By Barbara Hardinghaus
An episode of Germany’s top crime show recently highlighted a secretive business: helping clients create and maintain lies. Now one such agency is struggling to keep up with the demand.
For his best clients, Patrick Ulmer says he goes out and arranges the lie personally. In one instance, he got into his car and drove south to Cologne, where he rang the doorbell at an apartment.
The door opened to reveal his client. The client’s clothing was scattered around the apartment. His cologne and even the cloths he used to clean his glasses were there. The refrigerator contained his favorite foods, from chocolate pudding to melons. All the signs suggested that this was where the client lived.
But appearances can be deceiving. The truth is that this man leads a double life and doesn’t want his wife to know.
The client told his wife his work requires him to be in Cologne during the week. Because she occasionally wants to visit her husband there, Ulmer rented this apartment for him, filling it with the man’s belongings to lay a false trail. He even drops by, presenting himself as a colleague from work, when the man’s wife is visiting. During his visit, he asks innocently where the bathroom is, as if he didn’t already know.
The Business of Lies
Ulmer laughs when talking about it. He finds stories like this one amusing. Sitting in a café called Garbs am Markt, in Weyhe, near Bremen, he lights a cigarillo. The 28-year-old is a tall, rotund man who doesn’t seem to find anything about his job disturbing. And perhaps he has no reason to.
Ulmer runs an agency that specializes in fabrications. His clients can purchase lies both small and large, from a text message to get them out of a tight spot to an entire package of assistance in managing a complicated double life. Ulmer considers this an ordinary service, much the same as driving a taxi. His clients include men and women in equal measure. Most of them come from southern Germany or Austria, more conservative regions where there is apparently a great need for keeping secrets.
Leaving his client’s Cologne apartment, Ulmer offered a cheery goodbye. “The colleague thing makes it especially believable,” Ulmer says. His home visit is part of the package.
Ulmer’s client paid for 12 months up front at the start of the year, a flat-rate, all-inclusive price for which Ulmer organizes the man’s double life. The truth is that this man doesn’t work in Cologne at all. Cologne is his alibi.
In reality, he works in Switzerland. He also lives in Switzerland, with his wife, the one who sometimes visits him in Cologne. But he also has a second wife and a second child in a different Swiss city. He doesn’t want either family to learn of the other’s existence, so he tells one he’s working in Cologne when he wants to visit the other.
Ulmer also set up a telephone number with a Cologne area code for his Swiss client. The client can call both his wives from this number and both of them can also reach him — their calls are routed, via the Internet, to his cell phone. And when one of the women expresses a desire to visit her husband in Cologne, he moves into his alibi apartment there for a few days.
“All the client has to do is open the door, everything else is done,” Ulmer says. The price of such an alibi varies according to the amount of work it requires, but falls in the four-figure euro range. Ulmer’s other services come at a set price. A text message costs €9 ($12), while an address and accompanying mail service is €59 a month. Booking a vacation costs €89. An invitation is €69, or €99 if the person issuing the invitation should also be reachable by phone.
Ulmer also recently added a “car service” to his offerings, in which he racks up the mileage on a client’s car. This is useful, for example, for someone who lives in Stuttgart and claims he has to travel regularly to the Ruhr region for work, but in fact only goes as far as Mannheim to visit a lover there.
Ulmer has been running his agency for five years, but business only recently took off after the German broadcaster ARD aired an episode of the popular crime series “Tatort” that featured an alibi agency and a man with two families.
Frank Koopmann, one of the two screenwriters of the “Tatort” episode, was 22 when he found out that his father had a second family, including a daughter. His father described how difficult it had been to keep his other family a secret, such as the time when he accidentally left his wallet in a telephone booth in a city where he had no reason to be. Wondering how people these days deal with similar problems, the “Tatort” writer did a Google search for companies specializing in such cases.
Dreams of Making It
There are just three such alibi agencies in Germany, none as professional as the fictional one featured on “Tatort.” Since that episode aired, though, people now know that such a thing as lies for hire really does exist, and that purchasing such a service is an option.
Once again, Ulmer has worked through the night to keep up with the many requests he receives. He does everything himself, serving as director, webmaster, layout designer and head of marketing. He works from home, under a sloping attic roof that grows hot in the summer.
The agency on “Tatort” operated out of a large, bright office, with a boss who wore elegant suits and directed beautiful secretaries and a host of other employees. That’s where Ulmer wants to end up.
