The Romance Scammer on My Sofa

The Romance Scammer on My Sofa

A writer’s quest to find the con artist in Nigeria who duped his mother.

By Carlos Barragán

The Atavist Magazine, No. 140

Carlos Barragán is a Spanish writer. He previously reported for El Confidencial and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University, thanks to a Fundación “la Caixa” scholarship.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Kumé Pather

Published in June 2023.

Natasha Bridges blanketed the Facebook inboxes of men she didn’t know with the simplest of greetings:


Plenty of the men never replied to Natasha, but it was striking how many did. Even more striking was how quickly some of them seemed to fall for her.

Can you love an older man?

So wrote a guy named James* after just a few hours of messaging. James said that he was 56 and rode a Harley. After sending Natasha pictures of his bike, James told her, unprompted, how he would perform oral sex on her.

*Unless otherwise noted, the names of scam victims have been changed.

Other men were starry-eyed. They told Natasha that she was gorgeous, that they liked her smile and her flirtatious way of chatting, that they couldn’t wait to meet her one day. There were also sentimental types, like Brett:

I don’t know if I’ll ever be truly happy again. I think the only dream I have is if I had a special woman with me.

You know I mentioned it a couple of days ago, but I haven’t seen you for a very long time. Would you please send me a few of your pictures? I would really like to see you.

Natasha had yet to respond to Brett’s latest lovelorn message. Her silence would have been callous if she was who she said she was. But given the truth—that Natasha Bridges didn’t exist—the real cruelty might have been replying.

The person sending messages to Brett, James, and dozens of other American men was named Richard, but he preferred to be called Biggy. He was 28 and from Nigeria. The photos he used in the Facebook account where he posed as Natasha—a 32-year-old single mother from Wisconsin, interested in economic development and cryptocurrency—were pilfered from the social media of a real woman named Jennifer. He’d used other accounts to pretend to be a gym instructor, and a lonely American soldier deployed abroad.

I knew all this because Biggy was sitting on a green sofa in my hotel room in Lagos, playing the video game Pro Evolution Soccer 17 as I read the private messages he’d sent to unsuspecting foreigners on his iPhone 6. When I asked why he was ghosting Brett, Biggy, scoring yet another goal for Australia in the Asian Cup final against Japan, shrugged. “Bro, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Being a Yahoo boy is very stressful,” he said without taking his eyes off the game. “Do you find it easy to make someone fall in love with you? The hustle is the same as real life, with just one difference: You have to pretend to be another person.”

In Nigeria, Yahoo boys are online fraudsters. Their nickname comes from the email service Yahoo, which became popular in Nigeria in the 2000s, and they are descendants of the infamous 419 scammers, who, first with letters, and later in emails, promised to help strangers get rich for a nominal advance fee. (The number is a reference to a section of the Nigerian criminal code pertaining to fraud.) Biggy is a particular kind of Yahoo boy: a romance scammer who pretends to be other people online to seduce foreigners into trusting him and giving him money.

Biggy’s game is all about intimacy. He invests time in building what seems like a real relationship with his victims. He flatters them, tells them jokes, asks intimate questions. “The most important thing about being a Yahoo boy is keeping the conversation alive,” Biggy told me. “Dating is all about patience. It takes a long time before a client starts trusting you.”

Yahoo boys, I was learning, love euphemisms.

Biggy estimated that over his ten years—and counting—as a romance scammer, he’d lined his pockets with $30,000 from people he conned. People yearning for love. People like my mother.

Hi Silvia, how are you? This is Brian. We contacted each other on Tinder, I hope you are having a wonderful day. It would be a delight for me if we can get to know more about each other, and to answer your question, I was once married, but now I am single after the divorce.

I would hope to hear from you soon
warm hugs
Brian Adkins
Carmel, NY 10512 

By a lot of metrics, my mother, Silvia, is a successful woman. She opened her own dental clinic in Spain before she was 30, and over the next two decades she served some 10,000 patients. She got married and gave birth to three boys, of which I am the youngest. But her divorce from my father in 2003, when she was 44, was turbulent and costly. After the split, my brothers and I lived mostly with our mom in various rented apartments around Madrid. For a long time, her only asset was an old Citroën C1. The bulk of her income was spent on food, education, and yearly vacations with us. “Books and travel—no matter what, there’s always going to be money for that in my house,” she’d say. 

One day in December 2015, my mother’s face seemed brighter than usual. She told us at Sunday lunch that she’d met someone. They’d connected on Tinder, an app I’d encouraged her to use. The man was named Brian, and he was a handsome, divorced 52-year-old American soldier. My mother said that her feelings were real, and that Brian’s were, too.

At first my brothers and I didn’t pay any of this much attention. Jaime and Miguel were in their twenties, launching their careers. I was 19 at the time, the only one of us still living at home, but I was busy studying at university. My mother’s blossoming romance was background noise. But when she later told us that Brian was on a mission in Syria, Miguel, a pilot in the Spanish air force, scoffed. “Come on, you really believe that? It’s sketchy,” he said.

After that my mother shared updates about her new love more sparingly, and mostly with me. She showed me some of the long, passionate emails she and Brian exchanged. She’d studied English in high school but still used Google Translate to better express herself. Brian’s messages had grammatical mistakes, too—but I thought, so what?

“Sometimes I tell Brian, ‘You’re going too fast!’ ” my mother confided in me. She’d said as much in one of her messages to him:

I hope there will be many ends of the year together. I think the love of a couple is a way to go, I am sure our beginning is good and I like it. We are in different situation, my life is very comfortable, yours not, I am surrounded of friends and family, you are only with other men fed up like you. And so…and so. I understand you hang on me and in some way I appreciate it very much, but in other way it makes me feel a little bit anxious about responsibility of being what you expect of me. 

Whatever doubts she had, the joy she felt overrode them. One day she came home with two rings: one for her, and one for Brian. “He’s coming to Spain,” she said, grinning. He’d told her that he wanted to leave the military and be with her.

Now my brothers and I were officially concerned. We asked her if she’d ever had a video call with Brian; when she said no, we told her we found it shady that, apart from a few photos, she’d never even seen the guy who claimed to love her. We argued, and my mom, hurt that her sons weren’t supporting her, shut herself in her bedroom. “I’m going to talk to my boyfriend,” she said before closing the door.

In early January 2016, about five weeks after my mother first connected with Brian, Jaime sent me a message while I was studying at the library for a microeconomics exam. “Carlos, we have to do something,” he wrote. I could feel his anxiety behind the typing bubble on my phone’s screen. “This guy told mum he’s going to ship her some bars of solid gold he’d found in a terrorist stash,” Jaime continued. “It’s a scam.”

I put down my books and did something I should have done already: I googled “scams” and “American soldiers.” Dozens of results appeared. There were warnings about con artists, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, professing love to victims at warp speed, then asking for money. Some of these scammers told their targets that they could deliver gold, gems, or cash that would help them build a new life together, if only the target helped cover shipping costs or customs fees. Once the victims delivered the money, the scammers either continued stringing them along or simply vanished.

My mom was almost certainly being targeted. It didn’t make sense—I was sure that she was smarter than the people you hear about on the news who lose their life savings to online con artists. Still, realizing that it might take hard evidence to convince her that Brian wasn’t who he said he was, I did some research and found an app that could trace an email sender’s location through their IP address. Now I just needed to get into my mom’s Gmail account to pinpoint where Brian really was.

In the meantime, Jaime confronted her with the truth over lunch. My mother was confused: Brian had sent her so many emails and photos, confessed his feelings and fears. How could he not be real? “Mom, I’m sorry, but there will be no gold,” Jaime told her. “End of story.”

When I arrived home that evening, my mom was alone and upset. She wasn’t ready to let go of the fantasy—she clung to a glimmer of hope that it was all a misunderstanding. We sat on our sofa and, using the app I’d downloaded, I showed her how it could determine where an email came from. As an example, I used an email from my father, who lived in China. “You see? He sent me this email from Shanghai,” I told her. My mom then gave me her Gmail password, and I used the app to locate Brian. His emails weren’t coming from Syria; they were coming from Lagos.

My mother’s face went as white as the wall behind her. When she spoke, it was with quiet shame: “What a fool I am.”

Then, within days, she seemed to move on. She deleted most of the emails from her scammer, as well as the dating apps on her phone. “I’m done with men for a while,” she said, laughing. She kept busy at work, and a few months later was interviewed by a newspaper about her clinic. In the photo accompanying the article, she wore a uniform and a big smile. She told the reporter that she liked restoring people’s self-esteem.

Eventually my mom dated again, but never seriously. From time to time she would tell me, “I think another scammer contacted me.” She acted as if falling in love with someone who didn’t exist was funny. I remembered how, when I was a child, she taught me that each morning was a new opportunity to put the past behind you. She seemed to be living her own advice.

In February 2020, four years after learning the truth about Brian, I moved into an apartment with a friend. I was 24 by then and working as a journalist. Jaime was living in Germany, and Miguel was stationed in Badajoz, over 200 miles from Madrid. I knew that my leaving would be difficult for my mother, but then, just two weeks after I moved out, the prime minister declared an unprecedented state of emergency: Spain was one of the hardest-hit countries in the early stages of the pandemic.

During three months of mandatory lockdown, my mother became anxious and depressed, so I started violating COVID rules to stay with her three days a week. I would drive through Madrid’s deserted streets, hoping to avoid the police, mad at my brothers for not being close enough to help, mad at the world for putting me in this position, and mad at myself for being mad. My mother and I would watch the news over dinner, and she’d talk about being alone. This led to arguments. “You don’t understand what it’s like when no one needs you,” she said. Sometimes I felt like I might as well have been invisible.

I was surprised to find myself thinking about Brian, now four years gone from our lives, and wondering again why my mom never suspected him. She was capable and independent, our family’s anchor, the constant amid the ups and especially the downs, which could have put me or my brothers on a disreputable or self-destructive path. How did she become so unmoored? What had I missed? It was as if there were a mirror in my mind, and when I put my mother’s sadness and isolation in front of it, the reflection I saw was her scammer. Except of course I had no idea what Brian looked like, what his real name was, or how he plied his criminal trade.

A year and a half into the pandemic, I told my mother I wanted to go to Nigeria to find her scammer. She was in the kitchen, whipping up something to eat, and as soon as I asked the question, I worried how she would react. “If not find him,” I quickly added, “at least try to understand why he did it.”

My mother looked at me and smiled. She nodded several times. “Every time I hear John Legend’s ‘All of Me,’ I remember him,” she said. “He dedicated that song to me.”

No one has been able to quantify the precise number of romance scammers in Nigeria, but it may well be in the hundreds of thousands.

My fixer, Bukky Omoseni, was waiting for me at the Lagos airport when I arrived close to midnight in March 2022. I already knew that Bukky, whom I met through a journalism acquaintance, was skeptical that we’d be able to locate Brian. “It’s easier to find a needle in a haystack,” he told me on a phone call before I left Madrid. He was probably right. No one has been able to quantify the precise number of romance scammers in Nigeria, but it may well be in the hundreds of thousands. The only lead I had was the email address Brian had used with my mom. I sent a message to it, pretending to be her, saying that I missed him, but the email bounced.

