Fake Girl, Real Tears

In the realm of human emotions, double negatives fail to apply. When her online friends learned of Kaycee Nicole's death, they poured out their grief. And when they learned that Kaycee Nicole hadn't really died, they felt worse.

Kaycee Nicole never died because she never existed. In the days after the announcement of her passing, the lamentable death of a cheerful 19-year old was erased from the books of the "real" and replaced with the news of an elaborate fabrication. Kaycee Nicole was fictional, the creation of her "mother," Debbie Swenson, who has since admitted the deception.

She apologized for the hurt she caused, but explains that "Kaycee" was an amalgam of three real people, all of whom died too young, after struggles with leukemia or cancer. The hoax, she explained, was prompted by "wanting to tell their stories" and "sharing the love for life they gave to those they loved."

I have seen people refer to Kaycee's meta-story as a uniquely Internet-age one. It is not: it is a story for any age. I have heard it described as having deeply disturbing implications for the weblogging community. It does not, except so far as it shows that the weblogging community is not so different from any other form of human community.

Debbie did something billions of people do every day. She lied. Like everyone who lies, she had her reasons, about which the rest of us can only speculate. Maybe she wished the lie were true, that "Kaycee" were real. Maybe she realized that the fictional Kaycee's story was capable of drawing more empathy than the real stories it retold. Maybe she was flattered by the implicit compliments Kaycee's fans paid to her own creative skill, or maybe she found the writing itself rewarding. Maybe she wanted to share with the world what her late friends had meant to her, for others to experience that tragic joy, not just hear about it secondhand. And maybe she wrote between tears, desperately wishing her friends back to life, hoping somehow to give back to them a little of what fate denied them.

Not an enormous lie, at least in the beginning. She changed a name, she elided some details and made up some others, she attributed real quotations to false people and vice-versa. And then, like any compelling fiction, the lie took on a life of its own - Kaycee Nicole lived! Friends gathered around and offered to help, the lie spread and metastasized, Kaycee's circle grew as her story touched more and more people. Phone calls were fabricated, wishlists and incidents, and ultimately even a death announcement.

And in the end, the deception achieved the status of betrayal. In itself, this is an accomplishment: you cannot be betrayed by someone you did not trust. People trusted Kaycee; they empathized with her. Debbie made unwitting conspirators of them, made them parties to the lie, pledged them to emotional compacts she knew to be shams. She could see how deeply invested they were in her illusions. In the end, she tried to let them down as gently as she could, but even her best wasn't good enough, and it all came tumbling down.

In this, she is hardly different from anyone else who lies on matters touching on the emotions. I'm sorry, that sounds like fun, but I've already promised to pick my friend up at the airport then. Yes, I will always love you and no, there is no one else. I tried to call you on your birthday, but the line was busy. He said to tell you he was sorry for everything before he passed away. We think that a well-chosen lie has the power to mend a tear in the world; we think we can shield other people from unpleasant truths. Sometimes we are right, and sometimes we are wrong, and all too often we make a mess of it without meaning to. You always hurt the ones you love.

And they could be hurt because the will to believe runs so deep in the human psyche. At some crucial point in those first few years of life, a child learns to start thinking of these sensory inputs as sights and sounds, and then as faces and voices, and then, crucially, as people, beings not unlike itself. And from that point on, there is no going back, no, not ever.

We know that evidence can deceive us; we know not to believe what strangers say; we know that all trust is inductive, uncertain, unproven. And we ignore that knowledge in every minute of our waking lives. Social engineering works for exactly the same reasons that society works: we are by nature credulous, seeking, always seeking, to empathize with the person opposite us. We see faces in rock formations; we ascribe human motives to roulette wheels. We empathize with characters we know to be fictional so strongly that we cry at the end of E.T. and read tributes to Mrs. Landingham into the minutes of the California State Assembly.

Our minds are primed to expect human response, to the point of seeing intelligence where none inheres; when someone really is on the other end of the line, the sense of recognition is so strong, so overwhelming, that credulity is the order of the day. When someone with talent and motivation sets their mind to deception, the odds are already stacked in their favor. Literary fraud is as old as literature; just ask Ern Malley and Prester John. There is nothing about Debbie's deception that is qualitatively unique to the Internet or to weblogging.

Debbie knew enough to write a convincing account. She got the credibility-establishing details of disease and description right; she got right the voice of a scared but joyful girl with leukemia; she nailed the fears and emotions that resonated with her and Kaycee's readers and correspondents. All of this came from somewhere painfully real, or else she has a prodigious empathetic talent herself. The biographical details, the day-to-day actions and affirmations, well, those she faked, but those weren't the things Kaycee's friends were responding to.

This is the part that tears me apart. It's the Stephen Glass story all over again, only played out as tragedy. Debbie succeeded beyond belief in sharing the stories she wanted to share and in making profound human connections in Kaycee's name. Something powerful and resonant took place here, but because of the fabrication baked into Kaycee's story at the outset, it all may be lost. Kaycee's mourners' genuine grief is hopelessly admixed with shock and disillusionment now: the betrayal is inseparable from the trust it undermined. Kaycee is lost in a sense worse than death; not only did she never exist, but every meaningful experience her "existence" gave to other people is itself now suspect.

Or is it? One might think that Debbie is now beyond trust, that there is no way to stop this freefall back to the harsh and unyielding earth of cold and verifiable first-person facts. But, then again, by that token, there'd have been no way to stop the fall after the story of Sheyla, or MoundsOfJoy, or Nowheremom or, stretching a bit further, OurFirstTime, or Kibo, or the LambdaMOO">http://www.levity.com/julian/bungle.html">LambdaMOO rape, or any of the other too-numerous-to-mention well-publicized online line-blurring incidents of recent years.

If we haven't learned our lesson by now, perhaps it's because it's a lesson we shouldn't learn. We suspend our skepticism out of love, out of love for humanity and for those souls close to us. We've all lied, been lied to, lied to ourselves, lied and been lied to in love itself, and yet we go on looking for human connections and blindly believing when we think we may have found them. This time for sure.

Disclaimer: I knew nothing of Kaycee before I heard of her "passing." I am reacting to a few of the reactions I have seen, but I am by no means a Kaycee expert, nor do I even know enough people who did know her to say with any certainty what their consensus is. My points here are simple: from my limited perspective, there is little unique to the Internet in Kaycee's story, and I see no villains here.