Stephanie Wood’s Fake is a deeply disturbing and very candid account of her romantic relationship with Joe, a retired architect who now leads the ‘simple life’ alongside his loyal kelpie – or so she initially thinks.
At a glance, Wood’s recount of her catfishing experience reads like a love story gone wrong, and follows a well-traversed path on the dangers of online dating. In actuality, it explores so much more. Wood has crafted a richly layered story speaking of culturally ingrained fears surrounding one’s search for true love, and how these deep-seated anxieties welcome narcissists, fantasists and cheats with open arms. Unfortunately, some people are more susceptible than others to forming relationships with these types of people, which she explains began from one’s childhood.
She goes in depth into how a person’s upbringing and attachment style is formed by their primary caregivers and affects their future relationships if they’re not addressed. She also touches on the damaging effects that the fairy tale narrative has, especially on young girls, leading them to believe that love is a knight in shining armour who will rescue them from their pain and loneliness, and give them the unconditional love and attention they never received. Written this way it seems ridiculous that anyone would believe in it, but when you cut back to the bare bones, these same stories appear everywhere.
So – what is and how can you attain true intimacy? And is it a universal craving that has been fed to us in the neatly wrapped package of ‘the one’? Wood is raw when she admits to her longing for real intimacy, quoting philosopher and author Alain de Botton:
Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved…To feel whole, we need people in the vicinity who know us as well, sometimes better, than we know ourselves. Without love, we lose the ability to possess a proper identity, within love, there is a constant confirmation of our selves.’ I am not known. I have longed to be known.
There are many moments in the book where I have seen snippets of myself and other women I know – how accurate this account is, and how hard it must have been to write it out so simplistically for everyone to pick apart. Wood is incredibly eloquent when describing her trauma, especially as she catches me being quick to judge as others were, when viewing her experience from a bird’s eye view. It’s true what she says: by telling her story from its conclusion, we aren’t able to live the day-to-day minutiae of Joe’s deceit.
And so it circles back to Joe, a man with a personality disorder, a narcissist and fantasist who feeds on the vulnerabilities of his multiple partners.
Adulation, that’s what Joe’s ugly appetite craved. And I was complicit, a handmaiden to his ego. I allowed myself to be controlled and manipulated; I subsumed my own character, my own story, my own needs. I let him drain my well to fill his hollow soul.
The story further unfolds as Wood embarks on a mission to figure out who exactly ‘Joe’ is, and on the way, discovers many other intelligent, rational and insightful women who have been duped by ‘Joe’ or other con artists. She does her research, digging up old journals, reading pop psychology and attending sessions with her therapist to understand just how someone could fabricate their whole life and make people fall for it. Wood compares his duplicity – and quite aptly – to The Truman Show, where Wood is Truman Burbank, and Joe is the rest of the world on the TV set, knowing exactly what will happen next, making calculating steps whilst she is oblivious all the while.
I’m still in deep admiration of Wood’s bravery in not only sharing her story, but taking what I know to be years of ‘doing the work’, in order to share this well-researched and deeply personal story in the form of a book. I can only imagine the long nights she would’ve spent staying up, tediously editing and re-reading a misunderstood trauma that receives no merit for its negative effects on one’s psyche, so that at least one person will know that they are not alone.
Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your story, so that others might have a chance to not suffer the same narrative.
Stephanie Wood. Fake: A Startling True Story of Love in a World of Liars, Cheats, Narcissists, Fantasists and Phonies. Sidney: Random House Australia, 2019
Tiffany Ko is an avid reader and aspiring writer living in Western Australia, and is currently part of the Inclusion Matters project through the Centre for Stories. You can connect with her on Twitter @tifniko.
This review was provided in collaboration with the Centre for Stories in Perth. (https://centreforstories.com/)