The week of May 29, 2016

Confessions of a catfish

By Aris Apostolopoulos

I’m a reformed catfish. It gives me no joy to say that. But at the time, I was alone, with no friends or anyone to love me, and I built an online persona to make myself feel better. The more time and energy I put into this alternate self, the more addicted to it I became. I tell you this not just as an apology, but in an attempt to help others understand why I did what I did. So often, catfishing stories in their myriad forms (MTV, books, websites) focus on the victims. But looking back on my own time pretending, I have some sympathy not just for those duped, but for those doing the duping.

Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell School of Medicine, suggests that being a catfish doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad person. Motivations vary. It can be about exerting power, of getting something over on someone else. Those are malicious motives, and they indicate a certain kind of emotional damage. But there are other kinds of hurt that catfishing can (temporarily) salve. Saltz describes people who might pretend to be someone else “because they are unhappy with who they are or think it is the only way to get what they want or need,” whether that’s admiration, love, or something else. These are the kind of drives that ought to be familiar to us all.

Lana (not her real name) is a 24-year-old Yale graduate, a lawyer making six figures working for a successful law firm in Los Angeles. Seven years ago, she was a catfish. She brushes aside the catfish stereotype—the unkempt loner living in a grandmother’s basement, for example—that’s not her. “I love stereotypes,” she says, laughing. “They make me feel unique.”

When Lana was 17, she fell in love with her high school prom king. Insecure about her body and too shy to even talk to him—“like a cow in a pack of deer waiting to mate with the King Reindeer”—she created an alter ego: Sonia.

Sonia was an attractive blonde who had it all. “I found a Ukrainian girl on Facebook, stole her photos, edited them in Photoshop, and posted them,” Lana says. She friended other men on Facebook, racking up 1,200 friends. “When the time was right,” she says. “I sent him a friend request.” She was excited, but also wary—she compares it to the feeling before a first date.

Still, she believed in her plan: her crush would fall in love with “Sonia,” who was really her, and then, when the time came, she’d simply reveal her true identity. By then, he would be so taken with his beloved that he wouldn’t care who she “really was”—whatever that means!—and they would live happily ever after.  

You are not the best version of yourself when you’re deceiving a random person. You know that, but you don’t care.

Gradually, though, she grew more attached to Sonia. “I loved who I was,” she says. She had the attention of not just her crush, but also that of many other men. That attention made her feel like she was in control and no longer the shy girl who couldn’t talk to the prom king. “I was powerful,” she says. “At least online.”

Catfishing does make you feel powerful and in control. It’s a feeling I remember well. At the same time, though, you recognize that those positive feelings are coming from a negative place. What you’re doing is wrong, on a fundamental level, and you know that. You are not the best version of yourself when you’re deceiving a random person. You know that, but you don’t care. You just need more.

There’s a common name for this kind of radical disregard for the feelings of others: sociopathology. It’s a term vulgarized from psychology and often used too casually, but it can still tell us something about the negative drives behind catfishing. Donna Andersen runs Lovefraud.com, a website that teaches people “how to recognize and recover from sociopaths.” She takes a dim view of catfishing, saying via email, “Based on my experience, I can say the people who engage in the fake identity catfishing are likely sociopaths.” That doesn’t mean they’re serial killers—the typical association with sociopaths—but rather that they feel no compunction about exploiting others. They may even take joy in it. “When sociopaths are messing with people’s minds, like making them fall in love with a nonexistent person,” Andersen says, “they feel an incredible rush of power.”

Lana agrees, with a slight complication. “Well,” she says, “I don’t know if I am a sociopath, but I definitely acted like I was.” Looking back, the same goes for me. I was exploiting others because, like Lana, I wanted to be loved. What I did was unfair, and I can’t condone my actions; even as I committed them, I knew I was doing wrong.

Catfishing is obviously not always about lacking for love. I talked to Mark (also not his real name), 22, a serial catfisher from Australia. For four years he pretended to be a millionaire model agent on Facebook, searching for women for his next big project. “It’s usually a perfume ad,” he says. “Ladies have a thing for perfumes and I have a thing for ladies.”

“A catfish usually creates an entire fake identity, with fake friends, fake family, and fake crises. Regular people don’t do this.”

His thing—his way of exploiting others—is collecting sexy or nude photos from people he’s duped. When he gets his photos, he vanishes. He feels no guilt about this; he believes that as long as he’s not taking money from anyone, he has nothing to feel sorry for. Lost on him, of course, is that he’s breaching the trust of strangers and embodying some of the Internet’s worst misogynistic tendencies. He believes he can justify his actions. “I don’t sell the images nor post them online,” he says. “It’s a private collection of photos people hand to me.” In this, somehow, Mark the catfish is an innocent.

Perhaps his is simply an extreme case of the argument that “everybody lies online.” It’s common to argue that everyone burnishes their online image, whether it’s a LinkedIn résumé or a carefully filtered Instagram feed. A survey conducted by smartphone maker HTC found that more than 50 percent of respondents admitted to posting images to social media just to make their real lives look fancier. Perhaps that’s because more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they judge others based on social-media photos.

Andersen, though, points out the obvious: pretending to be a better version of yourself is much different from impersonating someone. “A catfish usually creates an entire fake identity, with fake friends, fake family, and fake crises,” she says. “Regular people don’t do this. Regular people may post a younger, thinner photo of themselves, or exaggerate their career achievements. They don’t create entire false identities.”

It’s a lot of work, catfishing. When I look back on the effort I put into it, I’m impressed and ashamed. And then I went to college and got some friends. I didn’t need the fake self I’d built, so I just let it go. Lana, similarly, found real love and gave up on her life as “Sonia.”

She and I were able to walk away; our catfishing was not exactly harmless given the trust we betrayed, but it wasn’t all-consuming, either. Saltz says that’s not always the case. Catfish can find themselves trapped in the net of lies they’ve woven. “For those that want to pretend to be someone else even to themselves,” she says, they may grow out of it, or find other ways to get the validation they seek. But, she says, “They might also realize they are in too deep and not be able to emotionally or actually maintain the facade. They might have guilt or recognize that they aren’t able to do it without someone getting hurt.”

The irony, of course, is that when it comes to catfishing, someone is always getting hurt.

Illustration by J. Longo