and I would trade stories about our dysfunctional childhoods — her relationship with her father, her upbringing with her grandparents (about whom she spoke glowingly), and her cousins’ rejection of her after she decided to leave Orthodoxy. I told her about my father’s abandonment of the family when I was 8 (and many other bad acts), my strained relationship with my sister, the fights that I would have with members of my extended family, fights that were ostensibly about my mother’s care but where the subtext was about my abandonment of Orthodox Judaism. I spoke about my mother most since she was — and still is — in cognitive decline, and early into my friendship with Chaya, I was feeling utterly demoralized, trying and failing to help my mother.
I had shared these things with others (and the internet) so it wasn’t that I had told Chaya my deepest, darkest secrets; it was that when I spoke to her about these things, I thought she understood what I was going through on a bone-deep level. Once I learned that most, if not all, of what she had told me about her family was a lie, I realized that Chaya had taken some of the worst things that had happened to me and used them to manipulate me into friendship. I felt a white-hot rage and told Laura I was going to Uber over to Chaya’s place and scream in her face. She urged me not to. I walked my dog around the block at least a dozen times until my heart rate went down.
There’s no handbook that tells you what to do when your loved one is caught lying to all of her friends about having cancer
The day after we spoke to Samantha, we informed Chaya’s close friends of her deception. From conversations with her, we knew that there were people who continued to tend to her, taking time out of their lives to help a woman they believed was dying. A big part of the reason Laura and I didn’t just slink away with our suspicions that Chaya was lying was that we couldn’t let these other people continue to be taken advantage of. And we felt that we couldn’t just tell them our suspicions and let them decide for themselves; we thought that their high investment level in Chaya’s welfare would disincentivize them from believing us. We needed the strongest proof we could find.
This belief was not unfounded. During the course of our little investigation, I reached out to two friends more peripherally connected to Chaya. Neither wanted to entertain what I was saying, even with employment records in hand. I was convinced that they both thought I was a monster. I insisted to Laura that I be the one to tell those two.
The next day, we held the most uncomfortable conference call of my life. Along with myself and Laura, the just-notified friends, including Jeremy, got on the line with members of Chaya’s family — her Aunt Phyllis, her brother-in-law, and her sister. I muted my microphone and opened the bottle of wine that I had bought for the occasion as I was not planning to say much on the call. I had already spoken to Samantha — the real one — and unlike the others, save for Laura, I had two weeks to process the fact that Chaya had been lying about cancer. Everyone else had been informed in the past 24 hours. They were the ones who should be talking.
I felt nothing but compassion for Chaya’s family. There’s no handbook that tells you what to do when your loved one is caught lying to all of her friends about having cancer. Also, contrary to Chaya’s portrayals of her family as monsters, they seemed to be quite kind and caring.
The call’s focus was heavily tilted toward figuring out what to do for her. “Isn’t that crazy? I learn that she’s been lying to me and using me for years, and my first thought is, ‘How do we help her? How do we get her help while keeping her safe?’” Jeremy wrote to me in an email, recalling some of his first thoughts upon learning of Chaya’s deceit. She had cultivated over the years a sense of protectiveness for her that didn’t immediately go away, even once we learned she had been using us. We were still the same caring people that she had manipulated for years. Chaya was the only one who was different.
All of the friends agreed to pull back: We wouldn’t engage with her, and we wouldn’t respond to any text messages from her either. I unmuted my microphone and jumped in. “You don’t have as much time as you think you do,” I said. With all of us pulling away from her at once, who knew how Chaya was going to react. I urged them to get to Brooklyn as quickly as possible and secure their sister. Then they could figure out their next steps.
Laura felt that rushing this process would lead to Chaya hurting herself and didn’t respond to my text messages after I voiced my concern. She worried that if that happened, it would be on her — she had set this whole thing into motion. “What kind of person doubts that someone has cancer?” she had said to me earlier that day. In a one-on-one call with Samantha before we approached the group, I had privately urged her to move quickly, not out of concern for Chaya — my ability to worry about that woman was faltering by the minute — but for Laura. My friend, one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know, didn’t deserve to feel this way.
