Skepticism

Pseudo-cide is Painless

Via the excellent Museum of Hoaxes, I discovered two recent articles describing people faking deaths online. This piqued my interest, due in part to my long-established interest in scams and hoaxes, and also because we had a commenter on Skepchick last year who faked his own death.

At the time, we didn’t discuss it here on Skepchick because we weren’t interested in giving an obviously sick person more unhealthy attention. I bring it up now due to the relevancy of this article in Wired, which peers into the weirdness surrounding people who fake their own deaths.

The situation on Skepchick mirrored some of those described in the article. The short story is that a commenter began dropping hints to various Skepchick writers that he was terminally ill. It may not be immediately obvious, but we Skepchicks talk a lot behind the scenes, via e-mail, phone, skype, and in person. Thus, not a day had passed before we were comparing notes and finding that the details weren’t matching up. At first it was awkward—despite the fact that we value our ability to doubt and use reason, we felt bad using those tools to debunk someone who claimed to be a friend who was dying. Still, we couldn’t overlook the fact that nothing about the person’s story added up.

Image from 'Puppet', a film by Patrick Smith. Click to go to BlendFilms.comWhen the commenter’s “girlfriend” showed up to inform us that he was in the hospital and about to die, we collectively rolled our eyes. The persona was embarrassingly written, informing us that she couldn’t tell us what hospital he was in, what his disease was, who was treating him, where we could send flowers, or even what his full name is (despite the fact that several of the Skepchicks already knew his full real name). It was a transparent bid for attention and sympathy. We finally decided to stop responding, and banned the single IP address that was the source of both the commenter and his “girlfriend’s” posts.

Shortly thereafter, the commenter posted to his own blog that he had died. We made no posts about it on Skepchick. A week or so later, he posted again to say it had all been an art project, that he was alive and well and sorry for any pain he had caused. He attempted to explain and excuse his actions by suggesting that they had some deeper purpose, which he failed to grasp or convey. I’m not entirely sure what he’s been up to since, but hopefully it involves therapy.

According to the Wired article, there are so many people like this that there’s a LiveJournal group called fake_lj_deaths that patrols the site looking for cases. They’re motivated at least partially by the disruption caused in online communities when a person fakes a death, particularly communities that are devoted to providing support to people who are actually sick or dying.

It seems from the article as though our commenter isn’t at all unique in claiming to be engaged in some kind of intellectual experiment. A usenet poster named M Otis Beard faked a suicide and later emerged:

“You thought you had irretrievably lost something; that something is now returned to you,” he wrote. “If I hadn’t made you sad by pretending to be dead, I wouldn’t have been able to make you happy (well, OK, angry and THEN happy) by jumping out of my coffin, whole and hale. Forgive me for putting you through the emotional roller coaster ride, which I hope was a healthily cathartic experience for all of you.”

That may have passed for insight back in 1999, but ten social-media-filled years later, does anyone really doubt our ability to form connections online? These days, can pseudo-cidal fakers be anything more than sad cases with low self-esteem desperate for any attention they can get?

Another recent article may offer other possible motivations: politics and money.

A woman named Beccah Beushausen started blogging about her pregnancy, claiming that the fetus was terminally ill and would die soon after birth, but she was anti-abortion and refused to end the pregnancy. She became a minor hero of other anti-abortionists, who promoted her site, sent her gifts, and paid for advertising. She “gave birth” last Sunday, showing a photo of the baby that was immediately recognized . . . as a doll.

There are a few glimpses of possible motives for the hoax:

Beushausen said she really did lose a son shortly after birth in 2005. She started her blog in March to help deal with that loss and to express her strong anti-abortion views, she said.

She wouldn’t be the first to make up a story in order to influence people’s political views, and frankly considering the common underhanded tactics used by the anti-abortion crowd, I’m surprised this is the first big dead baby hoax.

Then there’s the financial appeal. Though the article states that “there’s no evidence that Beushausen benefited financially in any significant way,” it also shows that at least one couple sent her several hundreds of dollars. It also states that “eager advertisers were lining up,” though it’s not clear if she accepted their offers.

That’s not to say that politics and money were the only—or even primary—factors. It’s very possible that those were secondary to the same motive that seem to drive the pseudo-cidals mentioned above: a desperate need for attention, no matter how unhealthy that attention is.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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94 Comments

  1. People are crazy.

    I was on a parent board several years ago when my kids were babies, and we had a poster there faked her husband’s death. We all chipped in money, flowers, sympathy, etc. and then found out it was a hoax. It’s weird. You feel violated by a person you’ve never met IRL.

