Rolling Stone's profile of serial identity thief Esther Reed isn't the first story about someone conning her way into the Ivy League. But it does reveal something all those stories have in common: a desire to start again.
According to Rolling Stone's Sabrina Rubin Erdely, Reed was unhappy as a child, frequently criticized by her older half-siblings. Raised strictly Southern Baptist in a home far away from the nearest town, she had trouble fitting in at school. She dropped out of high school, later recalling, "Every interaction with people felt like an audition I was going to fail," and bounced from house to house after her mother died of cancer. Then, she says, she made a decision: "I couldn't function, I couldn't pay my rent, and no one would help me - so, fine, I'll find a way to help myself."
Helping herself started with stealing a coworker's purse, then moved to stealing her ex-boyfriend's sister's identity and hanging out with the debate team at Cal State Fullerton. "But," writes Erdely, "her larger goal was to erase all traces of her past, making it impossible for her family to track her down." To that end, she began assuming the identities — and Social Security numbers — of missing women she found on the Internet. She became Natalie Bowman, enrolled at Fullerton as a non-degree-seeking student, then switched to Brooke Henson, and started dating cadets at West Point. As Brooke, she was accepted at Columbia and began taking classes. But the pressure of maintaining a fake identity made her anxious and depressed, and she started holing up in her apartment. Therapy helped her a little, but when an investigation into the real Brooke's disappearance set cops on her trail, she ran. She was finally arrested in an Illinois hotel room in February 2008, seven years after she began her career as an impostor, and is currently serving a 51-month sentence for her crimes.
Impostors at universities have made the news several times in recent years, from James Hogue, who enrolled at Princeton under a false name, to Akash Maharaj, who falsified his application to Yale. And a few years after I graduated, my alma mater had its own impostor — Azia Kim, who managed to live in the dorms for eight months without actually being enrolled. At the time, some students were enraged at Kim for bypassing the normal application process and living at Stanford without any sanctioned right to be there. The fear of impostors is in a way a fear of gatecrashing, of somebody unworthy getting into a place that's supposed to be exclusive. The sad thing is, many impostors probably feel that they're unworthy as well — at least as their old selves.
The most striking thing about Reed's story is her craving for a fresh start. Erdely writes,
As she saw it, the person Esther Reed presented to the world, and to Columbia University, was a reflection of her true self. Accepted immediately, she got right to work applying for more than $100,000 in student loans and hunting for an apartment in New York. Esther was so busy making arrangements, in fact, that when Kyle broke up with her after six months of dating, she barely seemed to notice. That summer, Esther arrived at her new apartment on 108th and Columbus ready to enjoy the grandest chapter of her new life.
Later, when Reed had conquered some of her anxieties and begun attending classes again, Erdely writes, "This, at long last, was the life she deserved, the life she was meant for. Esther was finally ready to take on the world - to be the best Brooke Henson she could be." Anyone who's felt her life veer away from the direction she planned can sympathize with the desire to simply wipe everything away and start over, to become a new person with new possibilities. And while most people wouldn't go so far as to steal someone else's life, it's hard not to feel for someone who thought that was her only option. While in prison, Reed wrote to Erdely that,
Regardless of where I am at this moment, I'm not in an emotional box anymore. It took this entire journey to open it up, but it's open. With any luck, I will never need a box again.
She says, "I knew instinctively upon being arrested that this was the start of my life." Despite the people she hurt in her years of conning, I hope now she's right.
Image via WSPA.