The Psychology of Faking Your Own Death

October 28, 2018

Why would anyone fake their own death? Some seek a departure from royalty, a career as a pirate, or a quiet life after taking down the Third Reich. Usually, they’re chasing an escape from bankruptcy or bad marriages. But for some, it may seem that staging their own death is the only way to feel like they’re alive.

According to psychologists and pseudocide researchers, many people who go through with the scheme feel pushed to the brink and hope to swap their formal existence for something better. Since the invention of the internet, their methods have evolved, and their motivations remain complex and intertwined. Digging into these motivations can reveal a lot about our understanding of life, mortality, death, reinvention, hopelessness, and even self-esteem.

Life-or-death between a rock and a hard place

“For the vast majority of people who go through with it, the reasons are marital or financial, [and] they feel like they’re pushed up against a significant wall,” explained writer Elizabeth Greenwood. While researching pseudocide for her book Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud, Greenwood found that most cases resulted from someone feeling totally stuck.

“They really do feel they are saving their lives by faking their deaths.”

“The circumstances feel extremely exigent to them—whether or not they are, objectively, is a different question—but in these kinds of cases, they really do feel they are saving their lives by faking their deaths,” Greenwood said.

In many of the most famous pseudocide cases, those seemingly insurmountable exigent circumstances were financial in nature. Whether attempting to scam off life insurance policies or abandoning mass debt, these schemers have faked everything from disappearance-by-canoe to murder by Tamil rebels.

Some were quite literally escaping, like writer and psychedelic explorer Ken Kesey, who faced prison time for weed possession when he left his truck and a note by the ocean and snuck into Mexico. Back home, the headline “LSD GURU SUICIDE!” hit audiences, but authorities ultimately didn’t buy it.

imilarly but more malevolently, the former hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III, who defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme, attempted to stage his suicide on the day he was supposed to report for incarceration, leaving his car with a brief note written on it in dust (specifically, the M*A*S*H theme song title “Suicide Is Painless”) on a New York state bridge. Several weeks and one America’s Most Wanted appearance later, police tracked him down to a campground in Massachusetts, where he surrendered.

Greenwood pointed out that such people often seem to believe they can “leave themselves behind” and then carry on as if their earlier self never happened. “They very much have the idea that they’ll be able to surgically excise this one part of their biography, whatever it is—legal trouble, bad decisions—to get rid of that part and go on living their lives, or that it will be a temporary solution to a problem,” she said. “Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, we are who we are.”

Psychological disorders link to pseudocide but don’t explain everything

The idea of separating one’s life into ‘living’ and ‘dead’ portions, or just faking a death generally, may seem unfathomable to many of us. In some cases, of course, people who feel cornered into pseudocide never explain their reasoning at all, whether in connection to their ‘past’ lives or the ones they hope to start anew.

As far as public record is concerned, it is still unknown why, for one, Nashville attorney William Grothe, who left his car and belongings scattered around before he called authorities claiming to be his own murderer, felt pushed to that extreme. Authorities quickly unraveled the ruse, and he was given five years’ probation, 32 hours of community service a month, and an order to pay $13,000 for the cost of the government’s search.

With regard to his behavior, Grothe reportedly testified at trial, “I went down to Shelby Park, parked my car, went through what in my mind was a ritual of exactly how I felt, dead to the world.”

The psychic state of those who fake their deaths may be extreme and under stress, but it mostly hasn’t been considered a sign of mental illness or instability outright, whether or not particular catalysts to the act are reported. According to Dr. Marc Feldman, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama, however, there are certain psychological disorders that can definitely lead to such behavior.

Feldman, who specializes in factitious disorders (FD, formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome) and other behaviors linked to medical fakery, told Gizmodo in a phone interview, “A lot of people equate pseudocide with tangible reasons—crushing debt, a marriage situation—that they want to escape before quietly coming back in an alternate identity. But there can be a tremendous overlap with factitious disorders.”

In general, persons with factitious disorder are known for feigning or exaggerating illness in order to gain attention from or control over others. Malingering, on the other hand, is characterized by “skillful planning” to feign illness in order to gain a tangible advantage rather than an emotional one, and is not considered a mental illness, Feldman said. And because these motivations can overlap, it’s often hard for outsiders to distinguish the two.

Feldman also emphasized that no symptom or ailment seems to be outside the known range of factitious behavior. “I can’t think of anything that hasn’t been faked for emotional gratification, for satisfaction, or to counter boredom; it sounds so trivial, but people do it,” he said.

“They tend to have personality disorders, which just means they have long-term maladaptive ways of getting their needs met, with hurtful actions rather than words. The distinct majority do in fact have a personality disorder, like borderline personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder,” he continued. “Factitious disorder seems inexplicable unless you postulate that something is going on inside for the patient.”

To be clear, this isn’t the same as what drives some people to fake their deaths for “some sort of gratification,” Feldman said.

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