Obsessed: Elisabeth Finch Lied About Having Cancer and We Watched It On Grey’s Anatomy

Welcome to OBSESSED, in which I provide you a reading list / media consumption list that speaks to my primary hobby: doing obsessive amounts of research into a singular topic or story for no reason. This week I read that article in Vanity Fair about TV Writer Elisabeth Finch, the most recent in a long line of exposed illness hoaxers.


Friends, this week the world delivered unto us the story of a person who invented a series of fake personal tragedies that ensnared and impacted everyone in her remote orbit: TV writer Elisabeth Finch. I’ve been drawn to stories like this all my adult life since a person did this to me 15 years ago (I’m writing a novel about it) — and this one was particularly compelling because Finch didn’t just con her loved ones, she conned us all by drawing on her (fake) personal experiences with cancer in her work writing for Grey’s Anatomy. She then went on to prey on a domestic abuse survivor she met at a mental health facility, marry her, and then co-opt her wife’s history as her own in myriad unconscionable ways.

She used her invented persona to take control of the Grey’s writers room and center herself within it in a way that seems truly insufferable in retrospect, as well as a particularly brutal disregard to the millions of people who actually have cancer or other health issues or disabilities that require workplace accommodations.

Here is that story, from Vanity Fair:

  • Scene Stealer: The True Lies of Elisabeth Finch, Part 1: “For years, a Grey’s Anatomy writer told her personal traumas in online essays, and wove those details into the show’s plot—until a surprising email to Shondaland accused her of making it all up.
  • Scene Stealer: The True Lies of Elisabeth Finch, Part 2: “When Elisabeth Finch met Jennifer Beyer in 2019, the two women forged a fiercely loyal friendship, and eventually got married. But as Beyer would soon realize, Finch’s past wasn’t what she claimed—and Beyer’s own difficult history was up for the taking.”

Elisabeth Finch’s Essays About Her Life That Were Mostly Lies

Finch’s essays for Elle Magazine were silently scrubbed from their site when The Hollywood Reporter broke the story that Elisabeth Finch was under investigation at ABC “to determine if elements including Finch’s cancer diagnosis and abortion while undergoing chemotherapy, among other subjects, were not accurate.” But the internet is forever, so:

February 2014, Elle Magazine: How Friends, Family and Friday Night Lights Helped Me Fight Cancer 

Turns out, there’s no pamphlet on How to Be a Single Thirtysomething Woman With Cancer.

January 2016, Elle Magazine: I Confronted the Doctor who Missed My Cancer

In this piece, Finch details a “research excursion” she took for Grey’s Anatomy which brought her face-to-face with her former doctor, who was giving the lecture she’d come to hear. He “recognizes [her] immediately” and tells her she looks well, and then she details their past visits with said doctor, one in which he told her “Neurotic Jewish Women are my specialty” and disregarded her testimony of her own pain and blamed her unwellness on her weight and lack of exercise.

June 2016, Elle Magazine: Deciding to Have an Abortion… While Getting Chemo:

In which she gets pregnant because her doctors told her getting pregnant during chemo would be impossible so she was having unprotected sex, and then she has to make the tough choice to abort because with her “decimated immune system and limited kidney function, my body wasn’t strong enough to sustain nine straight months of compromise.”

She also did a video in 2017 for Now This about her alleged abortion: Elisabeth Finch On Planned Parenthood, Obamacare, Brett Kavanaugh.

January 2019, The Hollywood Reporter: Why My Cancer Disability Became a Storyline 

Someone wondered aloud if Catherine’s story might give cancer patients false hope, since my case was so rare. Our writers’ room is made of professional empaths — big-hearted, brilliant, thoughtful human beings from all backgrounds. The fact that those questions still came up made it clear how deeply ingrained in our DNA these value judgments are toward people with cancer. And it became even clearer why this story was so necessary to tell.

March 2018, The Hollywood Reporter: Former “Vampire Diaries” Writer Details Harassment on Set

I am assuming this one is actually true?

June 2019, Tell Tale TV –  Elisabeth Finch on Why Jo’s Story Changed and What’s Next for Meredith After That Shocking Finale

“We have a really amazing platform to be able to communicate that and also have it not be an afterschool special, have it be truthful, and raw, and true, and powerful, without it being pedantic.”

