The Girlfriend who didn’t exist

The Girlfriend who didn’t exist August 19, 2022

Image: Wikipedia

Has the internet made the world a better place? Certainly we’re more connected. Someone in rural Minnesota can learn about human rights atrocities in rural China. A philanthropist in London can give to a charity in Hong Kong. A student in India can access the great works of multiple traditions and cultures. A Mormon Polynesian football player at Notre Dame can start a relationship with a girl in Los Angeles, only to have her die of cancer on the same day as his grandmother, but then to find out that she’s not really dead, and then to find out that she’s not really a girl.

Wait, what?

I probably should remember this story as much as I do the Lance Armstrong business (which I at least had vaguely heard about at the time). But when this news broke I was in the process of defending my dissertation and moving across the country, so I don’t feel too bad that the story of Manti Te’o was new to me in the latest episode of Netflix’s series Untold. Technically in the latest two episodes, given that it’s a two-parter. (And that might be my primary criticism–this story didn’t really take two hours to tell and could easily have just been one episode.)

If you don’t know the story, my summary of it above pretty much hits the high points. I suppose the one thing left out that’s obvious immediately both from the blurb Netflix includes at the beginning and from the interviews is that “Ronaiah”, who had posed as “Lennay” now identifies as “Naya.” So that’s a twist to the story as well.

One thing the episode repeatedly hammers is that in 2009, “nobody had heard of catfishing.” And that may be true, I don’t remember and don’t know the history of the term. Still, as long as the internet has been a thing–and I mean even back in to the mid-90s era of chat rooms–we’ve known that you can’t really know who you’re talking to online. The middle aged man pretending to be the teenage girl is an old enough trope that even in 2009 it shouldn’t have caught a tech savvy young person off guard.

Now to be fair, it was a super complex catfishing scheme that involved duping a real girl into providing custom pictures. So we shouldn’t pile on Manti Te’o the way people at the time did. Still, I don’t know the point the show’s creators wanted to make lands quite as well as they had hoped.

I think it’s pretty clear that whatever point the Netflix crowd wanted to make, Manti Te’o had his own points that he wanted to be clear about. Namely, 1) everything he did and his ability to make it through was the result of his faith in God; and 2) he forgives the person who caused all of this trouble. And it was trouble, as it certainly bumped Manti Te’o from the first round draft pick into the second, and who knows what the cost was to his performance in the NFL. The individual who caused the problems might have been repentant (and did at one point phone Manti to apologize), but focused much more on how much growth and self-discovery was experienced through it all.

Much of this should resonate with believers (not, hopefully, catfishing or being catfished). We should rely on our faith to guide us through good times and bad. And we should forgive even–especially–those who have wronged us, for we have wronged God and been forgiven. And that forgiveness was costly: Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Second Person of the Trinity, became a man and lived the life that you and I should have lived and paid the penalty that you and I deserved to pay. Because of that we can be reconciled to God and to other people, and live the life of freedom and forgiveness that human beings were made for.

So go watch yet another solid entry in the Untold series from Netflix–it continues to be worth your time and attention.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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