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The Catfishing of the Catholic Community

The Catfishing of the Catholic Community September 12, 2016

Okay, okay. Some of you, especially the older crowd, might be wondering why anyone would agree to date someone online, how that could make any sense in our twisted, digital age. Fair enough.

Well, the truth is that it’s normal to meet people online. I’ve met at least two of my past girlfriends through digital media (one was also an admirer of my work!), and both of them were totally-normal, embodied human beings. I can think of at least two dear friends who have met steady girlfriends on Tinder, and many others whose entire lives are spent online (some members of the Catholic Twitter community never, ever seem to get away from a phone or a computer).

But that’s not all. We’re talking about one of the most popular people in a Twitter community who by the time of her fall had nearly 5000 followers (in Catholic world that is substantial). By comparison, some of the other popular accounts haven’t even broken 2000. She had pictures, a Millennial sense of humor, constant and varied activity, several social media sites, including a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, an Instagram, an Academia.edu, and a blog. El would send me snapchats of her face, videos of her voice talking to her niece and nephew, and talk to me on the phone almost every night for hours at a time. Her schedule always made sense. She’d visit the Southwest and upload pictures of New Mexico; she’d be off to San Francisco and pop up in shots near the Golden Gate Bridge. Hell, she did the Camino, a major Catholic pilgrimage, and came back with picture after picture from along the Way.

Plus, this is Catholic Twitter after all. So, no matter what holes existed, I (and many others) remained blind to them in the face of such a massive, undiluted presence.

Regardless, and to my shame, I told her I didn’t want to video chat—I hate video chat.

Things went on this way for six months. I was there for her when her parents separated (and these are devout Catholics), then when her sister and her husband did. I stood by when one trip to New Jersey was cancelled because her grandmother’s heart failed. She spent three weeks in hospice before dying. This Catholic Girl posted a picture and begged the community for prayers. I prayed day in and day out for her family, for her, and for the repose of her grandmother (as did, I am sure, many others who knew about her issues). I would even talk her to sleep when the stress of parental dysfunction, family deaths, and LSAT studying seemed to leave her with nothing but emptiness.

And then about a week and a half ago that all fell apart. My friends had been joking around with me about catfishing for a while—but just that, only joking. I always said she’d visit soon. I had cancelled one trip, her grandmother had died, circumstances were cosmically unfortunate. But one night I was watching Gone Girl with a friend, she had just cancelled another trip (this time with a less dramatic, but entirely believable excuse), and we were feeling suspicious. He convinced me to ask her for a picture of her face with my name on a piece of paper. What did I have to lose? She was real anyway.

This turned into a nightmare. First she was locked out of Snapchat (this had happened many times before under totally normal circumstances, so I wasn’t weirded out). Then she got it working and sent a picture my friend and I could’ve sworn we’d seen before, but it disappeared as fast as it came. And could you even upload pictures to Snapchat? Didn’t you have to take them yourself?

Little bits of other evidence began to pop up: she wasn’t listed in her university’s student database, for example. But still, we remained incredulous.

Next, she informed me she was at her mom’s and that her mom had told her that she and her father were finally divorcing after months of separation. I had no idea what to do. On the one hand, if she was telling the truth, this was another cosmic catastrophe. Here I was clawing for a real identity while a devout Catholic learned that her pious parents were planning to separate forever (throw on top of that an adoption complex and you have a recipe for personal tragedy). On the other hand, this was the perfect excuse. How could I possibly question a topic so serious, expect a selfie with a piece of paper in it now?

I kept asking. It was hard and it felt wrong, but I believed that if she was telling the truth, she would send me a picture and we could work it out. I spent that night half-crazed, hanging suspended over two separate, but horrific, canyons: one threatened to swallow up a year of my life in lies, the other menaced me with the thought of destroying a relationship by attacking a person during an intensely emotional moment.

Eventually, she sent pictures—three of them. I was so relieved. I called her and we agreed to video chat the next day to confirm her existence; on the phone, she sounded horrible and even left twice to vomit. I felt like a villain for driving this poor girl to the point of physical illness all in the name of my paranoia.

The next day my sorrow deepened. She blindsided me with a text saying she didn’t think we could date anymore. Unfortunately, she said, she didn’t know how I could ever trust her or how she could ever trust me again. El said she just wanted to spend time with her family, to let this year full of tragedies sink in without a boyfriend halfway across the U.S.

Again, I have to pause. Knowing the outcome, this sounds suspicious, but in the moment, it was not at all. This was a notoriously self-conscious, self-effacing 23 year old with an abandonment complex; in the past, she had been known to fall into a pit of despair over feelings of unwanted-ness, and typically fall into that pit by blaming herself. My friend who had convinced me to question her identity was broken: had he ruined my relationship, a relationship filled with happiness and dreams of a Catholic future, because of some stupid suspicion?

We tried to patch things up, but the next day as I was walking out of daily Mass, I got a call from another friend. He hit me with a version of the old “are you sitting” routine. The previous night, he had tried to reverse search some of her images without luck. Nothing came up. Then he tried one of her “roommates,” and everything—and I mean everything—began to unravel.

The friend’s Facebook profile (and her previously extant twitter, Hipster Papist) were filled with photos taken from another woman from Minnesota. In fact, the friend’s face was actually just this poor woman’s. Worse, some of Elspeth’s pictures were taken from the same person’s Facebook and Instagram: a pair of shoes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, a map. One picture of her “roommate” was actually 7 years old, was actually of a young woman, simply living her life in the early days of Facebook. Some of the pictures of her trip to the Southwest had clearly been pulled from this profile. She was just cropping and re-filtering this woman’s life, and the woman had no idea.

We even found a picture of El’s face associated with a Yelp account from Florida; unfortunately, that was it—we couldn’t find where she was getting most of her facial and travel pictures.

The photos she had sent me displaying my name on a piece of paper? Photoshopped. My roommate did some research and studied the ways to find inconsistencies in pictures. It didn’t help that a few of us, upon close inspection, recognized the photos from elsewhere, from other pictures she’d uploaded—she’d just added a piece of paper with my name on it to someone else’s images.

And that’s not even mentioning the snapchats. She’d been using some program to upload fake images of this other person for months.

To say the least, I was aghast and decided to call her. We spoke for an hour. At first, she denied any wrongdoing. But I refused to believe that: “this is your chance to do the right thing. There’s plenty of evidence that you’ve done something wrong, but I’m giving you the opportunity to set things straight.” And she did, or at least she pretended to. She said she had stolen the pictures and  came up with a convoluted story about the fake roommate actually being someone else’s creation. But El was insistent: she was 23; she was named El; she was Catholic; she was a student.

I was content to believe that until I realized something—I had sent her a book. In other words, I had her address, and thanks to the Internet an address means you can find a leaseholder. The Internet had made possible this nightmare, and now it would expedite justice.

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