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Shankar Vedantam On The ‘Useful Delusions’ That Sustain Humanity

051021_ShankarVedantamcover_headshot.jpg Shankar Vedantam Hidden Brain
Author Shankar Vedantam's book explores the benefits of self-deception.

There’s a fascinating tale that runs through the new book by Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam. It’s the true story of the Church of Love — a sort of all-female commune based in Moline, Illinois, that corresponded with lonely men across the U.S., persuading them to send thousands of dollars to support a group of virginal yet lusty women attempting to build a retirement paradise called Chonda-Za.

If it sounds too bizarre to be true, well, it was. The women were largely fictitious; the man cashing the checks was a former English teacher, Donald Lowry. At the time the feds swooped in to arrest Lowry on charges of mail fraud, he “owned a fleet of 20 automobiles, including Rolls Royces and Jaguars,” Vedantam writes. “He had a full-time personal mechanic.” His letter-writing enterprise took up an entire office building in downtown Moline.

Yet many of the men defrauded by Lowry testified at his trial in his defense. It’s that fact that has Vedantam digging deeper — and provides the through-line for his new book, “Useful Delusions: The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain” (co-authored by Bill Mesler).

“Once the con was revealed, why would the marks show up to defend the artist?” Vedantam asks. “It was as though deceiver and deceived were in it together, bound by a pact of complicity.” As Vedantam explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, media coverage of Lowry’s trial presumed that the men defending the con man were “pathetic losers” and “fools.” That included Joseph Henriquez, a lonely man who lived in small-town Texas.

“The more I got to know Joseph Henriquez, the more I came to understand that this was a shallow understanding of his life and circumstances,” he said. “The love letters were arriving at an extremely low point in Joseph's life, and eventually they became something of a lifeline for him. … The letters, even though they were fake, and they came from women who did not exist, they ended up being an extraordinarily important part of his life, to the point at which even after the con was revealed for what it was, Joseph decided that he wished to continue to believe.”

Shankar Vedantam talks with Sarah Fenske.

And for Joseph, Vedantam said, it was less about sexy pictures and more about companionship, and wanting to be needed.

“Donald Lowry actually discovered early on that the members who were signing up because they wanted the nude pictures, or things that were overtly sexual, these were people who were not what you’d call loyal customers. They didn’t stick around for a long time. The people who were the most loyal customers were staying because they’d formed deep emotional bonds with the people to whom they corresponded.”

He added: “The thing that I think a lot of us forget, in a lot of personal relationships, the thing that many of us are looking for is in fact that we are wanted, that we are needed by someone. To the extent that we can see ourselves as being valuable to other people, this actually enhances our bonds with other people.”

Of Lowry’s con, Vedantam concluded, “On one level, it was deeply nefarious; on another level, it showed a deep understanding of human nature.”

Human nature is front and center in Vedantam’s book, which explores the myriad ways our brains trick us — and argues that life’s fictions are helpful and even necessary (faced in the cold light of reality, it’s hard to conclude Hobbes wasn’t right about the whole nasty, brutish and short business).

And so Vedantam cites studies that show people who are given placebos sometimes can be healed. People who believe their partners are attractive, all evidence to the contrary, are happier in marriage than those who don’t. People who approach life, or medical procedures, with optimism do better than those with a more realistic view.

“Delusions and self-deceptions can be deeply harmful and deeply destructive,” Vedantam acknowledged. “The problem is that self-deception can also be functional. This is what I came to realize as I was reporting the book. It’s one thing to say self-deception does harm. That doesn’t mean that all self-deceptions do harm.”

Henriquez and his fixation on a correspondent who proved imaginary might be an extreme example. “But it turns out to a lesser extent,” Vedantam said, “that all of us benefit from some degree of self-deception.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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