At the very least, Bukky promised to connect me with other romance scammers, and he was true to his word from the start: He brought Biggy with him to the airport to pick me up. Biggy, whom Bukky referred to as his “assistant,” took his nickname from Biggie Smalls, and he bore a slight resemblance to his “mentor,” as he called the long-deceased rapper. “He’s the Notorious Biggie, I’m the glorious Biggy,” he joked.

With Bukky’s driver, who called himself Skulls, at the wheel, we headed to my hotel in Ikeja, on the mainland. It was a two-story building with a patio, a club, and an indoor swimming pool on the ground floor. When we got to my room, I could feel the walls shaking—the party downstairs was at its peak. A hotel waiter knocked at the door; he’d brought up a bottle of whisky and some ice. “Let’s celebrate,” Bukky said. “Carlos is here!”

Drinking quickly set things in motion. After two glasses, we went down to the club, where dozens of women were dancing, a band was playing Afrobeat songs, and men were throwing cash on the floor, making it rain. Bukky joined in with a few Yoruba singers while I sat on a couch with Biggy, who was drinking and smoking silently. I tried to start a conversation, but the music was too loud. Instead, I asked him for a cigarette, to have something to do as I watched the scene before me.

The next morning, Bukky started acting strangely. He went to the bank to deposit some money but couldn’t remember his PIN. When he got back he looked unwell, and he kept repeating a single word: September. September. September. I wondered if he was still drunk from the night before or if he’d taken drugs. Biggy calmed me down. “He’s probably sick from malaria,” he explained.

Bukky fell into a fitful sleep. He woke up periodically and apologized to me; each time, I begged him to go to a doctor, only to have him say that he was feeling better before closing his eyes again. The cycle continued for several days. (Bukky did eventually go to the hospital; his mother later said that he was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid.)

That was how I wound up spending most of my time with Biggy. When I wasn’t interviewing one of the dozen other Yahoo boys I met during my trip, we watched old Hollywood movies and replays of British soccer matches in my apartment. Biggy also became my unofficial guide to Africa’s largest city.

One morning the two of us went out for breakfast. It was a Sunday, and the streets throbbed with life. Lagosians abhor slackness; as the pidgin saying goes, I no come Lagos come count bridge (I didn’t come to Lagos to count bridges). The phrase refers to the city’s geography, which includes a coastal lagoon. As Biggy and I snaked through the stalls of vendors selling food, animals, and every ware imaginable, a spirit of entrepreneurship was palpable.

“Do you want to eat something international? Pizza? Sushi?” I asked Biggy.

“Tired already of jollof rice, man?” he replied.

“No! Love it. But maybe you want to try out something different later.”

“I’ve never tried sushi, but I don’t like Chinese food.”

“Chinese don’t eat sushi, Biggy. Japanese do.”

“Are you drunk?!” Biggy shouted over the noise of the street. “Sushi is Chinese. Everybody knows that.”

We settled on pizza.

Biggy was stout, with a carefully groomed beard and stylish outfits. That day he wore an Adidas hat and a Toronto baseball jersey. He moved around Ikeja as if he owned the place, even though, when he wasn’t crashing at my hotel, he lived more than an hour away, in a working-class neighborhood. Biggy seemed to have a sixth sense for where danger might lurk, but he betrayed no fear. He waved at everyone who made eye contact with him and spoke boastfully in his deep bass voice.

“Look,” he told me at one point, slowing his pace and grabbing my arm. He discreetly pointed to two young men with dreadlocks and fancy clothes who were climbing into a Lexus. “Those guys are into Yahoo.”

You just have to mention the words Yahoo boys to a Nigerian and watch their reaction to understand how deeply embedded scammers have become in the national conversation. A lot of people see them as young men who’ve chosen a life of crime, preying on foreigners and marring Nigeria’s reputation. “They are blinded by greed and the desire to make fast money,” Ademola Adeeko, a political writer, told me. A high-ranking police officer said that their upbringing was to blame: “It is not an issue of ‘what can the police do?’ It’s only their parents that can guide them properly.”

There’s another side to public opinion, however, one that sees Yahoo boys as young men pushed to the brink by their circumstances. Nigeria has an estimated 53.4 percent unemployment rate among 15-to-34-year-olds, and an average monthly income on par with what it was in 1980. Many people complain that the government is riddled with corruption far more serious than what the Yahoo boys are up to. “Scammers steal from foreigners, and they spend the money here,” a Lagosian musician told me. “Politicians steal from us and spend the money abroad.” One romance scammer I spoke to put it this way: “Are you going to apply for a job that will pay you 25,000 naira when a bag of rice in Nigeria is 30,000 naira? Inflation is crazy. Prices are skyrocketing. The only thing in Nigeria young people can do to survive is joining Yahoo. No office work can give you the kind of money that Yahoo will give you.”

That’s why Biggy began “hustling,” as he calls it, in 2012. He was 19 at the time. He noticed that some of his friends had nice clothes, watches, and phones. They were Yahoo boys, so he became one, too, focusing on romance cons. “I started doing it for a better life, because the country itself is fucked up,” he said. “We are brainers, not scammers. Would you be able to cook up a story and tell it to someone who has never seen you in your life and get them to send money?”

The playbook for romance scamming starts with creating, buying, or hacking a social media account to pretend to be another person, usually a white, attractive American. Biggy’s first identity was Frederick Bolten, a U.S. soldier based in Afghanistan. Biggy told me that it’s better if a fake account has existed for a while, because that helps it appear legitimate. When he created Natasha Bridges’s profile, he joined lots of American Facebook groups, prompting members to send Natasha friend requests, which in turn made it seem like she had a network. Then he left the account alone for two years before he started “bombing,” slang for sending messages to hundreds of strangers.

Think for a minute—you may have received one of these messages on Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, or any number of dating apps, asking how you’re doing or complimenting your profile pic. You may have even joked about it with your friends. Scammers know that most people won’t reply, but occasionally someone does. That person becomes a “client,” and the dance begins.

At first, Biggy wasn’t sure what to do when someone responded to him. How am I supposed to start a conversation? he remembered thinking. How can I build a relationship with this stranger? In time he decided that he had a real gift for making people fall in love with him. He was able to work in a range of emotional registers. He saw that a simple “How was your day, babe?” could mean a lot, and that making a client laugh kept them interested in a conversation. “You need to have a good sense of humor,” Biggy said. “If they crack a joke, you should also crack a joke.” On the flip side, he had to be ready to go deeper. Take his exchange, as Natasha, with a man I’ll call Bob:

B: Im battling Father Time and Mother Nature. And losing both races
N: Well you can’t run both races one has go for one
B: Which one becomes more influential?
N: Well those that make u happy
B: Hmmmm. What makes you happy?
N: Being able to handle my financial business without stress.

How long it takes to earn a client’s trust varies. “It might take a month, it might take a week, it might take two days,” said Biggy’s friend and fellow scammer Smart Billion. “All you have to do is keep talking.” What’s certain is that, once they establish a close relationship, a reason will come up to ask for money. He’ll say that he has a medical emergency or unexpected legal fees, or that he wants to get a plane ticket to meet in person. “Just don’t be a dumbass. Don’t ask for $50 after two days,” Biggy said. “That will be a red flag.”

One of Biggy’s strategies as Natasha was to ask for money for child care, so that she could visit a client for a weekend without her daughter. Mentioning money causes some victims to become suspicious and drop out of the conversation, but others are so emotionally invested that they give the scammer whatever he requests, no questions asked. They don’t care that they’ve never met the person asking for money, someone who speaks in clichés and whose messages are often filled with typos—a function, Biggy explained, of talking to so many people at once. (English is Nigeria’s official language, and many scammers are college educated.)

Some Yahoo boys are so successful, they live lavish lifestyles by Lagosian standards—hence the scammers we saw getting into the Lexus, and the young men filling fancy clubs around the city night after night, buying bottles of Moët. Visible affluence has made scammers into powerful symbols in some circles, where they inspire not shame but pride. In Nigeria’s hip-hop culture, for instance, they’re synonymous with wealth and luxury. “Yahoo Boyz” and “Am I a Yahoo Boy” are just two of the songs about con artists to rack up millions of views on YouTube.

Some musicians also paint Yahoo boys as populist heroes—modern-day Robin Hoods, taking what they need from those who have more than enough, because their country won’t provide for them. “No job for street / No pay, no way, how boys eat / … Dem no go do Yahoo if dem get choice,” raps Xbusta. In 2019, Naira Marley, a popular hip-hop artist, said publicly that Yahoo boys aren’t doing anything wrong, implying that their cons are a price the West must pay for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. His statement stirred up considerable controversy, particularly after Marley was arrested on online fraud charges. (The case is still pending.)

Biggy told me that he earned enough from hustling to cover his personal expenses as well as his parents’ rent. When I asked what his mom and dad thought about how he makes his money, Biggy bristled slightly. “It isn’t they don’t care, bro, but do you have a solution to unemployment?” he said. “If you say I should stop this hustle I’ve been doing for years, would you give me a job? That will pay me more than I’m collecting? If you can’t answer the question, then you can’t judge me.”

“For every successful Yahoo boy that makes $100,000 from a victim and buys a house,” Bukky said, “there are hundreds with a phone in the slums who get no more than a hundred dollars.”

History shows that cons beget cons and rackets evolve. The first documented 419 scam, according to Stephen Ellis’s book This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime, was staged by P. Crentsil, a former employee of the colonial government in Lagos. On December 18, 1921, he wrote a letter to a contact in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) presenting himself as “a Professor of Wonders.” The recipient, he promised, would experience the benefit of Crentsil’s magical powers—if they paid him up front.

Crentsil, however, was merely putting a twist on what, in 1898, The New York Times referred to as “one of the most successful swindles known to the police authorities.” The so-called Spanish prisoner con involved a scammer sending a letter in which they posed as someone writing on behalf of an inmate in one of Spain’s notoriously brutal prisons seeking funds to secure release; the people who received the letters, often merchants, were promised a reward for their support. As it happened, prominent individuals living in Nigeria during the colonial period were the targets of some Spanish prisoner cons; in April 1914, the Nigerian Customs and Trade Journal reprinted a letter from the British ambassador to Spain, Arthur Hardinge, who wrote, “It is considered advisable that the public in Nigeria should be warned to be upon their guard.”

Incidence of 419 fraud ramped up in the 1980s, as Nigeria’s share of the global oil market shrank and the national economy contracted. Letters purportedly written by Nigerian princes or petroleum executives were sent around the world, becoming such a problem for the country’s image that Nigerian embassies bought full-page ads in European newspapers warning readers about the too-good-to-be-true offers that might show up in their mailboxes. When the World Wide Web was born, scammers went paperless. Where previously a lot of them had worked for organized syndicates, now anyone could be their own boss—all they needed was an internet connection, which was readily available in Lagos’s proliferating cybercafes. The police sometimes raided these establishments, but with the advent of wireless internet and smartphones, there was little law enforcement could do. Not that they haven’t tried: Cops have been known to check young people’s phones for messages sent to Westerners via Facebook or dating apps. The practice led to backlash during Nigeria’s End SARS movement, a series of massive protests against police brutality, and in 2020 the government ordered law enforcement to stop.

