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Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(August 11, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

"He who steals my purse steals trash.
But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not nourishes him,
But makes me poor indeed."

From Othello by William Shakespeare

Not quite, Iago. Not quite. Identity theft nourishes lots of people. And the victim doesn't have to be trash-poor, before or after, to pay dearly for the theft.

The steps a person should take to protect his identity or repair the damage done to it are listed under "Identity Theft." The U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Secret Service, and the F.B.I. are all there to help, as well as various state agencies.

What I'd like to address are the weaknesses in human nature that spur the Iagos of this world to prey upon the Othellos, and the Othellos to be vulnerable to such treachery. But we don't require high drama. In our everyday lives we encounter in small notes the same jots of duplicity and misplaced trust that Shakespeare wrote about in monumental lines.

If we can understand the causes of deceit and our susceptibility to it, we can try to recognize and then eliminate the behavior from our repertoire of strategies for gaining status. And naturally, it also helps to be able to recognize the signs when we see them in others.

In my prison ministry, I've taught all kinds of felons, at three different prisons each with a different level of security. I encourage them all to meditate, study, learn music or the arts, or to prepare themselves for taking college courses when they get out. I never ask what crime the men committed that got them incarcerated; but sometimes I get an idea when a man says, "I'd really like to study astronomy... but I'm not eligible for parole until 2043." I say, "Ah..." and know that he isn't "in the joint" for failing to pay parking tickets.

But some men feel compelled to disclose that they are not like the others, i.e., common criminals. They are in prison only for something trivial,"using someone else's credit cards"; fraudulent conversion; larceny; check kiting; embezzlement; forgery; and an assortment of scams. And while I know I am not supposed to be judgmental, I can't help it when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There are no superior white-collar inmates in my present group, and for that I am grateful.

Anyone who has ever been betrayed by someone he loves can understand a crime of passion. Anyone who knows the adolescent brain hasn't yet fully formed and so is without even the ability to make good judgments can comprehend the trouble a kid can get into. Any person who has become dependent upon a medication for pain or for an emotional problem cannot condemn out of hand the crimes of drug addiction. And anyone who has ever been abused by someone for a long, hard, impotent time can feel a modicum of sympathy for the fellow who has committed Murder One.

But nobody feels sympathy for white-collar thieves. A special treachery attends these criminals because they use as their weapon of choice the human kindness and trusting nature of others, qualities that elevate us from nearly all other creatures on the planet. At a safe distance, they launch their cowardly schemes by mail, telephone, internet, or filter it through public relations' flacks and complacent accountants.

But even up close, they can be masters of deceit. With limbic finesse, like crocodiles pretending to be logs, they are poised to feed upon the unwary. There is no passion in their crime. The shield of conscience which passion melts is absent. A vacuum cold as space exists where conscience ought to be; and nothing can stop the spite, greed, or envy from enjoying the inertial ride. It is a simple need, akin to satisfying what is, by definition, as recurrent and therefore as insatiable as hunger.

And yet, until recent times, these clean-fingered thieves of money and honor have been a coddled group of miscreants - slapped on the wrist and sentenced to country club detention centers. Jurisprudence has had a horror of blood and since the blows that were struck weren't physical (that blood on the floor was the result of a victim's suicide) they were treated deferentially. There were always the requisite number of "degrees of separation" between them and the physical effects of their crimes to remove them from the fouled vicinity of proximate cause.

They may have swindled countless persons into bankruptcy, and the emotional strains of the loss may have riven once-happy families; but when they discuss their crimes - and they often give TV interviews - they lapse into a defense mechanism and project their guilt upon the victims: "Listen," they say authoritatively, "Nobody ever got taken who wasn't out to make a dishonest buck, himself. It's their own greed that traps them." Often their interviews follow those of their victims - elderly people who believed that they had won a big prize and whose "greed" consisted of wanting to pay off their children's mortgages or put their grandchildren through college. And still the swindlers will insist that their victims deserved "to be taken."

Since juvenile character deficiencies are mostly corrected during the normal maturation process, we can turn to those individuals whose deficiencies did not submit to correction. These are the folks who grow up with impaired social judgments.

