This classic case of IdentityDeception? and PersonaTourism outlines how Joan, a well-known, popular wheelchair bound mute, took to the Net to express herself, find romance, and ultimately turn out to be anything but her presented self. Rather, she was a fully able-bodied male psychotherapist who had originally taken to the 'Net and deception to better understand his patients, but then took his role too far, even the point of having affairs with women he met online after being "introduced" to them by his Joan persona.
This page summarizes the Van Gelder, 1996 edition.
For simplicity, we take positivist, assertive tones below in describing Joan and Alex, as if they were real and what they claimed was true. Clearly truth in this case is sorely lacking.
Joan Sue Greene, aka Talkin' Lady. Played as a neuropsychologist in her late twenties who was horribly disfigured in a car accident at the hands of a drunker driver. Her boyfriend was also killed. After spending a year in the hospital, she was released, confined to a wheelchair with horrible leg and back pain, and mute. She had wanted to kill herself but her mentor, a former professor at Johns Hopkins, intervened to give her a computer, modem, and a year long subscription to CompuServe to give her an opportunity to make friends. Ironically, she was about to begin teaching a course at a New York Medical school covering the very types of injuries she just had; her goal was to resume her career as if nothing had happened, using computer technology a la CompuServe's chatrooms to conduct the lecture, much to the excitement of her fellow online technoutopians.
Joan's particular injuries prevented her from interacting with people in more conventional ways. For instance, she couldn't use the phone, although she did have several people phone her just to hear their voices to which she would respond with yelps and moans. Also, given her disfigurement which was so severe to be untreatable by plastic surgery and which led her to drool, she understandably avoided face-to-face contact. Mildly contradictorally, perhaps, she also patrolled with police officers, putting her neuropsychological skills to the task of detecting drunk drivers, and then confronting them with her body as the result of driving drunk.
Nonetheless, she was compelling. "She had guts" (p.537) in the words of Van Gelder, citing an example of when Joan had driven alone across the interior of Iceland to cure her agoraphobia. In fact, she had travelled extensively based on her family's personal textile mill fortune. This allowed her to live alone as a model independent female, albeit with the help of neighbours. She was actively feminist, spurring the creation of a women's issues group on CompuServe, and having many almost filial relationships with other women where they called each other "sister." Although raised religious, and thus she was an ardent atheist who frequently engaged religious folk in debated. also came online stoned a lot. She maintained a healthy and "earthy" attitude about sex, including describing an abortion at the age of 16. She was bisexual, often aggressively trying to engage other women online in cybersex (to reported indifference by Jack since they were "only women"); one woman was so intimately involved with Joan she was on the verge of leaving her husband.
During her forays with the police, she had fallen in love with a police officer, Jack Carr, who occasionally came online with her. He had a reputation of being shy and less verbal than Joan, though "he was the quintessential caring, nurturing, loving, sensitive human being". Later on, Joan and Jack got married, for which she sent out a detailed announcement to all her online friends. They held an online reception where more than 30 CompuServe regulars attended. From their honeymoon in Cyprus, Joan mailed back postcards to some of her online friends. They returned a year later and sent another batch of postcards.
Joan was very friendly and caring as well, perhaps overly so. Amongst many incidents, she was very generous, buying two dozen roses and a laptop for a fellow convalescent in a time of need. She also inspired a middle-aged woman with two children to start college again, as well as intervening to help her marriage. She also helped several women with suicidal tendencies and problems with alcohol. But there was a sense she was trying to create an atmosphere of dependency. When people gave Joan their phone numbers to make direct modem-to-modem connections (thus skirting CompuServe's $6/hour charges), they quickly regretted it, since she would "bombard" them with phone calls with only the modem connect tone on the other end, ignorant that others might have other things to do. Many people felt that they needed to give Joan their full support given her disabled situation.
One of her more useful roles was to keep the CompuServe boards free of imposters. In fact, not only did "Joan herself [tell] several friends she had been fooled by a man pretending to be a gay woman, and she was furious," (p.539) but she formed a CompuServe group called the Silent Circle as a VigilanteJustice group to out other imposters (cf. FairOuting).
Alex was a prominent Jewish New York psychiatrist in his early fifties. Alex had come online in 1982 or 1983 under the handle Shrink, Inc.. One day he entered a private conversation with a woman who thought he was a female psychiatrist, and she opened up to him in ways he had never seen before. This led him to the epiphany that he should play act as a woman in order to help these women more effectively.
He chose a disabled persona in part because he had arthritis of the spine that had a chance of landing him in a wheelchair one day, and he wanted to know what it was like. He almost never drank or smoked. He was a workaholic who had a large number of publications under his belt. His friends described him as intellectual and shy, who had a great deal of trouble expressing his emotions. "There are long silences, and then he'll say 'uh-huh, uh-huh'--just like a shrink." (p.537) One commenter said Joan's ficitious husband, Jack, "was the man Alex would have loved to be."
Alex claimed he was married, but his marriage was in trouble.