These days, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is tasked with cracking down on scammers and anyone aiding or abetting them. Outside the commission’s headquarters, there’s a sign with the slogan “EFCC will get you, anywhere, anytime,” under a picture of a menacing-looking eagle. But the truth is that at best the EFCC is playing Whac-a-Mole. Meanwhile, foreign authorities are barely in the game: By the time victims in Western countries inform law enforcement what happened to them—if they do at all—the perpetrator is almost certainly in the wind.

There are still criminal organizations running rings of scammers in Nigeria; Biggy told me that he worked for one when he first started out, sitting in a cramped apartment and sending 20,000 spam messages a day to foreigners, hoping for a few replies. He made about $30 a month, and described it as the worst time of his life. It’s much more lucrative to go it alone, he explained, if you can pay for your own internet. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get rich right away, or ever. I remembered something Bukky told me on the phone before my trip: “For every successful Yahoo boy that makes $100,000 from a victim and buys a house in Lekki,” an upscale part of Lagos, “there are hundreds with a phone in the slums who get no more than a hundred dollars.”

Biggy told me that he often hangs out in a “crack house” on the outskirts of Lagos, where five to ten guys huddle in a room, discussing clients and doing drugs to stay awake—Yahoo boys tend to work at night because of the time difference with the United States. They swap stories about their experiences to help one another. “We grab a joint, listen to music, and share ideas,” Biggy said.

Recently, one of his friends had been scamming a 61-year-old truck driver in Florida who, after 33 years of marriage, was in the middle of a divorce. “He said his wife had sued him in court,” the friend told me. “I think she’s gonna win the case, and my client will lose his properties. That’s bad for me. I’m sad for him. I’m telling him everything will be fine, trust me, believe in God.” As for Biggy’s friend Smart Billion, he once didn’t sleep for three nights in a row because he was talking nonstop to Jennifer, a woman in Iowa. She sent him more than $500, then abruptly blocked him online.

Had he said the wrong thing? Did Jennifer get wise to his con? Smart Billion might never know, but there were Yahoo boys who, when their scams weren’t going well, turned to higher powers for help. Early one morning, Biggy, Skulls, and I drove to the working-class neighborhood of Ejigbo to meet with a practitioner of what’s known as “Yahoo plus.” The man was a juju priest who claimed to help romance scammers improve their game.

We met Gbenga in the middle of a road, and he led us to the backyard of a building through a worn metal door as a cluster of kids watched from a distance—they likely weren’t used to seeing oyinbo (white people) in the area. There were boxes holding live animals in the yard, and tires were scattered about on the dusty ground. Gbenga pulled out plastic chairs for us, then went inside the building. When he returned he was wearing orange pants, an apron, and a belt covered in small skulls. He was holding a potion made of soap and snake’s egg—one of his most in-demand products, he explained. The cost: 250,000 naira (roughly $500).

Gbenga told us that he made around 1.25 million naira ($2,500) every month selling the concoctions, many of them purchased by Yahoo boys, who then consumed them. His is a family business: “All my ancestors were herbalists, and I hope my kids do the same.” At one point during our visit, Gbenga grabbed a pot, poured liquid from a recycled bottle of Fanta into it, then mixed in a few eggs. He said that if he made this potion while looking at a picture of a Yahoo boy’s client, it would make the scammer “successful in love.” 

Drinking potions isn’t the only form of Yahoo plus. On the instruction of juju priests, young men will sleep in cemeteries, eat feces, or bark like a dog, all in the hope of improving their relationships with clients and making more money. Footage of these rituals has gone viral on social media, and even made the international news. Some scammers scoff at the stories. They think Yahoo plus is bullshit and call juju priests “the 419s of the 419s”—the scammers’ scammers.

Yahoo boys also have a word for their victims: maga, which means foolish, senseless, or gullible. One of the most popular hip-hop songs about scammers is “Maga Don Pay.” Brian, who as my trip wore on I came no closer to finding, probably used the term to describe my mom.

When I asked Smart Billion over lunch one day how he perceived his own clients, he said, “I don’t see them as fools. I see them as my helpers.” He reached for another slice of pepperoni pizza as he spoke. Biggy had bought us a huge meal: several pizzas, boxes of chicken wings, soft drinks, and ice cream. All told he’d spent around 45,000 naira ($60), more than many Nigerians’ monthly income. As we talked about clients, he posted pictures of us on Snapchat.

Data from the Federal Trade Commission suggests that Americans over 60 lose the most money to online fraud. This trend is likely true in most Western countries with a lot of scam victims. But Biggy and other Yahoo boys told me that age isn’t what makes someone fall for a romance scam—loneliness does. “It’s only a lonely person that will pay attention to you,” Biggy said. “Loneliness is the number one key to be scammed.” Exploiting it, he said, required feigning empathy. “You have to fabricate a story saying that you also are lonely,” he explained. “Because if you can’t show that you are also lonely, how can you convince your partner that you share the same problem?”

A recent Harvard study suggests that more than a third of the country feels “serious loneliness,” including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children. A deep sense of isolation has been linked to elevated blood pressure, dementia, anxiety, and paranoia. It can also affect how we reason with ourselves and interact with the world. “Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language,” author Yiyun Li has written. “That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.” It’s no mystery why the romance-scam business skyrocketed during the pandemic, when so many people found themselves cut off from normal life. According to the FTC, Americans lost $1.3 billion to romance scams in 2021, an 80 percent increase over 2020 and a sixfold jump since 2017.

Biggy said he sometimes felt like his clients’ therapist. “Their lives would be worse without me,” he claimed. Take Pamela, whom he’d been talking to for almost three years. Pamela lived in Texas, and was the mother of two daughters, one of whom had died in a car accident. She thought Biggy was an American named Christopher. At some point, despite divulging that she was on welfare, Pamela began sending money to Biggy, eventually depositing about $2,000 into accounts he directed her to. She also suggested more than once that she might commit suicide. In December 2021, Biggy replied to one such threat:

I swear to God I will help u baby
I don’t wanna lose u or let u die
I don’t know if u can open coinbase and binance baby
That’s the one going
Let’s do this fast my queen
You been out in the cold too much
I love u

A few weeks later, when Biggy wished her a happy New Year, she replied bitterly:

Who cares that it’s a new year, another year the same fucken bullshit.

Later, in January 2022, she got drunk and sent him a raft of messages:

I might not show it I smile for everyone to see but inside I’m broken nobody knows cause I don’t talk about it.

The love I feel for you will never change.

Seeing these messages was like reading someone’s diary without their permission—I felt uncomfortable, even embarrassed, knowing what Pamela had said. I asked Biggy if he ever felt the same, or if he at least worried about her. “She’s not going to kill herself,” he said. “She just craves attention.” It sounded like he was convincing himself as much as me.

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, you know?” he continued. “If I feel sorry, how I’m gonna get money?” 

If it was only about money, I asked Biggy, why was he still talking to Pamela when she hadn’t sent him any in a while and he didn’t think she would again?

“Dunno,” he said.

He told me that he knew of clients who didn’t get angry when they figured out they were being conned. “When they’re totally in love with you, when they fall fully in love with you, they don’t give a fuck if you are a scam or not,” he said. “There are some whites that know you are a scam, but they will still pay you. They will tell you, ‘I know you are a scam, but I love you.’ ” He burst out laughing at the thought.

Like everyone else, Smart Billion didn’t have a clue who Brian was, but he did have an opinion about my mom: “She was ready.”

Biggy acknowledged that he thought about quitting the Yahoo life, but not because he felt guilty for swindling his clients. “I don’t want my kids to know that their father was a scammer,” he explained. Plus, he was in love with a Nigerian woman he’d met on Facebook, and he wanted to start a family with her. (She was real, he insisted. He’d talked to her on video, and Biggy, like all my sources, said there are very few female romance scammers.) Like a lot of Yahoo boys, he also hoped to become a hip-hop musician one day. Maybe then he could stop scamming.

There are stories of Yahoo boys who left the game because of their clients. I visited one of them, a man I’ll call Bamidele, in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, near the end of my trip. It was morning when I arrived, and already stiflingly hot. I was thankful to cool off in Bamidele’s Toyota Corolla.

Bamidele said that he’d been living on his own in Abuja since he was 18. He moved there from his hometown south of the city because he wanted to be a hairdresser, and he got a job in exchange for a place to stay, which turned out to be a small shipping container. He hated it—“surviving was hard, I only ate gari for a while,” he said, referring to ground cassava root often cooked into a porridge. One day in 2018, someone took him to a house where young people scammed Americans for a criminal syndicate. He became a Yahoo boy but again made no money; payment was in the form of food and accommodation. Eventually, he got a paying job as a scammer, and he became better and better at duping his targets. He told me that he’d persuaded a Dutch client to send him $3,500, and that a woman he messaged with ended up traveling to Afghanistan, thinking that the man she’d fallen in love with was there.

Then there was Yolanda, who gave me permission to use her real name. (When I first spoke to her on the phone, she told me, “My story is like a movie.”) Bamidele found her on Instagram, where he pretended to be a white American man. They chatted for two months before Yolanda, who was from Spain, became suspicious and read up on romance scams. She wrote a message to Bamidele, translated it online into Yoruba, then sent it off.

When Bamidele read it, his face grew hot—he’d been discovered. He tried to deny the truth, but Yolanda was no fool. Normally, this was when Bamidele would block a client and turn his attention to other targets, but Yolanda surprised him by asking for a video call. He accepted, and an unlikely friendship was born. Yolanda even flew to Abuja to meet him. She started an NGO to support women and girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, and she gave Bamidele a loan. After meeting Yolanda, he stopped scamming to become an Uber driver.

Over beers and wings on a terrace overlooking Jabi Lake, I told Bamidele about my mom and Brian. Because Brian’s emails had come from a computer instead of a smartphone, my hunch was that he worked for a syndicate with the resources to provide scammers with hardware. Bamidele, who had a boyish face, chuckled at my ignorance. “It could have been anyone,” he said.

Then his tone turned serious; the sun was setting as he spoke. “You must understand that victims tell everything to their scammer. Everything!” Bamidele said, emphasizing each syllable of the word. “I’m 100 percent sure that your mother told things to her scammer that you don’t know. Things about her that you have never imagined in your life. Her ambitions, her flaws, her broken dreams. They are looking for someone that will listen to them, period.”

I resented the suggestion that someone my mother never met might know more about her than I did. But Bamidele’s words echoed something I’d heard from Smart Billion. At the end of each interview with a Yahoo boy, I’d show him messages between my mother and her scammer, hoping he might know who Brian was. “This guy is goooooood,” Smart Billion had practically crooned. Like everyone else, he didn’t have a clue who Brian was, but he did have an opinion about my mom: “She was ready.”

All my life, since I was a child, then as a wife and then as a working mother I spend my life taking care of the others and now I wish someone takes care of me.

I really want to hear your voice before year ends. I want this present from you. As I told you if you would be able to tell me by email you are going to call me I could answer it is allright. I have seen WhatsApp is not a good idea. Anyway I have written I want the time passed very quickly and to be with you as soon as possible. 

Take care of yourself. There is someone in Spain waiting for you!

Un beso, Silvia

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is holding hands with my mother as she walked me to school. I was probably seven years old; this was in the middle of my parents’ divorce. I remember my mom looking down at the ground as we walked, and I was vaguely aware that she was sad. To cheer her up I squeezed her hand, and she answered me by squeezing back. We created our own silent language with our fingers.