  2. Back in the day I was a moderator at the Mac Addict forums. When 9/11 happened we had a new member claim that another member (really his alt) had died in the attacks, and made up a strangely elaborate story regarding it. It was exposed for what it was, and the disgust was truly overwhelming. This guy was a sick opportunist for one of these “experiments” and the fury lingered for a long time. Eventually he went away, denying that there was any hoax despite the evidence, inconsistencies, and implausibility of the details that he had put forward.

  3. Wow, I wish I’d noticed the terminal poster a year ago but I have no recollection. I’m looking forward to reading the articles later today when the work crap allows. I’ve really enjoyed making some Facebook connections with the skepchicks and some of the posters which makes the whole commenting, posting discussion process seem less anonymous. TAM was great last year in large part because of the many on line otherwise anonymous people I’d been having discussions with became actual people with voices and faces.

  4. I despise these sorts of people. They really undermine the efforts of those of us who are dead to be recognized as people, and not just movie cliches.

    I have been dead for a year and a half and I’m doing quite well, thank you very much. I’ve gotten involved with a support group for the Vitally Challenged and I’m really beginning to enjoy my post-terminal life. And those corpses with their brains missing, I had nothing to do with that. Honestly.

  5. I’m going to try to walk a fine line here-so don’t push.

    First of all, I really like skepchick. Its fun and amusing, and some of the comments are very humourous.

    That being said, I am under no impression that any of you guys care for me and my personal well-being. All of us reading the same blog just means we all read the same blog. I have not, and really don’t have an interest in devolping a close-personal relationship with any of you guys, unless you’re local. I’d like to think that you guys have more important things to worry about than how I’m doing. Online relationships, IMHO, are quite futile, unless it can be turned into a real relationship-this includes friendships.

    Please don’t take this as a “you guys need to get a life”. Real life is so much more fun than anything that can happen online.

  6. IMO doing something batshit insane and defending it by calling it “art” is as bad as defending an insane thing by calling it “religion”.

    If an artist does something and nobody gets it, is the problem that nobody gets the poor misunderstood artist or is the problem that what they did has no audience because it’s shit? I tend to think it’s the latter.

    Death fakery isn’t art and no it is not my responsibility if I don’t “get it”. There’s nothing to get other than copious amounts of vapid narcissism.

  7. @infinitemonkey: Well, I may not worry about you or think about you day-to-day, but if you were to tell us you were dying, or if you were to tell us something serious was going on and you needed help or just kind words, for whatever reason, I’d be here for you, and I think many people here would as well. It’s just part of being a compassionate human being, and it doesn’t mean we have to be BFFs.

    Also, I have been on livejournal (as crushdmb if anyone cares) for almost 9 years now. I’ve made some VERY close friends, and have not met all of them in real life. I really don’t think “real life friends” are the only friends that matter and I certainly don’t think you can’t have strong feelings for someone you only know online.

    I can think of quite a few people who have been there for me on livejournal during some of my roughest times. If anything happened to them, I’d be just as sad as if it happened to a real life friend.

  8. @infinitemonkey: “Real life is so much more fun than anything that can happen online.”

    Also, I take issue with that. I’ve created some solid friendships online (mainly through livejournal, as I mentioned). It doesn’t have to do with “fun” but with connecting with people. I can think of a handful of men and women that I’ve communicated with for almost a decade. They’ve been there for me, on different levels and for different reasons. They are my friends, and I adore them just as much as I adore my real life friends. They are still real people with real feelings.

    That said, I DO have a real life and I DO have plenty of real life friends (many of whom I met online!).

  9. @infinitemonkey: That’s entirely fair. One only gets as involved as one wants to. I would venture to say though that sometimes online communities can generate close friendships. It seems easier at bulletin boards than at blogs but that’s just my opinion.

    I myself have several good friends that I’ve made over the last 10 years or so that have transcended the online and have moved into meat-life.

    Both forms of interaction are are “real” life. Online or Meat makes little difference after a time.

  10. Rebecca – I remember that fake death last year, it was definitely strange. And I too went to his blog after, and saw the pathetic attempt to re-classify his shenanigans as “art”.

    I also remember (perhaps due to selective memory bias) that most of his posts were just this side of too strange – sometimes almost aggressive, sometime almost callous, and usually almost creepy.

    I also remember some of the things he posted to Elles and some of the other youngins on the Jr. blog were somewhat inappropriate.

    Probably those defective neurons of mine serving up bad data.

