On a very American version of Felix Krull – Marisa M. Kashino in The Washingtonian:
‘Jessica Krug’s confession started ricocheting across screens one brutally muggy afternoon in late-summer Washington. “For the better part of my adult life,” it began, “every move I’ve made, every relationship I’ve formed, has been rooted in the napalm toxic soil of lies.” Krug, a faculty member at George Washington University, had taken to Medium, the online forum, to reveal a stunning fabrication. Throughout her entire career in academia, the professor of African history—a white woman—had been posing as Black and Latina.
“I have thought about ending these lies many times over many years, but my cowardice was always more powerful than my ethics. I know right from wrong. I know history. I know power. I am a coward,” she wrote. “You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.”’
‘It was a dizzyingly fast fall for a woman who’d been among the most promising young scholars in her field. The 38-year-old had a PhD from one of the nation’s most prestigious African-history programs. She’d been a fellow at New York’s famed Schomburg Center, done research on three continents, and garnered wide praise for her book. She’d achieved all of it, as far as her GW colleagues knew, despite an upbringing that was nothing short of tragic. As Krug told it, she’d been raised in the Bronx, in “the hood.” Her Puerto Rican mother was a drug addict and abusive.
The tale was just the latest version of one Krug had been evolving for more than 15 years, swapping varied, gruesome particulars into the made-up backstory (a rape, a paternal abandonment) for different audiences. It was a heart-tugger—and, it turns out, incredibly flimsy. Minimal online sleuthing would have unraveled any of the lies in minutes—something Krug, who was still an undergrad when Facebook debuted, surely knew. But she’d also learned that the harrowing history she’d crafted was a useful line of defense against the kind of probing that could have easily exposed her. After all, who wanted to pry into such a delicate situation?’
‘She grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, an upper-middle-class, overwhelmingly white suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. She had a bat mitzvah when she turned 13. She attended some of the area’s best private schools, including the elite Barstow School, which counts the current Kansas City mayor, a cofounder of Tinder, and former Obama press secretary Josh Earnest as alums.
But while Krug was surrounded by preppiness and tradition, she fashioned herself as the class rebel, thrilling at opportunities to test a boundary or make a spectacle. She favored a hippie look—flannel shirts and tie-dyes, Birkenstocks, unkempt dirty-blond hair—and championed causes that seemed radical at the time. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, her schoolmate Quinton Lucas, now the city’s mayor, remembered her “once standing up at an all-school assembly and announcing, ‘There’s going to be a giant gay prom this weekend, and you’re all invited.’ This was 1999, so all of our jaws dropped.” At one point, Krug forced her way onto the boys’ baseball team, in protest that there was no girls’ team. (Never mind that she apparently had never played.) On another occasion, she planned an on-campus flag-burning to make a statement about free speech. “We all had to have a moment of a group of students and a group of teachers talking her out of it,” says a former classmate who was on the debate team with Krug and considered her a close friend.
A more troubling incident had to do with the school’s literary magazine. “Her work was always so different from everyone else’s,” recalls Miranda Lenz, an old friend who still lives in the area. “There were times where our teacher would be like, ‘You really need to tone it down,’ because her stuff would be borderline [sexually] inappropriate.” Everyone assumed it was at least original—until the day Krug got caught plagiarizing, something reported in the Kansas City Star as Krug’s hometown media swarmed on the story last summer.
“It was at that point that I really lost all respect for her,” says Lenz, remembering the incident. “It just seemed like she was more upset about being caught than she was about what she had done.” For as much as she hogged the spotlight at school, Krug’s home life was a mystery, even to close friends. Some remember meeting her mother during pickup at the end of the day, but no one could recall ever going inside her house. Krug never talked about her dad. In fact, a couple of friends told me they’d thought her father was dead.
According to a family member, her dad worked in the grocery business. Her parents were not wealthy—classmates say Krug attended Barstow on a scholarship. In the course of her childhood, according to the relative, her parents divorced, remarried, then divorced again. Her father moved to Las Vegas in 1999.
The same year, when Krug was a junior, she was clamoring to graduate early and get out of Overland Park. “She would say it was too conservative for her and she hated all the traditions . . . of the school,” says her friend from the debate team.’
‘When Krug had vanished from home after high school, she’d enrolled at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and still identified as white. But midway through her degree, a college friend remembers, she decided to follow a boyfriend out west and finish undergrad at Portland State. There, halfway across the country, she appears to have launched her transformation, occasionally slipping into conversation that she was Black. By the time she arrived in Wisconsin to get her master’s and PhD, she was fully inhabiting the lie.
On the day she met Krug in downtown Madison, Julia felt a bit bewildered by the conversation. But she decided her Black classmate could just be exceptionally light-skinned. The two became friends, to a point. “The minute we would try to deepen our friendship,” Julia says, “she would just say or do something very off-putting about my own class position or my own Blackness.” For example, at that time Krug was telling people she came from “the ghetto” of Kansas City, went to mostly Black schools, and had been conceived when her Black mom, an abusive drug addict, was raped by her white dad. She lorded this tough upbringing over her friends, Julia says, as evidence that she was authentically Black, while calling Julia, who grew up middle class, “bougie.”’
‘As she worked toward her PhD, Krug hobnobbed with some of the top scholars of African history and landed impressive fellowships. She often went to do research in New York, where she would hang out with another prominent student in her field, Akissi Britton.