Perhaps because my parents’ split was messy, I felt older than other kids my age, which made for a kind of loneliness. To keep myself company, I made up stories. I also spent countless hours in front of my PlayStation, pausing between games or levels to look through the window and wonder if the world outside was getting away from me. I don’t remember feeling particularly sad, just empty, like a shoebox without shoes in it.

At one point, my mom entered a romantic relationship that lasted several years. Rather than be happy for her, my brothers and I were mostly annoyed. Where’s mum? Who is this guy? We don’t like him! Sometimes, instead of going out, she would invite her boyfriend and others over to the house on a Saturday evening, fix them drinks, and play Nina Simone or Amaral on a loop. I remember being at least somewhat aware that she was staying in because otherwise I’d be by myself. There were other Saturdays when it was just the two of us, and we’d play Monopoly for hours, rolling the dice and buying properties late into the night.

When I started university I became less solitary, but I still enjoyed spending time with my mom. On weekend mornings, I would read novels and she would make jewelry, with classical music playing in the background. We’d have lunch, and drinks later in the day. We talked, of course, but I was convinced that our relationship was built on a comfortable silence. We didn’t need words. “My last son,” she sometimes said, “what am I going to do when you leave?”

My mother never had another serious boyfriend, which confused me. She was intelligent, funny, and pretty, with hypnotic eyes she inherited from her own mother. Privately, I began to wonder if her trouble finding a partner was because she was too picky (Hes bald) or because she actually wanted to be alone (He can’t keep up with me). That was easier than acknowledging her when, after another failed date, she would ask me, “Is this the price I have to pay for having three wonderful sons?”

At some point my mindset changed. I spent time with my mom more out of pity than anything else. I told my friends that I felt bad for her, that I felt guilty leaving her alone. There’s a thin line between compassion and condescension when it comes to one’s parents, and it’s hideously easy to tip from one sentiment into the other.

It’s also easy to judge the victims of romance scams—I did it with my mom, wondering how she could have been so foolish. Speaking to others like her, it became clear that this knee-jerk reaction could be devastating. During my reporting, I joined several Facebook support groups for victims of romance scams, shared my mother’s story, and talked to anyone who reached out. There were widows, divorced people, and retirees. Some of them had lost tens of thousands of dollars, gone deep into debt, or mortgaged their homes to get scammers the money they asked for. I spoke to the loved ones of victims still in thrall to their scammers, including Zed, who was trying to convince his father he was being conned. “I’ve told him, I’ve showed him articles, I’ve sent him videos of scammers admitting they scam,” Zed wrote to me. As a last resort, he posted his father’s email address to a Facebook group so strangers who’d been victimized could contact his dad directly and share their experiences.

Several victims talked about vengeance. Even more talked about shame. They’d heard the same question over and over, or had asked it of themselves: How could you be so stupid to fall for a romance scam? “It’s the saddest crime on earth,” a California woman told me. Another woman confessed that she’d been in communication with multiple scammers and that cutting them off had been hard. “I used to miss talking to my scammers,” she wrote, “but I quickly realized it wasn’t them, it was how they filled my day.”

I heard Smart Billion again in my head: She was ready.

He meant that my mom was ready for Brian—or for someone, anyone, like him. Whatever affection there was in the silences of her life, in the unspoken bond with her sons, the people who loved her most, my mother longed for certain words, needed them, and for a while Brian had provided them. He once wrote to her:

At the end of the day I have this joy in my heart because I have found you. it is a beautiful feeling, I feel like I’ve not felt like this in a very long time. Do you also have that feeling like you were in high again? the feeling of being happy and scared at the same time? I am just keeping my fingers crossed, hoping for the best. I want to be happy and I know I can be happy with you.

By the time I left Bamidele to his Uber shift, it had become clear that visiting Nigeria was never entirely about finding Brian. It was also about trying to bridge the gap between my sense of my mom and her sense of herself.

I’d also recognized that my mom had a mask of her own—she often wore it with me and my brothers, to protect us as much as herself. And she’d cast it off for a stranger, a choice that was perhaps never mine to understand.

Bukky looked like a new man. When I returned to Lagos from Abuja, we spent my last few days in Nigeria together. Fully recovered from his illnesses, Bukky took me to the Nike Art Gallery, a massive compound that hosts more than 8,000 works from artists across Africa. I met with the founder, Nike Davies-Okundaye, an artist known for her exquisite embroidery and cloth work. “If there’s no love, if there’s no adventure, what is life for?” she said to me.

On the final day of my trip, after I settled my bill at a hotel on Victoria Island, Bukky and I spotted an elderly white woman and a twentysomething Nigerian man holding hands. We wondered to one another if he’d scammed her, and whether, once she found out, she’d traveled to Nigeria and they decided to be together. “If we were making a movie,” Bukky said, “you couldn’t make this thing up.”

As I waited at my gate to fly home, I opened my notebook to review everything I’d written down during the trip. On the first day, in capital letters, I’d scribbled an Igbo proverb I read in an interview with author Chinua Achebe: “The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.” In Igbo culture, masquerades involve acrobatics, dance, and elaborate costumes that conceal the wearers’ identities. The regalia, beautiful and often fearful, is intended to evoke the spiritual realm. Achebe’s interpretation of the saying was that “we, as inhabitants of the world, must learn to adapt, to change, and to move.”

When I read it again, the proverb struck a new chord. I’d spent a long time standing in one place, seeing things one way. By traveling thousands of miles, I’d encountered young men who donned masks to manipulate people and get what they wanted from the world. I’d also recognized that my mom had a mask of her own—she often wore it with me and my brothers, to protect us as much as herself. And she’d cast it off for a stranger, a choice that was perhaps never mine to understand.

My mom listened carefully when I told her about my trip, and she only had compassion for the Yahoo boys I’d met. “I understand why they do it,” she said. She mentioned the John Legend song again, the one she associated with Brian, and it occurred to me that she had never outright blamed him for scamming her. Now 63, my mom goes every week to a book presentation, a painting class, or a flower-arranging workshop hoping to meet a man she’ll fall in love with. She’s optimistic about her future; momentary disappointments always give way to new hope.

I’ve kept in touch with Biggy on WhatsApp. He’s still scamming, but not as Natasha Bridges—he prefers other fake identities. He sometimes asks me about my mother, which makes me think of the last night I hung out with him in Lagos. We were in my apartment, where Biggy was rolling a joint, and I asked him if he had any advice for my mom. He laughed. “Tell her, please—do video calls.”

There was a long silence before Biggy spoke again. “You have to be skeptical in life,” he said. “Not all that glitters is gold.”

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The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich

She was the daughter of a U.S. spy, an exile from Burma, a flight attendant in a war zone, and half of an epic love story. But how much of that was true?

By Julia Cooke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 67

Julia Cooke’s essays and reporting have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, SalonThe New York Times, and Tin House. They have been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2014. She is the recipient of a 2016 New York Press Club award and the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, which features reporting on youth culture in Havana. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Photos: Courtesy of Rebecca Sprecher and Mary Uyeda

Published in May 2017. Design updated in 2021.


The four Burmese officers who came to the apartment that morning in 1963 didn’t break down the door. They pounded hard, though, very hard. When Paula Zoe Helfrich answered, they told her in no uncertain terms that she would board an evening flight out of Rangoon. She would not be allowed to return.

A steely new regime in Burma was causing outsiders to scatter. Indian merchants were gathering what earnings could be salvaged from their teak and rice mills before heading west. White expatriates weighed England versus Australia. Deportations of foreigners grew increasingly common. Still, Paula had assumed that her father’s stature would ensure her immunity. He had worked with the highest powers of Burma’s postcolonial government; surely his 17-year-old daughter would skim above any discord like fat on milk.

Besides, she was a native. Her parents were from Illinois, but she had been born in Rangoon. She spoke Burmese. She reflexively knew the differences in climate, language, and culture between the country’s highlands and ports. She had ridden elephants in the jungle and wore longyis, traditional wrap skirts. She had a job at a tourism desk in Rangoon’s stately Strand Hotel and a room in the apartment of a family friend. After work she and her boyfriend, a handsome Burmese student with revolutionary leanings, walked along the shores of Kandawgyi Lake, where dense foliage furnished private nooks. She loved how the pink evening light reflected off the nearby gilded Shwedagon Pagoda onto the lake’s flat water.

Disorder, the result of World War II’s aftermath and simmering interethnic conflict, had afflicted Burma for as long as Paula could remember. Consequences were visible: People displaced from the countryside lived in shantytowns along Rangoon’s fringes. In 1962, the situation took a dramatic turn. The military staged a coup and expelled international organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. It banned Western-style dancing, horse racing, and nightclubs. That summer, troops stormed a Rangoon University meeting on democracy, killing dozens of people, according to human-rights groups. The next day, the regime blew up the campus’s student union. The situation became progressively dire as the months wore on.

The following September was when the officers came for Paula. She was ordered to leave because she had spent time with questionable people, namely her boyfriend. Her father didn’t put up a fight. She had less than 24 hours to pack her possessions, bid farewell to the love of her life, and stop for a bowl of mohinga, perfumed fish and noodle soup, on her way to the airport. When Paula told me this story, she described her deportation so vividly that I all but saw the officers’ broad shoulders in her doorway, the rutted roads jolting the car that ferried her to the plane, and her hands nervously gripping her knees as she rode.

She was heading to a place she’d never been and a family she’d never met: grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Chicago. She would find the Windy City smelly and orderly, sometimes beautiful but too often cold. She had never experienced the sting of a Midwestern winter. She didn’t even own a coat.  

I once spent half an evening as Paula’s daughter. We met at a 2014 conference in Bangkok of former Pan Am flight attendants; she was the keynote speaker and I was researching a book. In her speech, she talked about growing up in Southeast Asia and feeling out of place in the United States when she was plopped there in the 1960s. She’d lived a series of interlocking adventures: traveling the world with Pan Am, helping evacuate refugees during the Vietnam War, running for office in Hawaii, self-publishing a novel based on her life, returning alone to live in Burma, now called Myanmar, as a middle-aged woman. Paula’s voice was silvery, musical, and rich with laughter. She was in her sixties, she told the group, but she felt like she was thirty. Her two daughters still asked her what she planned to do when she grew up.

The conference’s final dinner involved a river cruise. We drifted past the Thai capital’s skyscrapers, drinking wine and listening to the wafting music of a sequin-clad Elvis impersonator under a sky that threatened rain. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Paula on a crusty vinyl stool bolted to the boat’s aft. I was younger than everyone in the crowd by three decades and had grown weary of explaining my provenance. Paula noticed.

Paula and her daughters.
Paula and her daughters.

“Wanna be my daughter?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning toward me in a quiet moment. Her smiling face, eyebrows raised, was an invitation. “Sure,” I answered.

For the next hour, as people swirled by to talk to Paula, she introduced me as her offspring. It wasn’t an impossible sell—we both wore our curly hair loose and natural; we both had strong opinions and loud laughs. I watched as she explained who I was with zero doubt or hesitation ruffling her features. The other women nodded in understanding. I caved when I ran out of platitudes based on my thin knowledge of her. I finally admitted that we were not, in fact, related, and everyone was amused. No one asked who I really was.   

