It’s recently become widely known that Dan Mallory is, in fact, a man who tells lies. And not just little porkies, either. No, the author of the best-selling novel, The Woman in the Window, has been practising his knack for fiction, of sorts, years before the release of his first book, and repeatedly fed those around him a string of fabrications about his ‘cancer battles’ – as The New Yorker sensationally revealed in this gripping expose: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/a-suspense-novelists-trail-of-deceptions.
It’s 12,000 words long, but if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. It’s more of a page-turner than most so-called suspense thrillers, anyway.
It remains to be seen what harm, if any, will come to the astonishing career of Dan Mallory, whose million-selling book, written under the name A.J. Finn, is set to be turned into a huge Hollywood movie starring Amy Adams. His offences don’t fall under the popular sexual harassment umbrella, and he hasn’t told stories of wanting to beat a black man with a cosh, that we know of, therefore it seems the world is struggling to figure out just how “cancelled” he deserves to be. Especially considering his explanation, included in the New Yorker piece, that he told those around him, inaccurately, that he had brain cancer because he was actually too ashamed to open up about his mental health conditions.
But I’m not going to add to the avalanche of think-pieces that are debating Mallory’s morality. Google his name and you can take your pick.
However, this story – as well as the much-publicised Billy McFarland Fyre Festival scandal, which played out explosively in documentaries helmed by Netflix and Hulu – got me thinking about the truth. And whether I, or, in fact, we – can handle it.
In the age of ‘Fake News,’ Project Fear and Donald ‘Pants on Fire’ Trump’s reign as the most powerful man in the world, it seems we’re bombarded with lies, more so than ever before. And even when something is true, most of us don’t believe it anyway. Half of Americans reportedly believe 9/11 was an inside job. And even with a fluffy story, like Gemma Collins falling arse-over-tit on Dancing on Ice a couple of weeks ago, social media didn’t hesitate to start speculating that she’d faked the fall for publicity. As you do.
In the information age, are we becoming more and more distrusting of our politicians, celebrities and the media? It seems that way.
I remember when I first discovered the power of lies. And no, it wasn’t when I found out that Father Christmas was SPOILER ALERT not real. I was 16 years old at the time.
Against my better judgement, I had started working at a sports clothing shop. As a young gay man, selling trainers to lads in tracksuits was as jarring as it was erotic. Oh, and boring. Very boring. For minimum wage, no less.
Until a man started working there. His name was Chris. Well, it wasn’t, I’ve changed it. And that’s not a lie, before you start – but me showing some grace, rather.
Chris was tall. He was very, very fun. He had a very pointy nose, that looked almost like a perfect triangle, and he snorted like a pig when he laughed, which was often. Suddenly, and completely by surprise, he made the shop a fun place to work in.
It became clear to me that, as two gay men, we would either have to become the best of friends or the worst of enemies.
We tried out hating each other for size, like a pair of the Adidas Sambas we had to sell on a daily basis, but the disdain just didn’t quite fit. He was too hilarious to hate. So, instead, we tried out friendship. And it was great. We got along famously.
We played games at work to pass the time. We’d take the brown rolls of tape, break off pieces, roll them into balls, and see how many customers we could ‘tag’ without them knowing. There was even a points system. Once, he managed to tag a baby with the tape. He won that day.
We got on so well, in fact, that we began to go out together, in Huddersfield, after work. We’d get drunk together, go dancing, play pool, what have you. Normal stuff.
But I soon became aware that he had feelings for me. I did not reciprocate these feelings. The nose didn’t help, in all honesty. But I was adamant that we remain friends in spite of this fact. In hindsight, I was, perhaps, young and foolish. What I should have done is end our friendship, knowing that, if he loved me as much as he claimed to, then us continuing to be close friends, as we had become, would be an ongoing source of pain for him.
Instead, I insisted on keeping my new fun friend. After all, I was hardly awash with exciting homosexual comrades in Huddersfield. Also, and I’m not proud of this, but he was a fair few years older than me, mid-20’s, and seemed, to me, to be rich. (He wasn’t, but at the time – anyone who could afford a round of drinks was rich, in my eyes.) And he was very generous, and paid for everything. Somehow, he’d become my sugar daddy, without the sugar. In my selfish youth, it felt very ‘win, win.’
