That was in late 2002, which was 17 years ago. This is the only photo she ever gave me. We met on a dating site called Christian Cafe, where I met several women who I dated during that period.
Emily was smart and charming. She was attractive, but not so much that I was blinded by looks or felt she was an ego-driven beauty queen. She was just a fascinating woman in her early 20s — and we hit it off right away.
We chatted on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) at first and then started talking a lot on the phone. Within a couple of weeks, we were talking about meeting, but things came up at the last second each of the times we made plans.
And then the truth came out. Emily didn’t really exist.
After Emily and I had been talking for a few weeks, I got a call one day from a phone number in Nashville’s area code. A woman’s voice demanded to know who I was.
I didn’t like the woman’s tone and I told her I wasn’t telling her anything until she explained why she was calling me and what her business was.
This was Emily’s mother. She had found her daughter’s phone bill and looked through it, finding dozens of calls to and from me. She again demanded to know who I was. Trying to bully me is not a good way to get cooperation, so I told her I had nothing to tell her. She could either explain what was going on — and I could talk to Emily about it — or I could hang up the phone.
When she realized that bullying wouldn’t work, she shifted to virtually begging. And she told me the story.
Emily had been under a psychiatrist’s care for years. She had a history of making up fantasies and involving other people. She had done this once before with a man out of state — and her mother feared she was doing it again. She asked me what I thought Emily looked like.
While we talked, I sent her the photo I had. She gasped and said that wasn’t Emily. She had no idea who the pretty blonde in the blue dress was, but she said Emily was a very overweight woman who nobody ever wanted to date.
So did Emily exist? Well, there was a real woman named Emily. Parts of what she told me were true, but most of it was purely her imagination. There had been a number of very distressing things she had told me which had allegedly happened to her — some of them going on even during the period when we were talking — and none of them were true, according to her mother.
Basically, the Emily I thought I knew didn’t exist. In reality, Emily was a socially awkward young woman with no friends and no social life — someone who pursued fantasies in her head and pretended they were real.
By the end of our phone call, the mother had promised to let me know what happened next when she confronted Emily. After I knew the story, I was concerned for the real Emily. I didn’t know how her fragile mental health would handle being exposed.
I tried to call Emily, but she never again answered the phone for me. I sent her an email to tell her what her mother had said — and told her that I wanted to talk with her about it. She never responded. And her mother didn’t keep her promise to let me know what happened. She never responded to my emails.
The story simply ended right there for me.
By the time I got the call from Emily’s mother, I already had some suspicions about Emily. Some of what she was telling me didn’t quite ring true. Her excuses for canceling our planned meetings were pretty lame. And there was a time when she allegedly sent me a package of pictures, but they were mysteriously returned to her by the post office with the package damaged.
There was even a crazy story about her ex-best friend — a man — breaking in to her house and attacking her. She told me about injuring him with a baseball bat during the struggle and she told me all about the police cars at her house in the night because of the attack.
But I could never find news reports — even in smaller neighborhood papers — reporting such an attack, which would have been news anywhere. So I had suspicions that there was something wrong, even if I hadn’t quite put the pieces together.
I hadn’t thought about this story for a long time, but I was reminded of it by an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia this afternoon. It was an episode about the boyfriend of one of the show’s producers having his photos and information used by a man on a dating site who was doing exactly what Emily had done. He was a lonely man who just wanted to talk with women, so he stole the identity of another man and talked to women to fill the void in his life.
The show tracked down the man who stole the guy’s identity and talked with him, but none of the women who he talked with were found.
I don’t know who the blonde woman in the blue dress really is. I have no idea where Emily got that picture. I wonder how she would have felt if she had known that Emily was using her photo on a public dating site as a lure to find men like me to talk with. I’ll never know.
Emily’s mother thinks I was the only man Emily was talking with, because my number was the only one on her phone bill. In a strange way, that was a relief to me. Even if the Emily I knew wasn’t real, I liked knowing that I was really someone she liked a lot — as strange as that might sound.
The real Emily would be close to 40 by now. I have no idea what became of her. But even after all these years, I wish I could talk with her — to find out what made her so lonely that she pretended to be somebody else. I’d really like to understand.
I hope she got the help she needed.
Everybody deserves a chance to live a normal life and everybody deserves a chance to be loved. I hope she found a way to let someone love her for who she really was — without feeling the need to pretend to be someone she could never be.