THE most impressive trick of great storytelling is to make us want to know what happens even when we know what happens. The guilt of Amanda Riley is known before the first minute of Charlie Webster’s seven-hour, eight-episode podcast.
Scamanda (available on all podcast platforms; final episode released on Monday of last week) is the story of how a charismatic young Californian woman defrauded her friends and supporters of thousands of dollars under the pretence that she was suffering from cancer. She was finally brought to justice in 2021, and is now serving a prison sentence.
It is not whether she did it which fascinates, but the how and the why. Riley was undoubtedly a virtuoso fraudster: charming, vulnerable, open. Banking on the old wisdom about lying, Riley did not tell small lies: she told whoppers. She went into intricate detail on her frequent and widely followed blog posts, and enjoyed the kind of celebrity status which bestows backstage passes and VIP seats at sports stadiums.
At one point, she was giving endorsements for energy shakes, and one wonders what great things she might have achieved had she turned her talents to good rather than evil. Her style played so effectively at the local church that the pastor and congregation went all in #teamamanda and provided the majority of her benefactions.
Her fictional cancer journey was one of multiple remissions and relapses; and Webster’s narrative deserves plaudits, not least for keeping us listening over repetitive episodes of duplicity. Although this is a retrospective documentary, the material is related in such a way that we get no hint of hindsight. Those interviewed stick to the facts as they saw them at the time, and never interpolate phrases such as “Had I known then what I know now. . .” Nor does the presenter cut in to reveal what her villain was really thinking and doing at any given moment.
This is not an easy narrative strategy to maintain, and halfway into the series we find that there are, in fact, a clutch of people who had Riley down as a bad’un from the outset. The problem is that nobody wants to doubt the authenticity of a medical diagnosis, especially when it involves cancer; and, even if they did, investigation is hampered by rules on medical disclosure.
In the end, it was the Internal Revenue Service that did for Riley, thus reinforcing the lesson, learned also by Al Capone, that you cannot escape the US tax system. Other than the villain’s monumental chutzpah, the lasting impression is one of distaste for a particular style of charitable campaign: #teamamanda became a vast branding exercise, attracting people to the cause as much by its public status and success as by the apparent tragedy and vulnerability that were its notional motivations.
Had Riley actually suffered from cancer, would that be enough to justify that whole #teamamanda industry?