And then I started to learn more about Chris. One day in the sports shop, he didn’t turn up for work. This was very unusual, as Chris really, really loved working. It was baffling to us all, considering the job we had, but still, he truly did. He called in, and told our manager that his sister, Becky, had died in a car accident. I was in shock. My heart broke for Chris, and his tragedy.
He returned the next day, and was sombre, but didn’t want to talk about what had happened. Now, if that happened to a friend of mine today, I’d send them flowers, or some other appropriate thoughtful gift, and a card, and say something that clearly conveyed that I was thinking of them, and was there for them, if they needed me, without imposing.
But, me at 16… well, I didn’t know what to say. I was useless in the face of grief, and it was grief he, handily, didn’t wish to discuss, so we went about our business. Cheap cocktails in Yates, beers in Lloyds and wine, well, everywhere… And still, we were laughing, always laughing.
Except when we took car journeys, that is. Whenever we hailed a taxi, which was often, because neither of us could drive, Chris would become terrified. He would struggle to breathe. He would shake. His eyes would either be firmly bolted shut, or would become manic, and bulging with fear. During these unsettling moments, I would hold his hand. It was the most intimate we ever were together.
Sometimes, on our nights out – which were constant, and among other friends of ours – he would suddenly break down in tears. Sometimes he would run away, crying. I would go after him. I would always catch up with him, as he never got far. And then I would comfort him, as best I could. I would hug him, soothe him, tell him everything would be OK, not knowing if that was even true. I knew he was crying for his sister. Even though he didn’t speak about Becky, she was always there.
This went on for well over a year. Chris and I, during this time, both left the sports shop (praise be!) He started managing a bar, which made sense, since that’s where we spent most of our time anyway, and I focused on my college studies. But resentment, it seemed, had begun to rear its ugly head during our friendship. We rowed. A lot. More like boyfriends than friends, really. I was a selfish, demanding, attention-seeking brat. And he would enable me, encourage me, then hate me for it, then punish me with cruelty. Nothing serious, mind you, no abuse or anything. Rather, we both had acid tongues, and would use them, freely.
In the summer of 2005, he organised for a small group of us to visit Mablethorpe, where he was from, to see his family, and have some fun and frolics at the beach. I’d already been to Mablethorpe, the seaside town, in Lincolnshire, as a child, on a family Haven holiday, which had been so famously awful that my Grandma once said: “I no longer fear hell, for I have been to Mablethorpe.”
Still, off we went. We were set to meet Chris’ Mum. That was intriguing. To meet the woman who birthed… him.
Intently, he warned us before: “My Mum didn’t deal well with the death of my sister.” Understandable, of course. “She talks about her like she’s still alive…”
How devastatingly sad, we thought. But we were briefed, and fully understood. Off we went to the seaside. It was semi-sunny, and we had a lovely time. We met Chris’ mother, and, sure enough, she talked about Becky like she was still alive. It was weird. But we had been warned, so despite finding it heart-breaking, we, as a group, didn’t give it much thought. His Mum was eccentric, after all, so she wasn’t making the greatest deal of sense anyway.
Neither did we think anything of it, while we were sat in our beach bar, when Chris’ ‘step-sister’ was suddenly sprung on us. Chris spoke to her, away from the group, and we weren’t introduced. We asked why. ‘We’re not close,’ he explained. Fair enough.
That was our trip. By our standards, a success. No one’s stomach got pumped and the police weren’t involved. In those days, that meant we’d done well.
We returned to Huddersfield. But later that summer, things got really weird. I had a key to Chris’ place, and would often pop in after college, whether he was there or not. (That’s not the weird part, by the way, although writing it now, it does feel stranger than it did at the time.) One day, he was there. And he had news to tell me. He sat me down on his bed. (It was a shared house, so we were only ever really in his bedroom.)
“I have testicular cancer, Ed,” he told me.
Tears rushed to my eyes. “No…”
He nodded. “They’re going to remove one of my balls.”
I was in shock. This was something that happened to Steve on Sex and the City, and him alone, surely? Not Chris. Not my friend Chris!
From that point on, I went from childish brat to doting friend. I brought him gifts, chocolates, magazines, anything he wanted. I sat with him. I talked with him. I was there for him. I asked if he wanted me to come with him when he was due to have his operation, just a week later, and have the cancerous testicle removed. “No,” he insisted. “I want to go alone.” I respected his wishes. What else could I do?