While Alex had initially created Joan in a moment of inspiration, he invested more and more into the persona over time, creating for her a complete online identity, such as a mailbox, special telephone line, and a very detailed biography, although Joan occasionally told different stories to different people. In the words of Van Gelder, "she was, by my own recollection and by the accounts of everyone interviewed, an exquisitely wrought character." (pp.536-7)
As you can tell from the above, Alex had constructed Joan with quite some depth and detail, as the opposite of himself. He invested a lot into her, perhaps because he was a workaholic with a mind for such things. He also used her as a foil for his own empty sex life, leveraging the pity projected onto her by other women as a way to get them to cybersex.
However, the ultimate affront came in the persona of a woman by the name Janis Goodall. Janis, a 37-year old "retired hippie" had recently been in a car accident herself. While it mildly disabled her, not nearly as bad as Joan; thus, she looked to Joan for inspiration, especially given Joan's bombastic atttitude. When one day Joan started recommending Janis talk to a psychiatrist friend of hers named Alex, things began rolling. A few private chats later, Alex began hitting on her, eventually inviting her to New York. When Janis said she couldn't afford it, Alex sent her a round-trip ticket to New York. She left for four days of high class treatment; Alex did not hold back, setting her up in a five star hotel and taking her to five star restaurants. They became lovers. When Janis returned home, Joan pumped her for details, such as "Did she think she was in love with Alex? Was the sex good?" (p.542)
During this trip, Janis had tried to arrange a meeting with Joan; both she and Alex tried to phone Joan repeatedly to no avail. Joan was apparently away for the weekend. As it turned out, Joan had arranged many face to face meetings with her online friends, but cancelled them at the last minute. The only person she claimed to have seen her in person was Alex, her old psychiatrist friend.
The first people to question the deception was other disabled women who felt Joan's accomplishments were far-fetched, but they initially felt that Joan was simply boasting to make herself feel better. But finally there was the ultimate contradiction that she would never let her online friends see her even though she apparently went on all these vacations, conferences, and police patrols. While Joan claimed this was a promise to her husband, it seemed like two attitudes worlds apart.
After the affair with Janis, and after he realized the problem with bringing himself into the picture, Alex decided things had gotten out of hand. He at first took Joan offline for several weeks with an "illness", but the response on CompuServe made him bring her back. Also, someone had phone the hospital where Joan was apparently convalescing to discover no one by that name was registered. In response, Alex went the other direction. He took a more active role in the satellite of relationships around Joan, trying to create his own rather than using Joan. But this exposed more and more problems. Rather than a dramatic outing, over a period of several months more and more people began to suspect the singular relationship between Alex and Joan. The response was brutal, as Joan would decredit the accuser and turn any questions around to arguments about whether you really loved her.
Finally Alex began admitting the truth, especially after many gave him the bridge that he wouldn't lose their friendships entirely after he came out. The manner he came out to Janis was particularly harsh. "The phone rang, and it was Alex. The first words out of his mouth were 'yep--it's me.' I didn't know what he was talking about. Then he said: 'Joan and I are the same person.' I went into shock. I mean, I really freaked out--I wanted to jump off a bridge." (p.545)
The reaction to Alex was bifurcated. On one hand, a woman who had an affair with him felt "mind raped" by his exploits. On the other hand, many felt they should respond to the "soul" of the individual rather than the sex, and they continued to try to be friends with Alex bearing in mind two years of strong friendship. "It was only after Laura made it clear that 'I believed that we're all created after the image of God, and that I loved the person, not the sex, and would continue to do so' that Alex came out. Laura, who is Catholic and says that her decision to stick with Alex is partially motivated by principles of Christian love, admits that it took her several weeks to 'math the transition.' Since then, however, she's met Alex in person and come to love him 'as my adopted brother instead of my adopted sister.' (p.544)
The author of the article certainly felt more violated than bemused. Many of Alex's victims formed a support group online to hold each other together, although many were also so disgusted and hurt they stopped using their modems for a while. The woman Joan coached into college, however, responded "I know I don't feel like a victim, and I don't understand why some of these other women have gone off the deep end. I don't think he was malicious." (p.544) Then again, she also said "Joan was a very special person and I loved Joan. I feel as if she died." (p.544)
Naturally, and somewhat quixotically, a group of people spent an inordinate amount of energy trying to understand Alex as well, to which Janis was less than impressed.
According to Van Gelder, they estimated about 15 people got badly burned by Alex, although most of them weren't cyberlovers. She felt that Alex only hit on women he might be sexually attracted to in real life, which is why Joan hit on only heterosexual women; they responded mostly out of pity, in Van Gelder's view, since cybersex isn't really as emotionally involved as real sex. What really got to people was being emotionally involved with Joan in some way. As Janis puts it, "Alex zeroed in on good people, although they were often good women at vulnerable stages of their lives." (p. 544) Ultimately, the IdentityDeception? yanked a supporting pillar out from underneath these women's lives.
Finally, the overall atmosphere of CompuServe as a utopian convivial environment had been destroyed. Although given the other lesser IdentityDeception?s, it couldn't have been due solely to the philosophical notion of deception. Rather, it was the emotional rupturing of this community that had scarred the plain.
Gelder, L. Van. (1985). The strange case of the electronic lover. Ms., October, 364-375.
Reprinted as Gelder, L. Van. (1996). The strange case of the electronic lover. In C. Dunlop and R. Kling (eds.), Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices. (2nd ed.) (pp. 533-546), San Diego, CA: Academic Press.