As we all know, love stories are often too good to be true.

On This American Life last week, NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who now has his own podcast called Hidden Brain, tells the story of a love-letter scam created by a man named Don Lowry. In the 1980s, Lowry purchased the address lists of major men’s magazines and began sending catalogs advertising female penpals. Interested men could peruse this catalog of pretty girls, with photographs and extensive bios, and begin receiving letters and pictures for a subscription fee.

You might have an idea of what these pictures and letters sound like but, strangely enough, sex was not the goal. The letters that went out to each subscriber weren’t particularly spicy, either. They were devoted, validating. Here’s an example of one that came to Jesse, who Vedantam interviews extensively in the segment:

“Dear Jesse, Deep down you know as well as I do that you could be a lot better off than you are if you only had someone on your side– someone who would help you, encourage you, work with you, and stick with you even when things get bad. What I’m talking about, of course, is a true friend. But that kind of person is hard to find today, isn’t it?”

21999883253_4f8904a6b5_bThe letters were mass-produced. They came typed, instead of handwritten; Jesse’s penpal, “Pamala” was sending the same letter out to all her doting admirers. At the same time, each woman had a unique voice, particular traits and ways of expressing herself. The letters, then, had to toe the generic-specific line just precisely enough to make a connection with each reader. And they did. Here’s Jesse who, in 1985 began receiving these letters.

You can tell when you meet a person that they’re not superficial, this is coming from their heart. Everybody’s looking for that perfect love and everything. And this pops up. So I thought, well, could this be something different?

As you might guess, the recipients of these letters are not qualifying for Mr. America. At the time, Jesse was in his thirties, he was overweight, and he was living at his parents’ house, taking care of his sick father. He had never had a girlfriend before. It goes without saying that subscribers were people for whom life had not been kind, they were the “defaced and degraded ones,” the least of these. And so it was an easy target for Don Lowry, who believed he knew what these people needed to hear.

Guy, his wife died. And he was living alone. He didn’t have any friends. That kind of thing. He needed this. He didn’t have anything or anybody else to cheer him up. Nobody. We did it. These girls would boost their egos. Things like, oh, your handwriting is so masculine. Things like that—little things. It gave the guy a boost. And they loved it.

Lowry’s scam was eventually brought to court, but not before he expanded operations to as many as 30,000 men in the mid-80s. At that time, Lowry owned his own print shop, and was distributing products like tapes and recordings, as well as meet-and-greet events with the girls. When it hit the court, it was mobbed by the press. People magazine called him a snake-oil salesman.

But strangely, the people who should have been angry—the scammed—defended him in court. Jesse was one of those who testified and, instead of blaming Lowry for the money Jesse wasted and the heartache he suffered, he actually defended him. Jesse told the court that these letters had meant the world to him, whether “Pamala” was really his or not.

517Yu2CeBGLLike I said, I was glad to be getting letters from somebody. And even though you’re paying money for that because you have blinders on and not really paying attention to all of that. And like I said, when you’re not the best looking person in the world, that somebody out of the blue that writes to you and tell you things and build up your spirits and everything and stuff because everybody looks at you and stuff, it’s like the deal with the hunchback of Notre Dame. You’ll never find anybody that will care for you, but there at the end, he wound up making a friend with the people that befriended him and everything.

Vedanta’s interest in this story has less to do with the reality of this love, and more to do with the fact that we see what we want to see. He has found here an extended parable of the confirmation bias. But Vedanta would also argue that this story conveys the power of our emotional reasoning over rational “truth.” As we’ve said so many times before, our minds are the snap justifiers of what our hearts want. Too bad TAL didn’t quote Ashley Null. In short, it’s not so much about the truths we learn as it is about the belonging we so desperately crave.

At the same time, the sinking feeling you get in listening to this story is the fraudulent nature of this belonging. It is a scam. As much as Jesse and the rest of the conned were hoping for this to be the real thing, it wasn’t. It was a lie. We are left to deal with that dissonance in the story, but the Christian story makes real what Jesse’s letters sought to find. It means that the lighthouse he still keeps by his bed is the sacrament of a realer love.

Jesse: Me and her more or less bonded more than any other person I’ve ever talked to. It was like a beacon from outside. It was like if you were a ship out at sea and you were looking for a lighthouse– which they used that in the deal, to look for the light and everything and guide yourself towards it, where you know that you’ll have safe haven.

Shankar Vedantam: I’m not sure I’m exactly following you. Is this something from one of the letters, where they basically talk about the lighthouse?

Jesse: Yes. and, in fact, I got a little wooden figure of a lighthouse that she sent to me at one time and everything. It said, let this beacon know that somebody’s out there looking out for you and everything.