On the day of the operation, I was filled with anxiety. What if he died? After everything he’d been through, with losing Becky, what if he died too?
A text message later that day informed me that, thankfully, he hadn’t. It’s finished. Want to come over?
Wow! This must have meant the operation was a roaring success, surely? Yet, even in my youthful naivety, dark thoughts had started to creep in. This was all very… odd.
I went over. Chris limped to the door. “Come in,” he croaked, voice hoarse. I watched him hobble back to bed, then I sat next to him, and asked if he was OK. He nodded, joked about the op, then asked if I wanted to see his bandage. It wasn’t on his scrotum, to my relief, it was above his left hip. “Keyhole surgery,” he explained, laughing in mockery at my confusion.
Chris used to be a medical student, but dropped out of medical school when he had accidentally killed a patient, before we met, so he had always known a lot about things of that nature. Yet this just didn’t ring true. Ashamed of my own doubts, I continued the role of caring friend. But that night, when I got home, I rang my Grandma, who was a retired nurse at the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary.
I told her what had happened, and asked if it was plausible. She laughed down the phone. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You wouldn’t be allowed out of hospital on the same day as surgery like that.”
It was all the proof I needed. Chris had lied to me. About cancer, of all things! I texted him and confronted him, still terrified that I might have made a mistake and what I was about to become, officially, the world’s worst friend.
He asked to meet. We did. Sat on a wall, in public. Solemnly, he admitted he had lied about the cancer. “I thought if you felt sorry for me you might want to be with me,” he explained.
I wasn’t angry, or betrayed. I felt sorry for him. And also, confused. If his plan had worked, and we had become intimate, wouldn’t the presence of two healthy testicles have been his undoing eventually anyway?!
I said nothing. I told him we could still be friends. I was leaving Huddersfield soon anyway, to go to Uni myself, so what was the point on leaving on bad terms?
That week, I spoke to my friend, Katie, and told her everything that had happened. She knew Chris too.
“Fucking hell,” she said. “Do you think he lied about his sister n’all?”
I gave Katie a look of pure disgust. What a horrible thing to even suggest. Who would ever… And then. Thoughts began to connect. Becky. He never spoke about her. My Mum still thinks she’s alive. The step-sister we couldn’t meet. Like a horror film, I realised what had happened.
Chris had been lying for as long as I’d known him. During two years of intense and inappropriate friendship. Lies, lies, lies.
Shell-shocked, and already knowing the answer, I asked him if this was true, and he admitted everything. Becky. Cancer. And he’d never been to medical school. And God knows what else. That was just the big stuff. The small lies… I can’t even fathom the true extent of the deception.
Chris showed no remorse. And, naturally, we stopped being friends. Again, I felt no anger towards him. I felt, instead, like there was something wrong with him. I hoped whatever it was that was wrong would improve for him. Genuinely. And, selfishly, I felt lucky that I had escaped, unharmed.
We stayed friends on Facebook. Every year or so, we check in on each other, to see how each other is doing. And every now and then I wince, when I see a status of his, thanking friends for supporting him through ‘a tough time.’ I see the messages from people, in Bournemouth, where he now lives, sending their best wishes and thoughts. I don’t know what he is referring to. It’s happened many times, now. But deep down, I know he’s doing it again. Maybe I don’t know that for a fact. But I sort of do.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I even necessarily want to do about it. It’s not a crime to make up lies about yourself. Unless you’re going in a fraudulent direction, of course (here’s looking at you, Billy McFarland.)
Liars are everywhere. They’re not one-in-a-million bad apples that lurk in the shadows. They’re among us. If you mentally scan your friendship group right now, I bet you won’t struggle to pick out the person whose stories have never quite seemed… right. A bit off. Something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. And often it’s harmless. Or merely embellishment. Hey, I, like most writers, am guilty of that.
But sometimes it gets real dark, real fast. And that’s why I’m honestly grateful for Chris. He taught me, at a young, impressionable age, not to take everyone and everything at face value. Question everything. Trust your gut, and your instinct. Don’t always take everyone’s word for it, because people fucking lie. A lot. And that’s been a great quality to possess as a journalist, and even better to possess as a human.
Being sceptical can save you from a world of pain.
And that’s the truth.
Or… is it?