Being a memoirist again, just for tonight

Here’s a story about an alluring guy I met online.

It was the late '90s, in a chat room for fans of The Cure.

He swooped in and defended me against a troll by delivering witty, cutting comments that drove said troll out of the room. I messaged him to say thanks, and we became friends.

He lived on the other side of the country from me, with his folks. We were still in our early 20s, so it wasn’t too unusual that he lived at home. He basically seemed to invest funds rather than work, and was well educated.

Not only did we share tastes in music, but we both enjoyed snarky takedowns of stupid people. Always a thing to bond over in one’s 20s. The friendship continued for the next few years, despite our frustratingly slow dial-up connections.

We confided in each other. I told him about relationship trouble with my boyfriend sometimes, but my online buddy was a gentleman; he never tried to cybersex me or otherwise audition to become my next boyfriend.

He told me about having loved and lost. About a fiancée recently who’d died in an accident. My heart ached for him.

There was sometimes flirtation. Or at least, I read it as such, and I reciprocated. The affection was expressed through rare, shy compliments, songs sent to one another in mp3, and occasional gifts shipped across the country.

We even talked on the phone a couple of times. He was charming, exactly as he was in our message window. Hearing his voice made him so real. Although not quite as real as I wanted.

No one had iPhones yet. Few people had digital cameras or scanners. So sharing photos of ourselves was actually a bit tricky. I managed it anyway, getting a few pics scanned somehow or other and sending them.

He kept saying he’d send some of himself, then not getting around to it. I respected that. Not everyone wants to share pics with people they’ve never met IRL, and he was a sensitive type, protective of his privacy.

Or at least, I respected it to a point. It started getting me down, that we knew each other so well but I could never *see* him. We argued sometimes. His snarky takedowns of others did occasionally extend to me, and I gave as good as I got.

He excelled at making me feel bad about arguing. I was letting my emotions take over my logic, as women are prone to, he said. I challenged him on such misogyny; it was beneath him. He tended to back down and send a conciliatory mp3.

Other people in the chat room were awful at times, inexplicably rude to me. I complained to my buddy in private messages, and he commiserated. Told me nasty secrets about them that they’d overshared with him. God, those people were losers.

One year, I decided I should just go visit him for a few days over summer. I proposed to, and he agreed, but told me I shouldn’t buy a plane ticket yet. He knew someone who worked for Delta and would get me a good deal.

I waited to hear from him. He didn’t log on again for weeks. Didn’t get back to me. I finally took a vacation elsewhere, to visit family who did want to see me.

Hurt, I confronted him when he finally showed up online again. He admitted his absence was a breach in manners and he was sorry. By then I had admitted it would obviously just be too “weird” to meet IRL, so we wouldn’t, but it still hurt.

At least I had him to complain to about those nasty other people. They hadn’t let up. Still, he also teased me about basically everything. Made me feel like I didn’t know anything, no matter what subject we discussed.

If I mentioned my boyfriend or our prospect of marrying and having kids, he went silent, even though he’d always denied any jealousy when I had tactfully brought up the possibility in the past and invited us to talk about it.

I started to feel disillusioned. If talking to him only made me feel bad about myself, and if he was going to be secretive about his life and dodge all the important topics, maybe this friendship was a waste of time.

I didn’t actually say so to him. I just quietly pulled back and stopped having those online conversations. I started feeling a lot better about life, without his negativity. Still, I remained confused about what had happened.

One day, one of those other people from the chat room emailed me; a woman with whom I’d exchanged many catty comments in the past. We politely disliked each other, was essentially our mutual feeling. Or so I thought.

But she was sincere and open in her email. She and her husband had succeeded in meeting our buddy in person, and had had a lot of message exchanges with him over the years, same as I had, and she’d begun to have certain suspicions.

What was my experience with him?, she basically wanted to know. I explained all of the above and more, in total honesty, including my feelings of disillusionment and hurt. Her response opened up a stunning exchange.

He’d been telling her horrible things about me. Twisted truths and flat-out lies. He’d also been telling me lies about her. And spreading lies about everyone and everything, to everyone in the chat room. It was seemingly all he did with his time.

We compared the stories he’d told us. None of it matched up. Put together, it made no sense. It was a big house of illusory cards.

He probably had no friend at Delta. No shortage of photos to send. No dead fiancée and probably none of the other traumas he claimed to have suffered, which had softened up my heart as well as this other woman’s.

He’d had an ingenious system: make each of us think we were the only one he liked, then alienate us from everyone else by whispering lies about the others, making us doubt our own worth, our own mental stability. Make us need him.

Those other people in the chat room weren’t losers at all. He had just made me believe they were. While also making THEM believe *I* was a loser. 

I now know this is called gaslighting. We didn’t have that word then, or at least, no one was talking about it the way they do now. It was also more or less catfishing, another word we didn’t yet have.

He was very, very good at it. I’m not a gullible person; I like to think I’m pretty darn skeptical. But he was playing a long game, probably because he was clinically narcissistic and for no other reason, and he convinced me.

I’m lucky, and so is the other woman. We eventually started suspecting something was off and extricated ourselves. Nothing terrible happened to us except a colossal waste of time and affection.

Nonetheless, I do feel stupid and gullible for falling for his act, for such a long span of years. It’s why I haven’t really told this story before—that, and I didn’t particularly want to dwell on it. 

But it gives me sympathy for those who are still being gaslighted by, for example, politicians, or worse, by friends or spouses. I know it can happen even to the intelligent.

We want to give others the benefit of the doubt. 99% of the time or more, that’s a wonderful thing to do. That other sliver of time, though…look out.

See now why I started the post with “a story about an alluring guy”? This way you could see, maybe, how I fell into the trap. If I’d started it with “a story about gaslighting,” you’d wonder how I could ever have been so stupid.

People aren’t necessarily stupid for falling for such folks. They may need years of time to climb out of their delusion (there’s no “snapping” out of it; it’s rarely that fast). But keep your compassion for the victims if you can.

Also, don’t ever, ever believe that because someone is good at snarky takedowns, they’re a great candidate for a friend. Friends have your back, true. But a true friend’s natural state is compassion and trust, not sarcasm and evasion.

And if you’re in a relationship or friendship that resembles what I’ve described above, please get yourself out of it. As soon as you can. Ask others who’ve known that person and have gotten distance from them; talk to someone you can trust.

No one who goes into a friendship with a generous, kindhearted spirit deserves to be gaslighted. Whoever’s reading this, I hope you never are. If you already have been, I’m so sorry. I know what it feels like.


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