    I also find it ironic that these folks, should they pull off their pseudo-cide, can no longer get the attention they crave, unless they employ a sock puppet, and those rarely have the same fake “depth of personality” as the original self.

    sad.

  11. @Kimbo Jones: I agree w/you WRT to such “art” events. We had an art student here in Toronto who, last year, planted a (fake) bomb in a public place and called in the threat. The place was evacuated, resources were spent, etc.

    The student filmed it all; said it was an art project. He was happily (for the rest of us, anyway), arrested.

    As for the Skepchick poster mentioned in this post – yah, I remember all that. I vaguely wondered what happened with him. And now, I know, which is 11/13ths of the battle.

  12. I’ve heard that some people who attempt suicide are just trying to get attention. And I sortof believe it, for the most part. My mother-in-law attempted suicide a few times before she finally died. And I think that it was trying to get attention; not just to satisfy her own ego, but to draw attention to the real underlying issues that were never properly addressed.

    But the real affect of suicide, or in this case, a faked death, as I’ve seen, and to some extent experienced first hand, is on the people left behind. The real suffering is felt by the people left behind.

    It’s easy to be angry at someone who fakes their death just to get attention. To put someone through that kind of pain for no reason is unbelievably selfish. I’d imagine it would be even worse than dealing with someone’s suicide. But in the end, like an attempted suicide, there is some underlying issue that needs to be addressed. I feel sorry for those kind of people. And I sincerely hope they seek some kind of therapy.

  13. This is where the line between skepticism and cynicism is thin and blurred. You don’t want to criticize someone who is actually ill or dying, but sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to assume everyone is lying to you until you have evidence otherwise.
    It’s a sad commentary on society and the internet when you can’t trust your e-friends and e-family not to lie to you so my habit (good or bad) is to disbelieve everyone immediately, which just makes me look like an insensitive sociopathic eye-rolling jerkface…

  14. Ah, this explains much. I remember that commenter’s “death,” and more or less took it at face value, because who the hell would make up something like that? I never took the time to scrutinize the details for inconsistencies, because, well, I didn’t really care that much. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was sad, but… well, people I don’t know die all the time.

    So imagine my surprise when he resurfaced a week or two ago in a major flame war in the comments of a few other blogs I read regularly.

    So, yeah. It all makes sense now. And the pieces fit disturbingly well. What a ridiculous human being.

  15. @marilove: First of all, I never said ALWAYS. Some of my most boring times have been offline.

    I am depressive, and when I start thinking about who would miss me if I were gone, the people who I question are Mom, coworkers, and my friends at Dulles Triangles. Even my online friends I talk to often don’t register-even the ones I actually see and talk to in real life.

    On the other side-so you don’t think I’m one sided-the groups I frequent online are somewhat transient, so one person may be a superstar one moment, and vanish off the face of the earth the next, I’ve seen that happen to quite a few people, as I’m sure the skepchicks have seen here. My personal view here is that its a message board/blog, not a singles bar, so IMHO, only information relevant to the topic at hand is necessary. Too much beyond that, and its just attention seeking.

    I hope no one thinks I’m trying to make a direct insult/attack on their communal habits (did I use that word right?)

  16. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina):

    It was difficult for us behind the scenes. The question I asked myself was whether I’d rather believe and be wrong or doubt and be wrong… I wanted to believe him, but to do it I had to drown out the million Elyse’s in my head yelling “HE’S LYING”

    But I think I’d take the same approach again.

    In reality, whether he actually died or not, the person that I liked was gone forever… along with any affection I had for that person. And that is something to grieve.

  17. @infinitemonkey: I was being facetious about skepchick being better than being at work, silly. ;) (It is, though, it really is.)

    If I were to up and die tomorrow, I can think of quite a few people who I’ve never met in real life who would notice. My friend Ashley in New York, for instance, and another girl friend of mine in Texas, and my old friend Dylan in New York, whom I’ve known since I was 15 … but have never actually met.

    Blogs are a bit different, though. Certainly I’m not making BFFs with everyone I talk with here, no matter how personal our conversations sometimes get. Still, if you got hit by a bus today and I found out tomorrow, I’d be sad! I’d miss shootin’ the shit with you here! Same if you were to come in here and say you were dying of brain cancer. I’d care. Not as much as if, say, my sister got brain cancer, but I’d still notice and I’d still care.

    And I am sure there have been people who have met here at Skepchick, and went on to become closer friends in other venues (online or real life).

    So, no, I wouldn’t miss you like your mother would, but I would certainly notice you were gone, and I’d imagine I wouldn’t be the only one.