The next day, Chaya’s sister texted to tell us that she drove up the East Coast, picked her mother up along the way, then confronted Chaya about her lies. She readily agreed to go to the hospital for treatment. When Samantha texted us, they were waiting for Chaya to be admitted to the psych ward.
A couple of days later, I met with Samantha. At first she resisted, sensing that I was angry, saying that she didn’t really want to be yelled at. I assured her I would not yell, though I was angry.
We sat on a bench at a park a few blocks away from Chaya’s apartment. She told me that she and her mother were packing up the place. Chaya would move back in with their parents. Samantha said she understood that all of Chaya’s friendships were over, as news about Chaya had already spread throughout multiple Jewish communities over the course of the Sabbath.
My tone started harsh, at least at the beginning, but it was hard to stay that way in Samantha’s presence. She seemed like a thoroughly good person who wanted to do right by her sister. I was pleased that Chaya had that kind of support, especially since all other forms of support had been withdrawn.
Samantha was reserved — grim even — throughout most of our hour-long discussion, but she lit up when speaking about her two young children, the ones her older sister had claimed were desperately sick. It had been nearly a week of crisis for Samantha, and she needed to speak about her children, if only for a few minutes, a bright spot in all of this.
As we parted, I thanked Samantha for meeting with me. After spending weeks feeling unsure of what was real and what was fake, of realizing that what I believed to be real was not, I needed to meet her, to be certain of something.
Jeremy met with Samantha for the same reason. He also went to Chaya’s apartment, a place where he had spent so many hours, one last time. He took all of the craft projects that he and Chaya made together, the presents he had bought her, the photos, all artifacts of their friendship. Jeremy said he didn’t want her to be able to look at any of it and feel like they had been friends. As far as he was concerned, they hadn’t been real friends because nearly everything that she had told us about herself had been a lie. He even sent me a video of himself smashing one of the items, a framed piece of artwork. Jeremy said he felt a bit better after he did that.
Another feeling he experienced was relief. In an email, Jeremy told me, “I felt relieved that I no longer had to care for her, without the guilt that one would usually have to struggle with for feeling relief at the loss of a friend since she hadn’t really died.”
In the weeks that followed, I heard more stories about Chaya from others who had known her. We traced the origin of her cancer story to at least 2008, when she first began telling people that she had previously had cancer, just as she did that day with me on the beach. It framed all of their subsequent interactions with her.
I learned that despite feeling hurt and betrayed, I was definitely not the person that Chaya had treated with the most cruelty. What she did to others was far worse. Jeremy told me that Chaya told him of worsening health and terminal status while he and his wife were in the NICU with their prematurely born firstborn. “I remember sitting in the cafeteria at the NICU, which is the small amount of time that I had not with Gitty and trying to use it to talk to Chaya. And feeling bad that I wasn’t giving her more of my time because she was struggling,” he recalled. Chaya would play on those feelings of guilt. “She would say, ‘Oh your daughter is in the NICU. You don’t have time for me.’
“That’s the thing with me at least — she completely got me,” he said. She knew that he would respond to guilt.
Chaya used her supposedly impending death to get Jeremy and his wife to bring their baby to visit her before it was medically appropriate. “Gitty was supposed to be in isolation for six months and here we were bringing her to a sick person’s home,” he said. But they thought Chaya was about to die so they took the risk and brought her over before the isolation period was over. “She was just using our child.”
But, as bad as this is, this isn’t what angers Jeremy the most. He had confided in Chaya that he had been abused when he was young. “It came up and destroyed my life. I was not a functional human being.” But, as always, Chaya quickly pivoted the conversation to the Big C. “The way she would talk about it, she was kind of dismissive,” he recalled. He said that she invoked her terminal cancer as being a bigger problem.
“It made me feel stupid for being so upset about it,” he said.
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink going into how Chaya’s lies impacted those around her, not in order to paint her as a monster, but to really concretize what a lie (and a liar) running rampant can actually do. It can be hard to measure the impact of mere words when what is lost is not really material. We can’t sue her for the hours spent worrying, for the guilt we felt in not doing enough, for the risks we took to help her, for always making our feelings subordinate to hers. You can’t tally any of this up or put a number on it. All you can do is state it.
