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YVONNE ABRAHAM

They raised $24,000 for a friend with cancer. Turns out, she wasn’t actually sick

By Globe Columnist 

It started, as these things often do, with a single lie.

In the spring of 2013, she had a suspicious mole removed. Though the mole was benign, she told people it had come back positive for melanoma.

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Why? That was a secret Robyn — I’m using only her first name, for her kids’ sake — kept to herself until last week.

Of course, the friends in her tight circle of Brookline parents believed her when she shared her terrible diagnosis. They loved Robyn. She was funny and kind. They adored her whole family — her husband, David, who often traveled to New York for work, and especially their three young children, the youngest of whom had serious health issues of his own. Robyn was deeply involved in the community, teaching piano lessons, volunteering at her kids’ school, always eager to help out.

Asked to describe Robyn and her family, her friends say things like, “She’s one of those people you really enjoy spending time with,” and “She has a heart of gold,” and “They are the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.”

So, when Robyn told them her cancer had spread and she was gravely ill, they mobilized. They brought her home-cooked meals and gift cards for takeout. They gave her rides to Dana-Farber, dropping her outside the entrance, and took her sweet kids for sleepovers. They prayed for her, shared their own stories, insisted she would be all right.

Some came to her aid even as they dealt with cataclysmic events of their own: One had lost her own child in horrific circumstances; another had a third-grader being treated for leukemia.

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By this past summer, Robyn looked quite ill. Her hair was gone, her bare head covered up with beautiful scarves her friends had bought her. She seemed weak. In a June e-mail, she offered a detailed accounting of her slide.

“My physician called me to let me know that the labs I had drawn yesterday had come back very concerning,” she wrote. “A bleed or further metastasis are the most urgent and concerning. . . . There are loads of sores from the chemo but today they discovered I also have thrush.” She said her husband had “gone from grief to anger, to holding his head in his hands, sobbing.”

Some of her friends thought she might not last much longer. By then, her youngest was on a feeding tube, his mother telling friends he was unable to thrive without it. It seemed like too much for one family to bear.

In July, after news that her melanoma had spread to her stomach, a friend started a GoFundMe page: “It’s time to wrap our arms around Robyn . . . and her family,” went the appeal, which raised $24,000.

But then, after one of them noticed Robyn had lied about something small, some of her friends began to have doubts about her, according to several in her circle. They called Dana-Farber and learned she wasn’t a patient there at all. On Oct. 8, they went to her home and confronted her, insisting that she seek immediate psychiatric treatment. Robyn didn’t deny that she’d been making it all up. She sent out an apology the next day.

“Yesterday, David’s and my world came crashing to our feet,” her e-mail read. “I am truly and deeply sorry. I never intended any of it, but certainly not a 4 year web of lies that caused endless suffering in all of you.” She said she had had longstanding mental health issues, and that she had come to believe the lies she had told. She vowed to get intensive treatment, and offered to reimburse those who had given her money and other gifts.

Police are investigating, but it’s unclear whether charges will be brought, since Robyn did not set up her own fund-raiser and so may not have directly solicited money under false pretenses.

The community that cared for her is shaken, and trying to understand what happened here. Some of them are incensed and worried about Robyn’s children, who have apparently been living for years with the false notion that their mother had a life-threatening illness. Some had questions about Robyn’s husband, too, wondering if someone so close to her could have been as utterly fooled as they were. (The family did not respond to an interview request.)

This was “an elaborate, admitted fraud on [the] community” that “manipulated the emotions of all who know and love them,” said one of those who helped the family, and who, like all of the friends interviewed, did not want to be named. “It’s disgraceful. I’m so worried for their beautiful kids.”

Others are more sympathetic. She might not have cancer, they said, but she is still very ill, still in need of compassion.

“I’m pained by what she did,” said one. “But she is sick. It’s not something we can see by looking at her, but illness is illness. The family remain friends, and not only do I forgive her, but I feel that there is no need to forgive.”

However they view her, Robyn’s friends are shocked, and sickened and grappling with some hard questions. How could someone they love do such a thing? How could they have fallen for it, and for so long? And this: Can you ever really know a person?


Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham
@globe.com and on

Twitter @GlobeAbraham. Come see Yvonne at Globe Live Oct. 27 & 28. Tickets: globe.com/live