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FIELD NOTES: Do you believe in your own lies?

If you have never heard the name Anna Delvey, congratulations. Save yourself the trouble and stop reading now. Walk the dog. Clean the house. Wash the car. Do something productive. But under no circumstances allow yourself to get caught up in the tangled knot of lies, deceit, and narcissism I am about to lay down.  

Until a week ago, I had no idea who Anna Delvey was or what her story was about. Then I saw the banner advertising a new series on Netflix, “Inventing Anna.” The synopsis – a journalist chases down the story of Anna Delvey, who convinced New York’s elite she was a German heiress – did not interest me all that much. But it starred Julia Garner, and I was a little curious to see how she would handle a role 180 degrees from her iconic Ruth Langmore character on “Ozark.” Ten hours of my life later, I know more (and less) about Anna Delvey than I ever cared to.  

Well written and produced, the nine-episode limited series is like a roller coaster ride, as a continuous string of new revelations alternately paint Anna as a criminal mastermind, a possibly delusional young woman living out some weird online fantasy, or an ethically challenged entrepreneur caught in the machinations of a corrupt system.  

These wild tonal changes are both fascinating and frustrating. Each episode focuses on a particular character in the overarching story and starts with some version of a disclaimer stating, “this story is completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up.” The most interesting of these secondary characters is Neff, a concierge at a hotel where Anna stays for several weeks. Neff is a budding filmmaker who is equal parts scheming and vulnerable. She initially sees Anna, who has a penchant for elaborate tips, as a cash cow but eventually forges a real bond with her, never entirely giving up her belief that Anna is legitimate. 

Those tips are one of the frustrating parts of the story. Anna clearly has some money that comes from somewhere. She tips “Bennys,” hundred dollar bills, and occasionally pays her (smaller) debts. The show never adequately explains where this money comes from, although it is implied she routinely commits bank fraud and steals from her friends.  

Near the conclusion, the fictitious journalist who serves as the viewer’s surrogate begins to question her own interpretation of the facts and travels to Germany to determine, once and for all, whether there is any truth whatsoever to Anna’s claims of a wealthy family and multimillion-dollar trust fund. It turns out that Anna’s past is nearly as enigmatic as her present but that her parents are definitely lower-middle-class Russian immigrants just trying to eke out a living in a country that does not fully accept them. Anna’s mother, when questioned about what childhood trauma might have turned Anna into what she has become, says “she’s just always been that way.” Perhaps the most telling statement in the whole story. There’s a fine line between believing you are as good as anyone else and believing you are better than everyone else.  

The story’s climax is Anna’s trial on 10 counts of fraud and theft. Her attorney concedes that they have no defense on a couple of the charges, like her unauthorized use of a business jet and months of unpaid hotel bills, but can mount a “dangerously close” defense against the most serious of the allegations, that she attempted to defraud two banks and a capital management firm out of tens of millions of dollars in loans.  

The vehicle of this fraud was an oddly-defined artist community/exclusive club called the Anna Delvey Foundation, which required a $40 million loan against Anna’s sizable “trust fund” to get started. I’m no Manhattan socialite, so maybe I’m talking out of school here, but to me, her whole “business plan” was so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe any bank would take it seriously for even a minute, but apparently, they did. So much for Ivy League education. 

The standard of evidence in criminal fraud cases is that the defendant’s actions led to a situation where the lending institutions were “dangerously close” to giving her the money. Her attorney wanted to exploit this terminology by depicting her as a silly, naive girl who never came close to convincing anyone to provide her with any significant money.  

Anna, however, balked at this strategy, thinking it made her look “not serious.” Alternately, she wanted to pursue the notion that she was very close to making it all work and that if she had just gotten the initial funding, everything would have fallen into place, and everyone would have been made whole. This strategic difference leads to a blowout altercation just before closing arguments. At one point in the bickering, the attorney asks her point-blank, “Do you believe in  your own lies?” Her silence is enigmatic.  

Anna is ultimately convicted on eight of the 10 charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The writers and producers of the series imply they believe this was excessive. Anna Delvey – that name is part of the fraud; her real name is Anna Sorokin – is not a sympathetic character. She is abrasive, narcissistic and maintains her deception until the end, never demonstrating the slightest bit of remorse. The producers would deflect some of her blame by suggesting that others have profited by exaggerating their wealth and status yet faced few if any repercussions. I would counter that there is a world of difference between a real millionaire inflating the value of a tangible asset and someone with zero assets forging documents to make it appear they are wealthy for the purpose of stealing from others. 

The show makes a point of criticizing social media culture and the way it turns everyone into a brand. Still, it is not a crime to pretend you are a German heiress, to claim you are wealthier than you are or to look down your nose at the “basic” people around you. Heck, there’s some guy on Facebook who claims to be an author, gardener, and economic developer, if you can believe that!  

However, a personal online “brand” crosses the line when that fantasy is extended to the real world and has real-world financial consequences for others. In a scenario where Anna is  successful in getting that $40 million loan, there is ZERO chance the Anna Delvey Foundation  would have ever become a legitimate venture, but I have no doubt Anna Sorokin would have  spent every single penny of it on clothes, shoes, handbags, and travel, and posted it all online to the acclaim of her clueless “followers.”

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