[This story is reprinted from the October 10, 2013 edition of The Magazine. The Magazine is currently running a Kickstarter campaign featuring a “best-of” book (in hardcover and ebook formats) featuring lots of great stories, including one of mine. Please consider pledging to this sure-to-be-awesome book project.]
In January 2013, the sports blog Deadspin broke the story about star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. Unlike so many sporting scandals, which tend to be about performance-enhancing drugs, illicit affairs, or amateur athletes taking money from boosters, this was a story about the Internet and misplaced trust and, most of all, about how easily people can make emotional connections with a voice on the end of a phone line or supportive words in an email or text message.
In interviews, Te’o had repeatedly referred to Lennay Kekua, whom he described as his girlfriend. Late in the season, he spoke emotionally about her tragic death. But it turned out that Te’o’s girlfriend never existed — she was a construct of a male friend of Te’o’s, built through emails and texts and a handful of fake photographs and phone calls.
The typical scandal narrative took hold. Te’o was a liar seeking sympathy by inventing a girlfriend and then tragically killing her, or he was a closeted gay man hiding his relationship with the real person behind the messages. The most generous interpretation was that Te’o was a victim of a scam by a disturbed admirer, but that strained credulity: how could a young man possibly fall in love with a woman he’d never met?
I wasn’t surprised. Twenty-five years earlier it had happened to me.
The Moonglow incident
It’s a testament to how ubiquitous electronic communication and culture have become that in 2012 a star college football player could fall in love online. In 1987 it took a little more effort and a lot more nerdiness. When I was in high school I hosted a BBS, or online bulletin board system, on the Apple IIe in my bedroom. I grew up in a small town, Sonora, in California; there weren’t local access numbers for online services such as CompuServe, so I started a BBS after a few months running a pirate transfer server (Cat-Fur, a sort of an ’80s version of BitTorrent).
Back in those days, computer bulletin board systems were closely analogous to their real-world counterparts. One person would dial in, read messages, leave some of his or her own, and then hang up. Then someone else would dial in, and so it would go, a community built by a stack of sequential phone calls. Mine collected as users a small group of my friends, but plenty of strangers also somehow found their way through the doors. A single mom whose hemophiliac son made her doubly isolated from our real-world community. A popular high school tennis player from the next town over. A few retirees who had embraced computers and used their modems to reach out into the world. And then there were the fake girls.
My online computer-geek community was almost entirely male. Occasionally a girl or woman would appear, and in some cases — such as the single mother — they were real. More often, though, it was some guy creating a new account and posing as a girl in order to stir up the boys. (These days I’d call what they were doing trolling, but back then we could only wish for such a useful description of bad online behavior.)
In late 1986 it had been proposed, probably at a meetup of local online folk, that the most recent new member of our community was not real. I had been skeptical of her when she had registered, but during one of her sessions she offered to pick up her voice phone and prove herself. She picked up her phone, I picked up mine, and the screaming modems cut off.
“This is Moonglow,” she said, referencing her online handle. I can still remember the voice, but not much of the conversation, which was weird and awkward and brief. I’d like to point to that as evidence that she wasn’t who she claimed to be, but the sad fact is that 16-year-old me had mostly awkward conversations, most especially with girls.
When the Manti Te’o story broke, I flashed back to that phone call. The Te’o story suggested that though Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was the author of the emails, he may have gotten an accomplice to pose as the girlfriend on the phone, or he may have just successfully put on a plausibly female voice. (Tuiasosopo also appropriated a woman’s Facebook photos to use as additional proof.)
Even computer nerds in 1986 were savvy enough to know that someone whose communications to you were entirely typed in ASCII text could be someone they were not. Creating a fictional person is a little like a magic trick. A skeptical audience can be won over with the right misdirection: a phone call with a woman’s voice, some pictures, maybe even a handwritten letter in a feminine script. What was Manti Te’o’s girlfriend but Moonglow writ large?
In January of 1987 I discovered a new user of my BBS, one with a complicated handle right out of a bad fantasy novel. (I’d complain, but my handle at the time fit that description too.) In short order her postings revealed that she was a girl from Michigan, one year older than me, who had stumbled onto the BBS expecting my old pirate file-transfer site and stayed to chat.
The recent Moonglow incident still on my mind, I decided to force the issue. The next time I saw that she was connected to the BBS, I broke in to her session and began chatting with her. I don’t recall if I mentioned my skepticism about her true identity, but she offered to immediately do what Moonglow had done and switch to voice. I picked up my phone, the squeal of the modems dropped, and I heard a faint female voice with a soft Midwestern accent.
She was from Michigan, and she was using an illegally hacked long-distance code to call long distance. We talked for half an hour or more, and the next day when she logged in we switched to voice again. I didn’t realize what was happening, because I’d never experienced anything like it before. I hadn’t ever met her in person and she lived more than two thousand miles away, but that didn’t matter. I was hopelessly in love.
A letter sent by my girlfriend when she was in New York City on a school trip.
The people who doubt Manti Te’o can’t understand how he could’ve believed in Lennay Kekua’s existence without more evidence. But there was evidence, comprising photos, texts, emails, and that voice at the other end of the phone. I had evidence, too, in the form of hundreds of hours of phone calls and a rapidly growing pile of pictures and letters. I never had any doubt that she was who she said she was.
Strangely, it’s actually easier for me to have doubts now, two decades later. The photos and the letters could’ve been phony, the phone calls a put-on. But the sheer time investment just doesn’t make sense. Almost every night for a year we talked on the phone for several hours. Why would someone invest that kind of time creating something that wasn’t real?