Not surprisingly, it is the Herd instinct, involving as it does the Friend and Enemy Shadow archetype, that gives us problems with civility. This instinct kicks in along with the emergence of ego, the period when a toddler must end his total dependence on his mother and gain sustenance and security from interacting with father and siblings. He becomes, in a real sense, the understudy of his father - not to replace him but to copy him later in life. He also becomes both the confidant and competitor of his brothers and sisters and learns to act with, and to tell the difference between, "trustworthy" people "who are of the body" and to be suspicious of people "who are not of the body."

The Herd offers safety in numbers, greater opportunities for intellectual and physical development, and a bigger gene pool. Normally, as the years of socialization continue and his relationships with others expand, a major shift in goals occurs when the young adult completes his education, becomes employed, marries and has children. The security that the herd has given him - the gangs, the teams, the clubs, the frats, the guys on the corner or at the bar, the fellow fans, the party animals - is supposed to be superseded by the security he provides his own family.

But something goes wrong with the Iagos of the world. Whether their narcissistic viciousness is a genetic curse or is acquired by poor parenting is not the issue here. In fact, they have never felt connected to the family, group, or clan. Their bodies have mixed in, but their spirit and the spirits of all others are immiscible. They may once have desperately tried to belong, to be accepted, to be a part of the whole; but now their failure to connect has left them childishly bitter, needful of striking back at the society that they believe excluded them. Since it is the Trickster and the Comic Book Hero developmental stages that they never successfully negotiated, their methods are arrested there, and they employ juvenile trickery and magical "prestidigitation."

Even in ordinary relationships, the Friend and the Enemy are two sides of the same coin that is often flipped. The men in prison understand this " 2-sides of the same coin" concept. Prosecutors know it, too, and the language they use to describe the switch from friend to enemy reveals the depth of their appreciation: When a man commits a crime with his friend - the prosecutor, to be guaranteed a conviction, says to his assistant, "Let's 'flip' the friend." And the friend will easily "turn" state's evidence.

White-collar criminals may marry and give the appearance of normality, but they are distant from their families in one of two ways: either they continue to pursue the Herd's acceptance by visiting their clubs and teams and bars, finding a way to exit their homes every evening, or they sit alone in a room constructing the defense mechanisms of Projection and Reaction Formation. They scheme to get even by outwitting their surrogate antagonists, using spiteful cleverness. It they attend meetings, they flatter, cajole and give gifts and attentive support. This is their strategy for fishing, "networking" to ensnare those whose adulation or possessions they desire. The most immature of them will resort to dirty little tricks, and life becomes a prolonged Mischief Night of devilment for them.

Despite all the ploys, ultimately they fail to connect. There are some stages in life that cannot be redone. Disciplined retreat could help them to contain their infantile needs, but they rarely desire such containment since with each successful step they take to gain trust and admiration, they inflate and get a little intoxicated with imagined power. The unwitting souls they've enlisted as their shills verify what is not there.

Trust is a power and once obtained is an efficient tool for exploitation. The person who is without conscience is adept at gaining trust, deflecting suspicion from himself and casting it on others.

A long time ago I made friends with a girl who worked in a small office near where I worked. We had lunch together and socialized. She was from a small town in another state and didn't know many people, so I invited her to parties, where she met many of my friends. Her boss was an alcoholic, a binge drinker, and a ladies' man. He was separated from his wife; and since, in those days, there was no such thing as a "no-fault" divorce - or credit cards, either, she would get his "petty cash" checks cashed at the bank and cover for him when he disappeared for a few days. If his wife, friends, or clients called, she'd say he was called out of town unexpectedly for an important conference. His wife would hiss and hang up, his friends would laugh, and his clients would express regret and think he was an important man.

On one particular binge, he was gone for several weeks and she needed to get paid, so she forged his name on her paychecks. She had done this before and he had not objected. But on this binge he drove his car into a deep irrigation channel. When he was finally found, receipts in his car indicated that he died on the first day of his absence.

His wife and the law came down on her hard. Other checks for cash that bore his drunken signature were also blamed on her; and she was sentenced to prison for two years. Eighteen months later, the parole board said if a local person agreed to act as her "advisor" she could be released. I agreed to sign for her.

But while she was away, I had a party in my apartment. I knew all the guests personally. After the party I discovered that a new bottle of Chanel No.5 perfume had disappeared from the bathroom. I said nothing to no one.

