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Peter Rubin

Impersonation Nation: A Very Scammy Reading List

A woman with patches of colored felt obscuring her face
Tara Moore/Getty Images

If the 21st century has been great for one thing, it’s scams. That’s not to say that the last few have been scam-free; 1700s grifter Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy made off with a massive diamond necklace by pretending to be friends with Marie Antoinette, and the 1800s boasted so many charlatans that it gave us the phrase “con man.” But the art of the personal hoax — specifically, claiming to be something or someone you’re not, for personal gain that may not even be monetary — has truly entered a golden age.

The impulse, as in any discussion around causes and effects, might be to blame the internet. And in many cases that might actually be true. Distributed communication already rewards persona over personality, and for some the temptation to try on and discard different selves is undeniable. I’m not convinced, though, that the tools alone induce the trespass. I certainly expected them to be the culprit, especially after documentaries like Catfish and debacles like Fyre Festival, both of which hinged on social media’s ability to elasticize and obscure identity. But as I revisited some of my favorite stories and discovered new ones, I realized that the most compelling tales of grift aren’t the ones that depend on technology: the bottomless library of fraud-ready photos; the platforms that let anyone claim to be an epidemiologist or electoral fraud whistleblower; the software that can plop your face onto another person’s. 

No, the tales that captivate us most almost always reveal a person’s longing. A longing for acceptance, or escape, or prestige, or some other intangible reward. In fact, some of the stories collected below only touch our online lives insofar as that’s how we first learned about them. (Where were you when you first heard about Rachel Dolezal? Probably Twitter.) It’s true that the internet has given us all the power to tell our own stories, and more than a few have twisted that power along with their story. But the reason we’re living in a flood of scams isn’t because we can reach strangers across distance — it’s because we’re feeling that distance more acutely than ever before.

Who is JT LeRoy? The True Identity of a Great Literary Hustler (Stephen Beachy, October 7, 2005, New York Magazine)

If there’s a handier generational lit-world litmus test than “remember JT LeRoy?” I don’t want to know about it. Since the late ’90s, LeRoy had long been an enigma — a runaway teen sex worker turned writer who collected famous friends and co-signs like merit badges, yet never spoke in public. But Beachy, who hailed from the same San Francisco neighborhood that spawned LeRoy’s fiction career, did the journalistic due diligence that up to then had only surfaced as whisper and innuendo. The final dominoes fell mere months later, and other outlets would re-tell the tale (repeatedly) over the years, but the story crumbled in large part because of the dots Beachy connected.

Over time, his publishing friends experienced his transformation from a stammering, freaked-out child to a “cocky, sassy, ambition-driven megalomaniac,” as one literary contact put it. But how had a homeless teen developed both the writing skills and that endless ambition? How could somebody so pathologically shy be working as a prostitute? And how did he manage to send those faxes?

The Hipster Grifter (Doree Shafrir, April 15, 2009, The Observer)

The joy of a good scammer story isn’t in the sentences or structure. It’s in the details. And the details Shafrir uncovered electrified the media world, from Kari Ferrell’s bizarre come-on lines to her increasingly graphic cancer story. This wasn’t a feature that punctured a myth; in Ferrell’s case, the jig was already up. But extensive interviews with the friends and exes she’d ensnared made for a jaw-dropping tale of deceit — and minted a legend of the Gawker Era. 

Within the space of a half-hour, Ms. Ferrell was peppering him with questions about his sexual history—how many women he’d slept with and so on. “She was coming on to me, and I was super into it for the first part of it,” he said. “I realized I could have fun after work—but then I was like, ‘Let me check this girl out.’” He Googled her. Up popped a photo of his flirtatious new co-worker on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Most Wanted list, wanted on five different warrants, including passing $60,000 in bad checks, forgery and retail theft.

The Heart of Whiteness (Ijeoma Oluo, April 19, 2017, The Stranger)

Sometimes all it takes is two words to make someone laugh, roll their eyes, or storm off in anger: “Rachel Dolezal.” In 2015, a Spokane, Washington, news station confronted the city’s local NAACP chapter president with evidence that she was a white woman presenting herself as Black, and a punchline (and polemic punching bag) was born. But nearly two years after the controversy burned itself out, Dolezal changed her name — to Nkechi Amare Diallo — and Oluo found herself on a plane to Spokane.

Not that she particularly wanted to go. “For two years, I, like many other black women who talk or write about racial justice, have tried to avoid Rachel Dolezal — but she follows us wherever we go,” wrote Oluo. “So if I couldn’t get away from her, I was going to at least try to figure out why. I surprised myself by agreeing to the interview.” The result is an interview, yes, but it’s also much more: a scorching interplay between text and subtext that allows Oluo the space to unpack the very conversation that Dolezal resisted.

There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.

Not Fuzz (David Mark Simpson, July 2017, The Atavist)

Some children want to be police officers when they grow up; to grow up into an adult who habitually impersonates police officers (along with firefighters and federal agents) is rarer. But that’s exactly what happened with Steve Farzam, a California man who represented himself as “a former cop” and lived much of his life like one. As the years went by, though, and Farzam’s actions became more troubling and erratic — flashing forged federal credentials, keeping tactical equipment in his car, claiming he’d won a Medal of Valor — his friend and fellow police-head Christopher Darcel realized Farzam’s quirks weren’t entertaining anymore. We’ve all met people who play-acted for power, but in Simpson’s story we meet a man who redefines that phenomenon. When you’re done, check out Simpson’s 2020 postscript for a chilling follow-up.

McChesney, the former Santa Barbara cop, said that to his layman’s eye, Farzam suffered from a “self-identity crisis”—a need to “create this other persona just because he doesn’t like himself or he needs to feel like he’s somebody.” An investigator who worked a case against Farzam, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “He’s like a mosaic. You can’t understand him by looking at any one incident, but over the years, patterns emerge.”