Now let me be clear about this: I was a gigantic nerd in high school, and in 1988 there was no such thing as geek chic. I had a bowl haircut and wore Doctor Who and X-Men T-shirts and got straight A’s and played dice baseball at lunchtime. Manti Te’o, on the other hand, was a Notre Dame football star. One of these people might be happy with any girl who would give him the time of day, even if she was a disembodied voice at the end of a phone line. But the other one? Why would he opt for someone he couldn’t touch when, one assumes, he could have his pick of any willing co-ed in South Bend, Indiana?
The assumptions implicit in that statement are breathtaking. Plenty of women would not throw themselves, groupie-like, at any star football player. Many men are not interested in women who would. Te’o is Mormon — a religion that is stricter than most about sinful behavior, most especially pre-marital sex — and was a student at a Catholic university to boot. American college football players are scheduled within an inch of their lives, between school and practices. Perhaps a heartfelt, meaningful long-distance relationship was actually better for Te’o — he got emotional fulfillment without any physical temptation from Lennay, and being faithful to his girlfriend allowed him to avoid any on-campus entanglements.
So that explains Te’o, but what about that 16-year-old nerd in Sonora, California? It’s fair to say that as an unpopular geek, I had limited romantic opportunities. (That’s a fancy way of saying that not only had I not kissed a girl, I hadn’t come close.) I was terrified of girls. I liked them, sure, so much that every interaction I had with them inevitably led to stammering, saying stupid jokes, sweating profusely, or running away.
For Te’o, perhaps having that remote girlfriend was convenient and safe, something that removed temptation from his life. For me it was something different: She didn’t set off any of the alarm bells that made me terrified of the girls in my classes. We were just two voices, two minds communicating with each other unencumbered by social status or family history or physical appearance or any of the other hangups that might have made us shy away from each other.
Something funny happened during those hundreds of hours of conversation: I stopped being terrified of girls. Having a girl as such a close friend, and then having a girlfriend, reprogrammed my adolescent brain to stop thinking of girls as lip-glossed objects of fear/desire and start thinking of them as people. And since I had a girlfriend, I was able to approach them as friends and not worry about falling into the does-he-like-me/does-she-like-me pit of despair. In college, I had more women friends than men.
Did having such an intense intellectual and emotional relationship at 16 make me start thinking of women as people and stop thinking of them simply as objects of desire? It’s clear that some men never really get over that.
Michigan is like Canada, sort of
One of the most common reactions to Te’o’s story was to assume that he’s gay and was using his relationship with Lennay as a cover. She was his girlfriend who lived in Canada. I was remarkably unaware of social issues when I was 16, so I never even considered that people might think that my girlfriend who lived in Michigan was actually a story I made up.
I do recall one of my friends being over at my house one day when she called. I handed the phone to him and they talked for a few minutes. Did he report back that Snell’s phony girlfriend actually appeared to be real? For half my senior year I wore her high school ring and she wore mine. I carried her senior picture in my wallet. Was that proof enough? I don’t know. But I can say this: sometimes a girlfriend in Canada is really just a girlfriend in Canada.
I’m not sure why my parents allowed me to use some of my savings to take a weeklong trip to Michigan in the summer of 1988. Nor am I sure why her parents agreed to have some strange boy from California stay at their house for an entire week. I assume the parents talked and vouched for their children, but they didn’t talk to us about it at all.
I imagine that the in-person consummation of online relationships is now a common event, but at the time it seemed weird and unreal and momentous. In hindsight, a serial killer could have been waiting for me at the airport in Michigan. But after nearly two years and a stack of letters and hundreds of hours of phone calls, you’ve got to figure there are easier ways for serial killers to find victims.
At the gate of the airport in Michigan there was a brown-haired girl in a dress. She looked just like the girl in the photos she had sent. She spoke with the voice I had heard almost every night for 20 months. We hugged and cried and both tried to reconcile the fact that the voice at the other end of the phone was holding my hand.
In the car she turned to me and sighed nervously and said, “I can’t kiss you now.”
I kissed her. My first kiss, at 17.
Manti Te’o was picked by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the NFL draft. His stock dropped after the revelation of his imaginary girlfriend. He will probably never play a professional football game without being heckled about Lennay Kekua. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo did the media rounds, including Katie Couric and Dr. Phil, saying he fell in love with Te’o while pretending to be Lennay Kekua.
My story had no such drama. Our relationship ended during my freshman year in college. We were both away at school — she in Ohio and me in California — and meeting new people. Long-distance relationships are hard. Chances were good ours wouldn’t last, and in the meantime it would have precluded us from meeting other people. We made a clean break; every time we talked on the phone felt like a reprise of all the things that had gotten us to that point. With us, it needed to be all or none at all.
I saw her one last time, in the spring of 1990 when her family was visiting San Diego. We had dinner. All our past joy and pain bubbled under the surface. I couldn’t eat a bite of my meal. She told me about her boyfriend, whom she would eventually marry. When I made it back to the campus later that night, an emotional wreck, the first person I saw was my future wife.
Manti Te’o’s relationship was real to him while it was happening to him. After the fact, we learned that the facts of his relationship weren’t what he thought they were. But the fact that he never saw Lennay Kekua, never held her hand or kissed her or let her fall asleep on his shoulder while watching a movie, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real relationship.
It takes two people to fall in love. It doesn’t matter where they are.
Jason Snell is editorial director at IDG Consumer & SMB, publishers of Macworld, PCWorld, and TechHive. Prior to that, he was editor-in-chief of Macworld for seven years. His projects outside of work include The Incomparable, an award-winning podcast about geek culture. He lives in Mill Valley, California, with his wife and two children.