Finch also literally appears in the Grey’s Anatomy Season 15 Episode 19 episode ‘Silent All These Years,” for which Finch allegedly applied her own experiences with sexual assault to tell the story. She is amongst the doctors guiding a rape survivor’s hospital bed down a hallway towards surgery, which Jo (the character based on Finch) has lined with doctors to help the rape survivor, who says she sees her attacker’s face everywhere.

scene from Greys Anatomy of a woman in a hospital bed being rolled down the hallway

ABC


9 More Stories About People Who Faked Illnesses

People who fake illnesses fall into a few categories. The most common are malingerers, who do it for an external reward — like getting money, winning a lawsuit, avoiding criminal responsibility or missing work. This often falls into the category of the now-famous “GoFundMe scam.” In response, some people have dedicated themselves to helping others uncover the “cancer cons, phoney accidents and fake deaths” of this nature.

Then there’s factitious disorder: “a serious mental disorder in which someone deceives others by appearing sick, by purposely getting sick or by self-injury.” They do so mostly to get attention and sympathy from others. Elisabeth Finch has not been, as far as we know, diagnosed with factitious disorder, but her story is similar to others who have. Even when money isn’t involved, these scenarios subject the subject’s friends and family to an emotional rollercoaster of trauma, grief and stress and often permanently erode your ability to trust others as well as your sense of your own ability to read people and spot red flags!

Fictitious disorder in this capacity is also often called Münchausen (named after Baron Munchausen, who told embellished stories about his military experience), which itself has a few subsets. Münchausen by proxy is when you use another person to play the patient role, a situation most famously ascribed to Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the subject of the Hulu miniseries The Act. In recent years, the term “Münchausen by Internet” was coined to “people who simplify this process by carrying out their deceptions online” which “appears, because of its ease, to be much more common than its real-life progenitor.”

Here are some of the more interesting stories of this nature I’ve come across.

Podcasts:

Season 2 of the “Something Was Wrong” Podcast (2019): I had this story glued to my ears! Tee befriends a co-worker, Sylvia, a mother who eventually tells Tee she’s been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Treatment begins and so does a whole ass wild web of lies.

Sympathy Pains Podcast (2022): The story of Sarah Delashmit, who spent most of her life pretending to suffer from various illnesses, such as breast cancer and muscular dystrophy, as well as experiencing multiple miscarriages and the deaths of family members. She would maintain multiple false personas at once until it all came crashing down.

Longform About Writers Who Did It:

A Suspense Novelist’s Trial of Deceptions (2019): Daniel Mallory’s eventually bestselling pseudonymous “The Woman in the Window” was a hit. But during its bidding war, half the publishers who could’ve had it dropped out, due to unease around the author, who had been telling intense stories about his suffering over the years that didn’t add up — including faking cancer and his brother’s suicide. He began building his literary career with an essay about taking care of his mother as she died of cancer, the death of his father, and his own brain tumor.

Behind Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con (2015): The wellness influencer claimed to have healed her own brain cancer through a specific diet, published a whole damn book about it (The Whole Pantry — she also made a Whole Pantry app) and failed to charitably donate money she collected for charity. In 2015, it all came crashing down. This interview with her on 60 Minutes Australia MADE MY HEAD EXPLODE, it is a must-watch.

The Hipster Grifter (2009): Kari Ferrell’s marks were usually hipster men she flirted with and then subjected to a litany of imaginary personal traumas, like familial estrangement, terrifying ex-boyfriends, terminal cancer and pregnancy scares, while also working at Vice Magazine and claiming to work for GoldenVoice, a sporting and music entertainment presenter who ran Coachella.

Articles About Regular People Who Did It:

The Disease of Deceit (2020): The author meets Chaya when she’s just arrived in Brooklyn and is looking for new friends in the Jewish community. Almost immediately, Chaya reveals that she’s in remission from cancer and soon she’s experiencing a wide array of medical emergencies and requiring extensive care.

“I was that gullible. The lies weren’t good. They shouldn’t have persuaded me or anyone else for that matter. But the lies didn’t have to be good as long as what she was lying about was something like cancer, because who lies about cancer? The outrageousness of the lie does most of the heavy lifting. You don’t even have to make it sound all that plausible once you invoke the c-word.”

No Evidence of Disease (2012): The author’s girlfriend, Diane — who actually has cancer — meets Stephanie at a free makeup event for women with cancer.

“Given a choice between thinking something is an odd coincidence, and deciding that your best friend’s entire identity, down to the scar on her chest, has been constructed to deceive you; that she has gotten up every morning and shaved her head just to fuck with you, you are unlikely to choose door number two.”

The Long, Fake Life of J.S. Dirr: A Decade-Long Internet Cancer Hoax Unravels (2012)

“Warrior Eli” was a big story that made a ton of people aware that things like this can and do happen.

“… the Dirr hoax is singularly creepy in that the length of the con—11 years—meant J.S. evolved along with modern social networking. When he was born, in the time of Xangas and Tripod sites, J.S. Dirr was hardly more sketched out than a character in a novel. As the internet diversified and came to encompass every aspect of users’ lives, so did J.S…. Like a virus discovered deep in the guts of a nuclear plant, the Dirrs reveal startling vulnerabilities in the social web—how it masks lies, and boosts our ability to believe them.”

