The Art of a Good Con

Close up of ball on roulette wheel.
Close up of ball on roulette wheel.

The first and only time I fell victim to a con artist was when I was 23. It wasn't entirely the fault of the con man, who happened to be extremely handsome. He had something that I wanted.

The con took place in a Lake Tahoe casino where I was working as a blackjack dealer. Working in a casino is a sin by Jehovah's Witness standards, but I needed money for college. Just a few years earlier, I had run away from home and left the Jehovah's Witness religion I had been raised in, so most of my religious guilt over engaging in activities deemed sinful by the Witnesses had waned.

I worked the graveyard shift, taking money from gamblers who hoped that money would flow the other direction, and somewhere around midnight one evening an unbelievably handsome Middle-Eastern guy walked by my table. A man of Iraqi heritage, he later said. Hossain had a blinding white smile, a beautifully thick moustache, and I thought he was one of the most handsome men I'd ever seen. He caught my eye, and over the course of that evening, he periodically stopped by to bestow more beautiful smiles upon me. His visits lasted all through the night and I melted every time he came by. As I said, he was one of the most handsome men I'd ever seen.

He was waiting for me when I got off work in the wee hours of the morning and I agreed to meet him for an early dinner that night, thinking I would get something from him afterwards. Something that I desperately wanted and something I thought Hossain was interested in giving. I was no longer struggling with my homosexual identity at that time, but was still very limited in my sexual experiences. Hossain was probably in his early 40s, and I thought he would fulfill what I desired. I thought we would soon have sex.

We never did. He strung me along for three days, constantly dangling some slight sexual tease in front of me, but that's not the con that I want to write about. The actual con was when we sat down for that first dinner together, less than 24 hours after we had met, and I learned that Hossain had no money. He had lost his wallet shortly after arriving in Tahoe by bus, he said. He didn't own a credit card either, but he assured me that a friend back home in San Francisco was wiring cash to him. The wire had been delayed, but it would arrive soon and Hossain would then pay me back for dinner. That's what he promised.

One day stretched into two and then three, and over the course of those three days I fed cash to Hossain while he assured me that he would pay me back. His Western Union wire transfer would come through soon, he said.

On the third day, Hossain said it was time for him to go home, but he didn't have money for bus fare. The Western Union wire had failed to come through. I asked him to write down his full name and address for me -- a name and address that later turned out to be bogus -- then I gave him $50 and watched him board the bus to go home. He promised to send a check to me for everything I had given to him, a sum that totaled $150. It was money I couldn't afford to give and never saw again. I never saw Hossain naked either.

But there is a point to this story, and a similarity between Hossain's con job and my experience with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Every time I gave cash to Hossain, my instincts told me to ask questions, but as the con progressed, those instincts weakened. The further the con went, the deeper involved I became and the less willing I was to voice my concerns. Hossain had found the art of a good con. Asking questions might put what I had given to him at risk, I feared. The more I gave, the more entrapped I became and the more I stifled my skepticism. I didn't want to believe that what I had given to him had been lost forever.

And therein lies the similarity to my experience with the Jehovah's Witnesses -- a religion that continues to control some of my family today. I fell for Hossain's con when I was 23. My father fell for the Jehovah's Witness con when he was 23. Since then, he and the rest of my immediate family have all been lost to that religion. They have given their lives, their time and their money, to a faith that has been promising an end to this world for over a century. Under direction from JW leaders, they limit their contact with family members who don't share their faith. They cut off contact with people like me who have escaped -- shunning apostates, it is called. They especially cut off contact with gay people like me.

If any of my family members might have the slightest inkling that they are members of a cult, I can understand the enormity of their predicament. In order to escape, as I have, they must recognize that they have given their lives to an organization that has been promising an immediate end to this world for countless generations, and that the religious hierarchy of the Jehovah's Witnesses have depended on the reluctance of their members to recognize that it was all a lie.

I don't know that my family will ever wake up and realize what they have lost. I can't even imagine how painful it would be to realize that you gave everything you had to a religion that has perfected the art of a good con.