  18. I’ll fess up to being one of the people who largely got taken in by the former poster’s “death scene.” I was then, and still am, a fairly trusting person who isn’t into head games, so I usually assume that what people say is what they perceive to be the truth. I had a few doubts about his veracity in the end, but had a hard time believing someone would make something like that up. In the end, although I felt somewhat foolish for my misplaced trust, I was thankful for a useful lesson on keeping my skeptical eyes open. Like Peregrine, I mostly just hope that the former poster has sought professional help to deal with his issues. He was an interesting fellow, and has the potential to be a worthwhile human being if he does some much needed personal work. He doesn’t seem to be the sort who will, being a raging narcissist, but the potential is there nonetheless.

  19. @Elyse: Exactly. There’s that voice “Is he the type of person who would do this? Totally. Are you going to feel like a complete asshole if you’re wrong about him lying? Yes.” In my case, social decency cautiously outweighed my skepticism.

  20. One thing that IS good about having actual RL relationships with people from the internets is that if something ever actually DOES happen, they can put the news out there in a trustworthy way and beat the cynicism something like this causes.

    Because, really, what something like the fake death last year does is that it erodes some of the trust you have in the people you meet online. This serves a good purpose in reminding one that the internet is, largely, comprised of BULLSHIT…

    ..but it could also make people less likely to be open to the many MEGA-COOL folks on the web who wouldn’t do that sort of thing.

    Plus, just so y’all know, I could never get away with faking my own death here because if I tried, Rebecca would come to my apt. and kill me fo’ reals.

  21. @SteveT: I should have clarified in my initial post that more than a few people did believe him. I do think that it’s a sense of humanity and decency that overwhelms skepticism, as you and Elyse have pointed out.

    Also, the Skepchicks were in general “treated” to more contact from the faker than others, so we did have a bit more info to go on.

  22. @marilove: That was very nice of you. I’ve always considered myself a faceless voice, in a room full of other faceless voice-just some random white guy (which was my standard moniker before I became Infinite Monkey). If I were to find out that something tragic were to have happened to you, I, too, would feel really bad. But, if, say, you just stopped posting, I would just assume you moved on (in a found-something-more-interesting kind of way).

  23. @Elyse: “But I think I’d take the same approach again. ”

    What’s the alternative? Moderate them? In general if someone is constantly dragging something off-topic into a discussion be it their impending demise or their love of turtles it is off-topic and suitable for moderation. It wouldn’t really matter if you believe them or not. The forum I work on is has a narrower focus, however, so this is an easier call to make. Skepchick is clearly more freewheeling.

  24. @davew:

    I mean personally, my emotional approach. If I found myself in the same situation, I’d choose to believe in the goodness of people.

    Since then, I’ve had other internet friends become real-life not-lying ill… Masala Skeptic’s husband, for example. He’s not dead, but until this very second, it never even occurred to me that I should doubt him when he said he was diagnosed with cancer.

    Though, when I had to announce my own miscarriage a couple of weeks ago, I became paranoid that people would doubt me.

  25. Why is everyone dancing around using Rystefn’s name as though it’s some kind of holy untouchable? I don’t get it. He’s not “that poster”, he’s a real flesh human being who betrayed our online trust. Use his name, no need to shilly-shally.

    I was one of the folks who felt very betrayed by that shit. He was not a friend, he was an online acquaintance of short duration whose posts were often confrontational and somewhat hostile. Nonetheless, he was a part of a community to which I too am a part. His “death” shook me up.

    I was and am still pissed off with him. Rystefn betrayed the trust of anyone with whom he came into contact with online.

  26. @SicPreFix: I can’t speak for anyone else, but although I am and was pissed off with him and want to bitch about it, I also don’t want to give him any of the attention that he craves (and yet denies he wants). Not that it’s the most make-sensical approach…

  27. @Rebecca: Thank you. That’s gracious of you to note.

    I know people who default to the belief that “everyone is out to screw me,” and I always feel sorry for them. I think the world that I inhabit is a much pleasanter place to live than the one in which they exist. We all make our own worlds, to a greater or lesser extent. Might as well people yours with folks who aren’t a$$holes, right?

  28. @infinitemonkey: Well, yes, if you were to just stop posting, I would indeed assume you had just moved on, though I might make an inquiry here (“Hey, what happened to “infinitemonkey” kind of thing).

    We all communicate nearly every day with each other, and we all have a lot of the same interests and goals, and sometimes we share some pretty personal stuff. So of course I notice most of you.

