I was always shy and lacking confidence, but when I became a desperate, single mother of two young boys, I had to woman up. With only a grade-10 education, my options were limited.
When I saw an ad in the paper for private investigators with no experience needed, I jumped at the opportunity. I have always been a loner, and spending all day alone in a vehicle sounded like a dream job. The ad stated photographic skills were a plus. I was working as a photographer in a portrait studio, but it wasn’t paying the bills.
The owner of the Toronto-based P.I. agency gave me one day of training. I surreptitiously took photographs and video (a few years later, when camcorders came into existence) of people to use as evidence. I made many mistakes.
After I gained some experience, I went to a better-paying agency. The owner was a misogynist, and I was his first female investigator. He hired me, then kept telling me I didn’t have the balls to be a P.I. even though I took on the roughest assignments. I worked in housing projects and followed men in biker gangs and organized crime. I became very good at talking or driving my way out of dangerous situations.
There are usually a few components to an investigation: surveillance, research and upfront or discreet inquiries, known as pretexting. The boss said I wasn’t aggressive enough and that in order to get information from people you have to intimidate them. I discovered that I had a skill for getting people to talk and not only talk, but tell me secrets. This came as a bit of a shock to my boss since I still hadn’t grown a pair.
I talked to people in person, or on the phone. Pretexting is basically an acting job. I found that if I pretended to be Karen Morton or Julie Harper, or whatever alias I decided to use, I had much more confidence. That person wasn’t me, so it didn’t matter what someone thought of me.
In any occupation, you have to realize your strengths and weaknesses. I have a way of speaking that is very hesitant at times, as if I am searching for the right words. I use a lot of non sequiturs, and I suppose I sound very confused, even though I know what I want to say. I’ve always been better at putting my thoughts on paper. As a child, I used to leave my mother notes when I wanted to share something important. I’ve gotten better by building my confidence through therapy, Toastmasters and just getting older and wiser.
I decided that I would take my cues from the fictional TV detective Columbo. My awkwardness became a blessing. People are uncomfortable with empty space, and when I hesitated, they would fill in the blanks with information. When I rambled somewhat incoherently, they would quickly give me the information to get rid of me.
I also learned that when you are lying to people -- and pretexting is a legal form of lying for an investigator -- if they question you and you don’t have an answer, it pays to act stupid or flustered. If I pretended to be calling from a company, I would say it was my first day on the job.
“Please just help me out. I’m a single mother, and I can’t afford to lose this job.” That usually did it. It always helps to throw some truth into your lie for authenticity.
Sometimes I would cry on purpose. It was real crying. I had joy but also lots to cry about in my life. Like an actress, I could call upon those memories when needed. People want to help you when they feel that you are in trouble. They also feel safe and more open when you are vulnerable.
Because I looked so non-threatening, I was able to go places and get information that the big, tough men couldn’t, especially the P.I.s who were former cops. The men could never pull it off. There is no way they could swallow their pride to pretend to be lost or confused or just not that bright.
One time, we had to get inside a company that was manufacturing counterfeit product. The agency had sent a couple of male investigators to the company, and they didn’t even make it past the receptionist. I went there, gave them some kind of sob story and started crying. The president said I could go into his office and close the door until I calmed down. A few days later, the police raided the place and he figured out he had been duped.
There was something else I counted on in the way people perceive women. I am not a striking or beautiful woman. When you are doing surveillance, you have be unmemorable and not draw attention to yourself. Despite the fact I had bright red hair for many years courtesy of a bottle of dye, I covered my head with an appropriate hat and didn’t draw attention to myself.
Eventually, I was making inquiries and doing research for all of the investigators and was able to move into the office. Surveillance is hard on your body, but women have unique challenges. I became a manager at an agency run by a woman who valued female investigators.
The private investigation industry is still an old boy’s club, but there is more of a female presence. Even the most sexist male has to admit that we are equal and often better at the job in many ways. Me, I got tired of playing the game and quit.
A few years ago, I thought about getting back in because I make a quarter of what I used to as a freelance writer. During my interview with the male president and VP of a large investigation agency, the big man at the top asked if I had read "Fifty Shades of Grey" and could I please explain what it was about, since I was a writer. His partner said he heard the book could spice up your sex life if your wife wasn’t “giving you any.” I asked what this had to do with the job. They said they were “testing me” to see if I had the right attitude, then pointed out that I was blushing. I guess that wasn’t the reaction they wanted, or maybe it was.
I should have gone into that interview using the tools of the profession, recorded that conversation, and reported them, but I didn’t. I still regret it.
Now I can no longer play “dumb.” I tell stories on paper or pixel because that is still the way I communicate best. Now I use my once hesitant voice in a different way -- one that is more powerful and positive.