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This story is part of the Internet Time Machine, a collection about life online in the 2010s.
The internet has never really been a safe place.
But in the early 2000s, when I was in high school, it seemed safe. It was a moment in time just before our then-tenuous connection to technology turned into something more like an umbilical cord. We had AIM and Myspace, but the first iPhone — and the constant connection it brought us — was still a few years off. The internet of my early teens was a world apart: Whatever happened online felt like it was happening to an avatar. After all, it wasn’t real life, right?
Maybe that’s why I look back on what happened with something almost like fondness. I got catfished, in extraordinary fashion, before catfishing was actually a thing. Today, I remember it as a funny tale full of weirdo teens and their hijinks. I even thought enough time had passed that I could call the people involved and laugh with them about it all. But when I tried, I found out something that shocked me: Nobody else was laughing.
It turns out this episode I’m remembering as harmless, maybe even hilarious, was deeply unsettling and traumatic for everyone but me.
In 2004 or thereabouts, my good friend Cari met a boy. He was the cousin of a girl Cari had grown up with. She’d met him once, she said, and could hazily remember that meeting. But they’d recently reconnected on Myspace. His name was Grant. He had dark hair and a black-and-white profile picture, and Cari was head over heels. She talked to him all the time, and they made excited plans for the day when he’d visit our New Jersey suburb from his home in Massachusetts.
It wasn’t long before Grant told Cari he had a friend: Cory. Soon, I was staying up late, chatting online, and, then, on the phone to this friend Cory, who arrived in Massachusetts from the UK. His British accent was dreamy. Grant and Cory, along with a handful of their friends who we eventually got to know, posted the angsty, acoustic songs they wrote to Myspace, and we swooned over these brooding, creative boys. It was never “official” between Cory and me, but when he uploaded a song he said was about me, I was smitten. For Cari, it was more intense. Cory and I were doing some heavy-duty flirting, but she and Grant had something that ran deeper and seemed more serious.
Our long-distance flirtations went on for a few months, and nothing seemed off until the boys — after weeks of our needling — finally planned a trip to see us. But a few days before they were supposed to leave, there was a car accident, they said. Their friend, who we’d also gotten to know, was critically injured. Then, he was dead.
After that, we got nothing but radio silence from Grant and Cory.
I don’t remember what it was that made me grow skeptical, but I started Googling. Finding no reports of an accident, especially not one that was fatal to a local teenager, I started asking lots of questions. I asked Cari to tell me when she’d been on the phone with Grant. I wanted to figure out if I’d ever talked to Cory at the same time. I hadn’t. I called the high school in the town where they lived, explaining my suspicions and asking if there were students by those names enrolled. There weren’t.
It’s hard to hide anything from your mom when you’re 15, and the whispered phone conversations behind my bedroom door had her Spidey-sense tingling. I didn’t enlist my mom in the investigation so much as she elbowed her way into it. We put Cory’s photo into a reverse Google image search and found the Myspace profile of a 15-year-old boy in Texas. We used the Whitepages and called his dad. My mom tried to explain to him what was happening, that someone was using his son’s photos to trick her daughter. Though he was concerned, I’m not sure the dad fully understood. It would be another five years before Nev Schulman made his documentary, Catfish, and the tactics of online impersonation became familiar to us.
The next time Cory called (it was always from a private number), I asked him, “What’s your real name?” He hung up and never called again. It took Cari a little longer to let go, and she kept answering Grant’s calls for a couple weeks. At first, she didn’t want to believe that we’d been fooled in such a spectacular way. She got angry with me for even suggesting it. There was enough doubt, though, to make her ask questions too. Eventually the evidence built up too much for her to ignore, but our friendship never really recovered.
It came to light that the entire thing — the elaborate group of boys, their voices on the phone, even their acoustic tracks on Myspace — was the creation of a girl Cari went to school with. The same girl who’d convinced Cari that Grant was her cousin and that Cari had met him years ago at a family party. I didn’t really know her, though I knew of her, and by virtue of attending a different high school, I missed everything that came after — how the gossip about the whole thing spread, and what it was like for Cari to go to school and see her every day. I don’t know how their classmates reacted, but I’m sure it wasn’t fun for either of them.
When I reached out to her — the catfish — to talk about it all almost 15 years later, I got no response. Ironically, I got a little stalkerish about it: hunting down her email address and phone number from a long-outdated résumé posted on a college-sponsored portfolio website. Her silence spoke volumes.