    So don’t leave, infinitemonkey, I’d be a sad panda. :(

  29. Was that who it was? I didn’t even notice. Granted, I haven’t been very active lately. I noticed he wasn’t around anymore either, but was unaware of the circumstances.

    Come to think of it, I recall one girl in highschool who claimed to be pregnant by her ex boyfriend, even though he denied ever having sex with her. And then a few weeks later she claimed to have a miscarriage. And another girl claimed to have ovarian cancer, and was given 6 months. Both those cases turned out to be complete BS.

    My cousin once told my wife and I that she had ovarian cancer as a child, and had all but a tiny portion of her ovaries removed. She said that her son, then nearly a adult, was her “miracle child”, and that she didn’t expect to have another. She’s since had at least one. (maybe two. For some reason, I don’t remember if she had another one or not, but it’s been a couple years since we’ve been in touch.)

    Now that I think of it, it’s amazing the amount of BS I’ve heard in my life. It’s a wonder I’m not more cynical.

  30. @SteveT: Oh I will also fully admit that I was taken in. Although I generally don’t default to cynicism, he is the kind of person that would totally do that (and the details were getting sketchier as time went on — i.e., why would such an attention-whore be so shy about diagnosis etc?). I ignored my questions and went with it, provided the appropriate condolences, and sort of forgot that anything might have been amiss until the activity on his blog after the “death”…it didn’t seem to add up. His accomplice seemed…off. The timings didn’t seem quite right. When he posted his confession, I had this double reaction of “no wai/I knew it!!!” (to quote Willow Rosenberg: not in the sense that I had any idea, but I knew there was something I didn’t know)…things were just too…odd. I was pissed on behalf of anyone actually dying, or of anyone actually watching someone really die. Then I was pissed off at his total lack of responsibility for what he did. Then I reached an epiphany: “Fuck you, you fucking asshat. I don’t care.” and stopped thinking about it until now.

  31. @SicPreFix: I dunno, I thought it was sort of appropriate that we were treating him as “tool-who-must-not-be-named.” There are a lot of folks for whom the name wouldn’t add anything to the story. For those of us who remember the drama, I think it’s a symbolic way of not giving him any more attention than we’ve already wasted on him.

  32. I too was taken in, hook line and sinker.Because I tend to trust people. I like to think it is because I have faith… but not so sure if that is the case.

    I am still learning how to be skeptical and have watched others struggle with the difference between skeptical and cynical… I guess there are some area/people that I would choose to trust and others that I would have to have proof. This whole thing was a lesson to me.

    There are some things that I chose to believe, to have trust in, to have faith in despite all the evidence that says I am being foolish. Sometimes I think this makes me a better person, sometimes not.

    Speaking of this though.. a long time ago someone told me about a Janet99 or 99 Janet blog where a girl was counting down to her suicide…. I can’t find anything on it via google, anyone remember this?

  33. @Kimbo Jones: There’s a lesson in there somewhere. If you’re going to fake a terminal illness in a group as interested in science and critical thinking as this, you need to do some frickin’ homework. If you wing it, you’re won’t be convincing. Vagueness and cageyness (especially if you’re the king or queen of TMI otherwise) will only raise suspicion.

  34. This sort of thing really angers me – it isn’t funny or acceptable in real life, why would it be funny online? Everyone I communicate with is online, and about 99% of them I only ever encounter online. Some of them mean a lot to me, and when anyone posts they are in pain or trouble, it affects me.
    I’m glad someone named that poster though, as I know someone else who died last year, and although I had met him, I hadn’t spent much time with him, and knew him more from online contributions. I was a little concerned I had misjudged him so badly. Now I’m sad about losing him all over again.

    Some people defy understanding.

  35. Being a flighty SOB, I didn’t actually know it was a hoax until just now. Must have missed the follow-ups or whatever. Good to know, but that’s pretty disappointing.

    Still, though, I think something like this is more like the exception that proves the rule. Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of commenters, there’s been very few outright trolls. Some out-of-line comments (including myself, unfortunately) from time to time, but even that’s pretty rare.

  36. @jtradke:

    It wasn’t discussed here, just so you know. You had to follow his blog, which he linked to with his Gravatar. He alluded to being sick here and there in his comments, but nothing like in his blog.

    He was an ass shit.

  37. I love the title, Rebecca!

    Ben Radford just posted about the ‘April’s Mom’ hoax at Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/culture/090615-hoax-blogger.html

    I commented that I dealt with a real life situation of Munchausen Syndrome, with a friend who was ‘dying’ of a brain tumour. I later discovered that people in a town nearby had thought he’d died of cancer. The only symptoms I ever saw were panic attacks, and in hindsight, that was an indicator.