Ulmer’s father worked as a scaffolder and his mother worked in retail. He spent most of his time on his computer and rarely left his room. He started training to be a pastry chef, but quit before he had finished the program. He has worked for a butcher, in dry wall construction, in a warehouse and at a call center. He never completed a degree, but he met a lot of people over the course of those years and he studied their behavior.
Ulmer came to understand that many lives don’t run a straight course. Some wind up in dead ends, others in labyrinths. He himself stumbled into a marriage and then met his second wife by chance online. He and his second wife now live together with two children in a rowhouse with a wading pool in the backyard.
Giving People ‘Freedom’
From the café in Weyhe, Ulmer gazes out at a large parking lot, where families are packing groceries into their cars. “Believe me,” he says, “there’s nothing that doesn’t exist somewhere.”
Ulmer believes he’s making the world better in his role as a liar for hire. As he sees it, the people who book his services are the liars, not him. He is simply the one who organizes things, a specialist in tangled lives.
Liars, scientists say, are not prepared to accept the truth. The people most likely to have affairs are those with low self-confidence. And often it is people with high incomes who tell lies, people who can afford to buy anything, but feel no internal security — people who can’t stand to see their dreams not come true.
“I give people the freedom they need,” Ulmer says. He created business cards and a letterhead for an unemployed man who wanted to create the impression that he still had a job. Ulmer sent a retiree, who wanted to travel without his wife, an invitation to a fictional IT seminar.
People need lies, psychologists say, when desires and reality diverge. For example, last year about 3.5 million Germans a month went online to look for “erotic contacts.” Such “casual dating” is all about “fulfilling intimate fantasies. Love and sex are kept strictly separate,” promises one such website.
“If we can control our secrets, making sure they occupy the place we want them to, then our lives can seem manageable,” writes American psychologist Gail Saltz. “But when our secrets start to control us — and far too often they do — then a normal life clicks over into something else: a secret life.” Feelings of guilt develop, sometimes even making the person sick. Typical symptoms include stomach problems, breathing difficulties and heart trouble.
Famous Second Lives
A year and a half a go, a supermarket manager in England killed himself after it came to light that for 21 years he had maintained a second family just a 20 minutes’ drive away. On Long Island, in the US state of New York, a doctor’s biggest secret emerged when he was in car accident and his two girlfriends ran into each other in the hospital emergency room. Not until long after his death did it come out that the pilot Charles Lindbergh had, in addition to his family in the US, a second life in Germany. François Mitterrand, former president of France, had his official family but also a mistress and a secret daughter, Mazarine Marie, who wasn’t allowed to call her father “papa” when they went out to restaurants or on outings together.
There are advantages to telling lies. Doing so gives the liar a feeling of being in control of his or her complicated life. And telling a lie means not having to entirely deny the normal degree of ambivalence that everyone feels. In this sense, Ulmer is right when he says he’s doing something good.
“Here,” Ulmer says, laying a piece of paper on the café table. The subject line reads, “Alibi request.” The client is a married man who also had a girlfriend, but is no longer with her. That former girlfriend is now in a relationship with one of the client’s colleagues. The client can’t stand seeing the two of them together at the office and wants to break them up.
He believes his colleague is quick to jealousy and looking for a stable relationship. He also believes the girlfriend is looking for adventure. The client called Ulmer, asking for someone to call his former girlfriend and propose an orgy. The client feels certain that his ex would be interested, and that throwing out this bait would compromise her current relationship with his colleague.
“Target: R., current lover, still married, quiet but arrogant, tendency to jealousy,” reads the paper. “Goal: to draw him out.” Ulmer sends this assignment to Munich, to one of his 43 freelancers.
An Actor for Hire
The freelancer in question is waiting in a beer garden, with a beer-and-lemonade mixture in front of him. His name is Florian, and he is an actor by trade. He spent the morning rehearsing for his role as the soldier Beckmann in a production of “The Man Outside.” In a moment he will call the target and propose an evening of group sex.
It’s a sunny afternoon and Florian is wearing a black T-shirt. His thumbs are stained yellow from smoking. He had a position at Munich’s National Theater until last October. At first he was just curious when he came across an ad for Ulmer’s agency on eBay.
He takes out a cell phone, checks to make sure it is set to block his number and takes a deep breath. But when he calls, someone other than the intended target answers, and says the man Florian is trying to reach isn’t there and won’t be back for an hour.
