If you’ve seen Netflix’s Inventing Anna, you’ll already know that Rachel DeLoache Williams was conned out of thousands of dollars by her former friend and ‘fake heiress’ Anna Delvey. Here, she details the experience – and what she makes of her character’s brutal depiction…
Back in February, Netflix show Inventing Anna obliterated the ratings charts, clocking up the most viewing hours for an English language Netflix series in a single week. Produced by Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, Inventing Anna is based on the larger-than-life true story of Anna Sorokin, played by Julia Garner.
The series follows Sorokin posing as rich German heiress Anna Delvey, who successfully conned friends, hotels, banks and investors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars before being arrested and convicted of fraud and grand larceny (true story). Rachel DeLoache Williams appears (or at least her character does, played by Katie Lowes) as one of Sorokin’s real-life victims – a former friend of Sorokin’s who lost around £45,000 and testified against her at her 2019 trial (again, all true).
But it’s the show’s subtle merging of fact with fiction, along with its damning depiction of Williams’ character (portraying the former Vanity Fair photography editor as shallow, unkind and opportunistic) that seems to be prompting a long-overdue discussion around the ethics of storytelling. Here, Williams, whose book My Friend Anna details the experience, shares her thoughts.
Your version of events – as told in your book – clearly differs from the storyline in the show. How has that felt?
I think the best word is surreal. It’s definitely overwhelming. I’m immensely relieved I had the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened through the book, especially in light of Inventing Anna, since it diverged so much from the truth of events. It’s really created a fictional show with little morsels of truth in it that is very deceptive and misleading.
The show, like you say, combines fact with fiction that – when using real people’s stories like your own – can prove problematic. Is that something that you’ve found difficult?
Yeah. I think first of all, it strikes me as lazy because there’s this categorical disclaimer as if that gives them licence to do whatever they want. But if you’re going to use people’s real names and details, you can’t just choose your own adventure. Something real happened here, and if you’re going to cover that, you have to change names or identifying features. I appreciate people giving voice to it because when it comes from me, it’s easy to dismiss it as words of some ‘bitter ex-friend’. I’m not interested in talking about this anymore or in Anna as a person – I’d love to move on. But having been through it first hand, I see something troubling around the experience of being conned. That’s why I’m speaking up. I think the way this show straddles documentary and pure fiction is confusing for viewers who don’t care to actually do the research.
What are the ramifications, do you think?
It’s very reckless, the way not just my story was told, but even the narrative of Anna – giving her this background that gives her empathy or pity. It’s reckless to create backstories for characters that are fictional in a way that changes the truth of who they are. Of course entertainment is valid and stories need to be told. But I think this show does it in a way that’s very irresponsible. Even the journalist, Vivian [Kent, played by Anna Chlumsky] told a story that she had nothing to do with first hand, and I believe this definitely has an exploitative effect on the real life people involved. Not just me, but everyone. It creates a narrative that diverges from the truth and has ramifications on the people it’s based on.
It makes you wonder how we can tell true stories in an ethical way – is it even possible?
I don’t have answers, but I do definitely think we can sit back and say, ‘This merits discussion.’ The show has taken, for example, my full name, my place of employment, even where I went to college. And when you use details like that, there are certain facts that need to be honoured. For example, the fact that I never defrauded my company where I worked – I was never investigated or suspended, none of that actually happened. And that crosses a line, I feel. I have more questions than answers, but [the show] changed the timeline of events, for example, to have it look as though I was protected by my credit card company before the trial took place. Whereas I wasn’t protected by Amex until two years after Marrakesh, after the trial concluded. Maybe there are some degrees of truth that can be subjective, but when it comes to facts, you can’t just rearrange them.
The anger directed at your character’s decision to pursue Anna legally was uncomfortable viewing in the show – personally, I couldn’t understand it. Was that hard to swallow?
Thank you for saying that because of course the money was huge, but beyond that, this is a person who’s a criminal. I was a friend, so if she was doing it to me, I knew she would do it to anybody. This was clearly a pattern of behaviour and a problem I couldn’t see stopping. This was also a friend I’d known for a year – we were close friends for a few months. One of the takeaways from this for me has been you have to know when to walk away. I wish I’d known before Marrakesh, but obviously I didn’t and I learned the hard way. To fault me for having fallen for it while everyone else is still buying into it, is a is a real irony around the way the whole show fails. To have everybody, including the journalist, ‘celebrating’ Anna like, ‘How did she do it?’ but it be too tidy and convenient for my character to have liked her for those same reasons? It’s just not a good story.
Having to keep talking about this – and defending yourself – because of the story’s notoriety must be difficult. How do you navigate that?
