Aged 32,the Schoolboy Charlatan Whose Life Was a Study in Deceit

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH BURTON

ARE other people really what they seem? Behind their plausible facades, how many are living a lie?

Impostors are all around us - perhaps one is sitting beside you on the train, or lying next to you in bed. As a fascinating new book reveals, impostors ruthlessly exploit our readiness to take others at face value. In today's extract, we examine some remarkable examples of tricksters whose deceptions almost defy belief...

THE ODD thing about impostors is that they are often very high-achieving individuals.

Although their credentials may be faked, their talents are often very much the real thing - including an impressive ability to sustain a lifelong deception.

Impostor doctors and academics, for example, are often at least as impressive as their qualified colleagues. It is possibly for this reason that when interlopers have been spotted, various institutions have decided it is in nobody's interest to denounce them. It is preferable to spirit the impostor away quietly, provided no damage has been done.

The impostors then vanish, confidence intact, only to resurface at another university, hospital or parish to live another lie. Ironically, of course, in this way institutions and professions effectively collaborate with the impostor - their desire to avoid unwelcome publicity serving his or her interest.

When the associate professor of physics at the U.S. University of New Hampshire, Dr Kenneth D. Yates, was revealed in 1954 to be Marvin Hewitt, a high school dropout with no qualifications at all, he was in his fifth teaching job in seven years.

At least two other colleges had discovered his deception but, apart from removing him from the faculty, had taken no action. Indeed, the university authorities in New Hampshire had intended to let him go quietly, and only went to the Press when the details leaked out.

It was not only concern for the university's prestige that influenced these decisions. Hewitt was outstanding at his job and admired by fellow academics, who had no wish to humiliate him or, possibly, damage his employment prospects elsewhere.

Dr Robert F. Chandler, the president of the university, described Hewitt to the Press as a 'brilliant physicist', and said his teaching was 'very satisfactory'. He was fired not for his inability to do the job but because he had misrepresented his qualifications.

WHEN his imposture became public, Hewitt, who described himself as having 'a compulsion to teach', received widespread support from colleagues who recognised an exceptional mind when they saw one.

Establishments as diverse as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the British Admiralty Office expressed interest in his work. He subsequently chose to fade from sight and was never - as far as is known - heard from again.

Hewitt's compulsion to teach is typical of many impostor professionals who are motivated by an unwavering sense of purpose or destiny. A particularly worrying example is the recent case of Brian MacKinnon, a 32-year-old Scot who posed as Brandon Lee, a Canadian teenager, to satisfy his overwhelming desire to become a doctor.

MacKinnon, a medical student at Glasgow University, had repeatedly failed his exams and eventually been excluded from the course, but he believed he was born to be a doctor and could not accept rejection.

He therefore began his elaborate imposture to re-enter university by a route which circumvented his past academic record - he went back to school and retook his A-levels under a different identity.

Interviewed in 1997, after his deception was discovered, MacKin-non said of medicine: 'It's my purpose, I'm driven by that one idea.' More chillingly, he warned: 'I'll go to any lengths - any imaginative lengths - to ensure that by 1999 I'm back at medical school. I'll be there, and no one will know I'm there, and no one will find me. …