As my lover and I explored virtuality we worked to make ourselves real as well. Our plan was that he would move into a campus house in Connecticut, and I would join him as often as I could until it became possible for us to marry. In the spring of 1997 he told me he had consulted a divorce lawyer. Things were getting underway, I thought, but I was mistaken. That meeting -- if it ever took place at all -- started a series of "leavings," which were always aborted at the last minute. But there was always a plausible reason, and so still I waited. More fool me.
I completed my novel and sent it to my agent, but one editor after another declined to publish it. Though they thought it well-written and challenging ("an exciting and bravura performance," said one in turning it down), they found it didn't quite ring true. And they were right. It wasn't true. I just didn't know it at the time.
It finally fell to me to burst the bubble. In May 1999, more than two years after my lover's decision to divorce his wife to be with me, I called early one morning to find her in the house where he had told me that he now lived alone for part of the week. By then, he and I had been together for three and a half years. Despite being on opposite sides of the Atlantic, we had managed to see each other every few months and, during a period when I was working in the U.S. in the spring of '98, every three weeks. But now his wife, who he had told me rarely set foot in that house and never slept in it, was there on the end of the line at 7 a.m.! I had to speak. A couple of questions confirmed the suspicions I had been trying for so long to suppress and so, tormented by the years of lying, I spilled out the truth to her there and then on the phone. Or at least, some of it. There was not enough time to relate the whole of this complex relationship. And she told me some truths in return, including that it was untrue that they slept in separate rooms and that she had agreed to divorce him.
We two women were incredibly calm at that moment. I answered her questions as honestly and as gently as I could -- after all, I was talking to a woman whose husband was about to leave her for me. But one thing seemed clear: She sounded very level, very human, very nice. Even in that short time I came to like her. I had no idea how to begin unveiling the past few years, could not tell her that he had sent me interior photographs of the house, even a photograph of "his" (soon to be "our") bed. I could not possibly tell her we had even discussed the dicor. Now the conversation turns over and over in my head -- what would it have been like if either of us had known what he was really doing? We thought we were discussing the problem of two women and one man, and that was painful enough. But we weren't. We were on the edge of something much nastier. Later that morning, when I called and told him what I had done (she, clearly, had kept her own counsel), he was furious. "Now, thanks to you," he raged, "the divorce will take even longer!"
But late that night he sent the last communication I would ever receive from him. It was in stark contrast to an e-mail he'd sent just four days before, as intense and loving as ever, in which he listed the ways in which his life had changed, saying that every day now revolved around his thoughts with me. But there was a new seed growing in his mind of which I was unaware. I had recently, in passing, related to him the story of Othello, not realizing that I was unwittingly supplying him with the model of a man who deliberately sets out to deceive and then continues the torment to the bitter end by coldly refusing to explain himself. So when my phone call had finally caught him out in the first of what would later prove to be a very long list of lies, he remembered Iago and promptly became him. After all, one thing he was good at was taking on a role.
So, less than 24 hours after the previous day's "Goodnight, I love you," he wrote a single short paragraph ending with "I wish not to speak." And since that day, he has never spoken or written to me again.
Were this not bad enough, I then discovered the real truth about the man I had planned to marry. Two weeks later, totally estranged from him and still in a state of complete shock, I remembered an anonymous message I had received online some months previously, claiming that Rhyys was cheating on me and that he had a lover in another virtual world called Strangebrew, where he went by the name of Gandore. When I had gone to look, I found the story extremely unlikely, since my ex-lover is something of an old-fashioned dresser, whereas Gandore's description of himself -- wearing "jeans and boots" -- just didn't fit. Nor did his longer description make sense: "Quiet and thoughtful, watching the fireflies dance as he walks unseeing and confident in the nurturing darkness. He hears a drum beat and is comforted, secure and sure in its sound, and in the one who sets the sound ablaze, his loved [name withheld]." "Watching" and "unseeing"? How could that be? He was much more articulate than that. However, there was the clue of the spelling mistake: While imaginative, my ex-lover is a lousy speller, and Gandore's virtual room, called Ethereal Existance, made me demur. The typo was just too familiar ... but ... no ... how could this possibly be the man who was the love of my life? It made no sense. There was no way it was he.
Now it was two weeks since he had turned into Iago and refused to speak to me with no goodbye, no regrets expressed, no apology -- just total silence. I was desperate for some understanding in the midst of my turmoil. Late on the night of June 2, 1999, unable to sleep and tormented by the turning inside out of my entire reality, I decided to go back to Strangebrew and take a second look. What I found out astounded me. That night I began a search for the truth that introduced me to people and places I had known nothing about. It also put me in contact with some of the most unpleasant individuals I have ever met online or off.