Still, I don’t actually believe Chaya did this out of malice, and unlike in the case of a malingerer, Chaya doesn’t appear to have been motivated by material gain. Malingers set up GoFundMes and commit outright financial fraud. You don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to understand why someone would lie to get you to give them money. I remember suggesting to “Samantha” on more than one occasion that we set up a GoFundMe, a de facto health insurance company in late capitalism, for Chaya, but was told that it wasn’t yet the right time for that. This puzzled me because it had felt like the time to act was now. In fact, it was past time. And she was dying — why were they waiting to raise funds?
But a GoFundMe set up for fraudulent purposes is the fastest way for a cancer faker to be exposed and criminally charged. Chaya was way too smart to get caught up in that. That Chaya is incredibly intelligent was one of the true things I learned about her in this mess. She had to be in order to pull this off. (And it helped that we were trusting and a little bit gullible.)
And she definitely knew she was lying. There were all of the times that a friend just missed meeting Chaya’s caregivers. There was the fact that she insisted I leave before her (nonexistent) night nurse arrived. There was a photo she sent me of herself, her head covered as if she had experienced hair loss from treatment. Jeremy said she would point to hair all over her apartment as proof that it was happening though she didn’t go bald. Jeremy said he didn’t push it further because it was such a sensitive topic of conversation and he could tell that it upset her. When I considered her hair loss — or the lack thereof — I reminded myself that my mother hadn’t lost her hair when she underwent chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer more than two decades prior. I remember that for the first few months, she didn’t dye her roots her usual platinum blonde but came home one day and said that a nurse told her that if it hadn’t fallen out by now, it wasn’t going to. She got on the phone and made an appointment at the salon.
“They know what they’re doing and what it takes to keep the lie going,” Feldman said. “They may be real masters at deception and have a long experience of telling falsehoods even if they’re not about illness.”
In this final online conversation, “Samantha” spoke about finally bringing Chaya to the hospital for testing as I had repeatedly suggested. At this point, we were already onto her. I said I would go visit her there. It wasn’t a request. I said it like a threat because that was how I meant it. She then started to say that she wasn’t sure which unit Chaya would be in. I told her not to worry. I would figure it out.
When I got on the phone with Feldman, I admitted that I had been looking forward to speaking with him for several months, ever since Laura and I first suspected that our friend had been lying about cancer. Feldman is quoted in seemingly every article about factitious disorder and appears in Mommy Dead and Dearest, an HBO documentary about Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the mother-daughter Munchausen by proxy duo.
I ordered his 2004 book Playing Sick? within a week of suspecting Chaya to try to better understand why she would lie about having cancer. But I couldn’t just call him up and ask to talk to him like he was my therapist. (I don’t even know if he takes my insurance.) My desire to speak to him is in keeping with what he’s found in studying people who lie about illnesses — the patients are almost never the ones who contact him. “The family and friends who have been deceived are the ones who reach out,” he said, though he noted that more people with factitious disorders have started to reach out to him since the TV shows The Act and Sharp Objects have aired.
Feldman said that those who have been deceived are affected in the way you’d expect them to be — in their ability to trust. “They say they’ll never be fully trusting again, which is really unfortunate,” he told me. “They’ll always retain some wariness about believing another person who tells dramatic stories of illness, even if they prove to be valid.”
I have long dealt with depression and anxiety. It’s not surprising that a situation involving deception on such a large scale and for so many years would impact my ability to do a job in which trust and credibility are paramount
Recently, Laura told me about a woman in one of her classes who told everyone that she had spent the weekend trying to figure out how to pay for groceries because her kids’ father had emptied their bank account. A couple of months later, the same person mentioned that during the previous semester she had been mugged and beaten up and had ended up in the hospital. The woman said that she had asked the professor for an extension on an assignment and it wasn’t granted. This was a red flag for Laura. “My mind went back to Chaya,” she said. “Wait a second. So your first story is that your ex took all of the money out of the bank account so you can’t pay for groceries …. and now you’re saying you got beat up and that you were injured. … Now you’re saying that a professor wouldn’t give you an extension in a class that’s so easy to get an extension for.
“At that point, I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know if I believe you,’ which is a terrible thought to have,” she said. “When three things like that happen, do you actually believe it?”
She spoke with her mother about her misgivings about her classmate. Laura’s mother pointed out that there are people who have a black cloud hanging over them. “One of our neighbors had tons of bad things happen to her and they were all true,” she said.
