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Predators Who Pretend to Be Victims

Meet the manipulators, narcissists, and psychopaths who play at being victims.

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

Real victims are heroic; pretend ones are dangerous. Here are a few of the latter variety who have popped up in the true-crime headlines. In 2017, Lloyd Neurauter convinced his 19-year-old-daughter, Karrie, that his soon-to-be ex-wife had ruined his life and that he was going to commit suicide if she didn’t help him kill her mother; she did.

Disgraced U.K. citizen Julie Parker will be sentenced in March 2021 for her fraud conviction; in 2017, apparently short on wedding cash, she funded her nuptials by telling friends and family members that she had been diagnosed with cancer and only had a year to live. Like the good people they were, they all chipped in to make sure she had the wedding day she dreamed of.

And, last but certainly not least, there is Jaclyn McGowan. Apparently enraged that a one-night stand with her victim, Jamie Aitken, did not lead to something more, McGowan began a campaign of harassment that included pretending to be pregnant (showing him baby scans and wearing a belly prosthesis), seeking money for alleged baby goods, and attempting to turn his family against him by making false accusations of mistreatment and neglect.

While these are extreme examples, odds are that you know at least a mini-version – the “friend” who plays on your sympathy while sucking you emotionally or financially dry. The “blameless” boyfriend whose past is littered with abusive partners or crazy exes whose stories are surprisingly similar. Or the coworker whose life is one crisis after the next, and who ropes you into covering for them and picking up the slack.

The real victims, of course, are the people who genuinely believe they are helping a good person or an innocent victim get back on their feet. Until, hopefully sooner rather than later, they realize that they are perpetual giver and the “victim,” the endless taker. And, when they finally say “no,” the manipulator merely shrugs and moves on – or plots revenge.

The Virtuous Victim

The “victim” persona is no accident. It’s a power play. Recent research suggests that, for individuals with certain exploitive personality traits, playing the “victim card” is a strategy that, from the beginning, is designed to create an imbalance in a relationship. Perceiving someone as the past recipient of unfair treatment encourages most of us to go the extra mile to help him or her without expecting anything in return. It can also tempt us to make excuses for their bad behavior when it's staring us in its face; after all, we tell ourselves, look at what they’ve already been through: Who wants to kick someone when they’re down?

In fact, research provides evidence that some individuals not only strategically present themselves as victims, they often present themselves as virtuous victims. For much of her life, Cherrylle Dell adopted the “virtuous victim” role with new lovers, good-hearted neighbors, mental health professionals, and the court system, portraying herself as a devoted mother and loving caretaker of the mentally disabled children she served in a group home. By the time the truth emerged, she had left behind a trail of exploited friends, false abuse allegations, smear campaigns, and, ultimately, the dead body of her husband.

Interestingly, research also suggests that this strategy is most effective when the “victim’s” alleged mistreatment occurs at the hands of someone else (as opposed to an accident or bad luck). So, for instance, we might feel sorry for someone whose house was destroyed by lightning, but we are outraged when it was burned down by an abusive ex. It’s almost like, on a subconscious level, this triggers a need to make up for past injustices, or at the very least, to go above and beyond to make sure that person knows we aren’t like the person who did them wrong. That’s a noble endeavor if the person is truly a victim; if they’re not, it’s a setup to be taken advantage of.

Support the Real Survivors and Expose the Fake Ones

Of course, people do get mistreated; by abusive partners, discriminatory bosses, and dysfunctional families. The last thing I am suggesting is that we treat genuine victims with suspicion or a lack of support. But it is also important to note the clues that suggest that the hurt or trauma or emergency need we hear about has more to do with the teller’s agenda than the truth.

Many genuine victims I’ve worked with share more in common than their horrific experiences. As a general rule, they are reluctant to talk about what happened to them because, on some level, many struggle to accept the fact that they aren’t somehow responsible for it. It typically requires a high level of trust built over an extended period of time before they feel comfortable sharing their experience with someone new. So when I hear a first date talk about all the mistreatment he endured from his “crazy exes” or an acquaintance who's allegedly "targeted" at every job, it worries me.

There’s an additional red flag: When a sob story is routinely linked to a favor. Before her courageous last victim pursued justice (and finally got at least a miniscule part of the justice she deserved), Marianne Smyth convinced friends in Tennessee that she had breast cancer and bilked them out of thousands of dollars for treatment, conned her best friend in California into believing she was being framed for forgery by family members to avoid giving her an inheritance — and forking over almost $100,000 to help her, and filed for a restraining order with false claims of violent threats in an attempt to prevent a witness from testifying against her.

There are enough genuine victims among us – victims of childhood trauma, domestic abuse, or malignant con artists. We need to support them through their recovery and honor the courage so many show in seeking justice or protecting others from a similar fate. We also need to identify those ill-intentioned individuals who, given half a chance, will use our empathy and compassion against us.


If you're a true crime fan, I think you'd love my new book, Serial Killers: 101 True Crime Fans Ask.