I also asked Cari if she wanted to talk about it, figuring we’d spend a while on the phone, laughing at ourselves and about the utter weirdness of that whole chapter in our teenagerhood. Her response to my Facebook message was crystal clear: This was not something she wanted to talk about. Not now, not ever. “Hope you’re well,” she said, signaling the end of the conversation.
When I brought it up with my mom, her reaction was immediate and emotional. “It was terrifying,” she said. “I felt so helpless. I hated watching you go through that. I was so scared seeing you girls being lied to, not knowing who you’d really been talking to in your bedroom, who you were sharing your secrets with. It was so awful. It was traumatizing. Don’t you remember?”
Apparently I don’t. Not the way everyone else does, anyway. And according to Elizabeth Chatel, a Connecticut-based family therapist and an expert in trauma, that might have something to do with my feelings about the internet at the time and the division that still existed between my online life and my real one.
“It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it is a little bit of a time capsule of a different era,” Chatel says. “Now we’re in a place where the pendulum has swung the other way—our online persona and how we feel about ourselves as real people is all tied up with what happens on social media. Now it’s almost like things don’t happen in real life if you don’t put it online. But then, it wasn’t like that for everyone yet. There was still a whole life happening away from your computer screen.”
A couple years after the catfishing, Myspace became obsolete. So did AIM. We all got iPhones and Facebook and Instagram profiles. I got a degree and a career that depends on the internet. Fully half my life happens here now, and the potential to be traumatized by online happenings is very real.
But back then, I wasn’t traumatized, Chatel says, because I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t afraid because it didn’t feel like it was happening to me.
“It’s the same reason people get addicted to those games like The Sims,” she says. “We have an addiction to certainty. But nothing in real life is certain, and that creates anxiety. In those games, you can build your house and choose your partner and buy a dog. You’re 100 percent in charge of what happens, and the repercussions are nothing. It soothes the brain, and nothing is dangerous or scary.”
And that’s true: I don’t ever remember being scared. I remember being surprised and more than a little disappointed, but the strongest thing I felt was a kind of exhilaration brought on by my quest for the truth. I liked running down the clues and digging for answers. Chatel is right on the money: It felt like a game, and games can’t really hurt you.
That same protective barrier my computer screen created for me is also likely what gave the catfish the confidence to keep up her charade for so long.
The anonymity of the internet, writes Yair Amichai-Hamburger, PhD, director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology in Herzliya, Israel, and author of Internet Psychology: The Basics, “frees people from many of the issues that constrict them in their day to day offline lives. In other words, the anonymous persona on the Internet has no past history, he or she can choose to be whoever they wish.” This gives people such as, presumably, my catfish, “far greater feelings of control than they [have] when communicating face to face,” Amichai-Hamburger continues. “They can easily ‘disappear’ with no further consequences. This offers feelings of safety and security.”
But for Cari, Chatel tells me after I recount the whole story, things may have gotten real. The emotions she felt for Grant were genuine, so the trauma of discovering he didn’t exist was also real.
“He existed,” Chatel says. “For her, if he made her feel pretty and important, that was real. To feel like you have a connection like that with somebody and then suddenly you don’t, that’s loss and grief. And then on top of that, to have it be someone you know, someone you go to school with, to have to think, ‘I poured my soul out to that girl,’ that’s incredibly traumatizing.”
Hindsight being what it is, then, it’s easy for me to laugh at my 14-year-old self, a girl who was willing to overlook so many red flags — the blocked phone number, the fact that Cory always called me and never the other way around, the lack of visits — to keep the attention of a cute boy. I even find myself impressed by the depth of the characters that my catfish created. Chatel points out, “If it wasn’t deceptive, it would be an act of creative genius.” And that’s exactly how I feel, too.
But for Cari, I think remembering it all is hard; the memories are tinted by heartbreak and embarrassment. “At age 14, you want your peers to think you’re cool,” Chatel says. “Being tricked like that does not look cool.”
And for my mom, remembering the incident reminds her of the real fear she experienced and of how impossible it felt to protect her teenage daughter at a time when the world was getting bigger and more connected. “It’s not even what happened,” my mom says. “It’s just the potential of what could have happened if.”
Setting out to write about the whole episode, I got a quick lesson on perspective. Cory and Grant, the dead friend, and the Myspace pages — all this could only have happened the way it did, when it did: before the pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction. The internet then — for me, at least— was a place I could visit from the safety of my childhood bedroom, where nothing could really hurt me. But maybe it was my perspective that was skewed. What happened wasn’t harmless. People got hurt.
Of course they did: The internet has never really been a safe place.
Keep exploring the Internet Time Machine.