“You shouldn’t mistrust people when they say that all of these terrible things happened to them. It’s awful for them,” Laura said. “But at the same time, now, it’s like I don’t know.”
My trust issues haven’t come up in personal relationships. But I have noticed an increased sense of anxiety in my work, especially around people I talk to for stories. While it’s good practice to be skeptical in those situations, it has bordered on paranoia for me at times. Now, Chaya is definitely not the source of my mental health issues. I have long dealt with depression and anxiety. It’s not surprising that a situation involving deception on such a large scale and for so many years would impact my ability to do a job in which trust and credibility are paramount. I found myself doubting sources even after I had vetted them, trying to figure out their secret agenda in reaching out to me. I would read and reread stories that I had to publish for work, convinced that I or the editor missed something, in an absolute panic that I was going to publish something that was wrong. Again, I want to note that Chaya is not the source of my anxiety, but it is also clear that the revelation of what she did greatly exacerbated my preexisting condition. Looking back at myself during those months after Chaya left our lives, I now recognize the increasing paranoia I felt.
I keep going back to the last time I saw her. It was October 2017, shortly before Halloween. She had asked me to go to a craft store near my office to pick up Christmas ornaments, sending me a list of items that she wanted. She said she loved Christmas and its accoutrements and didn’t think she’d make it to December.
I got a real kick out of this. I thought it was a delicious troll, getting your (mostly) Jewish friends to buy you Christmas ornaments. She told me that even some of her Orthodox family members had bought her ornaments. I said I would go to the store and drop them off at her place later in the week, after my therapy session. My therapist’s office was halfway between my apartment and hers.
I found the key to Chaya’s apartment under the mat at her door and let myself in, just as I had been instructed to do. She called to me from her bedroom. She was in bed, propped up by pillows, under her comforter, wearing a hat and pajamas. She was alert, lucid, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I was happy to see that she wasn’t as sick as I had feared she would be. Based on what we were hearing from her sister, Chaya was sleeping all day, running fevers, and having trouble breathing. I had been quite anxious about this visit, terrified of seeing someone in the final throes of cancer. I had never seen anyone quite that sick. My mother’s cancer had thankfully never advanced to that stage. Besides, I had been very young, around 8 or 9 years old when she was undergoing treatment and my memory of that time is hazy at best. I know that she and others did their best to shield me from the worst of it.
So I registered Chaya’s seemingly decent health, which was at odds with her sister’s reports, as a happy aberration. I thought I had caught her on a good day.
I sat in a chair opposite her bed and spoke with her for just over an hour before she checked the time on her iPad and she asked me to leave before her night nurse arrived. I didn’t understand why I had to leave before this woman got here but this was just the latest weird thing in a whole line of weird things. I was like the frog in the pot of water, the temperature slowly being raised. I didn’t realize that the water was now scalding.
Chaya said there was cash on the kitchen table for the crafts I had bought for her. I waved this off. I wasn’t going to take 30 bucks from a dying friend. When I left, I thought that this might be the last time I saw her. And it was.
I’ve obsessed over that visit to Chaya’s apartment a lot since finding out that she had been lying about having cancer. I keep thinking about the stuff I missed — there was no hospital bed, no medical equipment, no signs at all really that a person was living and dying there. It was tidy and spare.
But the thing I go back to the most is her smile. Was she happy to see me or was she pleased with herself that she was pulling one over on me, on everyone? Was she smiling when she wrote those emails, giving us updates on her health? When she texted us as one of her cousins, using her alternate phone number? Was there an element of pleasure in this for her? The thought of her enjoying deceiving me is what troubles me the most, that she thought of me as stupid and easily manipulated, which was at odds with how I used to think of myself. I thought I was smart and perceptive. Now I’m not so sure.
I question whether I should even be a journalist anymore. I was not a cynical reporter; I was a mark.
It’s hard to tell this story without trying to suss out how much responsibility Chaya should shoulder for her actions. The moment you tell anyone this story — and I told it a lot in the ensuing weeks — they immediately assume that she has a mental illness. Hell, that was one of my first thoughts too because who lies about cancer? The substance of the lie is the proof of the illness. Other lies — say about money or sex — are not taken as the sole proof a psychological problem though they too can be symptomatic of something bigger. Those are “normal” things to lie about.
