Identity Theft

The Psychology of an Ethnic Fraud: Behind Rachel Dolezal’s Invented Persecution

What went on in the mind Rachel Dolezal? A case from two decades ago with striking parallels could give us the answers, and tell us how she might react in the coming weeks.

06.13.15 4:10 AM ET

What is wrong with Rachel Dolezal?

The President of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, WA, Dolezal has spent the past decade claiming to be a black woman, when in fact she is not. As details of her story trickle out, things only get more bizarre. Something very strange seems to be going on with Dolezal and her family. Her biological, white parents outed her in the first place. Meanwhile, she’s identified a third party (a black man) as her real father, and is alleged to have claimed one of her black adopted brothers is actually her son.

Dolezal has accused her parents of child abuse, and specifically of using a “baboon whip” to beat her and her siblings. Dolezal has described this whip, presumably a sjambok, as “pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery,” and said that her parents “would punish us by skin complexion” by beating them with it.

In other words, Dolezal seems to be saying, not only is she black, but her family history and body itself bear the scars of the historical trauma of slavery.

Why would a person co-opt a position of marginalization and victimization in such a highly visible, risky, and outrageous way? What type of brokenness, misguidedness, illness, or malice inside a person would lead them them to do such a thing?

Her case suggests more than just a deep-seated problem, something more than just a highly narcissistic form of histrionic personal disorder, or an unhealthy need for obsession and approval.

Dolezal gives us stories replete with images of grotesque violence: beatings and whippings. Like slavery. Like torture. These are highly choreographed, ritualized sadomasochistic scenes, and to psychotherapists, they’re nothing new.

Therapists since Freud have listened to troubled patients tell stories, both plausible and more dubious, of such violence, and have regularly noticed that they are presented as stories of others being victimized when in fact it is the teller himself who is suffering from persecution that may be real or imagined or both.

And most people, rightly and compassionately, believe these stories. Until, it turns out, these stories are an emotional cover for something that could never be true.

This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened—even at this scale, and even with the same profoundly unsettling accusations.

Exactly twenty years ago, readers across Europe were absorbed by a remarkable, increasingly rare literary event: the revelation of a previously unknown Holocaust memoir. Published in German in 1995 as Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939—1948, a slim, hard-hitting first-person account offered a new, horrifying perspective on the Holocaust—that of an extremely young child, a Latvian named Binjamin Wilkomirski. Wilkomirski’s story, told in surreal, dreamlike patches punctuated by moments of stupefying violence, was riveting. Wilkomirski’s first memory, he claimed, was of witnessing his father being beaten to death.

Traveling between the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, he claimed to have seen babies gnawing off their own frozen fingers, SS guards mutilating the penises of young boys, and more.

The account was met with considerable acclaim. For The New York Times, Wilkomirski’s prose, even in translation, conveyed “a poet’s vision; a child’s state of grace.” Fragments won the U.S. National Jewish Book Award, while Wilkomirski received numerous personal honors.

The only problem with Wilkomirski’s testimony is that it was full of lies.

At first, the initial suspicions raised by a Swiss journalist only produced a pro-Wilkomirski backlash among literati, but, even in that pre-social media moment, the questions only multiplied. Wilkomirski’s story grew more terrible with each telling: when asked why he didn’t have a camp tattoo, for example, he responded that he didn’t have one because he had been subjected to horrific Nazi medical experiments. Ultimately, Wilkomirski’s agents commissioned a formal investigation by an independent historian. To their credit, they then made public his impeccably researched, brilliantly reflective report, which Schocken also published into English.

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The results were unsparing. Wilkomirski was not Latvian, nor was he Jewish, nor had he ever been interned in a concentration camp. His name wasn’t even Binjamin Wilkomirski, it was Bruno Grosjeans. He had been born illegitimately to a Swiss Prostestant woman in 1941, lived for years in a Swiss orphanage, and was adopted by a wealthy family in Zurich, the Dössekkers. “Binjamin Wilkomirski” was an entirely fabricated identity, his story, pure fiction—and DNA tests confirmed it.

Yet through it all, “Wilkomirski” insisted on the truth of his account, on his Jewishness, and on the reality of the suffering he had experienced and witnessed. He continued to do so, no matter the PR damage his fraud caused the organizations that had affiliated with him (including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), no matter the pain he caused the members of an actual Latvian Jewish family to whom he had presented himself as a long-lost relative, and no matter how much his actions gave grist to the mill for anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers.

It is impossible to know exactly what Bruno Dössekker was thinking when he decided to become Binjamin Wilkomirski. Scholars and journalists are divided on whether or not his acts were those of a callous, profiteering sociopath, or if he actually believed he was who he claimed to be.

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It is likewise impossible to know precisely what Rachel Dolezal, the white woman, was thinking when she decided to present herself as Rachel Dolezal, the black one. The easily falsified grandiosity of some her claims about her credentials certainly suggests that Dolezal either underestimates the ability of other people to do basic Googling, or else, which is more likely given her choice of a highly public profession and previous bids for media attention, that she is not well.

Reading between the lines of Bruno Dössekker’s actual biography, you can’t also help but notice several early traumas, from his abandonment by his mother to numerous, extremely plausible suggestions of abuse while in that orphanage. It’s here that Wilkomirski/aka Grosjean/aka Dössekker’s story and that of Dolezal converge—and where we can get a hint of what might have motivated both of them, if only in part.

Both figures present themselves as persecuted individuals, horribly victimized—and they co-opt the experiences of the victims of actual historical traumas to that end. Why? Because our compassionate and proper first impulse should be to believe them first and vet them later—as our own country’s history of moral panics over Satanic Ritual Abuse underscores, for better or for worse.

In fact, one of Wilkomirski’s biggest defenders, a woman who claimed to have met him in the camps, actually turned out to be a fake survivor of both the Holocaust and Satanic Ritual Abuse. But our titillation at these stories is revealing—because they also do something for the tellers of them.

One basic, compelling account of the origin of sadomasochism formulates it as a series displaced and appropriating identifications with both the victim and the perpetrator of violence.

For some folks, rapid toggling between power and victimhood can become a defining character feature, a basic way of exerting control over their sense of a stable self and life. Fixing the abuse you witness or suffer into a ritualized scene allows you some control over it, and maybe even the ability to gain some pleasure from it.

But of course that can also ultimately be just a way to identify with the aggressor, whose control you envy and seek to capture and reenact.

And if there is any one thing that unites both Wilkomirski and Dolezal, it was their need to dress up in a position of victimhood while also displaying a degree of privilege and entitlement that only serves to further harm those who have actually suffered those wrongs.

Like Dössekker, Dolezal may well continue to tell her story, to elaborate on it, to insist on it. As more details emerge, our capacity for nuance will be taxed. Our ability to distinguish between individual pathologies and collective ones—already poor on a good day—may well disintegrate entirely.

We all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about where we came from, and about where we’re going. We’re also very invested in other people buying into those narratives, and therefore not thrusting us, powerless, into their own.

But here’s the thing: beyond that level of banal abstraction, our freedom to live out our stories as we see fit is not a universal entitlement. Some of us get to daydream on the way to work about who truly is our “deepest self.” Others have to be more worried about being twice more likely to be shot dead while unarmed if we get pulled over.

Dolezal may get to wear her blackness like an outfit she can take on and off—even if she never actually does discard it, even if she truly does believe that she is black. But actual black Americans will never get that option.