Paula struck me as magnetic and the rare person who, with no loss of kindness, acts first and considers how people might feel afterward. She seemed in full possession of herself, and what I felt that night was akin to envy, staring upward from my relative youth at this woman of boundless energy and verve. She captivated listeners with the details of life events that seemed stolen from fairy tales. Most striking was an epic love story: When she moved back to Myanmar, Paula told me, she found the teenage boyfriend that the deportation had cost her and married him.

What a magnificent coincidence, I thought, to anchor Paula’s story. The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia. Burma’s independence coincided with her birth and imbued her upbringing with adventure. Its slide into authoritarianism displaced her physically but couldn’t uproot her identity or her affections. Decades later, the country’s reopening drew her into its ebullient orbit and engineered an improbable reunion with a man she’d thought she would never see again. The arc of a life, punctuated by remarkable love, loss, and deliverance—it was a saga that I wanted to write.

The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia.

I also wished to be as curious and bold as Paula when I eventually married and, I hoped, became a mother. She became more than a potential interview subject; she was a candidate for some personal pantheon of spirited women I could locate in my mind on demand, perhaps even call on from time to time. Paula spoke of my coming to visit her in Myanmar as inevitable.

She was right: After a year of occasional correspondence, I flew to Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. It was September 2015. “Aaaaah! Julia, yes!” came the cry from her bedroom when her husband announced that I was at their front door. Paula gripped my arm when she saw me. She’d lost weight since I’d met her, and her hair was less curly. Even so, her gaze possessed startling immediacy. She was impatient and impetuous by nature, but when she looked at you, she seemed to scan everything she found and settle on something—the piece of you that interested her most.

Paula still embodied the dichotomies that had initially drawn me to her: international and American, feminist and feminine, strident and warm, independent yet deeply connected to others. As I talked with her, interviewed friends and family, and explored documents pertaining to her past, another contradiction revealed itself, this one between fact and fiction. Put simply, not every detail of the stories Paula told me about herself was true. In some cases, veracity was less splendid, while in others it was more poignant. “Paula was a creative person,” her younger sister Mary Uyeda told me, “and there were times when that creativity exceeded reality.” Why was the truth of her objectively extraordinary life not enough for Paula, I wondered. Why did she need more?

Somerset Maugham, one of many writers to use Burma as a backdrop, once described it as having “a beauty not of nature, but of the theater.” When I met Paula, the country had become her stage for reclaiming the junctures of a life often shaped against her will. I didn’t know it yet, but I was part of her farewell performance.


In the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, a samurai sword sits in storage, never before displayed to the public. It is believed to have belonged to Shojiro Iida, commanding general of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma during World War II. Aung San, the architect of Burmese democracy, gave it to Truman in 1946.

Memorandums between Truman’s office and the War Department reveal some hesitation over the president’s acceptance of the sword. To not take it risked alienating the man very likely to claim power in an independent Burma. To receive it would be to recognize his legitimacy while England still technically ruled the gangly country stretched alongside China and Thailand. In the end, Truman’s top military aide accepted the sword on his behalf.

Lieutenant Colonel Baird Helfrich was the emissary dispatched to gift the blade to the president. A lawyer by training, he had arrived in Burma in 1944, to lead a secret wing of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was tasked with infiltrating various groups of anti-English revolutionaries to identify those allied with the Japanese and cultivate others deemed susceptible to American influence. He fell in with Aung San, then a leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and “displayed outstanding acumen, diligence, and daring in obtaining information vital to the United States Government,” according to his OSS personnel file.

After the war, Baird returned home to Illinois, where he married a woman named Patricia “Pat” King who’d been a code breaker in the Navy. They honeymooned in China, then returned to the Midwest, where Baird continued his law career. In Rangoon, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma achieved the freedom for which he’d struggled. The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League vaulted into power nonetheless, with U Nu, an ally of Aung San’s, as prime minister. The new government quickly found itself navigating conflicts with ethnic minorities and political rivals fighting for their say in the country’s future.

The Helfrich family.
The Helfrich family.

By the early 1950s, civil war had ebbed. Burma had a lively media and a growing educational system. U Nu aligned himself with anti-communists on state visits, and under General Ne Win, the army became professional and unified, able to squelch border skirmishes with the Chinese. Foreign interest in the country swelled. Burma was rich in natural resources and strategically located amid the Cold War dominoes of Indochina.

Baird sensed opportunity: A few years in Burma investing in various businesses and his family could return to the United States with the funds and connections to launch his political career. (If he still worked for covert services, Baird slid under such deep cover that today the CIA will “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records on his postwar activities.) His wife found Illinois “much too quiet to suit,” anyway. So they decamped. “It all sounds just a bit monumental an endeavor,” Pat Helfrich wrote in her first letter to her skeptical parents, describing various projects and plans that she and Baird would undertake in their new home.

Paula told everyone she knew, even her children, that she was born in Burma. For some listeners, she added a dash of intrigue: Pat delivered the Helfriches’ first child in Rangoon, but Baird wanted the infant to have a passport indicating that she’d been born on American soil. Not long after her birth, he walked a few blocks from his downtown office, where he represented John Deere and other American businesses seeking a foothold in Burma, to a warren of townhouses and department stores. There, in a small, discreet office, he had Paula’s first passport forged. It said she was born in Peoria, Illinois.

This is the first fable to fall away from the scaffolding of Paula’s life. Her mother’s letters, which Paula collected and intended to publish, reveal that she was born in the United States: in Peoria, on August 15, 1946, one year to the day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The Helfriches’ next three children—Ellie, Stuart, and Mary—were also born in Illinois. Paula was five when the family moved to Burma. “Paula has come through the whole thing as casually as though she were just crossing the road,” Pat wrote to her parents.

On the other side of that road lay Technicolor longyis, gleaming pagodas, spicy curries, and more than 135 ethnic groups that testily comprised the country. It’s plausible that Paula’s early memories of the Midwest faded quickly and forever. Or perhaps she claimed Burma as her point of origin, knowing it was not, because it felt truer than fact.

A family of six stands in front of a wood-gabled, Tudor-style white house with that colonial incongruity between European architecture and surrounding tropical foliage. It’s April 1952; the Helfriches have arrived on an ocean liner from California to learn that their new home at 26 Park Road in Rangoon is occupied by another family, the result of a miscommunication with a Burmese friend of Baird’s who rented the house to them from overseas.

The knowledge that her family would be sharing a house with the Nicholses, Americans who were leaving for Madras (now Chennai) in India that September, startled but didn’t displease Pat. She had people to introduce her to life as an expat housewife. In letters home, she wrote of new activities and routines. The children gaped at the snake charmer at the Rangoon Zoo, splashed around at the Kokine Swimming Club, and admired a cream-colored Packard owned by a friend of Baird’s, with a horn that tooted “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The humidity prematurely sealed Pat’s letters; bugs ate her books. Paula called the abundant lizards that flitted through the house “baby alligators.” Pat and Baird sat through daily Burmese lessons, but the words never stuck. The children took almost immediately to the language.

Paula attended classes for a time at a school called Methodist English, where her classmates included Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. I spoke with the now famous politician’s schoolmate and former personal assistant, writer Ma Thanegi, who told me that though she’d known of Paula, they weren’t friends. The foreign children socialized less with the native Burmese than they did with their own.

Paula (left) and younger siblings.
Paula (left) and younger siblings.

Pat claimed to hate segregation, the backbone tenet of colonial life holding that Western children should grow up free of the polluting influence of locals. In her letters, she wrote of her own unlearning of American-ness. Though a Burmese servant could have gone to the outdoor markets for her, Pat shopped for her family’s groceries herself, learning how the religious affiliations of the vendors—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—dictated who sold what and when. She had a strapless gown made by a local tailor who used rattan cane in place of whalebone for the stays. Pat fancied herself a trendsetter.

Paula once described her mother’s letters as “chirpy,” but I sense tension in them, especially the ones from that first year: a bold young wife and mother in a far-off place writing home to her staid, well-to-do, disapproving “Mother and Daddy.” Pat described the dignitaries and business groups the Helfriches entertained; she effused about the government’s eagerness to adopt mechanized farming, which had helped Baird secure his John Deere contract. She wrote indignantly that clips her father sent her penned by a Chicago Tribune reporter—articles from that time describe Burma as a “land of sham” that “claims to be just about everything it isn’t,” where “officials can’t speak [their] own language”—didn’t match her observations. She’d met the reporter in the mere three weeks he’d spent in the country and found him chinless and haughty, like a British overlord. He couldn’t be trusted, Pat told her father. Still, she requested, please keep sending such “interesting—if ill-informed” articles.

Through all her writing ran two consistent threads: a commitment to adventure and unconventionality, and an acute awareness of how to shape the way other people viewed her life. Paula would inherit both qualities.


“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”

The first lines of “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1892 ode to colonialism, introduce readers to Moulmein, a port city in Burma some 200 miles overland from Rangoon. Moulmein is also the setting for George Orwell’s iconic anti-imperialist essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in which a British officer, who may or may not be Orwell himself, reluctantly kills an elephant that has rampaged a local market. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

By the mid 20th century, the city had bloomed into more than an object of literary appeal. It was an industrial hub, a signal of independent Burma’s economic rise. Workers floated felled logs down the Thanlwin River for the timber industry, and rice mills clustered along the waterfront. The Helfriches and their children—there were five by then—moved to Moulmein in 1956. Baird had business interests there and wanted to monitor them closely.

Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.
Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.

At his wood mill, two trained elephants worked from seven to four each day, scooping logs from the river and dragging them up the shore. The workday ended with the blaring of a horn. The elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. In the evening humidity, which settled like a blanket around the shoulders, Paula and her siblings visited the animals. They’d touch them and giggle. Sometimes, Paula rode one and gave it orders to pick up planks of teak between its trunk and tusks. In her memory, “Moulmein was elephants,” she later told me. It was also the scent of fresh bread and coconut pancakes from an Indian bakery, and the Helfriches’ dark-wood longhouse on stilts. The children rode to school, which was run by Catholic nuns, in a rickshaw pulled by a donkey. Among some 2,000 students, they were the only Westerners.

Pat had invited her parents to visit Burma, at one point offering first-class passage on a luxury ship and sightseeing “from Moulmein to Mandalay to the Shan Hills.” Mother and Daddy’s rejection was not included in the cache of letters that Paula later collected. Another letter, though, indicates that the Helfriches booked passage back to the United States in 1957. They spent the summer visiting family and friends, road-tripping from Illinois to Virginia. They stopped in Europe on their way back across the globe. Pat was pregnant with her sixth child by then. En route to Rangoon, she suddenly went into labor. After an emergency landing in Iraq, baby Tommy was born at the American hospital in Baghdad.    

Before reading the letters, I had asked Paula whether she’d been to the United States before her deportation. “Never,” she’d told me, firmly shaking her head. “We had been on one trip to Europe, we’d gone through Rome and to different places in the European continent, and Paris.”

Her cousin John Miller remembers meeting her in Virginia on the trip she claimed she didn’t take. Paula would have been 10 or 11. Miller told me that he was disconcerted at how much of the chicken served at one dinner the young Helfriches devoured—gristle and sinew, pieces and parts that American kids discarded—and how their eating habits contrasted with their prim British accents.

