Photo Illustration by Francesco Izzo; Original photo from Everett Collection / Shutterstock
We like impostor stories because we’re afraid we’re impostors ourselves.
On a brisk autumn afternoon in 1952, 16 wounded soldiers were brought aboard the Canadian destroyer Cayuga patrolling the Yellow Sea off the coast of Inchon, South Korea. Casualties of the Korean War, the men were in bad shape. Several would not survive without surgery. Luckily, the ship’s doctor had told the crew he was a trauma surgeon. Now, the portly, middle-aged man donned scrubs and ordered nurses to prepare the patients. Then he stepped into his cabin, opened a textbook on surgery and gave himself a crash course. Twenty minutes later, high school dropout Ferdinand Demara, aka Jefferson Baird Thorne, Martin Godgart, Dr. Robert Linton French, Anthony Ingolia, Ben W. Jones, and on this afternoon, Dr. Joseph Cyr, strode into the operating room.
With a deep breath, the faux surgeon sliced into bare flesh. He kept one basic principle in mind. “The less cutting you do,” he told himself, “the less patching up you have to do afterward.” Finding a splintered rib, Demara removed it and extracted a bullet near the soldier’s heart. He was afraid the soldier would hemorrhage, so he slipped some Gelfoam, a coagulating agent, into the wound and it clotted almost immediately. Demara put the rib back in place, sewed the man up, and administered a huge dose of penicillin. Onlookers cheered.
Working all afternoon, Demara operated on all 16 wounded men. All 16 survived. Soon, word of Demara’s heroic feat was leaked to the press. The real Dr. Joseph Cyr, whom Demara had briefly known, read about “his” exploits in Korea, where he had never been. A military board grilled and quietly dismissed Demara to avoid embarrassment.
But the word got out. After Demara was profiled in Life magazine, the pretend surgeon got hundreds of fan letters. “My husband and I both feel you are a Godsent man,” one woman wrote him. A lumber camp in British Columbia offered him a job—as a doctor. Soon came a book about him and a movie,The Great Impostor, where the consummate actor was played by a relative amateur named Tony Curtis. Demara himself played the role of a doctor in a movie and considered going to med school. Too difficult, he decided. “I guess I’ve always wanted shortcuts,” he said. “And being an impostor is a tough habit to break.”
Con artists with a smile and a clipboard, impostors have a long history, a beguiling legacy of deceit that amazes and entices us. While most of us struggle to stay within social boundaries, impostors break through those barriers, striding effortlessly onto any stage they choose. Once in the limelight, they pull back the curtain of professional propriety, mocking its pretensions. Deep down, psychologists suggest, impostors appeal to us because we suspect that we are all, to some degree, faking it. Their stories expose the kaleidoscope of the self itself, and how to keep one step ahead of feeling like nobody ourselves.
Psychology professor Matthew Hornsey began studying impostors after being fooled by a colleague at the University of Queensland in New Zealand. Helena Demidenko, claiming Ukrainian heritage, wrote a prize-winning novel based on her childhood. But the truth soon emerged: Helena Demidenko was Helen Darville, an Australian woman with no ties to the Ukraine. Her entire history was a fabrication. Tricked and betrayed, Hornsey has since studied impostors and why people admire them. “We live in a world where often there are obstacles,” Hornsey has said. “And you see these people who take these crazy risks to catapult themselves into the social world that would otherwise be denied. That’s a romantic, attractive notion.”
Impostors also toy with our trust, the importance we give to a uniform, a title, a business card embossed with “Ph.D.” Envious of status, we gravitate toward those who take “shortcuts.” We don’t want our own doctor to be a fraud, but we thrill to the exploits of Frank Abagnale, portrayed in the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, roaming the world as a consummate con artist, posing, faking, narrowly escaping, all before he turned 21.
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But the psychology of fakery suggests a disturbing continuum. On one end stand the serial impostors like Demara and Abagnale. On the other end stand the everyday impostors—us. “Most of us engage in a low-key impostor-ism every day,” says Hornsey. “What if I smile when I’m not feeling happy? What if I pretend to be interested when I’m not? What if I pretend to be confident when I’m really feeling nervous? There’s a thin divide that separates impostor-ism from impression management or even social skill.” Impostors fascinate us, Hornsey adds, “not because we want to be like them, but because deep down we worry that we are like them.”
The common feeling of “faking it” starts with insecurity. Seated in a boardroom, a classroom, a high-level meeting, you are gripped by a nagging fear—you don’t belong here. Never mind your degree or your resume. You aren’t as smart as the others. You are an impostor. Such self-doubt is endemic enough to earn a label—the Impostor Phenomenon. When coining the term in 1978, psychologist Pauline Clance found it common among high-achieving women, yet gender blind studies have since shown that men are just as likely to feel like fakes, and that up to 70 percent of professionals experience the Impostor Phenomenon…