Review: Playing Dead, Elizabeth Greenwood

Can a book about not really being dead count for RIP? Yes, right? I can count Playing Dead in my RIP list, right? Because when push came to shove, I discovered that I just didn’t want to read the posthumously completed The Painted Queen, or at least I do not want to read it yet. So I am subbing in Playing Dead. I think it’s fine. Death is spooky!

Playing Dead

Elizabeth Greenwood first became interested in faking her own death as she faced the inevitable facts of her six-figure student loans, on which she continues to pay mostly interest payments month after month. Five years later, Playing Dead is the fruit of her labors, after she has traveled all over the place talking to death-fakers, death-faker survivors, and death-faker finders, even going so far as to have her own death faked in the Philippines — a country famously easy to fake your own death in.

(Oh, Brits, fact-check! Elizabeth Greenwood says all British people are very aware of Canoe Man. Are you? This guy who faked his death in a canoeing incident? If you are British, is this a thing with which you are familiar? Please leave me a note in the comments. National cultural awareness is interesting to me.)

The main thing that I learned is that faking your death by drowning is the stupidest way to do it. If you fake your death by drowning you will definitely get caught. Seems easy and intuitive, right? No body is a reasonable expectation if drowning? False! Most bodies eventually wash up if drowned, and every amateur death-faker on earth thinks that fake drowning is the way to go, so you’ll make your insurance company’s investigators suspicious.

Greenwood also found that it was massively difficult to find women to discuss death-faking with — although she does have a wonderful chapter of chitchatting with a woman called Pearl who spearheads efforts to prove that Michael Jackson’s death was faked and that he’s still alive. Either more men than women fake their own deaths, or more men than women get caught. Certainly the stakes tend to be higher with women:

Men came to [death-faking expert Frank Ahern] with money problems; they had come into money or had lost it all, and his female clients had violence problems: stalkers or abusive husbands.

So it makes sense that fewer women get caught, or are willing to speak with a journalist about the experience. What a fucked-up world we live in.

See, that was quite dark, wasn’t it? This totally counts for RIP.

  • Bride of the Book God

    Oh yes, I remember Canoe Man. He was supposed to be dead but was hiding in their house and they were caught after being photographed in Central America, I think. Ordinary looking couple, prosecuted for fraud. Does she mention John Stonehouse at all?

  • Jeanne

    I read this to the end before it penetrated my foggy brain that you are talking about non-fiction! What a world.

  • Citizen Reader

    Oh MY–I must have this book right now. Thanks for the great review.
    I think I read somewhere once that men definitely do get caught more than women–they can’t help themselves, they often go back to familiar environs where they get caught. When women go, they GO. Typical. Don’t send a lad when you need to get the job done!

  • Kristen M.

    Wow. This sounds really interesting … but SIX FIGURE STUDENT LOANS? Yikes. That’s a real horror story.
    And I can’t bring myself to read The Painted Queen yet either. 🙁

  • Michelle

    This sounds really interesting. Yes, canoe man was a big news item a year or two ago. Funnily enough, this summer I heard a talk on the intriguing story of Grace Oakeshott, who was a pioneer of further education for women in England at the end of the 19th century. She was married, without children, but sadly died in her 30s when swimming on holiday in France. Her clothes were found on the beach. Well, a researcher was writing a book about these female pioneers, and did a Google search for more information, and was amazed to find that an amateur play about her had been performed in New Zealand, written by her granddaughter! She did a lot of investigation, and found Grace had run off with her husband’s best friend. They sailed from Marseilles to New Zealand, and started a new life as a married couple, where she continued her good works under her new name. She told her family about her life in Britain, presumably missing out her first marriage. In those days they didn’t have to worry about the internet! The researcher, Jocelyn Robson, has written a book about it.

  • Yep, most Brits are aware of Canoe Man. It was the kind of fraud that can only really happen in Britain *face palms.* And they got away with it for *years* – which is pretty unbelievable, really!

  • I enjoyed this book enough that I’m definitely going to say it should count for RIP 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it too!