Back in Burma, the post-independence government began to fracture. “It had always been a hodgepodge of competing interests, ambitions and loyalties, held together by the partnerships at the very peak, between U Nu and his chief lieutenants,” writes scholar Thant Myint-U in his history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. “There was no clear ideological divide or really even differences over policy. It was more the story of friends and colleagues who after twenty years living and working at close quarters, through war and peace, were getting tired of one another.” In 1958, a weakened U Nu ceded power to the military; he would reclaim control two years later through a popular vote. The U.S. embassy began warning Americans when it was prudent to stay indoors. Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then, told me. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” said Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

By then, the Helfriches had quit Moulmein for a farm up north in Burma’s hilly Shan State. Baird had overseen a rollout of John Deere tractors there some years earlier. Pat, intent on securing a good education for her eldest child, sent Paula to high school in Darjeeling, India, the summer resort of the British Raj. At Loreto Convent, a school where Mother Teresa had trained and Vivien Leigh had attended classes, Paula’s classmates included Nepali royalty and the scions of aristocratic families from Thailand and Bhutan. She learned to play field hockey and ride horses. She ranked among the top three students in her class, argued on the debate team, and acted in plays; she stepped into Bela Lugosi’s shoes to play the lead in Dracula and sang as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore.

On vacations, Paula returned to Shan State. It felt prosaic beside Loreto, all farmland and a tangle of younger siblings. Cosmopolitan Rangoon, though, tugged at her, even as the political havoc there worsened. In 1962, a final coup entrenched Ne Win in power and landed U Nu, his ministers, and 30 ethnic chiefs in custody. The new military-run government abolished the constitution, disbanded parliament, and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, an ideology that prioritized state-run institutions and rejected outside influence. The government nationalized major industries, including rice farming, mining, and logging. Production quickly plummeted, and foreigners began leaving the country by the thousands, then tens of thousands, every month.

As a teenager in Burma.
As a teenager in Burma.

When she finished high school, Paula moved to the capital. Despite its tumult—or perhaps because of it—she loved the city. She enrolled in a typing course, where she sat at a small, flat desk amid rows of Burmese classmates, her wavy light-brown hair deflated by the tropical air. She learned shorthand and the feel of onionskin beneath her fingers. At night, wearing lipstick purchased at Bogyoke Market, she attended dances at the Strand under high ceilings with polished wood rafters and lilting fans. One day she met a charismatic young man, the life of every party. He waited for her outside her typing class on his motorcycle. The force of what she felt for him came as a surprise, and they hoped to elope, revising their plans on an almost daily basis in the constantly changing political climate.  

Paula felt alive: loved and in love. She also felt invincible—until the day those four officers knocked on her apartment’s door.


Seventeen-year-old Paula continued wearing longyis after arriving in Chicago against her will. She eventually began to dress in Western styles, but she couldn’t kick her foreign accent. Social codes mystified her: wearing shoes on shag carpeting; the way people said “come over anytime,” then looked at her funny if she actually did stop by. She missed eating rice at every meal. Paula had an American passport, but she play-acted at being an American.

She lived at her grandmother’s house, the two-story brick manse in Winnetka where Pat had grown up and where certain doors remained closed at all times. Grammy, as Paula called her, was convinced that the ghost of her recently deceased husband flickered through the house, lingering in rooms that she forbade her granddaughter from entering. “I expect that the effort to make Grammy understand about Burma is a hopeless pursuit,” Pat commiserated in a letter.

Adulthood was thrust upon Paula. She found work as a Pan Am receptionist; she had flown the airline to and from India during her school days. By the summer of 1964, when Chicago was rocked by race riots in the suburb of Dixmoor, Paula had secured a job as a travel agent and discovered that she could eat rice and curries at an Indian restaurant in the city. Not the same as in Burma, but not terrible.

Letters from her parents grew melancholy. Pat and Baird urged their eldest child to be forbearing; they certainly had to be. The industries in which Baird had invested were decimated by nationalization. His missives to Paula included requests to borrow money from her small salary to help the family stay in Burma, even as everyone they knew was leaving. The demonetization of currency in 1964 wiped out savings across the country.

The same year, all remaining ethnic Indians, including those whose families had been in Burma for generations, were expelled. Hundreds of thousands boarded boats and planes with nothing but the clothing on their bodies. By 1965, the Burma Socialist Program Party stood as the country’s only legal political entity; dissent was not tolerated. “This Ne Win bunch,” Baird noted in a letter, “are surpassing even our wildest thoughts on irresponsibility and goodies for one’s friends—and jail for thine enemies.”

Paula traveled to Maryland that year to welcome her younger brother Stuart to America; he would live with family friends in order to attend high school while the rest of the Helfriches prepared to return. Baird flew in a few months later to procure a job in Washington, D.C., and a house in the suburbs. In 1966 came Pat and the younger children, including a new baby named Cathy. They arrived in New York on a coal steamer after a month at sea. One particularly gruesome ocean swell had sent Cathy rolling across the deck in her lifejacket.

Paula, Baird, and Stuart converged on Manhattan to meet the remaining Helfriches at the harbor. They were thin and shabbily dressed. All the possessions they’d packed into their Burmese baskets fit with them in two taxis, which Paula told me carried them to the Waldorf Astoria. A friend had lent them an apartment for a few days.

In one of the final letters Pat wrote to Paula before the Helfriches moved, she described traveling from the Shan State farm to catch a train to Rangoon for a wedding. There was rain and a bus headed for the wrong destination. She finally found a potato truck and hopped in the back with five Burmese passengers. Clunking through the rain, after small talk established who they all were and where they were going, after the sharing of fruit and snacks, the Burmese began to sing. “As I watched … beautiful scenery pass and flash by, listened to the music, and realized that I was riding on a potato truck,” Pat wrote, “I had a funny and weird feeling. I was perfectly at home.”

Now the Helfriches’ Burmese experiment, all 14 years of it, was over.

Back in Chicago, Paula told me, she enrolled at Northwestern University. Her attention, though, was elsewhere. In her novel Flying, which Paula described as a thinly veiled memoir, the protagonist, Zoe (Paula’s middle name), writes a brokenhearted letter every day to her Burmese boyfriend. He is a guerrilla, fighting the new regime. Eventually, the missives are delivered through a sequence of shadowy messengers, winding up in either Burma or Vietnam. She never knows for sure where her boyfriend is hiding, and she never gets a letter back.

Around her neck, Zoe wears a silver coin on a tattered string, a gift from her boyfriend. An anthropology professor identifies the coin as a pendant. He points to its Buddhist iconography and asks how she came by the piece. Zoe “kept the details to herself,” the book reads. “Who would believe it?”

When they met again many decades later, Paula discovered that her long-lost love still enjoyed dancing, as they’d once done together at the Strand. Now, though, he preferred to wear a longyi and nothing else. Her husband the warrior, she said, “who I can’t for the life of me get to wear a shirt.”


Marriage to someone else, someone not concealed in a jungle, must not have seemed like the worst idea. It offered a new beginning, a dive into an adult life of her own making. Paula met a man, a Chicagoan of Polish descent, and they soon wed.

The marriage didn’t go well, and it didn’t last long. He was abusive. She didn’t speak of him much to anyone, not then and not later, I was told in interview after interview with friends and family; she never mentioned him to me. I imagine the unhappiness of that marriage falling around her like a veil. The turmoil, the feeling of powerlessness, must have been at once familiar and new. It fell to her to get out. So she did.

Paula divorced and, within a few years, started working at Pan Am again, this time as a stewardess. She met every requirement for female employees in the airline’s golden age: fluency in English and another language, at least two years of college, height over five foot two, trim, beautiful, extroverted, quick on her feet. Also: able to walk down an aisle in heels without wobbling, culturally aware, flexible yet bossy, witty, and afflicted by wanderlust. Paula wanted to return to Southeast Asia and visit other faraway destinations.

Who spoke Burmese? The stewardesses didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula.

Most of the women who signed up for Pan Am’s stewardess program had predictable language proficiencies: French, German, Spanish. Paula Zoe Helfrich, from Maryland, as she was listed in the training class of March 1970—all traces of Chicago and the Midwest erased—spoke Burmese. Later, on flight sign-in sheets where the women listed their languages before takeoff, those who came after Paula would glance up and look around in confusion. Who spoke Burmese? They didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula to me.

During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.
During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.

The itinerant lifestyle suited Paula. A crew flew together for a week or a few, passing days in Paris and Monrovia and Singapore and Sydney, then splintered apart for time off. On vacations, Paula went to the Amazon, where she trawled caves thick with monkeys. She went to Timbuktu, just because she could. Pan Am kept strict rules for its stewardesses’ appearance, and in company photos Paula’s hair is neatly tied under a prim hat. She cocks her head and wears an arranged smile. In personal photos, though, her long hair is parted down the center and cascades down her chest. The more implausible the setting or action, the more comfortable she appears. At a zoo, she grins with her arms slung around a snake a foot wide and several times as long, curled across her neck and shoulders. Wearing a bikini, she leans against the post of a thatched hut in Guam, legs crossed, sipping a mixed drink. Atop a curved rock with the sand houses of Timbuktu clustered in the background, her hands pick at desert grasses.

The Vietnam War was in its fifth year when Paula started working as a stewardess. Pan Am contracted critical support to the U.S. military, blurring the line—as it had during World War II—between private, profit-seeking business and government entity. At one point, providing services for the war effort in Saigon was Pan Am’s largest global operation. A stewardess had to be able to relate, as more than one who’d worked for the airline told me, to celebrities and CEOs, but also to refugees and immigrants boarding a plane for the first time, and to servicemen on their way into combat, holding in their chests the sharp knowledge of what they’d been drafted to do. The women carried identification cards designating them as second lieutenants in the armed forces; in the event of capture, they were to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. After meal service, they would listen to tales of combat or play cards with soldiers heading for a stint of R&R. Sometimes, disembarking from a flight, they would glimpse bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage.

The early 1970s was also an era of skyjackings and political bombings; a stewardess had to remain composed on the knife’s edge of danger. All were trained in emergency procedures and casual diplomacy, taught to conduct themselves as surrogate ambassadors to the United States. In Flying, Zoe, who becomes a stewardess like Paula, knows how to tell a passenger to fuck off with “a ten-dollar sentence,” so long as she adheres to protocol and smiles.

When she had enough seniority to choose, Paula requested Pan Am’s Honolulu base as her home. She lived near the beach, and when she wasn’t flying, she spent time with surfers and musicians and Army vets. Then a tragedy took her to the very edge of the war.

Operation Babylift was supposed to be a series of flights paid for by the U.S. government to evacuate orphans from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops threatened the city in early 1975. Various humanitarian and adoption agencies would help place the infants and young children in homes across America. Similar missions had brought children from Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, from Korea in the 1950s, and from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs.

On April 4, minutes after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the first group of orphans took off from a base in Saigon, the flight crashed, killing dozens of children and adults. It would be over a week, the Pentagon reported, before another flight could depart. Horrified by the disaster, American businessman and philanthropist Robert Macauley mortgaged his New Canaan, Connecticut, house to cover the fee of chartering a Pan Am 747 to get the survivors and a few hundred additional orphans out of the country. A second plane, paid for by an adoption agency, would follow.

In Hong Kong, several stewardesses were informed that their plane would be departing for Vietnam, not continuing on its scheduled route. They were all offered the chance to stay behind rather than fly into a war zone; a few quietly took their leave. The night before the flight, the remaining women slept at a Hyatt hotel—or didn’t sleep at all, as one told me. On the bus to the airport they were silent. Among them was Paula.

