First up, thank you all for being so patient with my whining the other day. I am quite over that now, and not only did I get some nice comments, I discovered a couple of entirely new people who apparently read my blog, which is so cool. Seeing “10 comments” at the foot of a post just makes me want to go all, “You like me! You really like me!!” I think it’s a measure of my own insecurities that when I heard about Sally Field’s infamous Oscar acceptance speech all those years ago, my reaction was: “Well yeah … what else would you say??”
Of course, if you have issues with insecurity and needing approval, acting is a terrific career choice, since you get to hide behind your onstage characters. Writing also works well — put your fictional people out there and let people deal with them instead of with you. You can even re-invent yourself as a fictional character in your apparently factual memoir (yes, I still love you, James Frey, in spite of everything).
If you don’t have the creative talent to do any of those things, you can go online and just invent yourself as an internet persona.
Jason has long referred to my online friends as “your imaginary friends,” even when I met up with a bunch of them in England. While I have found lots of fun, information and support in online communities, I’ve always held back that little bit of suspicion (some might say paranoia) because I realize how easy it is for people to misrepresent themselves in an online environment.
This week the online community where I spend the most time, Ship of Fools, has been hit big-time by an internet scammer posing as a number of different people. The story first broke on the separated-but-related website St. Pixels; subsequent discussion of the hoax at Ship of Fools revealed that the hoax identities there went back several months, involving the heart-rending story of a woman with cancer who “died” not long after registering on the Ship, and her heartbroken partner who, unable to carry on, killed himself shortly afterwards.
I hadn’t had a great deal of interaction with any of these made-up characters (who turned out to all be the product of a single brain), but some people had really gone all-out giving prayers, support, sending e-mails, cards and flowers, etc. Their sense of outrage and betrayal is understandable.
While this kind of scamming behavior is completely reprehensible, I have to say I understand something about the impulse that drives it. Maybe it comes with having a novelist’s imagination, but I can see the appeal of creating a fictional character and then seeing your character interact with real people who actually believe he/she exists. It’s pushing what a novelist does one step further.
In fact — true confession time — once, in the days long before the Internet, I perpetrated my own, very tiny, identity hoax. Perhaps that experience has left me with a lifelong fascination about this kind of thing.
It was 1982 and I sat in a university Intro to Calculus course, as bored as I’ve ever been before or since. I was doodling on my desktop with a pencil when, for no particular reason, I wrote the name “Terry O’Leary” in fancy script. It wasn’t the name of a real person: I just liked the euhponious sound of the two syllables.
Imagine my surprise when I came back the next day and found, in very girly handwriting underneath, “Hi Terry!”
I couldn’t help myself. I wrote “Hi,” and in those two simple letters, Terry O’Leary moved from a scrawl on a desktop to being — what? My sockpuppet, we’d say in these online days, but that term didn’t exist then. A mask behind which I hid, a character I created. A girl called Vicki believed that a guy called Terry was writing messages on a desk in a Math classroom, and I played along.
Vicki and “Terry” exchanged flirtatious notes for about two weeks (apparently they didn’t clean the desks very often in that room). She described herself, and I described “Terry” (in fact, I described a male friend of mine, thinking I might get him to play along with the hoax). Eventually, of course, Vicki wanted to meet Terry, and I went so far as to agree to a meeting. I tried to convince my friend to go meet her under the “Terry O’Leary” identity, but he wisely declined. Vicki went to the Science cafe and got stood up; I confessed later that day on the desktop. Vicki never replied; I felt awful about deceiving her, and later that week someone finally cleaned the desks. My career as a hoaxer was over.
The Terry O’Leary experience left me both with an understanding of the thrill and power trip behind creating a false identity and deceiving people with it — and also a keen awareness of how badly that kind of activity can hurt people. It was a bad thing to do. But I was 17, and stuck in calculus — cut me some slack here. I’m pretty sure Vicki has moved on, and I learned a lifelong lesson.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of a much more dramatic real-life scam. When I taught at a boarding school in the late 80s, a girl came to school with a tragic story. She had cancer, and her heartless parents had kicked their sick daughter out of the house. She had no family and a host of medical problems, and the staff and students of that school took her into their arms and into their hearts. They — we — were good people, and we responded to her terrible situation. We made allowances when she disappeared for days at a time to go into the hospital. We sent cards and flowers, and were flexible about her classwork. Kids even got blood tests to find out if they were the right type to be blood donors for her.
It took about four months before the whole thing fell apart. She had never had cancer, although I suppose she might have had Munchausen’s Syndrome. She had faked everything, including letters from doctors on genuine doctor letterhead. Even the school nurse had been taken in. She was about the same age I’d been when I perpetrated the “Terry O’Leary” scam, but hers was breathtakingly complex and daring. Everyone at school felt hurt, betrayed, outraged — just like the people on Ship of Fools are feeling right now. I felt — detached, I guess. As I do now. Part of me is repelled and part of me is fascinated.
I’m a writer. I create characters. In my mind, they walk, talk and breathe. They’re real to me, and if I do my job well enough they’ll do the same for my readers. But the writer or actor has an implied contract with the audience: You understand, of course, that this is all fiction. None of it will intrude into your real-life.
Hiding your own identity behind a mask — whether in a “fictionalized” memoir, or in an online persona — blurs a boundary. I’m teaching Lord of the Flies to my English 2201 class right now, and today I read aloud to my students the scene where Jack first paints his face and feels “liberated from shame and self-consciousness.” Most of us seek that liberating experience at some time or another, even if we don’t go to the extent of inventing sockpuppets to scam people. It’s easy to wear different masks in different situations — in my own life, Church Lady Trudy is definitely distinct from Artsy Trudy, who hangs around with a different crowd and talks about different things. How deep do those differences have to go before they compromise our integrity, our authenticity?
I think a lot about these questions. (As so some of my friends — read Jamie’s blog for an interesting parable along the same lines). On some level I do understand the urge that drives scammers and hoaxers, the urge to create an masked identity who’ll do the things I can’t or won’t do. That’s one of the reasons I always use my real name and real-life identity online, both on my blog and on boards where I post. I don’t necessarily think everyone should do this — I understand people’s concerns about privacy, and I understand that people are looking for different things from their online experience, so anonymity may be the way to go for some. But for me, as soon as I create a fictitious username I feel I am, to some extent, creating a character. And that can become a mask behind which I can hide.
My goal, I guess, is to wear as few — and as transparent — masks as possible. To be, as much as I can, the same person in every environment, real-life and online. So that if you like me — if you really like me — you’ll like the “real” me, not just my mask.