Britton was surprised when Krug, with her sandy-hued buzzcut, identified herself as Black. Her explanations of her background were inconsistent, too. Once, over a meal with Britton and Britton’s then husband, Krug said she came from the Tuareg people, a seminomadic group in North Africa. “My ex-husband, though, he lived and studied on the Continent for a few years, so he was very familiar with the Tuareg, and he had questions,” says Britton. Krug struggled to supply answers. She never brought up the Tuareg to Britton again.
After that, Krug implied she was African American. “We heard about her being at her grandmother’s house with her other cousins,” says Britton, who is now a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers. “Her growing up around other Black people and how she was the only one that looked like her.”’
‘Krug didn’t talk about her own race in front of the audience that day. But once she was hired, says Erin Chapman, one of a small number of Black faculty members at GW, Krug made her colleagues aware that she identified as Black and Puerto Rican, or Afro-Latina. Happy to have another woman of color in the history department, Chapman says she befriended Krug. They went out dancing and to karaoke, and they’d grab lunch and drinks together, sometimes chatting about the challenges of dating as high-achieving Black women. Krug had an apartment in Bloomingdale but said she hated DC. “[She’d say] the city is not diverse enough—New York is so much more dynamic,” says Chapman. “The men in DC were too conservative.”
Krug’s story about her difficult childhood had changed: She had now abandoned all ties to Kansas. Instead, she was telling people she’d been raised in the Bronx.
Once again, Krug found a sympathetic ear. But Chapman realized she couldn’t maintain the friendship out of pity alone, given the way Krug frequently tried to shame her. “I’m fairly light-skinned . . . so Jess wanted to know if I had issues with my coloring and identifying as Black,” Chapman says. When she told Krug she had put those insecurities to rest when she was much younger, Krug recoiled. “Basically,” says Chapman, “[she] felt like that indicated that I was somehow trying to be white.” She says Krug would make insulting comments—for instance, if Chapman chose to sit in the shade, Krug would accuse her of not wanting to get too dark.’
‘Some of Krug’s students despised her for how harshly she graded. Others found her refreshingly different. She showed up for class in tight tops and dresses, leather leggings, and heels. Her wavy hair was artificially black, she wore a ring in her nose, and she sometimes slipped into Spanglish. She spoke frequently about her Puerto Rican heritage and her devotion to the Bronx. Krug encouraged her students to inject their personal stories into class, too. “She was just very relatable,” says Léocadia Tchouaffé, who took Krug’s world-history course. “She helped me embrace my Cameroonian heritage. It was the first time, really, that I was learning about my history in an academic setting.”’
‘Even the guys who swiped right were flattened by Jess La Bombalera. A 30-year-old musician named Ken Pazn told the Daily Mail that his Tinder date with Krug was such a disaster that he gave up on the app. After Krug refused to go to any “gentrifier spots,” the pair settled on a walk. “It was all F whites, F the police, F capitalism, all of that stuff,” Pazn, who is Afro-Latino, told the paper. “I feared she was ready to fistfight me if I challenged any of her views. I would have liked some physical action—but not that kind.”’
‘Before her downfall, Krug was a rising star in her field, one of two experts in the world on a little-known region of Angola. Her scholarly contributions were never in question. Why, then, did she construct this alternate universe when there was arguably so little to gain? In her online confession, she hinted at one possible reason: “mental health issues” connected to “abuse within . . . my birth family,” she wrote. “Professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that this is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years.” She didn’t elaborate (and didn’t respond to requests for an interview).’
‘For students who found a safe space in Krug’s classroom, the violation was profound. Besides trafficking in some of the worst stereotypes of the cultures she claimed, Krug had spoken for years from a perspective that did not belong to her. “From her, I got a sense of authority,” says Sally Kim, who studied the Haitian revolution in Krug’s world-history course. “If she’d taught it as a white woman, I think I would’ve taken it with a grain of salt.” The debacle has sparked an examination of the history department. Chair Daniel Schwartz says he has assembled a committee to work on diversifying the faculty and making coursework more inclusive. The five-person committee doesn’t have any Black members. A spokesperson for GW would not comment on whether diversity was a factor in Krug’s hiring. But one thing driving much of the outrage over her deception is that she undoubtedly consumed space and resources that otherwise could have been allocated to an actual person of color. That notion is especially infuriating in academia, where just 6 percent of full-time faculty are Black, according to the Department of Education.’
‘Since her confession, Krug has all but vanished again. The last public photos of her that you can find—paparazzi shots in the Daily Mail—appeared a couple of days after she outed herself. They show Krug trudging up the stairwell of her apartment building, her hair disheveled, dark aviators covering her eyes. Five months later, she hasn’t been heard from.
“I have not lived a double life. There is no parallel form of my adulthood connected to white people or a white community or an alternative white identity,” she wrote on Medium. “I have lived this lie, fully, completely, with no exit plan or strategy.”’
Read the article here.
Mental issues might have played an important role. How can you live a lie so fully, so completely without certain mental issues?
But I’m not so sure there was nothing to gain from this reinvention, there is at least a hint, and probably more than that, of upward social mobility. Interestingly enough two centuries ago a Jewish man or woman in Europe would have converted to Protestantism or would have pretended to be Protestant in order to climb the societal ladder. Nothing wrong with upward social mobility.
But in certain parts of contemporary America you pretend to be Afro-Latina for tenure and other perks. (Needless to say, outside the very limited and small world of academia to be Afro-Latina is probably mainly disadvantageous.)
I have always felt sympathy for most conmen. If you can switch gender, switch passports, switch religion why not switch this thing what’s in America called ‘race’? (Always when I read the word race, I’m reminded of the Nuremberg racial laws).
On a lighter note, this article also proves that cliché is matter of perspective.
It’s all a comedy, except for the impostor herself.