In the air on the way to Saigon the next day, Paula mixed formula and set up cardboard cribs. The plane must have seemed cavernous: the cold, canned air with so few bodies to warm it, the rows of metal and fabric seats, the sense of a clock ticking toward inevitable pandemonium.

As it neared Saigon, the plane dove steeply to avoid possible mortar fire, causing the women’s stomachs to plunge. On the runway, the plane taxied past the wreckage of the Air Force C-5A. The stewardesses had been told to keep away from the windows, not to look at the charred gray metal set against waving palms and rice paddies.

On Operation Babylift.
On Operation Babylift.

The plane stopped. The doors were opened, and a blast of heat entered. Then people were rushing up the stairs. Children’s limbs were bare, their faces streaming. Soon the women who held the orphans had damp faces, too. “You didn’t know if it was sweat or tears,” Tori Werner, the plane’s purser, told me. The stewardesses helped pat the infants down to check for bombs and converted the upstairs cabin of the 747—where they usually served lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee to first-class passengers—into a makeshift sick bay. The children wore bracelets with their names and those of their prospective adoptive parents on one wrist, medical bracelets on the other. The Pan Am women read off diseases: polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, chicken pox. Doctors from a Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Saigon who had been enlisted to fly with the children wanted to bring their nurses, but the women hadn’t been granted permission to leave the country. “We strip-searched the nurses and stowed them in the lavatory until after takeoff,” Werner told me.

The stewardesses loaded infants into cardboard bassinets and pushed them under the seats. They strapped in whomever they could. With some 400 children packed in, the pilot took off. The scent of vomit and loosened bowels filled the plane’s air. “That’s the smell of freedom,” Paula would remember crowing as the flight ascended, banking high in the sky.

After delivering the children to the United States, the flight’s crew was given two weeks off. Paula rested in Honolulu. Just one day later, though, she received a phone call. “Would you like to fly another babylift?” the voice on the other end asked. A flight had been chartered again.

This time the crew didn’t make it to Vietnam. Controversy had sprouted around the mission; children with living parents had been discovered among the rescues. Within a month, a federal class-action lawsuit would be filed alleging that many of them hadn’t been orphans. Years later some of the children would seek out birth mothers in Vietnam. Others would call the Pan Am stewardesses, by then retired, on Mother’s Day.

Paula signed on for other potential evacuations from Saigon in the waning days before the city’s fall. For two weeks, according to one fellow stewardess, Paula and a Pan Am crew waited at a base in Guam for assignments. Flights had to make it in and out of Saigon before nightfall; if they didn’t leave by 3 p.m., they wouldn’t leave at all. At three, the pilots and stewardesses could start drinking the tension away, before reliving the same anticipation the next day.

During those two weeks, on a flight to evacuate some Americans, Paula told me, she smuggled Vietnamese refugees on board. Because it was unofficial, you’d be hard-pressed to find their names in a passenger manifest. In Flying, she writes about a U.S.-chartered flight for a dozen aid workers; Zoe, enraged at the waste of so many empty seats, marches “in cold fury” to the Vietnamese Pan Am agent and invites him to put refugees on the plane. The plane returns to Guam with 100-odd Vietnamese bar girls and their half-American children. “A different kind of Babylift,” Paula writes. “They were all survivors, hard-edged and glittery, beautiful and absolutely fierce in their determination to make a new life—it did not much matter where.”

No one from Pan Am with whom I spoke remembered young Vietnamese women being evacuated on such a flight. Werner, though, recalled Paula getting off a plane in the Guam heat one day “just so upset. The crew had taken out only 22 people. They could have taken 150. People were desperate to get out. She thought it was very selfish.” In her fiction, it seemed, Paula had righted the wrong she’d been unable to prevent in real life.


Here is fact verifiable by the existence of her two daughters: In Hawaii, Paula married a fellow Pan Am employee. She stopped flying in 1976 and shifted to a position in management, then hopscotched to catering and, finally, to operations. Her husband tried to convince her to move to California, and she gave it a shot, but the mainland never stopped feeling foreign. They returned to Hawaii, a sort of middle ground between the country on her passport and the one she considered home. In 1980, Baird and Pat moved to Hawaii, too; most of the Helfriches would eventually converge there. Pat cooked Burmese food in her kitchen. When the menu included curry, her children would descend on her house.

Baird died in 1981. Paula told me she took some of his ashes and scattered them in Moulmein, though how and when is unclear. In the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Agitation and crackdowns were common. Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections handily in 1990, but the military nullified the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the next two decades.

With one of her daughters in Hawaii.
With one of her daughters in Hawaii.

To Paula’s two daughters, born in the early 1980s, Myanmar was a far-off place of wondrous tales whispered to them at night before bed. The elephants at the teak mill; lions that lived under the house in Moulmein; their uncles hunting deer or boar in Shan State. They also heard stories of the boarding school in Darjeeling, where the prince of Nepal had given their mother a rose. In winter, Paula told them, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom when she heard jackals howling at the moon, her feet light on the sharp chill of stone floors, her hands pushing a high window open. The windowsill was wide and sturdy, and she’d sit on it. The big, bright full moon hung above her. She would howl with the jackals.  

Paula and her husband divorced when she was about 50. She went back to school for anthropology and took her daughters to visit the convent in Darjeeling. Inspired by her involvement in the Transport Worker’s Union in her Pan Am days, she began to work for senator Daniel Inouye and soon became executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She had a knack for fundraising, event planning, and public advocacy. After a decade in politics, Paula decided to run for local office in Hilo. Her bid for county council was rebuffed; she lost to a lawyer after, as her daughter Laurien Helfrich Nuss put it, “being kicked around a bit” by the old boys’ club.

In Darjeeling, Paula told her daughters, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom at night and sit on a wide, sturdy windowsill. A bright full moon hung above her, and she would howl with the jackals.  

She retreated into daily life in Hilo. She had a boyfriend, daughters in and just out of college who visited regularly, and correspondence with Rebecca Sprecher, an old stewardess friend, with whom she jointly wrote chapters of what would become Flying. Still, the world beckoned.

In Myanmar, a series of 2007 protests incited a violent crackdown but also persistent rumors of infighting within the junta. Meetings held with United Nations officials and Suu Kyi presaged an opening. That year, Paula and Mary, her younger sister, signed up for a volunteer medical mission to the country: Mary was a nurse, and Paula served as a translator. On the plane, Paula stood up at one point and walked to the bathroom. When she returned, Mary told me, Paula announced that she was going to stay in Yangon after the mission.

She’d met someone in the back of the plane in line for the restroom who had offered her a job teaching English at an international school. He could help her get a visa. The long-ago deportation, apparently, wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d finished the heavy work of parenting, Pat had passed away in 2000, and she was no longer married. Why not go?

After the plane landed, Paula composed emails to her daughters: “Hey what do you think, your mom’s gonna move to Burma.” Laurien told me that she wasn’t surprised.

Some things from Paula’s childhood were familiar: the smells of burning wood and diesel fuel, of mohinga stalls on the streets; the multitude of ethnic groups sharing the same space. New, though, were the government minders who tracked Paula’s whereabouts. Whenever she saw them outside her apartment, she invited them in for tea. They never accepted.

Her first few years in the country coincided with increased sanctions and mass incarcerations of dissidents. Then, as though the bubble of strain hanging over the country had become so large that it could not help but quiver and burst, change began to happen. In 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years, leading to a shift from military rule to military-backed civilian rule. Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. In 2011, the government released thousands of prisoners and signed a law allowing unions and strikes. The next year, the NLD won 43 legislative seats—by the numbers not much power, but recognition of legitimacy nonetheless. The new president introduced economic reforms, liberalizing foreign investment and reducing state control over a swath of industries. International sanctions began to dissolve.

Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.
Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.

Paula taught English to children and translated for monks. She helped to reinstate a local Rotary Club and attended biannual reunions with Loreto Convent alumni. Occasionally, she wrote articles for a Burmese business magazine. She was involved in the Pan Am network through which I met her and gave a weekly talk at the posh Governor’s Residence Hotel, lecturing about Burmese history to guests sipping gin and tonics. She always wore a flower in her hair.

And then there was love. Paula had not moved back to Myanmar with the intent of finding it, but she did. She told Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, that she encountered the object of her affection—the man she told me was her teenage boyfriend—at a horse race in Bagan, an ancient town known for its temples rising like a toothy crown into the sky. Their relationship bloomed around a campfire. It was comfortable and new, daunting and exciting.

Her father had often referred to Myanmar as a “missed opportunity.” Paula didn’t want the same to be said of her own life. “She was going to fulfill that dream of marrying a Burmese man,” her sister Mary told me, “which she could not have when she was 16.”


In July 2015, Paula wrote me an email. “Hurry! I will return to Hawaii Dec with husband… this may be it as I have health issues. Nothing fatal but serious and $$$ challenges, dammit.” For several months, we’d been talking of meeting again; this would be my only chance.

I quickly booked my ticket and flew to Myanmar. I knew I would be chasing Paula’s past down streets renamed by the regime that kicked her out, looking for her childhood in crumbling buildings. I would also be tracing the blurry line between truth and fabrication in a mind given to embellishment.

After landing, I rode into Yangon watching its famous round pagodas glint above the trees. I saw glass and steel buildings that had been constructed in just the past few years, since the loosening of trade sanctions. On traffic medians, clusters of children played soccer, their limbs flashing under the streetlights.

The next morning, I hired a driver to take me on a tour of the city, a haphazard combination of nationally relevant locations and places Paula had frequented: the Strand Hotel and the sprawling university complex where she’d canoodled with her husband way back when; Suu Kyi’s house and her father’s enormous red tomb. The driver, Than Lwin, sketched out stories of student protests, like those in 1988 that percolated from the university out to monks, housewives, taxi drivers—seemingly everyone. He didn’t tell me about the thousands of people the government killed when it retaliated. At Suu Kyi’s home on Inle Lake, Than Lwin explained how an American man—“Fifty! He was fifty!”—swam across to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner while she was detained. There was no sensationalism in his telling of history, just action and reaction plainly related, with human idiosyncrasy sprinkled in.

In Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with campaign bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

I had arrived in the lead-up to a general election, and Suu Kyi, still leader of the NLD, was running. I saw few campaign posters, but in Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with NLD bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws in 2011, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

After moving back to Myanmar.
After moving back to Myanmar.

Paula wasn’t answering her phone or email. She hadn’t come to meet me at my hotel as we’d planned. When I went to the Governor’s Residence to try to get her address, I was told that she hadn’t given her usual talk in weeks. I knew she lived in Thanlyin, a city of just under 200,000 people across the Bago River from Yangon. Than Lwin picked me up on my second day to go find her. As we sat in traffic on a bridge, he pointed out condo towers rising on the far bank; the 135-acre complex was financed mostly by a Singaporean firm. According to legend, he added, shifting easily to the ancient past, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile.

In Thanlyin, we went to the market, the municipal water office, two Buddhist complexes, and the local immigration office searching for signs of Paula. Than Lwin translated or spoke on my behalf. Finally, a pink-lipsticked immigration bureaucrat, one of 12 uniformed women in a room thick with wobbly stacks of manila folders, thumbed through a list of foreigners in Thanlyin—all on business, social, or meditation visas—and found Paula’s address.

