Many years ago, I entered my first year at Yale University, secretly afraid that my admission was a blight on the noble tradition of this fine institution. I remember walking to class and counting the stone gargoyles. I remember the three upperclassmen at my lunch table, who suddenly switched their conversation from English to Latin. But no imposing architectural wonder, no tribute to Virgil in a dead language, intimidated me more than “Colin Snowden” (not his real name).
If memory serves me well, Colin was featured in the “Welcome Letter” to my incoming class, and was described as a “young Horatio Alger”. He had tragically lost his parents in a car accident at age thirteen, but through a combination of brain-power and sheer grit, founded a multi-million dollar business. His Yale interview was blow-out impressive, a waif-turned-tycoon in a pin-stripe suit, flashing a watch that cost enough to buy a reasonably sized island. Before my first year even began, Colin Snowden was The Class Hero.
Colin was home-less, parent-less, family-less…and as it turned out, conscience-less. The entire story was a hoax. But nobody knew – not the college dean, not the admissions committee, not his classmates, not his girlfriend. The deception might have lasted longer, but Yale has a rigorous academic curriculum, and this particular “young Horatio Alger” didn’t care for hard work. When we all returned after the holiday break, Colin had disappeared.
At the time, most students found the situation hilarious — an unusually generous contribution to the gossip circuit, plus an in-your-face-rude-hand-gesture to the powers that be. It would be years before we realized that this was fraud, and not the least bit funny. He was so comfortable lying, so fluid in his identity, that his presentation was pathologically seamless.
Many people criticized the admissions committee for never checking up on his story, but I disagreed. Yes, Yale made a mistake, but our society is (understandably) not prepared for raw, primal sociopathy. I was angry at the deception, not at the admissions committee. More than that, I was chilled at Colin’s lack of conscience, and sympathetic toward the girlfriend who I was told suffered terribly in the aftermath.
Now, decades later, my perspective has turned in a new direction. Colin knew he wouldn’t be admitted to Yale on his true merits. So he faked a transcript and created an identity. He took on a curious role. He dressed himself up, like an extended Halloween costume, as a boy who should have been in foster care.
Colin combined a stereotypic portrayal of a foster child with a stereotypic portrayal of a rags-to-riches hero. He was a comic book figure, come to life, welcomed without question. Nobody stepped back, paused, and asked the obvious. Where’s the individual in this stereotype? With such a traumatic past, why doesn’t he need emotional support? According to his story, he bounced back instantaneously from losing his parents, and became an instantaneous entrepreneurial success (at age thirteen). Nobody said, “Wait a moment. Too much instantaneous. This doesn’t make sense.” The combination of his near-miss-foster-child status and his off-the-charts-rich status stopped everybody in their tracks. People accepted Colin as a stereotype, and missed that he could not possibly have been a real individual.
What leads children and adolescents to foster care? An environment at home that doesn’t allow healthy growth — abuse and neglect — a tragedy that takes away a home. These are not stereotypes, but harsh realities. The children involved are unique folks, individuals just like the rest of us, but facing particularly difficult circumstances.
Within a few short months, “Colin Snowden” found that pretending to be an almost-foster-child was too much work. If it’s too much work to impersonate a young man who merits foster care, then imagine how much work it takes to go through the reality. If Colin had a conscience, he’d stand up now, decades later, and apologize to the entire foster care community, and to each individual within it, for his astounding lack of respect. The apology to Yale, while merited, would be extremely secondary.