    The internet definitely makes it easier to create such a hoax – it’s much more work to maintain in real life…

  38. People are still angry about this… and with good reason., but that makes me wonder something about forgiveness.

    In the “Church” there are sins, and then there are SINS so big that you go straight to hell… like suicide. I was told that this is because it is the ultimate sin of separation from God but also because it doesn’t allow you ask for forgiveness.

    What I am wondering is, are there unforgivable sins in the world of the skeptics?

    Now, it seems like there should be… if you persist in actions that pose a danger to others, if you knowingly spread dangerous and untruthful information… if you don’t feel remorse for your past woo-ness or whatnot… (And yes, I am thinking of Oprah) then you seem to be committing some pretty big sins in the world of the skeptics.

    If Oprah denounced it all tomorrow (nice thought eh?) and tried to make restitution… would the skeptical community forgive her?

  39. @jtradke:

    Still, though, I think something like this is more like the exception that proves the rule. Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of commenters, there’s been very few outright trolls. Some out-of-line comments (including myself, unfortunately) from time to time, but even that’s pretty rare.

    Indeed, I think it’s remarkable that we have such a wonderful, lively bunch of commenters. With just a few exceptions and some minor course corrections, we’re at a place where people seem to get along and fight relatively fairly. It’s pretty awesome.

  40. I’ve written and re-written this post a dozen times.

    @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina): You’re not a jerkface. If you are, then we should form a club. By your definition I’m a jerkface too.

    I’ve been involved with online groups for some time now, and it seems that Skepchick got off easy. Not belittling what happened, just that I’ve been a part of great groups that had something like this tear them apart. My wife’s last group, which she had with her wiccan friends (which itself was refugees from an larger group where the head problem was a megalomaniac preistess) was torn up by the asinine behavior of a married couple whose infantile actions caused a rift that ruined everything.

    Between the husband’s selfishness, immaturity, and ego, and the wife’s constant “pseudo-cides” and accusations of people being the devil in disguise (she was a former born-again xian), nothing got done without an argument, and my wife (girlfriend at the time) was constantly breaking down crying and blaming herself.

    I finally had to play the bad guy, in that I had to tell these people and the others that we didn’t want to deal with them anymore, until they grew up. We lost a number of friends at that time.

    I think that’s why I usually pop onto Skepchick with a bad joke or pun, and not much serious to add. I’m reserving my emotional connections for people who work to fix their problems, not wallow in them. Ashley Ele’s issue with her husband is a good example of the former. (I think she’s doing the right thing for her and her kid.)

  41. @Karen Stollznow: I knew a real-life Munchausen case as well! He was in a good friend’s circle, and I met him at a party where he told me all about his cancer. Of course I believed him, and someone tipped me off later that it was all an act. It didn’t end well, and the last I heard he disappeared after promising to see a therapist.

  42. Also, as skeptics, we should probably consider the possibility that his mind was uploaded from his body shortly before death, and now operates as a software program running on a crusty Windows 95 PC in the basement of some library at MIT. So he wasn’t lying, except for when he said it was a hoax.

    Bam, Occam’s Razor.

  43. @MiddleMan: “…it seems that Skepchick got off easy.”

    I’ll take it as a compliment that we make these things look easy. :) There’s an awful lot of drama that happens to any blog or forum, and if we can keep Skepchick running as though we don’t have any, then I think we’re doing a faboo job!

  44. @marilove: I was wondering. I definitely noticed his absence and I recall the banning. But I must have been on vacation during the death watch or otherwise preoccupied.

    Mentioning personal stuff is often a hard choice in a situation like this and I’ve gone there a few times and I’m fairly open about a health issue on my Facebook page. I’ve often wondered if I should have my avatar linked to my facebook page…, I still haven’t come to a decision. I’ve thought about starting a blog that suits my concerns and issues and wonder about being anonymous, which appears standard practice, or throw my name out there.

    @Rebecca: Munchausen’s Syndrome and Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (Factitious Disorder/ by Proxy) have been among the most difficult and complex child abuse cases I’ve ever investigated. Thankfully they are rare given there is generally no effective treatment for the parent. Brings to mind that scene is The Sixth Sense.

  45. @James Fox: Interesting. Does anyone here have a problem with consenting adults in multi-partner marriages, though? I’m not talking about polygamy, though. I have a lot of polyamourous friends. I know I spelled that wrong, dammit.

  46. Back in the dark ages of the mid-90s, I knew two people who faked their deaths on ISCABBS. One guy just did it for the heck of it. He wasn’t that popular, so it was no big deal.

