It Happened To Me: Like Manti Te'o, I Fell in Love With A Fictional Person Online

Before "Catfish" became a hit documentary, an MTV series and part of the collective zeitgeist, much to my dismay, I discovered that one's fantasies have the power to utterly overwhelm logic and common sense.

Feb 1, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

So if you know this story, you know this: A relatively famous and skilled college football player with a deeply touching, tragic narrative about a girlfriend that he loved dearly who passed away from cancer. It was Hollywood-esque and made-to-order for print and TV journalists alike who wanted to yank at the heartstrings of those who couldn’t care less about sports.

Alas, the story turned out to be a complete and total work of fiction. The woman in question, Lennay Kekua, was the online creation of one Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. The duped player, Manti Te’o, contrary to his description, had never met the woman he fell in love with online. Their relationship consisted entirely of emails, text messages and late night phone calls. 

You also probably know what happened next. The national media descended like a swarm of snarling, ravenous, drool-slathered wolverines, asking “What did he know and when did he know it?”-type Nixonian questions and speculating that the catfishing was actually an arch plot that Te’o was in on from the beginning to generate saccharine support for his burgeoning campaign to win the Heisman trophy.

My response was probably a little bit different. I believe him when he says he was duped and that he thought it was true love. That’s because it happened to me, too. 

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Hi. My name’s Robert. My girlfriend? Great Gal. She’s not here right now. She lives in the Niagara Falls region…

I should probably start at the beginning. A few years ago, I was going through a truly soul-crushing, horrific breakup with the woman I had been living with. I was drinking heavily, trying to numb myself to the point where I couldn’t feel feelings and also attempting to crank out a strange play about the end of our relationship and the Transhumanist movement

My days consisted of squatting in a particularly dark corner of the frayed red leather booths at Rudy’s Bar and Grill in Times Square (it seemed like the perfect, Bukowski-esque dive to nurse my wounds), gulping down pitchers of Rudy’s Blonde and wolfing down complimentary hot dogs, while furiously mining my addled mind for every nugget of our time together to scribble into my well-worn, spiral-bound notebook. My hourly smoke break amongst the throngs of dead-eyed tourists milling about was the only reason I got any UV exposure at all. 

In short, I was in a bad way.

At night, after wobbling home from rehearsing the play, I’d turn to that oh-so-seedy and unseemly corner of the Internet, the Craigslist Personals. 

I know. That’s about 3-4 really stupid life choices. None of which are particularly healthy when enacted individually and combining them all at once is the recipe for a truly foul, self-abnegating stew.

But that’s how I met this young woman. Let’s call her “Emily." Emily had posted an ad. (In the “Women Seeking Men” section, not the deeply sordid, sad, temptation-filled dark alley that is “Casual Encounters” -- I did/do have some standards.)

She claimed she was a senior at NYU, a recent transplant to New York from Greenville, SC, who was having trouble adjusting to city life and city folk, and was looking for someone -- a friend, a confidant, a mentor, or possibly more -- who could guide her to the lesser-known destinations, sights and cultural delights that Gotham had to offer. If you’ve taken an e-stroll around CL, you know that this type of ad is rather ordinary and kind of banal. 

But I responded and we started emailing. She was smart and funny and self-deprecating and quick-witted. And she was gorgeous –- stunningly gorgeous, even. Doe-eyed, raven-haired, buxom, pouty-lipped, tawdry.

After exchanging phone numbers like a couple of skittish, hormone-addled 6th graders, we began to speak on the phone, punctuated by text messages and the occasional flurry of IMs.

I liked her. I liked talking to her. I wish I’d saved the emails from our correspondences. Pure poetry, I tell you. Enough to make the most hard-boiled, hard-hearted cynic melt into a blob of gooey, smitten bliss. Sadly, they’re nowhere to be found, even in the oldest, dustiest, forgotten folders of my inbox. I must have burned/shredded/thrown them away at some point, either out of abject shame or the desire to “move on."

As the relationship progressed, in the wee, small hours of the night, our conversations started to get downright dirty. We began exchanging lurid photos and some awful bawdy prose, leading to bouts of sweaty, furtive, onanistic pleasure. Afterward, we’d lie there, each of us in our separate beds, panting and grinning and glassy-eyed, much like actual lovers do.

Of course I wanted to meet her face-to-face and consummate all this in a real way, but each time I pressed her, she’d offer either a vaguely plausible excuse or say that she was just really shy, that she was scared of meeting the real me and me the real her, mainly due to the revelations she made about being in some way sexually abused as a child by a relative.

She wouldn’t say which relative or how it happened but pain in her voice when she described it seemed real or at least genuine. I can’t say with any degree of assurance whether this bit of her backstory was true or not, but I’d like to think it was, lack of detail be damned. It’s just too awful to contemplate someone lying about incestuous molestation.

At some point, she or I, I can’t really recall who said it first, started to say, “I love you.” 

Logically, I knew that saying such a thing was wrong, considering this was a person I only knew via blips of digital data. It felt wrong and also kind of right, but then again, the basic wiring of my brain was so utterly frazzled by both the trauma of the breakup and the self-prescribed, non-beneficial, non-medical medication I was consuming in vast quantities to ease my pain and suffering.

