Sailing the Seas of Cheese: Munchausen by Internet and the Case of the Dead Girlfriend
Manti Te’o and the Vanishing Girlfriend may be rocking the college football world and evoke the most ridiculous imagery. He was either catfished, that is romanced by either a fake persona that, as the University of Notre Dame has asserted making him the biggest sucker that perhaps ever has lived. Or he was the one that went catfishing to curry favor and sympathy during award season as well as the upcoming NFL draft.
But telling tall tales is nothing new. There is even a psychiatric disorder based on the patron saint of tall tales–Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen. The Eighteenth Century Baron wove such a tapestry of bullcrap that could only be described is ridiculously fantastical. Transportation by flying cannon ball, deep sea exploration and even voyages to the moon. No story was too ridiculous, no feat of strength trivial.
It is no surprise that the psychiatric community borrowed Baron von Munchausen’s name to label the factitious medical disorder where the patient fakes illness–even to the point of inflicting injury or illness upon himself or herself–to garner attention and sympathy from others. The general public is likely more familiar when that confabulation of illness is not self-inflicted but rather directed at an innocent child. The movie the Sixth Sense drew significant attention to Munchausen by Proxy (now renamed Medical Child Abuse) when the tortured ghost of the abused little girl played by a younger and less cracked out Mischa Barton who reveals she ultimately died not because she had some incurable illness but rather at the hands of her mother that had poisoned her for years so that she was continuously ill while the mother was praised for her strength and bravery. The mother ultimately received attention and sympathy because people rally behind the long-suffering parent that had to endure the hardship of a dying child. Praise, gifts, ego stroking. It’s why sick parents inflict this type of horror on their vulnerable child. Sick and twisted, I know.
People have long faked injuries and illnesses to dupe the unsuspecting public out of money and gifts. As recently as this past September, a New Jersey woman faked cancer. Her friends threw benefits and raised tens of thousands of dollars. They paid for her wedding to grant a dying wish. Her cancer was terminal, and friends and strangers alike lavished her with money and gifts to ease her suffering. Only she never had cancer. She made it all up for attention and a giant pile of cash.
Her story is not unique. Just Google “faking cancer for money” and you will pull up one story after another. A woman duped people into paying for a brand spanking new pair of perky C cup breasts. A fairy tale wedding. Trips to tick off items on a “bucket list.” They will shave or wax their heads to make the tale all the more convincing.
Faking cancer? Remember that thought. We’ll come back to it in a little bit.
But these hucksters don’t just dupe their friends and neighbors. It’s a ploy that plays out on the internet all the time among internet communities. Though it is not officially named after the good baron, it has colloquially taken on the name Munchausen by Internet. It happens in forums and communities forged by a common interest, often a fandom. Other times it is a well-publicized blog that has been highlighted quickly in the world of social media. Quite frankly, it’s an easier ruse than the local campaign to convince everyone the poor soul is dying. A picture or two tells the tale. A sob story that is forwarded. You don’t even have to shave your head if you want to. Granted, there are some tales of cancer that spread through an online community that are in fact real. Leyla Harrison, a “big name fan” in the X-files fanficion community truly did die of metastatic melanoma as the television series was winding down even had an actual character on the show named after her as a tribute. But for the most part, these are BS sob stories. Check out Twitter on any given day and there are dozens of people hitting professional athletes up for special privileges because they may or may not be ill with some sort of miasma du jour. While some are very true and very tragic stories, many are just as fantastical as Baron von Munchausen’s fables. Often they take more and more bizarre turns where the entire tale is finally unraveled. Stories are often peppered with inaccuracies, extreme symptomatology, acts of selflessness and miraculous cures.
Enter Manti Te’o and the mysterious Lennay Kekua. Their tragic tale of long-distance love, the chance meeting where eyes met across a crowded whatever has enough twists and turns to be a reasonable facsimile of some teen-authored Twilight fanfiction. Te’o has been the golden child in the land of the Golden Dome, the unlikely Mormon who played for the epitome of Roman Catholic higher education. He was blessed by none other than Notre Dame’s version of a saint–retired university president Father Theodore Hesburgh. It was love at first sight, but it supposedly was never meant to be.
First his girlfriend is involved in a horrific motor vehicle accident that renders her comatose. She is on the opposite side of the nation, far from the media’s eye. Because of HIPAA laws, no hospital is able to confirm or deny that Ms. Kekua is even a patient of their facility. Convenient, don’t you think? But then she miraculously gets better (see above regarding miracle cures.) But as she recovers from her injuries she is struck in the prime of her life with leukemia, not only finds an instant match in a marrow donor, manages get get a quickie bone marrow transplant without zero complications and is well enough to be discharged home all in the course of less than three months. Remember that bit about miracle cures above? Yeah, read it a third time, it won’t hurt.
But if that weren’t bad enough, she gets discharged in September only to drop over dead a few days later, and either on or within a few days of his beloved grandmother (depending on who Te’o has spun the tale to.) And isn’t it awfully convenient that her dying wish for him to lead the Fighting Irish to victory and not attend her funeral and even more so that her family did not want her grieving boyfriend to share any images of her with the media?
Yes, it is very possible that Kekua was the catfish that duped Te’o as Notre Dame is asserting. After all, the demographic for Munchausen by Internet and the other fakings of cancer in all of their various flavors is, for the vast majority, a cohort of women.
But not always.
As this story unfolds, those investigating this–either the blogosphere such as Deadspin that broke the story or traditional journalists–need to ask a simple question: who benefitted from this falsified sob story the most: Kekua (if that was even her name) or Te’o? Because of NCAA regulations, Te’o was a student athlete, not a wealthy professional that would have the resources lavish her with gifts, clothing, cars, sparkly jewelry or trips back to Hawaii. Remember, the scammers are usually looking to score something. And I don’t think the undying affection of a celibate Latter Day Saint a thousand miles away counts as the mother lode of prizes.
Yet what would Te’o stand to reap by unfolding a tale of love, loss and tragedy?
Notre Dame’s rise to excellence this year was meteoric. The tale of playing through pain was retold on all the major networks. The team awarded the game ball not to Te’o, but to his dead girlfriend. He was the grieving boyfriend left behind, a hero and now a household name. Shortly afterwards, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But what was there to gain other than rising fame? How about a Heisman Trophy.
Sure, he has been the recipient of other collegiate awards and accolades, but the Heisman is different. It is the crown jewel of collegiate football.
The Heisman winner is determined by 870 sports journalists, the 50 odd surviving Heisman recipients and a token single vote from the ESPN.com hosted online survey. Funny how the vast majority of the voting body is the same demographic that gave the entire Te’o fairytale-to-tragedy legend nationwide traction.
What an incredible coincidence, don’t you think?
Yes, we do live in a nation where presumption of innocence should be first and foremost, it is not hard to be jaded considering a certain person whose name rhymes with Stance Blarmstrong is going to try to sanitize his very tarnished name tomorrow evening. I was duped sounds a lot like I was hacked minus the embarrassing texted photos of one’s penis.
Sure, Te’o could provide submit cell phone records to prove he frequently talked to the love of his life. He may be able to cough up an actual picture of the two of them together. Or he could take a polygraph test to prove his innocence. Somehow I doubt any of this will ever come to fruition.
Maybe Manti Te’o is a very naive sucker.
Or maybe he’s just a sociopath and is hoping that we are the suckers.
Time will only tell. Until then, consider me suspicious.