Cyberstalkers have been in the news again recently, but not much mention has yet been made of another unpleasant phenomenon haunting the Web: the emotional vampire. Making himself (or herself) quite indispensable, this person is your best friend, your most fantastic lover, the wonderful family you never had. For some, online relationships offer the chance not to find the love of your life but to get kicks from manipulating the emotions of others. In the worst cases, these individuals carry the deceit into real life.
As we all know, e-mail gives those good with language the ability to wrap a relationship around with such intimate text that soon nothing else matters but an intense one-to-one filling every waking minute. You might pretend to be several different people to several different lovers, with some identities sustainable offline, others not.
Thus, when I first met my lover, he was a female grad student called Cindi. Also a professor in a virtual classroom. Also a man called Rhyys. Also a top-level university administrator. Also a cyborg called Plex. Also a devout Catholic. Also a sadist called Gandore. Also a devoted husband and father. Also a very sad, very frustrated small-town inadequate person with a need to exploit and control.
The story of what happened to me in cyberspace is, on the surface, pretty similar to the familiar tale wherein net user No. 1 pretends to be something s/he is not, thereby tricking net user No. 2 into falling in love with her/him. What's different in my case is, first, the number of people who were deceived; second, the fact that the perpetrator is a respectable, high-ranking academic who, one would think, has no need to pretend to be a female chemistry student wearing dangly earrings; and third, the fact that the man seems to prey specifically on artists and writers.
So what did this rather plain, little-traveled, only son of an upstate New York Polish grocer actually do to ensnare so many intelligent men and women? Well, he identified our creative passions and used them as a template to form himself into what we most desire. He is an emotional tourist warming his hands on the fires of other people's lives, focusing his attentions on artists and writers because their imaginations are so near the surface that it's easy to plunder them. For example, since I write about computer technologies, he did his research, read all of my books and articles and made himself into what he knew would fascinate me most: an ungendered cyborg. With another woman who writes vampire fiction he became a vampire slave master, a persona that, though pathetic, would probably raise hilarity among his students.
For more than three years I was mesmerized by him despite the open bewilderment of friends and family, who couldn't imagine what I saw in such a homely character. But none of us guessed the truth: that I had given three years of my life and promised the whole of my future to a sociopath who preys on others for his own gain without regard to the consequences for his victims. Another description would perhaps be "succubus," a demon who assumes female form to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep, though in his case, it is in order to have sex with men online. He is a shape shifter who molds himself into whatever is needed and constantly searches for new forms to take. Although a familiar type in the flesh, his ease in setting traps online makes him something new: a cybersuccubus. And the peculiarities of his practice make him very hard to accuse.
While I have no idea why he did what he did, I can at least outline the story.
In 1995 I began researching a novel set in the online community of LambdaMOO, a virtual space in which several people in different locations can talk to one another online by typing simultaneously, creating a constantly moving screen that shows short, abrupt sentences that manage to convey personalities and emotions at a surprisingly complex level. In a MOO (a multiuser domain that is object oriented), words are all you are -- and so the more adept your language, the more effective your presence.
In this setting, on a day in November 1995, I was type-talking with a female postgraduate student bearing the fanciful online name of Cindi and a description to match. ("A 5-foot-10 green-eyed redhead with a runaway imagination and a fuzzy idea of the line between virtual and real. She runs five miles or so every morning to make sure all the pizza she eats doesn't take up residence. Her hair is short enough that her earrings can dangle when she walks.") She introduced me to one of her friends, a middle-aged chemistry professor recently promoted to a powerful administrative position at his private Connecticut university. "All his students love him!" she told me enthusiastically. His online name was Rhyys.
I was briefly involved online with both of them, but the relationship with Rhyys soon became intense. We were talk-typing online several times a day until Christmas Eve 1995, when, in a slow and emotional ritual, we each typed our real-life names. After that, there was no going back. I already knew by then he was a devout Catholic, that he had been married for 20 years, that he had one small child, born late in the marriage. Of course, I should have turned away, but I did not. Instead, I opened my heart and he walked straight in. Id never met him, never even heard his voice on the phone, but he felt like my lover, my brother, my best friend and my colleague all rolled into one. I was especially struck by his thoughtfulness. For example, he stated the need for some kind of message system in case either of us was taken ill. And who would tell Cindi, he asked? Something had to be worked out. He promised to give it some thought. A few days later he was begging me to trust him: "Just stay loving me," he wrote. "I will try with all I have to not let you down. Don't be scared of crawling under my skin, I won't crush you," he promised.