For some reason, I concocted this rationalization –- that it always feels wrong the first time you tell another person that you love them, that the word inevitably feels insufficient to encompass the enormity of your heart while simultaneously inducing a flood of self-conscious self-doubt. So the fact that it felt “wrong” should feel “right,” if that makes any sense at all.

Like I said, I wasn’t exactly in tip-top mental/emotional/physical shape at this time and rationalizations ran rampant. 

I don’t know when the dam would have eventually broken, but like Manti, it was a death that made me suspicious. She mentioned having to return to Greenville for the funeral of a relative. She told me his name and talked about how amazing he was, a former Korean War pilot who had befriended her after her father had left.

For some reason or another, I did a quick search to read up on him. Nothing. I didn’t have access to Lexis-Nexis, but his name produced zero results anywhere. It was odd.

Odd enough that I wanted to ignore all her warnings about actually meeting and confront her to find out why she lied or at least how I’d gotten this relative’s name wrong. So I trundled down to her dorm, calling and leaving multiple messages, both text and voice, and waited in the freezing cold and cascading snowflakes.

Like Henry IV outside the gates of the castle of Canossa, I wasn’t going to take no for an answer from the Pope. 

She never left the building.

She did, however, send a friend of hers down to talk to me. I’d actually spoken to this friend before, when she (Emily) was having a pretty severe panic attack and had to be taken to the emergency room. 

This friend assured me that Emily wanted to see me and desperately wanted to be with me but was scared and that I should be patient because Emily’s a great girl who really, really deserves to be happy and is her (the friend’s) best friend in the world. 

Walking/staggering away in a sea of confusion and bewilderment, my fingers numb from snow-bound texting/dialing, I started to recall all the other gaps in her backstory, the excuses that just didn’t make sense, and how everything had been a little too perfect, when, like the scene at the end of "The Usual Suspects," it all came crashing together in a moment of clarity. 

You figured it out already, right? I’m still slapping my head in disbelief that it took me so long. That was Emily, the friend.

Where Emily was sarcastic and verbose and sharp as a tack, the kind of woman who wouldn’t suffer any fools gladly, her “friend” could barely mumble a sentence without trying to bury her face in the pit of her shoulder. She was overweight, wore too much makeup to cover up bad skin, and her hair was badly unkempt/unwashed. She was self-consciously uncomfortable in that way where you start to get more and more self-conscious yourself, as if you were absorbing her painful social awkwardness, by osmosis. Her total lack of ease in the presence of another human being was just plain difficult to be around.

She wasn’t monstrous or hideous by any stretch of the imagination, but she also was not the person in the photos she’d sent.

I immediately called. Emily denied it at first, vehemently. But after more than a few hang-ups, she confessed her lies, and I haven’t seen or spoken to her since. 

I felt like such a fool. I still feel like one now, recalling and writing this, but I do think I’ve come to some kind of understanding as to why and how I could stick a hatpin through my mind and fall for her/her story, even in the presence of multiple, if somewhat credible, warning signs. 

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This was more or less the expression on my face when I found out Emily wasn’t who she said she was.

After my ex dumped me, the last thing I wanted was a real woman, a woman who could be disappointed or who would disappoint me, in all the maddening and unpredictable ways that real couples do.

I felt betrayed by my ex in a profound way and the fear of having it happen again led me to find a relationship that would be perfect because it pretty much only existed in my head. I wanted a fantasy woman, the ideal woman, which Emily was all-too happy to provide.

More than that, I felt like such a colossal failure for botching my relationship that I didn’t want to expose another human to the real me -– a me that felt, at that moment, wholly inadequate and painfully undeserving of the love of another (real) person. I needed to forget myself, to lose myself in the fiction, in a place where everything would always work out right as rain. 

Why did Emily do it? I can’t really say for sure. It probably has something to do with the crippling social anxiety I witnessed the one time we actually met.

I’m speculating, but I assume it started out as a game, placing a dumb Craigslist ad, pretending to be another person, spawned by a slew of reasons that are not entirely dissimilar to the reasons that I went down this online rabbit hole. 

So when people or pundits or whomever state that Manti must have known, that he had to have known, I’ve got to disagree.

There are lies he told, without a doubt, in telling and retelling this story to the various members of the 4th estate. I certainly mentioned Emily to friends and left out more than a few pertinent facts, like that we’d never been within the same nine-digit postal service zip code.

For those who claim that he’s dumb for not realizing it sooner, well, I like to think I’m a reasonably smart guy and I filled in whatever gaps in logic presented themselves, not because I lacked the gray matter, but because it’s what I wanted to be true.

It was an act of faith, to put a positive spin on what is, in sum, a pretty sad, bleak depiction of everyone involved in the story. To paraphrase Borges, love is always like a religion you create to worship a fallible God. This one was just more so. 

The other objection, that Manti would never fall for a woman he only communicated with electronically because there were vast platoons of comely co-eds who’d bend over backward to be on the arm of a major-college major-sport star, I say this: the people we create in our fantasies, in our dreams can often be far, far more potent than actual, sentient beings.

I couldn’t begin to guess why Manti fell victim to this kind of fabrication, what he was running away from or what gnawing need “Lennay” satisfied. I do, though, believe him when he says he thought it was love and that it wasn’t a hoax he participated in (actively/consciously at least).

And I certainly can identify.