She was released from prison just before the holidays and moved in with me temporarily. She had a job and was trying to get her life together. A married couple I knew invited me and her, too, to their Christmas Day open house. We went and stayed an hour. The next day a woman I had known for years called to tell me that during the open house an expensive gold cigarette lighter had been stolen. She wanted to warn me that people were saying that I ought to "make good" for the theft since I had brought the parolee to the affair. She had tried to discourage this, she said, since there was no proof that my friend had taken anything. But she thought I should know. I thanked her.

During the next few weeks I was castigated for having brought a convicted felon into the company of the righteous. I cited the theft of my perfume and defended my friend, saying that there was a thief in the group but she wasn't it. This assertion did not endear me to anyone; and I dropped - or was pushed - out of circulation. My friend, chagrined to have been the cause of trouble for me, moved out.

And then, miraculously, months later, my dentist casually mentioned that he had heard about an incident of theft involving the woman who had called me at Christmas. A patient of his who lived in her apartment building had been dating her. She had been to his apartment for drinks, and several days later he noticed he was missing a valuable signet ring, one that had been in his family for 300 years. At first, he considered her a suspect, but after a few trusted friends assured him of her integrity, he dismissed the thought. One night he stayed in her apartment, and while she was in the shower it occurred to him to snoop and he found the ring in the bottom rear of a lingerie drawer.

He confronted her and called the police. She claimed that she had found the ring in her apartment. She didn't know who had left it behind because she had several dates around that time and assumed someone would call about it, but no one did. It didn't look that valuable to her, she said. The police seemed to agree. It was a "he said, she said" kind of situation and the police advised him to take his ring and forget it.

When I got home from the dentist I called the couple who had invited me to the Christmas open house. I learned that during the few months following the open house several other valuable items had disappeared from various homes. I and my friend had not been present so we were out of the picture; but they refused to blame the woman who had been accused of taking the signet ring. It was more likely, they said, that her version was true - that the man who had accused her had stolen the items. He had accompanied her to several affairs. (But he wasn't at my party the night the perfume disappeared.) They believed that she had called the police when he violently accosted her, using the ring as some kind of pretext; and she had showed her kindness by dropping charges against him.

This lie was circulated and believed; and he, too, became a persona non grata. Finally I learned that at a New Year's party she had been caught in the hostess' bedroom, secreting a valuable bracelet in her pantyhose. It was quite a scandal. She called me to tell me that she was being treated for kleptomania "which was as much a disease as any other emotional disorder." I asked her what she called the condition that allowed her to let innocent people take the rap for her, and I ended the conversation.

But what makes us susceptible to these people? How is it that we fail to see what is in front of us and are so ready to accept sob stories, improbable scenarios, gossip, innuendo, and the testimony of strangers - as we give thieves access to our valuables and fall for "bonanzas" that are truly too good to be true?

Here again we find that old Herd Instinct which inclines us to trust those who are admired, especially if they appear to be "of the body," and this, while sufficient to make us vulnerable, can be exacerbated if we have even a tiny desire to appear magnanimous or to be persons "who know the art of the deal." And, too, some of us just have an optimistic streak. We hear about Lottery Winners and the stories disturb our work ethic. We've been honest and industrious and feel that somehow we deserve to be lucky, too.

But the Achilles heel which is most often struck is our desire to live up to the standards of our religion - to be generous and helpful, Good Samaritans, people who know that a friend in need, is a friend indeed. We want to be that deedful friend. We're taught that it is better to give than to receive. And it is true, we do derive a sense of satisfaction from helping others. In a religious setting trust is easily gained.

Years ago in our local sangha we had a new member who was in a state of bereavement. His wife had just died and his sister, an attractive woman who practiced Zen in their hometown, helped him to move to our valley to start a new life. She led him to Zen as a way to find peace "and good people" in his new surroundings. Within a few weeks they had cultivated the friendship of a few prosperous members. The recent widower confided to one of them that he needed to sell an unset, 2 carat diamond, explaining that he had gotten the stone to have it set in a pendant for his wife, but her death had ended that plan. The funeral and his relocation costs had been been more than he expected. "Take the diamond and have it appraised to satisfy yourself," he said, trustingly handing him the stone in a carefully folded handkerchief.