The Amazing 30-Year Odyssey of a Counterfeit Saudi Prince (Mark Seal, November 2018, Vanity Fair)

Since the story doesn’t make you wait long for the truth, I won’t either: The man who for decades had claimed to be His Royal Highness Khalid bin al-Saud, son of the king of Saudi Arabia, was actually Anthony Enrique Gignac, a Michigan man who had been adopted as a Colombian orphan when he was a child. Seal unspools Gignac’s early life and long criminal career in luxurious detail, from his earliest grade-school lies to his increasingly ambitious scams. Hotels, car companies, boutiques: No one was safe from Gignac’s motor mouth and unshakeable kayfabe. Even American Express issued the guy a card with a $200 million credit line. Ultimately, of course, Gignac crossed the wrong person — a Miami billionaire whose lawyers worked up an intelligence dossier and delivered the imposter to federal agencies. If you’re looking for chutzpah on a global scale, you can’t do better than this.

“You mean the fake prince of Fisher Island?” the man told me. “To play the role he played so well for so long, he had to believe the lie. He actually believes he is Khalid, the prince of Saudi Arabia. I was sucked into absolute mayhem. He dangled such a carrot. Even though you knew he was full of shit, the carrot was so big, and there was a 2.2 percent chance that there was some truth in his asinine lies, that you kept going. He was so talented, and pulled off so much shit, I don’t even know where to begin.”

Announcing the 2021 Longreads Member Drive

Longreads logo with the text "Member Drive 2021"

Working at Longreads is continually gratifying, largely because our readers believe in our work as much as we do. It’s in that spirit that we’re coming to you now. To celebrate the launch of our annual Best Of project, we’re returning to another tradition: a Membership Drive. Between now and the end of the month, we’re asking our readers — asking you — to contribute to Longreads’ story fund via paid subscription or a one-time donation.

As always, 100% of reader contributions funds work from writers, photographers, and illustrators from all around the world. Additionally, WordPress.com and our parent company Automattic match every dollar we receive — effectively tripling your donation. Not a bad deal.

Yes, I’d like to contribute!

We’ve grown a lot since our 2009 origin as a Twitter hashtag that enabled people to share their favorite longform stories with a wider community. We began publishing our own award-winning essays and criticism while still recommending the best nonfiction writing each week. We were joined at Automattic by our sister publication, The Atavist, which produces one deeply reported feature each month. But while we’ve evolved, the core of our work remains the same: we recognize exceptional journalism and celebrate thought-provoking memoir and commentary that are at once relevant and timeless.

And we continue to evolve.

The core values that we share with Automattic and WordPress — the value of the open web, the democratization of publishing, and the belief that people should own what they create — have never been more important. Social media platforms prize volume over nuance. Walled-garden ecosystems trap your attention. All the while, local newspapers are withering, and print magazines are shuttering.

The stories we love are still out there. But they don’t come only from the titans of the publishing world. That’s why we seek out and surface the best work from small journals and magazines, writing from across various cultural diasporas, and emerging voices turning out compelling work — not to mention the local and regional outlets, interest-driven publications, and any other place that contributes to the very best of nonfiction.

We also remember that the best stories don’t spill onto the page fully formed. Nonfiction writing is an art and a craft, and we celebrate the process as much as the finished product. The time and attention it demands, the curiosity and conversation it elicits. So we also want Longreads to feel like a salon: a place you come to discover and savor great writing, yes, but also a place to think about and discuss what you’re reading.

Here, you’ll find essays and criticism that are engaging, unexpected, even surprising. While everyone rushes to push out hot takes about trending topics, we’d rather look in another direction to find the story that outlasts them all. The story that pulls you in. The story that you find yourself thinking about months later — or maybe never stopped thinking about at all.

We’re fortunate to receive generous financial support from Automattic — but that support is predicated on our readers. We continue to be gratified by people’s willingness to help fund the work they care about. You’re why we’re still here, and you’re why we’re still growing. Thanks for reading.

The Longreads Team
(Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Peter Rubin, Krista Stevens, and Carolyn Wells)

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A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

neon marijuana symbol with the word "legal" below

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.

Deeper Than Pixels: A Reading List on Video Games

The traces of a car's taillights driving into a surreal digital landscape
Getty Images

Some childhood sense memories emerge unbidden; others resist excavation, no matter how hard you dig. And my first video game, whatever it is, lies safely interred in that latter category. Sure, I could tick off the titles I loved, the ones I tithed with whatever quarters I could scrounge — Centipede, Bump ’n’ Jump, Moon Patrol — even the smells and sounds of the arcades I played them in. But the origin point of my fascination is nowhere to be found. Not that it matters, at this point. Even if the bulk of my game-playing these days happens on my phone, the activity is one of the few true constants in my life. That hasn’t always been for the best, as anyone familiar with such attachments can tell you. Video games manage to be possibility and punishment, outlet and opiate, either or both. Thankfully, as games have evolved and grown — as experiences, as art, as a field — so, too, has the writing about them. Criticism, essay, profile; there’s no one type of story that feels particularly right for games, largely because games have drifted as far from their own origin point as I have from mine. The best writing about games is as vast and varied as games themselves.

If I had to, I could give you some contrived reason why now is the right time to compile some of my favorite pieces of writing about games. It’s the 40th anniversary of Tempest! Hey, when did we all get so old? But honestly, I’d rather do it just because. Because these pieces, from various points over the past decade or so, all moved something within me. Because they help underscore the fact that no other narrative media is quite as personal as a game. And because if we’re not thinking about games as a valid muse for joyous, staggering, important writing, then it’s no one’s fault but our own. Read more…