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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dear Hoaxer, thanks for the poems

‘I write very good poems / when people die,’ I declared recently. Those lines were the start of one such poem, one of several I wrote in mourning for an online friend who had died from a brain tumour not long after her 18th birthday. I also blogged about the experience here, but have now removed those blogs.

I was not the only one intensely grieved, nor the only one to post about it. One young woman tweeted her grief and was unpleasantly surprised to receive a communication to the effect that the supposed dead girl had told a different online community that she was dying of leukemia; her supposed cousin had later advised them of her death before she turned 18, and at his request the members of that community created a memorial page for her. The administrators smelt a rat at some of the cousin’s communications, tracked the IP address, found it the same as the not-so-dead girl’s, called her on it and eventually received a confession and a promise to seek therapy. (I seriously doubt that she has done so.)

This was all happening at the same time as the same girl was telling us, in the online community where I encountered her, that she was dying of a brain tumour. No-one announced her death to us, and she was still posting after turning 18, though more and more briefly (due, we understood, to the exigencies of her condition). At a certain point her journals were deleted, and when I Googled her name I found one of her paintings on tumblr, definitely hers, with a notice under her name: R.I.P. 1993-2011 — which seemed conclusive.

Since the revelations from the other group, I’ve done a lot more research online and found a number of records from the College she attended. It is clear there was, and most probably is, a girl of that name. She is not the same girl, though, as appears in the photos she posted — they are clearly pictures of one of her classmates; in the school photos they often appear together, having both been involved in school dramatic productions. The girl of the same name was/is a writer, just like our online friend; this is mentioned by the school as one of her achievements. She had a high profile at school last year (her final year), was a prefect and something of a leader, and was obviously well thought of by her teachers. The girl belonging to the photos was apparently in the same class as the one belonging to the name.

So which one did we interact with? Or was it both, and they cooked it up between them? Did one steal the other’s identity, or part of it? Did someone else steal bits of both? It can happen. A young Aussie poet friend of mine — whom I know well in real life, I hasten to add — had her identity stolen a few years back by a crazed young woman who pretended online to be her, and stole and used her poems and other details. In that case the offender was traced, brought to justice and made to stop, but it left my friend traumatised for some time. In the present case, though, we are not aggrieved parties in the same way and there is no question of getting the police involved. However, identity theft is one possibility.

We don’t actually know who we were communicating with under that guise for those many months; could have been either of the two girls, either one secretly ripping off the other. Or maybe one of their classmates used aspects of them both. From the detailed knowledge shown, it would have to have been someone from the same class, take my word for it — or just possibly one of their teachers, though from the nature of the posts I think that less likely.

Putting together several people’s experiences with her, emails received, plus further research, I have uncovered so many lies and discrepancies that it has to have been a deliberate hoax. There is simply no way of avoiding that conclusion. We liked the person we thought we knew! — even felt great affection for her, enough to be intensely grieved at her untimely death. Therefore we have resisted believing she was false, but it must be so. Just the mere fact of a name belonging to one girl attached to photos of another points to deliberate deceit. No, it’s not a matter of transposed captions or anything like that. Many of them were photos of the one girl only, definitely presented as being of the other.

She was very convincing as to medical details, and struck just the right emotional tone in the posts after she supposedly became ill (no melodrama or anything like that). And she had built up a relationship with each of her online friends over long periods. Why???

Well, she is a young novelist, so perhaps she was exploring plot and the creation of character? By saying this, I acknowledge that I believe we were given the correct name and false photos. I believe it because she also posted her fiction and poetry online in the same community, with a connection between the two journals. But then, my real-life friend had her writing stolen and posted — under her real name but not by her real self — so it’s impossible to know for sure.

A girlfriend and I once engaged in a hoax, not meaning it maliciously. We both had poems we thought good enough to share, but so personal concerning other people that if we’d made them public under our real names it could have caused all kinds of upsets. Our approaches to poetry are similar enough that we thought we could get away with collecting them under the same fictitious name. She’s no techie, so I was the one who found a small blogging community, signed up as the created persona, and started posting.

The trouble with social networking is, you’re supposed to network. Nice people liked the poems, commented, which obliged me to comment back on their own stuff, and tried to make friends. I could either enter into full-scale deception, getting more and more entangled — which I didn’t, because I had neither the time nor inclination — or remain aloof to the point of rudeness, which I didn’t because I didn’t want to hurt nice people. Instead I closed the account. So much for that experiment!

I have been wondering if it was mere youth or actual mental disturbance which had our present hoaxer remain so unaware or indifferent about the hurt she was inflicting, letting people who cared about her imagine her dying so tragically. Then I remembered the leukemia story for the other group, and the request for a memorial page. Mental disturbance, I think.

Should it make me suspicious of all my other online friends? I don’t think so. Most people are fairly transparent and easy to track. She was trackable too, as it turned out — or at least, the person she claimed to be was — which is what revealed the deceptions.

Perhaps I should be angry, but so far not. When all’s said and done, although the truth (as far as we can guess it) is pretty creepy, it is still much better than an 18-year-old being dead of a brain tumour. I’m feeling kind of stupid with relief — or maybe shock. Also exhausted from the detective work. And I’m ready to let go of it all, in the conviction that we’ll never find out all the facts. She has stopped communicating. End of story, for us if not for her.

A long time ago I was married very briefly to a compulsive liar. After that was over, I realised there were stories he told that I was simply never going to know the truth of — maybe even he didn’t — and life was too short to continue banging my head on brick walls. I feel desperately sorry for a young girl who needs to create such deceptions, but she’s beyond my help.