    The second guy, however, had quite a story. Though he had some some influence with the BBS staff, for some reason, he felt the need to create a fake female account. Using this account, he went into the women-only forum, and claimed that he was doing a survey about dating. Then using his normal account, he used the information to hit on the female members.

    He was caught, since the sysops look for duplicate accounts. Instead of admitting it, he denied it. The sysops decided to “Twit” him, which means they took away his posting and chatting privileges.

    He filed an appeal with the university. He claimed that his female alter-ego, Dena, was a real person. Yet she wouldn’t meet with the university officials.

    Then, just before a hearing, Dena’s obituary appeared in the local paper. It said that her boyfriend killed her.

    When asked, the newspaper staff said it was very unusual, because the obituary was called in anonymously, instead of being turned in by the funeral home. Plus there was no police report of a murder.

    So instead of being a “twit” for two weeks, he ended up being barred for life from the BBS. Until he finally gave into cancer a year later, he never admitted to faking the Dena account.

  47. @Cygore: You remind me of a case in Humboldt County a few years back. An adult man was lurking in chat rooms claiming to be a 13 year old boy dying of cancer. He would approach underage girls and ask if they would send him naked picts of themselves, because he was dying a virgin. He would then email them from alter-identidies, claiming to be friends of the dying boy, presuring the girls and calling them horrible names for not sending naked picts to the sick boy.

    He was arrested, but I never heard of any follow-up.

    I only vaguely remember the death announcement, but I was sad at the time, even though I really didn’t like him. Some people are just cruel. Narcissistic is probably the best term.

  48. Huh. I’ve never had this happen to me on the internet, but I abandoned livejournal long ago and rarely spend much time on message boards etc.

    I have met several people who are pathological liars. They’re fairly transparent; all their stories are intended to make you impressed or sympathetic. The whole thing is pretty sick, and I’m not sure what all can be done for people like that. In writing this comment my curiosity got the better of me, and I looked up the disorder. It seems that usually the compulsion to lie is related to Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. I didn’t really dig around enough to find out how treatable these are.

    Anyway the whole thing is rather disturbing, but hopefully a healthy dose of skepticism can keep the worst at bay, but not all of it. I think the worst thing about such people is the untenable position they put people in. Whether you call them on their BS or not, you’re going to be uncomfortable.

  49. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced this myself but one of my husband’s friend’s bandmates received some suicidial text messages from a close friend a while back and tried to talk to the friend but couldn’t get away to go to NYC to see him, and then he heard that the friend had committed suicide. So of course he was devastated and full of guilt, wondering if he could have saved the friend if he’d gone to see him.
    Then he found out that the friend was just fine, and that the whole thing was a “prank.” Someone else had gotten a hold of the cell phone and thought nothing of messing with someone else’s head and life.
    I really don’t understand the thought process that goes into something like this, if there is one at all.

  50. @Oskar Kennedy said:

    I dunno, I thought it was sort of appropriate that we were treating him as “tool-who-must-not-be-named.” There are a lot of folks for whom the name wouldn’t add anything to the story. For those of us who remember the drama, I think it’s a symbolic way of not giving him any more attention than we’ve already wasted on him.

    Okay, put like that I guess I now “get it.” However, perhaps that approach may tend to do the opposite. People are people and could easily begin to get that old censorship tingle of, “Ooh, there’s something exciting going on here that someone doesn’t want me to know about. What is it? What is it? What is it?”

    You know what I mean? It’s sort of a mild version of suppression of information because one doesn’t like it. That’s a bad policy that probably creates more problems than it solves. Of course, this is a fairly minor instance of such.

    :)

  51. @SicPreFix: I could see the lure of the “forbidden” inflaming the curiosity of folks who aren’t in the know. And if there were any official policy in place, I’d argue that it wasn’t necessary. If anyone had asked, I wouldn’t have had any problem divulging the name.

    For me, it was much more of an emotional reaction, rather than a conscious effort to suppress the release of Ry-Ry’s identity. For my part, I remember being not quite convinced at the time, mostly because he seemed to take every available opportunity to drop hints that he was a “short-timer,” and facing a deadline, and other assorted bullshit. I felt like he was waving the “pay attention to me” flag a little too vigorously, and if his condition was genuine, then his campaign for sympathy was a lot more vigorous than was necessary.

    In fact, if anything, it was my initial suspicion that made the “death announcement” so jarring. I hadn’t been paying very close attention, assuming that it would all just sort of evaporate as people got tired of being reminded that he was “sick.”