My palms were sweaty when we pulled up to a concrete house with high white walls and metal gates. Her husband answered the door. So this was him, the stuff of romantic legend. He was tall, fit, and shirtless, just as Paula had described him. He chewed betel nut impassively as Than Lwin introduced us, and he spoke very little English. I saw behind him two suitcases splayed open on the floor at the edge of the nearly empty living room. Their departure from Myanmar was imminent.

Paula’s husband retreated into the house and waved me in. I stood in the living room with Than Lwin for a moment, then heard Paula’s high, loud voice as she walked in unsteadily to greet me. “We were just saying, When is Julia coming to visit?” she exclaimed. She was much sicker than she had let on in her email. Her legs had slimmed enough that, without the cane she used, they appeared unable to support her.

Her husband dusted off what little furniture remained in the living roomthey’d sold or given away the rest in preparation for their departure—and we sat down to talk. “I don’t know that I know,” I said, turning on my recorder, “how you two first met?” Finally, I would learn the full arc of their love story, of rekindled infatuation and the improbability of entering into a marriage they’d plotted as lusty teenagers.

In an instant, the myth crumbled. Paula said they’d met for the first time not long after she arrived in Myanmar. He was head of security at the school where she first taught English. Paula interrupted herself to speak in Burmese to her husband, who disappeared and reemerged with a glass of water and a pillow for her feet. “He’s Karen,” she continued, referring to an ethnic minority that has been fighting the government since the 1940s. He had once been a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army.

I wanted to press her—I also wanted to do anything but press her. Paula was so ill, her home so bare, her husband so attentive, and my arrival so hasty. Our conversation drifted. Then, as if it could suffice, I returned to the topic of her marriage and kept my approach simple: So she hadn’t wed her teenage sweetheart, I clarified.

“Ah no,” she said brightly, as if she’d forgotten having said otherwise. “That was Allan.” He was Chinese-Burmese and had moved to Australia years before. She’d seen him once or twice when he’d come to visit Myanmar; he had five children of his own.

Her third husband’s name was Saw Phillip. He was a few years younger than her and handsome, with a broad, open smile. He was a fan of American country music, an avid cook of local delicacies like snake and eel, and a horse trainer. They spent four years circling one another, attracted but not interacting much, until they found themselves together at the horse race in Bagan. After they began to date, Saw Phillip didn’t wait long to suggest marriage; as a Christian, he didn’t approve of cohabitation before marriage. We’re too old to mess around, he told Paula as he proposed. In photos from their 2011 wedding, they wear velvety flower leis, stitched together by Paula’s daughters.

Paula and I spoke for an hour and made plans for interviews over the coming days. As Than Lwin and I drove back across the river, my mind felt thin and reedy. I tried to wrap it around the details of her life that Paula had shared and the fractures running through them. Perhaps, I thought, I could find mooring in Myanmar itself, something physical and true. Than Lwin and I headed back to Yangon, to 26 Naut Mauk Street, which used to be 26 Park Road, Paula’s first house in Myanmar.

It looked nothing like the photos I’d seen. A high fence had been erected around the house, and fancy cars sat in the driveway. Nearby, the occasional well-preserved colonial-era home faced others with walls so deteriorated that they resembled latticework. During the bad decades, I learned, the elite had allowed their houses to rot. An unpainted exterior let them live comfortably inside while seeming to remain equal with the population outside: a true facade. Now they were shells.

The remnants of Paula’s past were equally gutted in Mawlamyine, as Moulmein is now called, where Than Lwin and I drove on a sunny afternoon a few days later. We found Baird Helfrich’s teak mill, or what remained of it. The languishing structure had sat empty for years before it was finally bulldozed not long before we arrived. A towering smokestack, lumpy earth, and hunks of gray stone remained. Two stray dogs nosed the dirt. None of the neighbors knew what was going to be built on the empty land, but fresh orange bricks stacked in a pile augured some new structure.

I wondered what had happened to the elephants Paula so loved. As the economy worsened, I learned, elephants working at mills were sent into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they starved. Supposedly, mossy hunks of elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine.


There is another version of how Paula left Burma in 1963, less dramatic but no less devastating. The Chinese invasion of northern India the year before had put a stop to her classes in Darjeeling ahead of a holiday break; students had descended from the mountains on a train line clogged with munitions for the Indian army. When classes resumed in the new year, Burma’s government had tightened restrictions on foreigners’ movement across the country’s borders. Paula never graduated from Loreto Convent. She moved to Rangoon, took a typing course, and worked at the travel desk at the Strand—that’s all true. She was in love with Allan and she wanted to stay in Burma, even as it was falling apart around her.

In this version, the real one, triangulated from letters, the memories of family and friends, and her own contradictions, Paula was sent away—simple as that. Pat and Baird made the decision. Her parents needed permission from the government; any foreigner trying to leave the country would have had to fill out the proper paperwork. They did so, and then they put her on a plane to Illinois. Her younger siblings were told that she needed to expand her opportunities. She also needed to meet, as her sister Mary put it, other fish in the sea.

“We knew America was going to be a big change for you and that all of us are going to have to do some adjusting to get back into the swing of American life,” Baird wrote in a November 1963 letter to Paula, just a few weeks after she’d left. “We also think that some of your initial impressions will modify slightly, and hope that things are gradually settling down for you,” chimed Pat in the next missive.

As I read these letters, sitting on my couch in New York on spring mornings that were longer and brighter every week, I considered how something as objective as the sun in Chicago must have betrayed Paula. She’d never experienced seasons, other than dry and rainy. She wouldn’t have been used to the way daylight up north gets thinner as September moves to November, and how the sun races across the sky in December. The loss of light, along with the cold, would have felt foreign, perhaps like an alternate reality.

Autobiographical memory is among the trickiest of all psychological materials. The emotional content of an experience affects the way it becomes imprinted in the mind, which then erodes with age. Research also shows that the emotions we feel when looking back on an experience, along with the reasons we want to remember it, shape which details surface and which are forgotten. There’s other sculpting that occurs between an experience and its recollection. “Knowledge acquired after an event, and changes in our feelings toward and appraisals about an event, can lead to biases in how we recall emotional details,” psychologists Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger wrote in a 2010 study. Memory, then, can be factually inaccurate but also the truest window into how a person perceives her life.

The stories people believe about themselves depend on audience reception, too. Storytelling, as an evolutionary mechanism, is how humans transmit facts, using sticky emotional content to amplify instructive potential. In Paula’s narration of her life, I discerned call and response: People’s fascination with specific details, their evident desire for shock and awe relieved by romance and justness, influenced the tales she spun. I was one of these people who, with a needy ear, unwittingly encouraged her. “Mom knew so much about the world, fact-wise,” her daughter Laurien said. “She had this ability to tell stories and embellish or create them in such a way that they became these legends.”

Pain also played a part. “Coping mechanisms in dealing with emotional disappointment … can also influence memory,” Holland and Kensinger wrote. Laurien noted that her mother “found comfort in being able to almost psychologically reframe her trauma through telling a truth that felt right to her versus what was literally fact.” When I compare the facts of Paula’s life that I discovered with the version she told me, where there are inconsistencies there is also survival instinct, a need to persevere through chaos, to rationalize mistakes made, love sacrificed, and stability lost. Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

In Vietnam.
In Vietnam.

One of those structures was Myanmar itself, whose government all but erased the first decade of her life. The regime didn’t talk about or teach the history of the 1950s, except to say that the civilian authorities of the day didn’t care about nationalism and were risking the country’s future. State propaganda still paints the fleeting decade between colonialism and military rule with the same black brush; it is sometimes called the “time of trouble.” Than Lwin told me that he wanted to study history, but the university in Yangon was closed for much of the 1990s, when he was of student age, for fear of an uprising.

Only recently have efforts to preserve memories and revive open discussion emerged. Last year a collection of Burmese and Western academics relaunched the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship. Christina Fink of George Washington University told me about an oral-history project conducted in 2010 for the NGO Internews: Several dozen elderly Burmese were interviewed about the postcolonial era. Their testimonies varied, but they spoke overwhelmingly of freedom of speech, vibrant media, and the aftermath of civil war. Each interviewee put different conditions on the publication of his or her interview: “not to be released until I die,” for instance, or “not to be published until full democracy is achieved.” The interviews have not been released.

Paula’s idea of home was plastic out of necessity. She remembered it one way, experienced it another, and lived, in her mind, somewhere in between.


“I’m making a list!” Paula exclaimed when I walked into her house for lunch on my last day in Yangon. At that point, I’d spent hours listening to stories in which dates shifted and anecdotes played out first in one setting, then in another. I had resolved to ask no more questions, only to be present. “A list of all the places I’ve been for you,” she continued. “I loved anything to do with weird places and blood and guts and gore.”

She numbered the list in shaky block letters. She started with the Yucatán, where she’d climbed pyramids and thought of Burma’s jungles, and then the Amazon. The Marquesas, Nepal, Huahine in French Polynesia, Syria. Just as she wrote “East Africa” next to number nine, her pen ran out of ink. I told her not to worry about it. She was writing on the back of an undecipherable lab report from Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospitals. It was stained with soy sauce from a feast Saw Phillip had prepared for us, which we had just devoured.

Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

I left Yangon two days before Paula and Saw Phillip were scheduled to depart for Hawaii. I spent my last sunset in Yangon walking its crooked sidewalks, sidestepping rusty splotches of betel-juice spit. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party would win the election the following month, smiled down on me from posters that had finally sprung up during my stay. I ate a bowl of mohinga at a restaurant downtown. When he drove me to the airport that night, Than Lwin gave me a fossilized hunk of wood from his native village as a parting gift. “Maybe I am a reporter, too,” he said gravely as he shook my hand.

My arms had started to itch at dinner, and by the time I landed for a layover in Hong Kong, my entire face had swollen into a fair, if unpurpled, approximation of someone who’d lost a fistfight. I found a doctor, got a few shots, and remained in Hong Kong for 24 hours, until the swelling went down. The allergic reaction was minor, an entirely solvable bit of bodily treason, and yet the symmetry struck me—the taste of what Paula must have felt many times in her life: isolation, fear, and throbbing unreality, and then, when order was restored, a chasing sense of luck, confidence, even fearlessness.

Less than a day after I arrived home in New York, Paula landed in Hawaii with Saw Phillip. Her daughters met her at the airport and took her straight to the hospital. Within a day and a half, she had died. Liver disease was the cause. Rebecca Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, called and told me. The news struck me as both unbelievable and fitting: Paula’s death was sudden and tragic to those who knew her, but she had hurdled into it telling her own story.

The impact of a story—its spell—is unique to every listener. Different people were drawn to different aspects of Paula’s life. “She was an actress and a politician, too,” her sister Mary told me. “She was truly passionate.” Sprecher admired the combination of intellect and daring, how Paula read T. E. Lawrence and “had me reading the Raj Quartet long before Masterpiece Theater [adapted it]. She went everywhere, she had read everything, she knew everything…. I was in awe of her.” As perhaps the last person to hear Paula tell her story in full, I was rapt by the Herculean effort of remaining a woman who moved through the world with daring and panache even when outside forces threatened to disable those impulses.

“There is no Myanmar word for goodbye,” Paula wrote in the prologue she’d planned to publish with her parents’ letters. “One simply announces a departure.”