The member took the stone to a jeweler to get it appraised, and the jeweler indeed verified the high quality of the diamond. All that remained was the negotiation of price. They met, and the member offered to purchase the stone for a sum slightly less than the appraisal. The new member demurred, "I'm sure it's worth more than that," he said, extending his hand to be given back the handkerchief, which he immediately put in his jacket pocket. The member raised the offer a few hundred dollars and the seller reluctantly agreed and gave him back the handkerchief and accepted a check - which he immediately cashed. The jeweler laughed when the stone was brought to him for setting. "This is fake," he said. "You've been conned." Weeks later at a Ladies' Auxiliary meeting of the County Ministerial Association I learned that the same couple had used the diamond-switch scam on at least three "marks" in three different religious groups. Naturally, they left town before they were caught.

Not long after this incident two other new members, a husband and wife, came to town with their crippled teen-age son. They had impeccable manners but dressed plainly. They soon became friends with a member, a widow who drove an expensive car. She helped the husband get a job with a business associate of hers. Cautiously she followed-up her recommendation with a call and was told that he was an exemplary employee, news which gratified her.

The couple continued to attend meetings, even bringing their son to one event. But one night, distraught, they called on the widow at her home. They wept saying that they had no medical insurance and their son needed immediate surgery. Their only valuable possession, they said, was heirloom jewelry that could not be appraised without being damaged in the process. To establish that the gold was solid, it would have to be cut into, they explained. They wanted to be able to pass the jewelry down to their son so they would agree only to letting someone have it as collateral for a loan. (The pieces were a gold tiara set with emeralds, sapphires, and pearls, and long ornate earrings of the same design. They were actually quite beautiful especially in their display-mounted velvet-lined ebony boxes. The widow knew that she could test a real pearl by letting her tooth glide over it. It would have a stone-like texture. She did this little test and when it passed, she accepted the pieces as collateral for a $75,000. loan. The couple then vanished. The gold was plated, the pearls were cultured, and the stones were glass.

I can recall many incidences of swindling discussed at Ministerial meetings. On TV we see shows about religions or cults profiting from their members' largesse; but seldom do we see the cases in which innocent members are fleeced by other "members." And today we have a new dimension to this religious fakery: hatred of self and humanity that masquerades as spiritual martyrdom.

Whether stealing lives or purses, thieves of this ilk have certain characteristics in common; and it behooves people who participate actively in religion to be wary. The person who has no more than a spiteful child's sense of right and wrong may exhibit some of these personality traits:

He may affect humility, but he is extremely particular about his possessions. Because he projects so much guilt upon his victims, he regards them as contemptibly stupid and assumes they will not notice that although he professes to be poor, his cellphone, for example, is of the highest quality. If, on the other hand, he professes to be rich and well connected, his speech "delivery" may seem polished, but his grammar is oddly improper.

His "package" is never complete. He exaggerates his abilities and experiences, and in his inflated sense of self, may commit to a task that is beyond accomplishment - at which point he finds a reason to enlist the help of someone else; or, though he may speak of having taken long voyages under sail, he may know port cities' names; but he is not familiar with the parts or maneuvers of a sailboat.

If anyone expresses doubt about his sincerity, he responds irrationally - almost in the manner of a childhood temper tantrum - to what he considers an insult. In unguarded moments he is hypercritical, or curiously smug, his expression displaying an "I know something you don't know" sly superiority.

In religion, he appears very pious, but since he has had no genuine spiritual experiences of his own, he has no means to gauge the acceptability of methods or results. He becomes effusive in his praise of gods and holy men, and of sermons and scriptures that he claims have moved him deeply - but his comments seem strangely inappropriate, as if he has missed the point and is guessing at what is relevant.

Never having been "of the body" he does not know the give-and-take of social interaction at his peer level. Sometimes his naivet?s bizarre. At other times his anger and hatreds are baffling.

In all these oddities of conduct, he takes advantage of the religious person's tendency to forgive or overlook discrepancies.

Stealth and duplicity are the contemptuous acts of persons who lack conscience. The grifter and the terrorist are cut from the same warped cloth, their differences being only in degree, not kind.

After the crime has been revealed people are astonished, insisting that they had no hint that the criminal was anything other than law-abiding and good. But hints were given.

Iago surely signaled his duplicity to those around him. They did what we usually do, disregard the signs. Religious fanatics and thieves send messages, too, and it is up to the responsible members of their family and their faith to "take the hint" and examine whatever seems suspicious.

We could use a few experts to weigh-in and help us to read the notes.

Humming Bird
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