Theodore Dalrymple M.D.

Psychiatric Disorder

How to Take Advantage of an Air Crash

Dishonesty and self-dramatization

Posted Apr 21, 2015

Lufthansa, the German airline, is to sue a woman who took advantage of its offer to fly relatives of the victims of the Germanwings crash to the site of the disaster in the Alps. She claimed to be the aunt of a dead child, had the child’s name tattooed on her arm, and pretended that she had broken the news of the child’s death to her mother. All this was false.

At least according to reports, Lufthansa’s action against her is only civil, not criminal, though what she did was clearly fraudulent. Perhaps, in seeking only to recover its costs, Lufthansa wants to avoid the appearance of vindictiveness: after all, its own degree of responsibility for the Germanwings crash is not yet entirely clear.

There are several interesting aspects of this extraordinary story. The first is that tattooing the name of a child on an arm (or elsewhere) should be taken as a sign of deep or exceptional love for that child. Where human conduct is concerned, no doubt, there is nothing new under the sun; nevertheless, I noticed an increase in the tattooing of children’s names as a supposed token of love for them more than a decade ago, and wondered what it signified. Nothing good, I thought.

Beauty has always been only skin deep, but so now, for a section of the population, is love. At the time I noticed the tattooing of children’s names as a token of devotion, I noticed also the tattooing of the name of the children’s other parent nearby on the skin. What would have been funny, if it had not been sad, was that the latter name was often crossed out with another tattoo after the relationship had broken down. In some cases, one could trace a man’s love life by the tattooed names and crossings out on his arms.

‘Greater love hath no man than this,’ says the Gospel of St John, ‘that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ A modern version might well read ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he tattoo his skin with the name of his friends.’ This does not seem to me to indicate an increase in depth or strength of human relationships, to put it mildly.

The second interesting aspect of the story is the ease with which the woman was able to perpetrate her fraud. She had only to claim to be a relative of the victim of the crash, that is to say to be a victim herself, to be believed. True enough, very few people would dare to commit such a fraud in this situation, so the company would not have been on its guard against such attempts; but there is also a general cultural atmosphere in which claims to victimhood are challenged, if ever at all, only very gingerly. This is because any such challenge can easily be parlayed by the supposed victim into further, or meta-, victimhood. Not to take someone at his word is to cause him further trauma.

Finally, there is undoubtedly a self-dramatizing desire or thirst for the status of victim, and this may have played a part in the woman’s choice of fraud to commit: for if indeed she really had been a grieving relative of a victim of the crash she would have been entitle to an unusual degree of sympathy by an unusual number of people. The victims of the crash did not die of natural causes or even by accident, but by an act of mass murder, than which no type of loss calls forth more commiseration. In addition, then, to the free trip to France, then, the perpetrator would have been rewarded by expressions of the deepest sympathy.

Most of us live lives, if not of quiet desperation exactly, at least of mediocrity and anonymity. For most of us more of the time that is enough; but perhaps an ever greater number of us feel that it is not enough. That is why fraudulent memoirs of exceptional suffering are published from time to time; Binyamin Wilkomirski and Misha Defonseca, for example, invented and published stories of childhoods in war-turn Europe, and an Australian, Donald Watt, claimed falsely in a memoir to have been a stoker in the crematoria of Auschwitz. Politicians and TV presenters have been caught embellishing their experiences, to appear to have been in more danger than they actually were. To have lived comfortably while there is such great suffering or danger in the world seems almost insensitive or callous, therefore we invent suffering and danger for ourselves. And we probably all inclined anyway to exaggerate in order to make ourselves more interesting to others than we are. Some of us go to extremes, however. Almost certainly the pilot of the Germanwings aircraft was a self-dramatizer of an extreme type.

About the Author

Theodore Dalrymple, M.D., is a writer and retired psychiatrist. He worked in a general hospital and a prison. He gave evidence in many murder trials.   

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