As the days passed, I spoke with many people at Strangebrew and was even approached by people who had heard of my quest for information and wanted to talk. Within a few days I had plenty of evidence to show that the whole time my lover had been "in love" with me, he had also been conducting a whole series of parallel relationships online and quite possibly offline too. While I had been agonizing over our adultery and begging him to tell his wife the truth so that we could start our new life together, he was busy operating in not just one but a number of other identities. In other words, I discovered that the reality from which I had wrought my fiction was indeed a fiction all on its own. Those editors had been correct when they said they found the novel hard to believe. It certainly was.
The revelations came as a series of thunderingly hurtful shocks, but as the months passed I began to piece the story together -- still a partial one, glued together from my experience, accounts gleaned from others who may or may not have told me the truth and a certain amount of creative guessing. It is about a number of people, all of whom turned out to be the same person. It is about confusion and deception and a hell of a lot of pain. While I made hours of log files recording conversations online with a number of people who were involved with him, I have no "real" individuals to call as witnesses, since (understandably) they want to protect their anonymity. Slowly, through many laboriously typed conversations, I learned that my ex-lover took on different forms for different lovers: for some, a vampire; for others, a dominant; for others, a woman. I met several men who claimed that he had online sex with them as a woman and then later revealed the trick and made fools of them in the public rooms of Strangebrew MOO.
In MOOs (multiuser domains that are object oriented), since people give themselves names and descriptions that can be changed at any time, it is clearly impossible to tell who a typist is in real life. When a person writes a description of himself or herself as "a petite brunet wearing a red halter-neck dress and smiling at you," it can be hard to resist picturing that person as this in your mind, despite the likelihood that the person typing at the keyboard is large, blond and decidedly male. But I have always believed that if a man wants to live as a woman online, his right to do so should be defended. Cyberspace provides the chance to escape physical boundaries and explore new parts of ourselves, and it is vital that we adapt to those uncertainties rather than simply condemn them. However, the liberty to explore and experiment with identity should not be allowed to extend to the freedom to hurt and exploit. In the real world, there have always been confidence tricksters and bigamists like Rhyys, and of course the Web offers the ideal place for people with inadequately developed personalities to weave a web of lies.
At Strangebrew, Gandore/Rhyys was well-known for having personas in dozens of different MOOs. I discovered that he talked openly about me, proud of the fact that I am a writer. But we had no physical relationship, he claimed; although he once was in love with me, I had "started to go crazy," so he couldn't leave me because I would kill myself. Not everyone believed that, especially as he was known to be such a liar and almost everyone I met either had been hurt by Gandore or had instinctively disliked him and steered clear. One woman told me that she had been desperate with jealousy over me and was especially distraught when he traveled to England, but he always assured her we were not sleeping together -- a stark contrast to my memory of him turning to me in the morning, his eyes wet with tears, saying how marvelous it was to wake up next to a warm body after he and his wife had slept apart for so long.
But his most impressive invented identity of all was that of the humorous, energetic and intelligent man I had fallen in love with, with whom I spoke on the phone for many hours, the friend of my daughters and colleagues, the devout Catholic tormented by his adultery but hopeful of getting an annulment so that he could marry me, the man who had introduced me to religion and taken me to Mass for the first time in my life. At Christmas in 1998 he wrote to me how he had been sitting in church and reflecting that "adultry" (his spelling) can never be the best way. "But," he wrote, "that is where I found myself and even though it could never be erased, I desparately [sic] needed to proceed to the finish where my union with the one person on this planet who I can walk with hand in hand in a lock step is the focus of the family which can foster a loving open relationship where problems are not buried, when ideas are not buried, and where emotional union knows no bounds." Phew! A big sentence and, of course, an even bigger lie.
So why did I fall for it? Isnt it obvious? Because I wanted to. I wanted what he offered: the passion, the trust, the togetherness, the total absorption. Who wouldn't? And as with any victim of crime, what happened to me could happen to anyone. What Gandore did to me, he could do again to others. He is sexually corrupt, self-obsessed, dangerous, utterly coldhearted and very good at hiding behind his respectability. The characters of Rhyys and Gandore no longer exist. He abandoned Rhyys at the end of our relationship and Strangebrew MOO went offline in March. No doubt it has restarted somewhere else, and no doubt he is still out there, using different names in different MOOs, exploiting different people, playing different nasty games. Maybe he's the man/woman you met online last night. Maybe he's the professional academic in charge of your children's education.
How can we protect our freedom to explore and experiment on the Internet? Exposure is the most potent defense against this type of unpleasant character, but the online world can be very amorphous, and the gap between virtual life and the flesh makes accusations difficult to make. So how can we publicly identify these poisonous online succubi?