Looking back on it now, it's hard to explain exactly why I took any of that romantic tosh as seriously as I did. And why did I connect with him so strongly in the first place? All the usual manifestations of attraction were there -- the faster heartbeat, the heightened sense of that one other person, the erotic intimacy -- and yet there were no bodies. Nor was there any chemical or physical interaction beyond those we imagined, invented or role-played. But the fact is, despite the lack of all those usual signals, I fell for him long before I even heard his voice on the phone. I suppose I formed an idea of him through the "tone" of his voice -- the words he typed and the stylistic nuances of his phrases, plus a sense of his personality conveyed by what he actually said in those phrases. Our huge ability to imagine combines with an intense desire to find perfection and creates, as we say in England, a silk purse out of a sow's ear. But that moment of free fall in the weightlessness of anonymity can lead to a very painful crash to earth when you discover that the person you fell for was only exciting because you imagined him/her to be so.
It's reminiscent of the famous experiment of biofeedback suits, when a couple (he in Paris and she in New York) were hooked up remotely with the intention that they would arouse each other via remote touching and mutual feedback. It seemed to work very well, to be enjoyable for both, and it was only later discovered that in fact the connection had failed right at the start and they never had been connected at all. In other words, they had been arousing not each other but themselves! In my case, my lover's clichid phrases of love and passion created a facsimile of emotion that was as effective as the real thing, and the fact that they had never been connected to the truth was something it took me a while to discover.
In July 1996, nine months after we first met online, he flew to England to meet me, and we fell instantly in love. That summer, I also went to his hometown in New England. But in September, he made an astounding confession: Not only had he been posing as a woman online all the time he had known me, but that woman was Cindi! While I was not shocked by the gender-bending (that is part of everyday life in cyberspace), I was very shocked by the lie. But I was in love with him, and I was used to Internet life, where people often try out new identities. And after all, I was writing a book about the subject. How could I really object to this new revelation? I was so steeped in the mysteries of the Web that my ardor overrode my caution, and I saw his duality not as deceit but as a marvelous bonus: two lovers for the price of one. He deleted Cindi from LambdaMOO, but her memory remained strong, especially when we met in real life and I stared into his pale eyes to see her looking back at me. We had always played around with gender boundaries, and Cindi's continued ghostly presence made everything somehow even more complete as we grew closer and closer. She was still part of us.
The powerful effect that Rhyys had on me was his apparent presence in my previous books. In my first novel, "Correspondence," a woman is transformed into a software virus permeating her cyborg lover's body. In my second, "Water," the main character imagines a man into existence with the power of her desire. In another, the characters are attracted to each other purely by the power of words, just like the text interface of MOOs where words are all you are. Thus, I felt that I had written this man several times already, and now here he was manifested in the sometimes-virtual, sometimes-real flesh.
My new novel turned into a mixture of invented and real online experience. Rhyys (not, of course, his real name) and I were leading a heady life, logged on for hours every night, type-talking endlessly, exchanging histories, exchanging intimacies. We experimented with programming new environments and other personas. I recorded our often bizarre interactions, writing them into my book, and if they sometimes seemed pretty strange, they were real for us even if nobody else would ever believe them. We exchanged genders. We invented new genders. We created virtual cyborg bodies and played in them. We built laboratories, caves and whole sequences of rooms, all programmed into the ever-changing textual interface of a MOO. By now, I was absorbed and obsessed by him: his imagination, his eroticism, his intensity. When we were together in the flesh and I looked into his face, I could see it shifting from male to female, from softness to hardness, from dream to reality. I could not get enough of him. He had become my only muse. I dedicated my novel to "My Beloved Technician." I wanted to be with him and write about him forever.
Next: It finally fell to me to burst the bubble.