I understand what gaslighting is – I’ve been through it. This is a different level. But that’s why I am talking about it. Personally, I have moved on. I get a lot of trolls who are like, ‘Just let it go,’ but this isn’t about me or Anna. This is about is about a vehicle for storytelling that is doing an injustice not just to me, but anybody who’s ever gone through a relationship with a narcissist, sociopath or someone who commits abusive, manipulative behaviour. So I think to have a company like Netflix engage in this kind of victim-blaming and celebration of a criminal – as well as paying a criminal [Delvey was paid £230,000 as a consultant for the Netflix show] creates a really dangerous precedent and something I think as a society we should look at carefully.
What have you learned from the experience?
My biggest takeaway is around my friendship with Anna before Marrakesh. She was just this fun, bold person I knew in the city – I didn’t think I was risking anything [being friends with her]. She wasn’t my best friend – it wasn’t that deep, our friendship. She was just someone I liked to spend time with. She was funny, she’s audacious. A lot of the same things I think pull viewers into her character now are the same reasons I became friends with her – it didn’t seem high stakes. But what I didn’t realise is that your attention in itself is an investment, and giving her my time and attention meant being influenced by her in ways I didn’t realise. When you’re paying attention to one thing, you’re not paying attention to something else. She was rude, she was entitled – there are a lot of things about her then that I rationalised, dismissed or chose to give her the benefit of the doubt over. In ways that felt small, but they added up to her having power over me.
So we should value what we pay attention to more?
Yeah, I think we should really understand that attention – especially when there’s so many things competing for it – it has a value. We need to understand there’s an expense we don’t always anticipate. I would never say, ‘Don’t watch the Netflix show’ because whether you love it or hate it, the fact that we’re all looking at it is what drives Netflix to make more content of this sort. It’s paid this criminal and it’s incentivising people who would do what Anna did to achieve some kind of infamy. There’s a lot of under the surface activity happening just because we’re looking. I guess that’s my point – I wouldn’t say ‘don’t do it’ – you can’t tell someone not to eat junk food. It’s easy, it’s there, it’s fine. But be aware of the cost.
It feels like there’s a real appetite for shows about con artists and fraud at the moment, and with that comes the inevitable victim-blaming. Have you spoken to any other victims of fraud about your experience?
I think the experience of having been tricked or manipulated is more common than we realise or care to admit. I’ve been contacted by so many people who say, ‘I just want to say I’m sorry that this has been presented this way, they’ve got it wrong.’ That’s reassuring, but it’s something I’ve long been aware of. It’s partly why I wrote the book – as a cautionary tale, but also to help other people know they’re not alone. It’s not unnatural to believe people; it’s unnatural to do what someone like Anna did, where you manipulate people’s human impulses and human empathy. So I think for people to question how somebody falls for it is looking at the wrong thing – it’s what makes somebody do this.
I imagine a large part of you was waiting for a personal admission of guilt or apology from Anna that never really arrived. Was there ever a point you remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to get what I need here’?
It’s a good question. It’s not like I’ve been waiting for her to say like, ‘Yes, I did it and I’m sorry,’ because I’d pleaded with her for three months to understand the position she’d put me in, for her to understand the magnitude of what that meant. You search for the emotional connection, for recognition of ‘Yeah, I’ve done this, and I feel for what you’re experiencing’ but there was no connection there. She really couldn’t understand or take responsibility. She just kept saying, ‘Well, my life is falling apart too’. It breaks your brain a little because you’re like, ‘How can you not see the difference between your life falling apart and what you’ve done to my life?’ But that’s how gaslighting works; it constantly turns something upside down in a way that is confounding. So over the course of three months, I realised she just doesn’t have that chip that would allow her to ‘get’ it.
What happened with Anna has taken your life in a completely unexpected direction. Could there ever be a part of you, do you think, that might one day be thankful for the way things turned out?
I will never be thankful that this happened, no. I reserve my gratitude for the support systems and communities around me that deserve it and helped me through it. I am definitely the same person I was before but I’ve also grown up – I was in my late 20s when it happened and now I’m in my mid-30s. It’s that time of life when you become more ‘yourself’. Yes, it’s partially a result of this experience, absolutely. I’m much quicker to say no to things, to set boundaries and to be careful how and with who I spend my time. But a lot of that has to do with having written a book and doing the work of looking at what happened and asking myself: ‘What can I learn from this?’ That’s how I am OK, that’s how I got stronger and found ways to channel something negative into something positive. But not for a second do I ever thank Anna for that. I am not where I am today on account of her, that’s for sure.
My Friend Anna: The True Story Of A Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams (£8.99, Quercus) is out now
Images: Nick Rogers; Quercus; Netflix