I’m leaving the poems up on my poetry blog, though. They are good, and they sprang from genuine feeling at the time. ('No gain without pain'? Hey, no pain without gain!) But the accompanying photo has gone.

Postscript, a day later

This has been an education! I have now learned that this story is not an isolated incident but an example of a syndrome, sometimes known as Münchausen by Internet. If you Google that phrase, there is a lot of material.

PS 2 See also my next post.


  1. I read your posts about this at the time but I'm not very good at knowing what to say in these situations and decided it would be best to stay quiet.

    It must have been very draining and saddening to be on the receiving end of this. I do recognise this, so I hope you won't think it insensitive of me to say that on the other hand, from an outside perspective, this is a fascinating story with so many questions embroidered round the edge of it. From a pure story point of view, I'd love to know the other strand.

    I hope that she has been playing a game (for whatever purpose) and that she isn't suffering from mental illness. As you say, we'll never know. I'm sorry you had to go through the grieving process before you learned the truth though. If she has been playing a game, I hope she will come to understand the consequences of her actions. And if she is unwell, I hope that sooner or later she will find the help she needs.

  2. Well yes, those are my hopes too.

    I have now learned that this is not an isolated instance, but a syndrome! Google Munchausen by Internet - it's illuminating.

    1. Illuminating indeed - I had no idea this was a recognised condition.

      I highly respect the honesty and openness of the commenter below me, incidentally - what a brave post.

  3. As someone who, more than once, indulged in Munchausen's(once to take pressure off me to become someone I could not be, and by feigning illness, having the in-laws ease off; once to try to retain a lover by feigning serious illness in the hope that pity and sympathy was the way to keep someone), I sought intensive counselling. It was the result of victim-beliefs, depression, anxiety, and downright stupidity. No one can maintain a fiction like that forever. I know that, on occasion, I feel the urge rise up - to get attention, to take pressure off me, fear of being all that I can be. I acknowledge it, and give myself space to think through the consequences. I am no longer so self-involved that I cannot see the effect my actions would have on others. The urge goes again.
    I channel it into my poetry, fabricating people, situations, mean thoughts that I often do not really believe. Weird, but healthier.
    I cannot imagine what this person hoped to gain from her lies.
    My love and blessings to you.

  4. I think what she hoped to gain was probably just what you have described - to get attention, to take pressure off, fear.... It's sad, and from the outside looking in, seems so unnecessary. She's a highly intelligent girl, which not all these people are, so I hope she does indeed get counselling as you did.

  5. I'm so sorry you went through her illness and finally the grief of her passing with her. Knowing you, I can imagine how saddened and hurt you were. ...To find out later that it was all a scam ...!
    I have no words... so please accept my hugs and support via Internet.

    I admire you for tracking it down and for accepting the truth of the situation without anger.

    My heart goes out to the perpetrator/s. Back when I was drinking I told some woppers for effect, too! I now look back on that period of my life and excuse with love the other self I see looking back at me in the mirror of thirty odd years ago. The person I was then was seriously disturbed and needed a lot of help. I feel this person who has hurt you so badly may be in the same condition.

    I praise you for seeing this ... whilst sending my love to you, my friend, for being the caring, lovely woman you are. Thank you for not letting her colour your other internet relationships.
    xxoo love, Cheryl

    1. Awww, thank you for that lovely comment!

      I'm sure we all have our potentially crazy ways of coping — crazy if carried to extremes. MIne is withdrawal, either literally, symbolically, or mentally-emotionally. But it's a long time since I either ran away from home or contemplated leaving the planet. Burying my nose in a book is still the favourite method!

      Perhaps luckily for me, I am not very good at lying. When I was 16 I made up a non-existent boyfriend so as to join in conversations with other girls at school. They were sweet about it, but I could tell even then that they were only pretending to believe me out of kindess. It felt even worse to be pitied for desperately making up stories than to be pitied for just not having a boyfriend yet!

  6. Rosemary, that was a terrible thing to do wasn't it. She played on people sympathy in a cruel way. The closest to her disorder that I could find is the Factitious disorder.

    When I first started putting poems on my blog readers pinned the situation to me instead of the poet writer. I wasn't telling lies, I was telling a story in verse. Yes, a part, large or small, might be from my life but I really want the experiences to be attributed to a poet distanced from me, the auther.

    I hope your 6WS was a happy Saturday.

    1. Well yes, I have done that too - written poems that were about me in third person and poems that were not in first person. I think that's legitimate - there is always 'The Poet' even when the stuff is confessional, and one cannot assume autobiography. A different case from writing a personal journal which purports to be autobiography, with intent to deceive. However I don't think she can have understood ho she was hurting people.

  7. Well.... first of all, it's good to know that this was all a lie and that no one has passed away. I do think it's sad that someone would do that to people, I guess it's tempting to wanna pretend that your someone else. I kinda understand that, I sometimes want to put like a celebrity name like on Twitter and see if people really think i'm that person but, that's not right. I think this person should tell people who she really is, maybe she was embarrassed like you were and wanted to put her poems under a false name so, that she could express her self freely then maybe like you thought that it was getting too far so, she closed it. I don't know....
    Sorry for the late reply I've been trying to find the right schedule and haven't much time to blog. : )

  8. Dear Joseph, I am glad when someone takes the trouble to read my long posts. There's no obligation, and you don't have to apologise fo being late - I understand about having a busy life in the real world.

    If you get a chance to read my next post on the subject, you will see I have come to the conclusion she was using her real name.