Feldman said that there are those who struggle with factitious disorder’s categorization as a mental illness and it wasn’t added to the DSM until 1980. “Before then for centuries, we knew about the behavior. It just wasn’t labeled as a mental illness,” he pointed out. “There are still those who protest and say it’s not a mental illness; it’s a misbehavior and we shouldn’t be giving people the opportunity to have their lives whitewashed by redefining misbehavior as a mental illness.”
But Feldman noted that even if you don’t consider factitious disorder to be a real thing, people who lie about cancer and other ailments often have other mental health problems that most consider legitimate. (To reiterate, Feldman isn’t offering a diagnosis of Chaya; rather he’s speaking broadly about those with factitious disorders.) “These people do tend to have other mental illnesses, especially personality disorders,” he said. Borderline personality disorder is often diagnosed in people who have a factitious disorder. Other Cluster B personality disorders — such as histrionic, narcissistic, antisocial — are also diagnosed in people who present with factitious disorder.
“There may be some sexual stereotyping associated with how those diagnoses are made, but nonetheless it’s been a consistent finding ever since we became aware of personality disorders, the Cluster B ones, that they predominantly afflict women,” he said. “And factitious disorder appears to be a manifestation of Cluster B personality disorders.”
Its standing as a mental illness is separate from issues of accountability, according to Feldman. People can be both perpetrators and patients.
Feldman said he tends to take a softer view when it comes to people with factitious disorders: “There may be a host of factors that play a role in developing those problems. They need to be let off the hook a little bit.” He also said that he’s seen treatment work in some cases but it can be hard for a person to access help because no one wants to treat people with a factitious disorder. “Most doctors, if they heard of factitious disorder, despise these patients because they lie and make the doctor look bad,” he said. “Most of the reports in the academic literature basically advise that if you encounter one of these patients, you should run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.”
This is what my friends and I did with Chaya. We found her family and let them intervene. And then we all tapped out.
“In the hierarchy of how I feel about it, my first thought is that I still feel she’s sick, right?” Laura told me recently. She noted she doesn’t struggle with mental health issues but she has friends that do and she has tried to treat them with compassion. As one of those friends, I have always been grateful for that.
“I don’t want her to do this again to other people,” she said. “I ultimately want her to get well, or well enough that she doesn’t feel the need to do this again.” Feldman’s book contains case studies in which people with factitious disorders do eventually cease lying about illness, so it is possible. But the book also contains many examples of people who don’t change and flee when they’re confronted. This is one of the reasons this is such an under-researched phenomenon. You can’t study it if the people afflicted won’t stick around and talk.
I guess you could say it was encouraging that Chaya readily agreed to go with her family when they arrived at her apartment. But I wonder if this was simply the best exit strategy she could devise for herself. The jig was up. All of her friends knew. She had no one left except for her family.
She is stuck inside her own feelings, in a nightmarish world of her own creation
In the weeks that followed the revelation, Laura finally felt the anger I had experienced earlier. She wondered if Chaya had deliberately dropped those hints to her in their chats specifically because Laura didn’t live in New York. She couldn’t question Chaya as directly as I or others could. Also, Chaya understood the type of person Laura is —kind, compassionate, patient — and that she would prioritize Chaya’s well-being ahead of all other considerations. She wouldn’t get on the phone and yell at Chaya as I had half a mind to do at times until reined in by Laura.
Chaya did need a way out. She couldn’t stay terminal forever. For Laura, this now appeared to be one final act of manipulation. Now that Chaya was safe, she could finally give herself permission to feel hurt and betrayed.
This would not be the last we would hear from Chaya. In January, just a few months after the intervention, she sent out apology notes to a select group of friends. I didn’t get one. I figured that since I was a journalist, she decided it was best to avoid interacting with me. (I already had a mountain of texts, emails, and chats as evidence.) Or maybe in her mind, she didn’t feel that she owed me an apology. When I began to write this essay, I thought the odds were slim that Chaya would respond to me — but I’m a reporter, so I reached out to the two phone numbers and email address I still had of hers. The email bounced back, an indication that her account had been shut down. After a week or so of waiting, she called back, asking any interview be off-the-record. We spoke for about half an hour, after which Chaya emailed me several clarifications on points she had raised. I again offered her the opportunity to go on-the-record, which she declined.