    I never expected he would go so far as to (amateurishly) fake his own death, so I wasn’t reading the alter-ego blog posts that tripped so many bullshit alarms. When I read that he’d “died,” I simultaneously felt sad and horrible for being skeptical. Finding out that the whole thing was a hoax, I got to be mad not only for being suckered, but because he made me doubt my own lying-fuckface-ometer.

    All of which is a long way of saying that I agree. Suppressing information is almost always impractical and ultimately ineffective. Just ask the government of Iran. That said, I’m not sure that anyone should feel obligated to volunteer information they’re uncomfortable with, either.

    Man, did I have an attack of the longwindies, or what?

  52. So, I have a confession to make… Sure, I’m confessing it now to people who have no connection to that which is being confessed, but what can you do?

    Way back in 1993, before the days of blogs and even before dub-dub-dub-dots, I was an attention-hungry 13 year old boy. I frequented a number of the local dial-up Bulletin Board Services in Salt Lake City. One such BBS I’d used pretty frequently, made some good friends, and then later neglected for some time… Then, kind of on a whim, I decided to jump on posing as someone else (I don’t recall whom… A parent? A girlfriend?) and claim that I had committed suicide.

    No one on the BBS had known me in real life, and I didn’t give it much more thought beyond knowing I’d probably made some waves.

    Weeks passed, and I got a phone call from the SysAdmin. He said someone had posted that I had killed myself, and he wanted to make sure I was okay, and that everyone on the board was worried about me.

    I just kind of sheepishly went “Oh, no, I’m fine! Don’t know who that would have been {nervous laughter}. Just haven’t been on much lately!”

    That was the end of the call, but I was kind of taken aback at that: holy shit, my actions actually have consequences! People were affected by my nonsense crap, people that I’d respected and gotten to know relatively well (in retrospect, they were probably not so much “worried” as having the same discussion Rebbecca mentioned having above… but still).

    Anyway, I haven’t even thought of that incident for a LONG time, but it strongly shaped the way I approach my online interactions — and even meatspace interactions — going forward. I learned a lesson about betraying trust and liivng in a virtual community.

    Anyway, just thought I’d share that story. I don’t think I’ve ever told it to anyone before.

  53. Wow, I should really pay more attention to the bigger threads.

    I hereby apologize for faking my own awesome. It was wrong of me, and I know how many people honestly believed that I was totally awesome and rad.

  54. I had an ex fake his death IRL. He had moved to Eastern Washington from Seattle, and had called a number of us to tell us how depressed he was, then dropped off the face of the earth. One of his buddies then told the rest of us he’d hung himself, and his parents had just flown the body to California, and the only reason he’d found out was he’d driven over to check on him and the landlord told him that Gary was dead.

    Three years later he resurfaced with a phone call to one of his ex-room-mates. He claims he didn’t intentionally fake his death, but in further conversations alludes to it being our fault because no one (he’d pissed off everyone who knew him at this point, long story) had called him back to check on him.

    Yup. Faked Deaths suck.

  55. Damn, my ancient PC has been playing up and I’m way late again, but I’ve been wanting to say this for months.

    When I read about the fake death fiasco last year I felt desperately sorry for the Skepchicks and the whole community because of the way your friendship and trust had been abused. Skeptics or not, all friendship requires a degree of trust, and true friendship is a rare thing (perhaps almost a sacred thing).

    That said, I thought the way the issue was handled (i.e. to ignore it totally) was 100% correct. I agree with Rebecca, Oscar Kennedy and Kimbo Jones here.

    Narcissist, attention whore, Munchausen’s, seek therapy – I totally agree.

    A sensitive issue, perhaps not my place as a newbie to comment, certainly don’t want to mess up your strategy, but there it is.

    The proof of your success is the way this blog has developed over the months and years into a witty and sophisticated community with a formidable array of brainpower behind it.

    Not only that but Rebecca’s choice to rule largely by consensus seems very wise to me. If only some of your politicians were equally…oh sorry, no politics!

  56. I had only seen news of the pseudo-death on someone’s status update on FB and I believed it, not having seen any of the other suspicious posts alluded to here or having any other information about it.

    Glad he’s not dead.

    Sorry to find out he’s a douchebag.

  57. Back in a prior lifetime, I ran an online support group for depressives. I’m not sure if we actually had someone fake their death by that sort of “false report”, but we certainly had suicide notes. Many of those were later “retracted”, but some… weren’t. At least twice during my tenure we had major trouble with compulsive liars/manipulators, who hurt people badly.

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