“The little regard which this impudent knave has to veracity makes me sometimes apprehensive that my real facts may fall under suspicion, by being found in company with his confounded inventions.” –from The Surprising Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, Rudolf Erich Raspe, 1895
It is a terrible, tragic, and heart-rending thing, when someone in SL with whom we have developed an emotional bond, suddenly disappears. When we feel that gaping hole left behind, that used to be filled with their uniqueness, the hurt and grief are every bit as real as if someone you knew in RL was lost.
There are people in this world whose lives seem so empty and lonely that they will go to extraordinary lengths to create this feeling in others, just to feel like they are loved enough to be missed. This phenomenon has been dubbed “Munchausen by Internet” by Dr. Marc Feldman; and while it still has yet to be classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the standard for diagnosis of mental disorders), it has been widely documented. It doesn’t always take the form of faking one’s death (although in a lengthy confession by one “Sara”, she faked at least five online deaths). It is, at very least, an example of what is called Facticious Disorder; a classification including Munchausen Syndrome, Munchausen by Proxy, and Munchausen by Internet.
Dr. Feldman has written numerous books on the subject, including The Spectrum of Facticious Disorders and Playing Sick? Untangling the Web of Munchausen. In July 2000, he submitted Munchausen by Internet: Detecting Factitious Illness and Crisis on the Internet to the Southern Medical Journal.
Here, according to Dr. Feldman, are the biggest clues to look out for:
- the posts consistently duplicate material in other posts, in books, or on health-related websites;
- the characteristics of the supposed illness emerge as caricatures;
- near-fatal bouts of illness alternate with miraculous recoveries;
- claims are fantastic, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved;
- there are continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention;
- there is feigned blitheness about crises (e.g., going into septic shock) that will predictably attract immediate attention;
- others apparently posting on behalf of the individual (e.g., family members, friends) have identical patterns of writing.
Howard Swains of Wired wrote an extensive article on fake internet deaths, and includes the story of “Sara” and the now infamous “limeybean“. The article describes the formula that internet fake deaths seem to follow:
It usually begins with a blogger saying that he or she has contracted an illness, followed by a description of a gradual decline in health, often aided by unlikely and unlimited access to a computer beside a supposed hospital bed. Alternatively, for a short, sharp exit, fakers are “killed” in a horrific accident, often a car crash, before their deaths are announced by close friends or relatives, who just happen to know the password to protected journals and are not too distracted by the mourning process to announce their loss to a group of anonymous strangers.
Although some fakers display a remarkable degree of endurance and research, stretching the fiction across many months of detailed and anguished description, even the most dedicated can slip up. Slight details can introduce contradictions and, while anyone caught up in the deception may be willing to forgive a slight oversight, disinterested sleuths are more ruthless. They are prepared to call funeral homes, hospitals or local newspapers where obituaries may (or may not) be published, and with countless pairs of eyes poring over ever detail, few contradictions escape.
The process can be so formulaic, that it’s even been mocked:
Of course, the case put upon said disinterested sleuths to prove a negative is nothing short of daunting. This can be especially true when those who are “bereaved” by a perpetrator cling so desperately to hope–hope that the person they loved, the person they so deeply trusted, is the good person they believed them to be–that they offer “moving goalpost” arguments. For example, if the online detective calls the hospital and finds no cases of the disease that claimed the life of the person in question, a hopeful supporter may find one similar and use that as proof, saying the reporter of the person’s death probably wanted to keep details anonymous.
Arousing suspicion about an online death is viewed as an act of sacrilege by many, in particular those who were closest to the (real or imaginary) deceased. “Thank you for your unwavering devotion to facts even when they aren’t available. I’m so sorry your personality type or the story framework of your life doesn’t allow you to decouple from that trait. Your lack of compassion betrays you,” says one blogger, in response to just such a suspicious poster. Such detectives, however, are uninterested in such pity; and instead pity those who have been taken in by what appears to be a hoax. Indeed, they wonder what “compassion” can be found in allowing people to hurt and grieve over a ruse, and that exposing the fraud for what they are is much more compassionate.
It is important to note, however, that sometimes internet deaths are real. Anne Soffee, moderator of the LiveJournal community fake_lj_deaths, posits that one out of every ten online death the community investigates turns out to be true. The real tragedy, says one blogger, is that frauds who fake illnesses or deaths cause the rest of us to be more suspicious. “People are then afraid to be nice to others and send them the good wishes they need, for fear that their story is another fraud like the last one, meaning that some real people end up being disbelieved. A person in distress should not feel that they have to provide corroborating evidence that their situation is genuine.”
And that, says she, is why she is so compelled to expose fakers for what they are. “But you don’t have to become so cynical you distrust everyone – in fact, I’d argue that’s what a lot of the internet fakers want. They don’t have enough friends, so they want no one to have friends. If you stop caring for people and trusting them, the sociopaths win.”
While contempt and disgust at those who perpetrate such ruses is inevitable, Dr. Feldman says that compassion should be exercised. An online forum exists for patients of facticious disorders, as well as their loved ones and anyone trying to make sense of it all (Note: it is pop-up heavy so be prepared.)
“Perhaps the most important lesson is that, while most people visiting support groups are honest, all members must balance empathy with circumspection,” he says.
http://www.munchausen.com/index.html – Dr. Marc Feldman’s site
http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2007-02-27/swains-fakingdeath – Another article by Howard Swains on fake internet deaths
http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/hoaxes/kaycee.asp – Kaycee Nicole, one of the more infamous fake online deaths
http://prisontalk.com/forums/showthread.php?t=101879/ – A very extensive revelation of a fake online death in a support community
http://andreisz.club.fr/factitious_stats.html – Statistics of factitious disorders (dated 2000, so probably a bit outdated by now)
https://support.secondlife.com/ics/support/default.asp?deptID=4417&task=knowledge&questionID=4265 – SecondLife.com’s policy on transfer of inworld property in the event of RL death
I’ll pre-empt the questions now by stating that I believe, in the recent case of Rheta Shan, that the death probably is not real. Based on what research I’ve done, more evidence points to it being false than to it being real. That said I feel especially strongly for those closest to her, in particular her partner, because it appears to me that her need to feel loved and missed outweighed her compassion for those closest to her. I expect I’ll get lots of torches and pitchforks directed at me for this. I’m not worried. That, too, is part of the formula. I do hope that if my suspicions are correct, that people will not lose faith in humankind as a whole because of one individual’s actions. If I am mistaken, and have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that I am mistaken, then of course my heart goes out to those left behind after such a tragedy. I honestly don’t believe I am mistaken, though.
Is it any of my business? Probably not. But I admit I’m fascinated by this case. And if I minded my own business all the time I wouldn’t be much of a blogger 😉
Edit to add, Nov. 2009: I just found that a forum poster has posted this article in its entirety, saying only she “found it on another forum”. It was written by me, Laura J. Foster, known here as “MistletoeEthaniel”, in 2009 and the fact that it is on a public medium (the Internet) does not make it any less subject to US Copyright. Not that I expect anyone to come here and read it, since the WHOLE THING was posted on a forum. If you can’t respect my work, please at least respect the law.