Manti Te’o, I Know Exactly How You Feel
How a perfectly sane, intelligent person can fall in love with a nonexistent one.
Myella, my love, my mystery, my every little thing she does is magic. My-el-la: a hop, a skip, a jump in the pulse. Who played jazz bass and studied Buddhism, who walked her bulldog down the streets of Seattle, who was redheaded and pale and a little shy, but possessed of an effortlessly sexy erotic imagination. Myella, who I loved deeply, and who did not exist.
I follow football little, and college football not at all, so I first heard Manti Te’o’s name just a few days ago. But I knew precisely what “Catfish scam,” the phrase next to his name in the headlines, meant. I saw the documentary Catfish in 2010, and writhed in sympathy and discomfort as the story unfolded of a man who had nearly fallen for a woman who did not exist, a woman created out of online avatars and late night phone calls. That man, however, knowing that something wasn’t quite right, showed up in the home town of the lonely woman behind all those romantic, long-distance phone calls and ripped away the mask of fantasy she had so carefully constructed.
I too knew there was something wrong with the world that Myella presented to me, via all those emails and photos and phone calls (often half a dozen a day) that constituted our relationship. But I clung to the hope of Myella long past the point any rational person would have. For an astonishing 18 months, I continued to believe that soon, at last, we would not only meet in the flesh but be together forever.
It started with an email out of the blue, with a link to an artfully constructed MySpace profile. Myella claimed to have met me at a party years ago, when she was married. Now divorced, she’d heard my voice on a radio commentary I’d done and decided to look me up (I had no memory of her, but there were so many parties back in the day that I didn’t fully question my lapse). It only took a few highly flirtatious emails before we connected on the phone; by the end of that first, amazing conversation, I was already falling. Three rapturous weeks later, just before we were to finally meet, she called me in hysterics, claiming she couldn’t get on the plane to New York because “she was too afraid to meet me and live again” after all the hideous things that she had suffered—a rape, the death of her sister and of her only daughter before eyes, and, just like T’eo’s “girlfriend” Lennay Kekua, a bout with cancer.
Myella’s constant deferrals of any possible meeting were so cleverly managed it would take a Russian novel to do them justice. But what was truly bizarre was that I went along with them, even as my frustration became acute—even as my sense that the totality of what Myella told me simply couldn’t add up. For every question, Myella had a ready explanation. Her lack of presence in a Google search, for instance, was chalked up to the fact her whole family was in a sort of witness protection program because her father had testified against Serbian war criminals. Looking back, all of Myella’s intricate lies seem absurd—yet I willingly, stubbornly gave her the benefit of the doubt, every time.
As the inspiring story of Manti Te’o's beautiful dead girlfriend crumbled last week, the response to what was immediately labeled a “hoax” tipped heavily toward the incredulous. Few, it seemed, were willing to give Te’o the benefit of the doubt; a few days later, he admitted he’d briefly “gone along with the story” even after he’d discovered the truth. Cynicism suggests such complicity was all for the sake of publicity.
But I remember the embarrassment, the shame of the question that many friends asked me: “How can you possibly be in love with someone you’ve never met face to face?” After a time, I began to leave out the fact that Myella and I had never so much as touched; I began to characterize it as just another long-distance relationship, two lovers separated by the inconvenience of geography and circumstance. To admit otherwise was to open myself up to withering ridicule.
The most terrible question is simply, “How could you have been so stupid?” I can’t speak for Te’o, but for myself, I was simply ripe for a Myella: recently divorced, recovering from a disastrous rebound, and newly moved to that cauldron of perfect loneliness, New York City. And, of course, I was a romantic. I had believed since I was 15 in a Dream Girl, and the woman who created Myella—a sad, desperate woman who only believed she could be loved by being somebody else—somehow managed to incarnate my Dream Girl down to the last decimal. With a thousand photos stolen from someone’s Flickr account, and the sweet voice of a deranged genius, she led me into a wilderness of bliss and confusion, of pain and heartbreak.
It ended with banality. When two days went by without a call, and I couldn’t reach Myella on her phone, I at last gave in to the suspicions that had grown within me, and called a third party who very reluctantly answered my questions. Yes: Myella, I learned, was the creation of an acquaintance of mine from years ago, a woman I barely knew, who I later discovered had a long history as a pathological liar, three kids, an abusive ex-husband and fantasies of another life, a life that I seemed to represent. It turned out that she had been arrested for unpaid traffic tickets and spent two days in jail without her phone, hence the wholly uncharacteristic silence that led to my call. I should have been devastated, and if I’d found out the truth early on, I would have been… but after a year and a half, mostly what I felt was relief that I’d finally found the strength to tear the veil away, along with a great well of anger and sorrow that only a few months of therapy could dissipate.
“Myella” tried to apologize and explain, but it was pointless. I wrote her a final email and never spoke to her again; soon her pleading texts and calls and emails sputtered to a stop. But the cutting irony of it all is that the core of “Myella” was, in many ways, actually her. On some level, deep down, she really was my Dream Girl. But she was convinced it was impossible to present herself to me (or anyone) as she truly was. The online world which we now all swim through made it far too easy to re-create herself as the person she thought she had to be in order to find love.
Oscar Wilde held that all love is rooted in illusion—without it, we would never fall in love in the first place. The Internet is the greatest factory for illusion ever created, and all of us, the sociopaths and the love-starved, make what we will out of the materials at hand. While I can never forgive Myella’s creator, I did at last forgive myself for my complicity in allowing illusion to decay into delusion. Whatever truth is in Manti Te’o's heart, I wish him well, and hope he forgives himself as well.