Florian says he’s learned a lot from this job about the things people have to put up with. One time, his task was to accompany a lesbian to a company party. He says that at first he thought, “Why don’t you just tell them you’re not into guys?” But as he walked to the salad bar hand in hand with the client, past a horde of testosterone-driven men, he found himself understanding why the woman didn’t want to come out to this group. He has learned that lies can protect people.
He calls the target’s phone number again. “Hello,” he says. “I ran into Martina recently, at a hotel, and it occurred to me that we could…” But then he breaks off. “Damn, he hung up.”
‘What about morality?’
The next weekend, standing at Gate C 08 at Hamburg Airport, Ulmer says that failing sometimes is simply part and parcel of intruding on strangers’ lives. Today, Ulmer is flying to Vienna to meet with a woman working for his company’s new Austrian branch. He rarely flies and he’s nervous. Onboard, he videos the takeoff with his iPhone, then takes pictures of the flight data, the plane’s elevation and speed. Perhaps he’ll show these pictures to his wife later, to set her mind at ease. She’s taking the children to the playground alone today, something the family usually does together every Sunday. Ulmer says his family’s well-being is very important to him.
He meets with his new employee at a Starbucks in downtown Vienna. Both of them order coffee with ice cream, then settle down to talk shop. “You should always give the client the impression that anything is possible,” Ulmer says. “You need to find a solution right there during that first conversation. You need to be unscrupulous.”
His employee is silent for a bit. Previously, she worked at a wholesaler, selling lamps, and she has three children. She pokes holes in the whipped cream on her ice cream with her straw, then asks, “What about morality? What if we’re destroying families?”
“We aren’t destroying them, we’re maintaining them,” Ulmer says.
They sit there quite a while longer, haggling over the price of “morality.” In the past, she says, people kept their secrets locked away in a box. These days, that box is the Internet. People find advice there, friends, lovers, sex. People don’t need anyone anymore — they have their computer, their iPad or their cell phone. But what is morally defensible?
Avoidance of Reality
Not far from Vienna, Peter Stiegnitz walks into a health resort in the small Austrian city of Bad Vöslau. He is 76, a dapper gentleman, a psychologist with his own practice in Vienna. For the last 30 years, he has concerned himself with the dividing line between justifiable lies and those that are not.
Stiegnitz is married and his wife is currently undergoing treatment in Bad Vöslau. He has accompanied her here. “Look,” he says, “a lie is nothing more than an avoidance of reality.” And that avoidance, he adds, can sometimes do us good.
Stiegnitz researched why people lie and found that about 40 percent lie to spare themselves trouble or punishment, about 14 percent lie to be polite and avoid insulting someone, and 6 percent do it out of laziness. He also found that older women in particular also lie to be loved.
He says women blush when they lie, stare at their conversation partner and are quick to change the subject. Women lie somewhat less often than men, because they are better at coming to terms with reality. Men become agitated when they lie, cross their legs, scratch themselves and sweat.
Being Honest about Lies
What would happen if people didn’t lie anymore? “Then this planet would end up completely deserted. There would be 100 wars,” Stiegnitz says. “Truth fanatics lie to themselves,” he adds, saying that in claiming to know the truth, such people are actually running away from reality. Stiegnitz advises, “Let us be honest about our lies!”
Why, then, does lying have such a bad image? “Lying has limits,” Stiegnitz says, and not all people abide by them. “The limit comes when I cause harm to myself or someone else with my lies.”
As in the case of an affair? “Oh,” he sighs, “if it doesn’t become an ongoing relationship, that’s not overstepping the line.”
A double life, then? “People who lead a double life feel powerful for a while, they’re flying. But no one can keep that up very long. No person has two lives in them.”
What about an alibi agency? “Well, that says something about our condition,” Stiegnitz says. “When we lived in a hierarchical society — with family, church, job — we had less freedom, but we also didn’t have to learn how to handle freedom. Now, we no longer know where we stand. And what do we do? We flee further into freedom.”
In closing, Professor Stiegnitz offers a piece of advice meant to protect people: “Never love too much!”
A Woman’s Double Life
Is this truly all that the clients in Ulmer’s files are doing, then, protecting themselves?
What are we to think, then, of a client of Ulmer’s who has been leading a double life for the past couple of years? This woman, let’s say, comes from the western German city of Bielefeld. Let’s also say her name is Sarah. She chose to travel to Hamburg for this conversation. When she walks in the door of a bar called “Schönes Leben,” which translates to “Wonderful Life,” nothing seems particularly unusual about her, a doe-eyed, cool-looking woman in her mid-40s. She answers every question, but doesn’t want all of her answers to appear in print. She doesn’t want too much information revealed — not when her double life is running so smoothly.