The Lying Disease (2012): Valerie began blogging about her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2010, which is how she met Beth, another blogger who claimed to be going through treatment for lymphoma, who’s story quickly stretched the bounds of believability. This story is remarkable because as Valerie continued to participate in online support groups for cancer patients and share her story online, more and more hoaxers came into her life! And one of them talks to the author of this piece.


1 More Story About a TV Writer Who Lied About Her Life While Pretending To Be an Expert on Her Topic in a Writer’s Room

A thread by writer Dylan Park about being a veteran working in a writers room with a woman who pretended to be a “Cuban Jewish gay Princeton graduate” and “a former Marine captain with 4 tours under her belt, a bronze star, and a Purple Heart.” This story is bananas go read it!



This! This article you just read wouldn't be possible without support from readers like you. In fact, we wouldn't be here AT ALL without reader support. We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! We need YOU to sign up for A+ to help keep this indie queer media site funded. A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year. If you can, will you join?

Join A+
Related:

Riese

Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2953 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. The second part of the VF article, which really dives into the wife she stole a bunch of her story from, is absolutely terrifying.

    Also usually these people are fascinating in a train wreck sort of way but the Hipster Grifter might be my hero?

    • Yeah part 2 was terrifying — so fucking cold and heartless. I can’t imagine the pain her ex wife is in from this but I’m glad she has the comfort now of knowing her story is the true one and that the world has heard it

  2. I am also fascinated by these people (factitious disorder) and have met WAY too many in my line of business. I have spoken with a few experts and I try to remember that most of them have a history of childhood trauma/PTSD/often abuse combined with a personality disorder. They are often seeking out the care and concern that they did not receive as a child to fill the unfillable void from not having normal bonding with a parent or caregiver.

    • That’s really interesting. It’s easy (for me at least) to focus on the damage that someone with facetious disorder can do. Thanks for the reminder. And are there effective treatments for it?

      • Treatment? Eh…intensive therapy if they are willing (rare). Usually hospitals coordinate to share a care plan on the patient that is attached to their chart to help prevent iatrogenic injury (hospital caused injury from excessive or unnecessary treatment or testing). We try to reduce the risk that they bring on themselves by hospital and doctor shopping for invasive procedures etc. unfortunately we can’t warn any contacts of the patient legally without consent of the patient. I have personally had patients admit to me that they had been faking a cancer or other diagnosis for years and I could not tell their partner. Malingerers KNOW they are faking and do it for gain- they are actually easier to manage because they have insight into WHY. Factitious disorders know on some level but have little control over their behavior and often little insight. They don’t want money, they want to be cared for In a medical setting. I’ve had people who manipulated doctors into performing multiple multiple painful surgeries on them for example. They often desire painful and invasive care. It’s a tough diagnosis and takes mountains of evidence & testing and years to prove only after the elimination of all other options.

  3. My partner and I are huge Greys fans and just recently rewatched the entire series start to finish (way too much time during COVID) and neither us had heard about this, so this was a FASCINATING read. Honestly this story is so fucked up on so many levels. That poor woman… (Beyer, obviously)

    On a much shallower level – I always hated that Jo storyline, this makes it so much worse!

  4. Wow.

    There was an mm romance author who allegedly did this. He claimed to have cancer and his readers donated to his fundraisers. It came out that not only did he not have cancer but his wife wrote all the books. And they also had at least one fan who confided in them and they used their fan’s story in one of their books. It all blew up on Twitter a few years ago.

    I had no idea that other authors did this too.

    • This also happened with a f/f author recently, Maggie Robbins, the whole lesfic author community came together and donated to help her and then the people found out it was all a lie. This was ongoing for like a year and half. It was a big shock.

    • it’s so interesting the way they mobilize these niche communities of people who come together over a mutual passionate interest and that builds a kind of trust between everybody where they’re not really primed to ask too many invasive questions when things seem off

  5. In my line of work, I teach older adults experiencing vision loss later in life. I believe I have encountered at least two or three of the factitious people who bswear to their core that they are visually impaired when there is nothing wrong with their eyes

  6. omg since I saw this story in the link round-up last week I have been…I mean it was SO entertaining and WTF-enducing and terrifying at the same time. Completely obsessed with it now. Like, I googled so much about it.

  7. Great recap!

    I am dying to know what the other grey’s writers and actors think. I followed her on my back up insta years ago, she went private after this, but she’s still posting… and some of the writers and actors are still liking/commenting on her posts. But others on twitter and liking cryptic tweets referencing the drama. I simply NEED to know!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!