Tori Telfer reflects on the fine line between herself and the dazzling con artists she profiles in her raucous romp, Confident Women.
I spent most of 2019 perched on a stool in a coffee shop, “writing.” I was supposed to be writing a book about con women—con women in the court of Marie Antoinette and con women in Olympic-mad Beijing and con women who came down from Canada to wreak havoc on the tender hearts of Cleveland’s finest businessmen. But there were times when I clutched my almond croissant like a woman possessed and just sat there, staring into space, consumed by one burning question:
Have I ever been conned?
I had a mercenary reason for asking myself this question. I had been struggling with the introduction to my book, trying to cram every single thing there was to say about cons and women into a few punchy pages, and the resulting introduction read like a Google Drive document that was being edited by 10 people at once. I needed a better way in. I needed an anecdote—something to start the book off with a bang. And wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if the anecdote involved me being conned?
If I could just dredge up some suppressed memory about being cheated by a crook or swindled by a spiritualist, the introduction would practically write itself. Sure, I knew on an intellectual level that being conned was not something to wish for. The victims in my book were seriously damaged by their run-ins with con women. They were broke, despairing, ashamed, traumatized. Some of them were even dead. But I couldn’t help trawling through my memories anyway, searching for con artists at every turn, asking myself, Wait, was she a con artist? Was he?
There was the roommate who lied to me about . . . well, everything. She told me, for example, that she’d been given the phone number of the lead singer from Dashboard Confessional while sunbathing on an abandoned beach.
There was the man who convinced me that he needed money for a tow truck to come and get his broken-down truck. He sat with me on the curb, chatting about his tattoos, as my boyfriend took $40 out of an ATM behind us. We were entirely convinced that he was going to come back in the morning and repay us. He was even in costume as a construction worker. It was as though we had attended a piece of interactive theater, not a petty fleecing.
And then there was the time I chatted with a known con artist on Facebook Messenger. I had been researching her cons but ultimately decided not to include her in my book after our interaction. She told me that Roman Polanski wanted to make a movie about her life. I decided to leave her story up to him.
But none of these interactions felt compelling enough to make it into my book. Instead of the stuff of great introductions, they felt like the stuff of . . . life. Who among us hasn’t been lied to on Facebook Messenger, or had trouble with a roommate, or given money to someone who may have been pulling the wool over our eyes? Instead, I found a fantastic article from the 1970s about a con artist named Barbara St. James who changed her hair color a lot and used her as my opening anecdote. But afterward I was left with all those small stories from my past—those microswindles, if you will—wondering what to do with them.
“The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.”
As much as the microswindles irritated me, I had to admit that I was a bit of a microswindler myself. I have lied more times than I care to admit. (Ask me about the time I made up the story of my first kiss.) In living rooms and on Facebook Messenger and while sitting on plenty of curbs, I have pretended to be a little bit different than the person I truly am. It didn’t seem fair, then, to interpret the interactions I’d had with microswindlers as examples of Me Being Good (or at least naive) and Other People Being Bad. I started thinking of them less as moral and more as transactional. They were a sort of payment, I thought—payment for the privilege of trusting other people.
If I am going to trust most of the people I interact with, then yes, every now and then I will have to fork over $40 for something shady or listen to an anecdote about Dashboard Confessional or Roman Polanski that probably isn’t true. And the payment isn’t entirely one-sided, either. I only chatted with the con artist on Facebook Messenger because I was thinking about writing about her—thinking about absorbing her life story into my book, like some sort of soul-sucking spirit. And as far as my old roommate and my friend on the curb? I have used them as anecdotes in conversation again and again. I am using them now. The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.
The macroswindles that made it into my book were more clear-cut. After opening my book with Barbara St. James, I lined up the rest of my chapters—the woman from Beijing, the woman from Versailles, the woman from Canada and all the rest—and the resulting cast of characters was big, fascinating, compelling. Their tales were twisted and bizarre and sometimes confusing, but there was often some clarifying moment: a trial, say, or a prison sentence. Their stories were special, for lack of a better word—special enough to be worthy of a book. But their stories were just bigger, not other. They were still on the same spectrum as the woman on Facebook, as the guy on the curb, as my old roommate, as me.
Author headshot © Charlie Kirchen