Man number one is a manager from southern Germany, divorced, with a house and children, a freedom-loving guy who enjoys the good things in life. Man number two is a police officer, down-to-earth and funny, who likes bread and butter and is right now waiting at a hotel for Sarah to return. Man number one sent her flowers the day before, with a card wishing her a good time on her “little trip.” She has a long-distance relationship with man number one. Man number two lives very close to her.
She spends a couple of days with one man, then a couple of days with the other. She generally takes her vacations with friends or with man number one, because man number two doesn’t like to fly. She celebrates her birthday with friends and Christmas with her mother. And when she finds herself in a tight spot, with both men wanting to see her, she decides at the spur of the moment which man to see and asks Patrick Ulmer to call the other one. Ulmer or one of his assistants then plays the role of Sarah’s supervising officer, telling the man in question that Sarah, who often travels for work, was urgently needed at the last minute for a project and is already on the plane. Sarah pays the agency €2,000 a year to organize this life. Even her wardrobe is neatly divided between elegant skirts and heels for man number one, jeans and sneakers for man number two.
Who knows about her double life? “Two friends.”
What precautions does she take? “My cell phone is password-protected, and I take it with me into the bathroom when I shower.”
With which man does she have more fun? “Man number two.”
In whose arms would she rather be lying? “Man number one.”
Sex? “Not much with either of them.”
Guilty conscience? “I block it out.”
Why is she doing this at all? “Because I’m so happy. I love man number one, and one of the things he loves about me is how free I am.”
She doesn’t worry about losing him? “No, I do. I worry something will happen to me while I’m out somewhere with man number two and I’ll end up in the hospital. I know both of them would want to visit me.”
Does she think about ending this? “I think about it sometimes, but then I go on with it.”
Honest within Limits
Sarah talks calmly and laughs here and there as she tells her story. She is clearly at home in this life. She feels independent and wanted. She’s grown used to gazing into the eyes of both men, waking up next to both of them, telling both of them, “I miss you.”
Earlier, when she was at the hotel, she says, man number one wrote and asked, “Nice hotel?” She answered, “Riverside.” As she got in the elevator, she realized that hadn’t been particularly smart. Man number one might try to reach her on her cell phone or even on the room phone, in which case under no circumstances could she let man number two, who came with her here to Hamburg, pick up the phone. But she found a simple solution: “I went to the reception and asked them not to put any calls through.”
Sarah says she tries to lie as little as possible, so there’s less to keep track of. She wants to be honest within the existing limits. As for the bigger lies, the ones that are too much work, she lets the agency take care of them. Lying is exhausting.
Sarah, too, is not entirely able to say where the line between good and bad lies falls. Perhaps the limit comes when people who love each other cause each other harm. Or is it no longer love as soon as you hurt the other person?
Or are people happier not knowing some things? Does happiness come from truth, from knowing everything?
Active Versus Passive
Couples therapist Andrea Bräu talks not about people being “victims” and “perpetrators,” but rather of them being “active” or “passive.” In the case of a double life, she says, everyone involved suffers — including the active party, who at some point is no longer able to please everyone, least of all him or herself. Bräu knows that two out of three couples won’t survive a long-term affair, because in the course of the arguments and discussions that follow its revelation, they learn their relationship isn’t as stable as they thought. Often, Bräu says, it is not so much the affair itself that is so hurtful, it is the tangle of lies that destroys trust.
In his attic office in his family’s rowhouse, Ulmer is at his computer. He’s having problems with his website, but he’s also already working on his next client’s alibi. A man wants to travel to the Philippines for two weeks without his wife, so Ulmer is preparing an invitation for him to a course on “burnout prevention” in northern Germany.
Typing away, Ulmer sets out arrival and departure dates and times, a telephone number and a note that course costs will be covered by the participant’s employer. He also encloses a flyer from the clinic offering the course. The clinic is in on the plan and its reception has been informed, just in case the man’s wife calls. For this assistance, Ulmer says, the clinic receives “a small fee.”
Outside, Ulmer’s wife and children are playing with a ball in the backyard, then they have ice cream. On the trip to Vienna, Ulmer related in passing that his wife also once had an affair. He says it took him a year and a half to come to terms with that. In fact, he says, it sometimes still haunts him.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein