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Faking Accomplishments

Patricia Sullivan

It doesn't take very long on the obits beat to learn that families routinely exaggerate the importance of their deceased relative's achievements. Occasionally, the deceased person has participated in the deception; often it's simply a matter of relatives who extrapolate from stories they heard or who don't think it's such a big deal to fudge the truth to get more attention

Well, truth and accuracy do matter. Time and time again, we learn that the man whose family says he was awarded the Medal of Honor never actually got it. Other times, the deceased claimed three awards of the Silver Star, but only one citation can be found. Not saying we're perfect by any stretch, but we try to print what can be verified.

So we didn't print this story about Robert Decatur, who claimed over the years to be a Tuskegee combat pilot. But many others did.

Now the Orlando Sentinel newspaper finds that Mr. Decatur's achievements were exaggerated. He was a Tuskegee Airman because he was a cadet, but he did not complete pilot training. He did not graduate from flying school and never flew in combat. He also seems to have exaggerated his legal achievements -- he was a magistrate, not a judge. (In some small towns, citizens will call magistrates by the title of judge, but these are not the same jobs.)

"The more you exaggerate, the more acclaim you get, and the more acclaim you get, the better it feels," said Alan Keck, an Orlando psychologist.

In death, no one feels anything. Except the pain of a correction.

By Patricia Sullivan |  September 4, 2009; 3:43 PM ET  | Category:  Adam Bernstein
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I've counted 14 instances over the past two years of obituaries containing outright lies about the deceased being published in major North American newspapers. Some (Paul van Valkenburgh, Rick De Boer, and Bill Henry especially) were widely reported on but most weren't. (And for the record, all but this subject were white males.) My favourite is the guy who claimed to have written a number of episodes of I Love Lucy despite (if I recall right) not having ever lived in California.

Why do people lie about their lives? Your psychologist is partly right, but the truth seems to be deeper than that. Fabulists don't see the world as a place of opportunity but as a place where they have been deliberately deprived of the opportunities everyone else seems to have handed to them on a diamond-encrusted platinum platter. So why not lie to get praise, when everyone else who receives praise is cheating or stealing to get it?

Posted by: Blurgle | September 4, 2009 6:15 PM

We, all of us, are surrounded by fakes. For example, there have been fewer than 11,000 Navy frogmen/SEALs to graduate from training since 1947. A group to which I belong has exposed over 35,000 phony SEALs! And we are always exposing phony Marines, Green Berets, and the like. What particularly annoys me is that some of these cretins fake military service in order to get VA medical benefits, and the VA doesn't do anything about it. Why? Congress forbade them to do so, because phony vets vote, too.

Posted by: larrywb | September 8, 2009 7:54 PM

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