My three Sterkarm books have many adult readers but they were originally written and published as Young Adult. Bad Girl is the first novel I’ve written with an adult audience always in mind.
A friend said she loved its 'audacious' plotting but kept thinking: ‘That wouldn’t happen. Nobody would do that.’ Every time she thought this, she told me, there followed several minutes of thought, at the end of which she had to admit that it could happen. She just found it hard to believe.
Consider this blog a public service, then, because the events in Bad Girl are actually very plausible. Chillingly plausible. I did my research.
Let me put this unhappy scenario before you, while hoping that it never comes to pass: A member of your family— a daughter, a niece, a cousin— reveals that she has terminal cancer.
She’s broke but desperately wants to take her child to Disneyland before she dies, to leave the child with one lovely, happy memory.
Your family would organise a whip-round, wouldn’t it? Of course, they would. And you’d contribute yourself. Anything to help.
In 2014, in Alabama, this was exactly the situation of Jenny Flynn Cataldo, a woman in her 30s. Her friends and family responded as generously as anyone could hope.
She survived with her terminal cancer for seven years and during that time her parents ‘burned through their savings’ to support her, giving her almost half a million dollars (nearly £382,000). Other family and friends contributed more than $100,000 (£76,800) to cover living and medical expenses.
Jenny Flynn Cataldo herself set up a GoFundMe site, to raise $4000 (£3000) for the Disneyland trip. It raised over $10,000 (£7,600)
A sympathetic friend set up a similar site, with the intention of raising $20,000 to cover the medical bills. It raised over $25,000 (£19,000).
It seems that Cataldo told her father, among others, that she was owed a large amount of money from a legal settlement over her medical treatment. However, the two lawyers handling the case had cheated her of it. She was trying to get the money but was making no headway.
Her father wrote to the Alabama political reporter, Josh Moon, asking him to investigate the lawyers’ fraud. Moon did, and soon discovered that the lawyers were blameless. They had to be, since no such legal case or settlement had ever existed.
The fraudster was Cataldo herself, who had continually lied to her friends and closest family for seven years. The hospital appointments she claimed to have attended had never existed; treatments she claimed to have undergone had never happened. But the family’s worry and concern had been real; and so had the hours they’d worked to acquire the money they’d given her.
Cataldo’s story fell apart as soon as Moon, an outsider, looked into it. Her account of ‘contracting’ cancer from a biopsy conducted with contaminated instruments was medically impossible. None of the doctors supposedly treating her had any record of her. None of the hospitals and hospices she’d supposedly attended had any knowledge of her.
Some members of her family had begun to suspect that she was not telling them the whole truth, but they had never challenged her. As Moon rightly asks, why would they? When someone you know, love and trust tells you they’re dying of cancer, the first thought that crosses your mind is not: ‘Are you lying to me?’ Even after seven years and many suspicious tales, it was easier for Cataldo’s family to believe that she was telling them the truth than to accept the painful fact that an outrageous deception had been practiced on them.
Moon says, ‘her trick was one of the oldest in the book: the bigger the lie, the more likely people are to believe.’
Cataldo’s scam isn’t even unusual or original. All over America, Canada and Australia men and women have faked cancer in order to enrich themselves. They have shaved their heads, pretended to attend hospitals for treatment, have looked people who loved them in the face while announcing their own imminent death— and they’ve trousered the money given to them by parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles…
Perhaps it’s that goddamned socialist medicine of ours (as it’s often referred to on-line) that makes this particular scam somewhat rare in the UK. Perhaps after this government of Tory scammers finally succeeds in destroying the NHS they’ve always hated, we will see the rise of the fake cancer scam here.
However, even if the NHS makes it hard to convince Grandad that he needs to remortgage his house to pay your medical bills, never let it be said that the UK lags behind the rest of the world in audacious fakers and con-artists.
Take Gemma Watts, a 21-year old woman who sexually assaulted teenaged girls by simply pretending to be a teenaged boy. Like any male abuser, she first chatted them up on-line via social media, introducing herself as a boy named ‘Jake.’ Having charmed them and won their confidence, she arranged to meet them and, from her home in London, travelled around the country to do so. She was charged with offences against only four girls but police estimate that she may have assaulted as many as fifty, with long-lasting psychological damage for them.
Watts’ ‘disguise’ was to tuck her long hair under a baseball cap and wear baggy clothes, though on at least one occasion, she did go so far as to stuff rolled up socks down her joggers. Thus transformed, she not only convinced some naïve teenagers but also some of their parents while visiting the girls at their homes. Invited in as their daughters’ new boyfriend, she sat and chatted with the parents. They, too, believed that she was a boy.
Pause there for a moment and imagine the amount of brass neck and gall that must have taken on
Watts’ part. And how exciting it must have been for her, to fool the authority figures of Mom and Dad. How much fun. (She didn't even cut her hair!)
When asked about her breasts, Watts said she had lost a lot of weight and had been left with ‘man-boobs’. Asked by one girl about photos of herself dressed in women’s clothes, Watts said she had been ‘experimenting.’ (Ooh, how exciting and daring that must have seemed to her teenaged marks.) Asked why her bedroom was painted pink, she said it was ‘because of a female cousin.’ (Why? Did Jake share a room with his female cousin? Or perhaps Watts claimed to be on a computer in the cousin’s room? But again, why?) It seems that Watts was always quick with the flannel and plausible explanations.
I think we see ‘the big lie’ here too. Were all the parents really convinced? Totally? The questions from the girls are evidence of some doubts… Please don’t think, though, that I’m trying to blame the girls or parents. If your daughter brings home a guest, introducing him as her new boyfriend, why would you think otherwise? Even if something about this guest— his build, his movements, his voice— made you think something like, ‘He’s rather girlish,’ wouldn’t you, as a fair-minded person, be more likely to tick yourself off for being judgemental or old fashioned rather than believing that an adult woman was sitting there, out-facing you? I completely understand why the parents didn’t snatch off Watts’ baseball cap and demand an explanation. Why would they?
Watts’ defence argued that she was of ‘a low IQ’ but looking at the degree of planning and manipulation she demonstrated, to say nothing of her quick answers to awkward questions, I am not convinced.
And before anyone leaps up, yelling 'J'accuse!' let me make it clear that it's Watts' deception I object to. If Watts had been the
teenager she pretended to be, and had introduced herself to the other girls as gay, bi or non-binary then I'd consider whatever followed between them to be entirely their business. But she lied
about her age, her gender, her name and her sexuality. She completely misrepresented herself.
As the judge in the case pointed out, it's unlikely that any of the girls in the case would have willingly had sex with Watt had they known
that she was an adult, gay woman and not, as they believed, a straight teenaged boy.
In any case, it's not what Cataldo and Watts did that makes me draw a comparison between them and my book, so much as the incredible, almost unbelievable brazenness of their lies. My friend kept having to pause in her reading of Bad Girl because she could not believe that any one would get themselves into such a situation or tell such Dreadful lies that it made one Gasp and Stretch one's eyes. I think I have demonstrated that such people lie among us.
Some of you may be disappointed to learn that there are no scammers like Watts in Bad Girl and only the lightest flourish of the cancer scam but it does feature bare-faced and brass-necked lying, of the kind suited to a book published as Johnson claims to represent our country. Lies no less breath-taking and jaw-dropping than those being told in Westminster are also being told to someone near you, right now, and backed up with falsified documents, produced with a scanner and printer.
You have been warned.
If a killer hid in plain sight within your family...
Would you find out in time?