“This is an short note to acknowledge and apologize to you,” one of the letters to other friends started. (A few of the letters were shared with me and I’m quoting this one with the permission of the recipient.) “I realize that my actions of the recent past my lying that I had cancer and dying likely impacted you.” There’s a touch of corporate speak, a little bit of “Exxon is sorry if the oil spill impacted you” that’s entirely forgivable under the circumstances. What is the “right” way to start a letter apologizing for lying about cancer? I have no idea.
The letters, while not identical, all followed a similar template. They open with an apology like the one above. Then an anecdote about the person, usually something that Chaya and the recipient had done together that wasn’t connected to her being sick. There’s isn’t a long list to choose from there. Almost everything you did with Chaya was tied up in her being sick. You didn’t hang out with Chaya. You visited her. That’s an important distinction.
And then the last paragraph, the longest of the letter, attempted to explain why she had done what she had done. She acknowledged that she doesn’t completely understand her actions, which is in keeping with what Feldman told me about how the person will know they’re lying but may not understand why they are doing it. But then she ventures a guess. “I never fully understood how I had a very long list of conditions enough to send me to the Mayo Clinic and to be told I was rare and complicated and that I couldn’t work like a normal person — without a primary diagnosis,” she wrote. “I finally hit some sort of breaking point and never could mentally process or accept that.”
And there it is, a lie in a letter apologizing for lying. Chaya presented a false timeline. Her visit to the Mayo Clinic, based off of emails and Facebook posts, took place in 2015. The lies started well before then. For me, they started in 2013. For others, they began in 2008 — or perhaps even earlier, way before she hit this so-called breaking point. Jeremy remembers preparing her for that trip to Mayo, putting all of her EOBs (explanation of benefits) into a binder for her to bring along. “She pulled one of them up, I remember, and she said, ‘Oh look at this — it’s my white blood cell count back when it was normal.’” Because it had never been anything but.
She ends the letter by saying that she never lied to her doctors: “I am and was still a person with many things wrong.” Chaya, even in her apology, spends more time letting herself off the hook than she does acknowledging wrongdoing. She doesn’t appear to be able to imagine the hurt and pain she caused others. Her hurt and pain is, as it always has been, paramount. She is stuck inside her own feelings, in a nightmarish world of her own creation.
In some ways, this story is like a long, bizarro, very unfunny episode of Seinfeld — no hugging, no learning. Factitious disorders — if that is indeed what Chaya has — are very rare. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter a person who faked illness (among other things) on the scale that Chaya did, so it’s unlikely you will need to know what to do in its aftermath.
“I always advise people, ‘Don’t feel badly about yourself for having been a trusting human being.’ That’s a trait we really admire in others. To recast it as a problem and a personal deficiency serves nobody well,” Feldman said. And, he noted, doctors get fooled too, for years even.
Confucious allegedly said, “It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them,” and even after this experience with Chaya and the anxiety it has added to my already anxiety addled brain, I mostly agree.
It’s probably best that we don’t learn from what Chaya did to us, because what would that lesson look like? To not trust people when they say they’re sick? To not help them when they ask for it? To doubt them when they tell you about awful things that have happened to them? That’s probably not a lesson worth learning.
And while the future impact on our friend group is unknown, at least our ability to still trust others hasn’t been completely shattered. At one point during our initial inquiry, I received a text message from my father’s friend, letting me know that my father had had a stroke and was in rehab. I’m estranged from my father so I wasn’t sure about what to do or how to feel, but I felt like I should at least tell Laura. I asked her if she wanted to see the text message. We were in the midst of investigating Chaya — culling through years of emails, text messages, Gchats, and Facebook messages — trying to piece together parts of our memories that had at one time felt so sound. In light of what we were then going through, I felt Laura shouldn’t accept it on my say-so — just as we had accepted Chaya’s claims for years. I needed to offer up evidence of my father’s stroke. Laura, however, told me that was unnecessary. She said she trusted me.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Deadspin, the Guardian, and Texas Monthly. She also writes a newsletter about gymnastics called Unorthodox Gymnastics.