Monday, October 25, 2010

My Catfish

By now you've probably heard about the "facebook documentary" called Catfish. Maybe you've even seen it. There has been some debate about whether the film was staged, but honestly, I don't care. The story - the beginning and the end - was sweet and innocent; the characters naive and brilliant.

Sitting through the film was more uncomfortable than, say, watching porn with my dad might be. Seriously. It made me squirm. 


At first I thought it was the text messages - familiar in their content - like a script I've seen bleeped across my smart phone... SMS intimacy that blooms to "sexting" things that might otherwise be left unsaid. Or maybe the easy way in which they shared (or so it seemed) such personal parts of themselves on social media platforms like facebook. But no. It was bigger.

There's a lot I want to say about this film. It'll take more than one post. I'm going to start here - with the story of MY catfish. So you get a sense of where I'm coming from.


It was early 1991 and I'd just completed college. As a mid-year graduate I had a semester and summer to kill while waiting to hear back from applications to grad school. My plan was to go to Israel (I'd been there the summer before and needed, for a variety of reasons, to return) but the Gulf War was in its fullest bloom and I was advised to wait - at least until the scuds stopped falling.

While waiting I lived with my parents in San Diego. I found a job at a gallery in a trendy beachfront mall and spent the evenings "babysitting" expensive Italian furniture and paintings. I'd sit there studying Hebrew and listening to the radio - practically praying that Bush (#1) would pull the troops out and officially end the war.

So it was on one of these nights that two young men walked into the gallery and, after chatting and flirting a bit, invited me to join them at a nearby restaurant for drinks. Which I did. One of them - Bill - and I hit it off immediately. We began dating.

Bill was a medical student at UCSD. He had class during the day, studied long hours and worked for his uncle selling mall jewelry on the weekends - to help pay the enormous student loans.

Still, we saw each other often and because I was living with my parents, he met them sooner than I might have felt comfortable. But they adored him (a doctor!) and immediately embraced his presence. Bill was invited to family dinners and parties with my parent's circle. I remember once, a long-time friend of my folks, a doctor's wife, said to me, "oh - where'd you find this one Cori? hold onto him!" Her husband liked him too and invited him to view a surgery.

All was peachy.

Soon enough, the war "ended" and I was accepted into a masters program in Jewish Studies, to begin in the fall. Despite being in love, I still wanted to go back to Israel to immerse myself in the language - attempt to learn it before diving into the primary sources written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. 

Bill and I agreed to carry on our relationship while I was away. He was looking into transferring to UCSF so we could be together in the Bay Area when I returned. We wrote long love letters back and forth... he'd share details about his internship at the Salk Institute and I'd relay my adventures living in the most orthodox part of Jerusalem while learning Hebrew in a government run ulpan populated entirely by a newly settled group of Russians. It was quite lovely.

Exorbitant long distance charges kept us from speaking on the phone, so when he called one day - two months before I was due to fly back - I knew something important had happened. And indeed - he had something to say that he was afraid would hurt me. That's OK, go for it, tell me. "I didn't get that internship at the Salk Institute. I told you and your parents that I did because I didn't want you to be disappointed in me." Is that all? Oh. Well, I'm sorry you felt that way but it doesn't change how I feel about you. I love you whether you have a prestigious internship - or not.

He was clearly relieved and we said goodbye

I looked back over the letters and studied the details he'd written about the internship: specifics about his office, research partner, the items served in the cafeteria - even difficulties parking. It was all made up. Pretend.

But I was in Israel and would be for another two months. I put the lie aside. I studied Hebrew. I waited to go home.

Home -

When I arrived at the airport my folks picked me up. My mom said something snide about Bill - something I didn't understand. I kept thinking about it while I freshened myself up for our reunion. And suddenly it hit me. I went to my sister (several years younger than me, still in high school) "Bill isn't a medical student, is he?" Her face said it all - fear, sorrow, pity. "No. - But don't tell Mom and Dad I told you."

I didn't tell. And I didn't tell Bill what I knew when he picked me up that night. I let him suffer through the evening, watching him try several times to confess. Finally, midnight, and we went to the beach to watch the waves. He said, "Cori, I'm not in med school. I'm not in school at all. I just sell jewelry." Wow.

Later I found out that my dad and Bill had had several discussions - at each meeting Bill looked into my dad's eyes and lied. But the lies became obvious and my dad made some calls (no record of Bill ever graduating from the college he said he came from. No record of Bill as a student at UCSD) and finally confronted Bill straight on: WHO the HELL are you?

Imagine for a moment that you are my dad. Have a knot in your stomach? I know I sure would.

But I was barely 22 and wanted to believe the man I was in love with was simply misguided (and not a sociopath). I forgave him. Yup. On the beach that night I said, "Bill, I would love you whether you were doctor or a garbage man. I'm sorry you felt you had to lie." I'M SORRY!?!?! Yea. I said that.

Naturally the relationship didn't last. I moved up to Berkeley for Grad School. He visited several times but I couldn't believe anything he said. His lies were like truths to him and I couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. Talk about a mind fuck.

It was, actually, more than that: the previous year at college, before I met Bill, I'd been raped on a date and not long after - during my first visit to Israel, at Hebrew University - I was assaulted by a naked man hiding in the dorm bathrooms. He tried to rape me but I fought back and screamed bloody murder They caught him running down the hall pulling his pants on. I spent the last weeks of my visit  learning about the Israeli justice system (further complicated by the fact that my assailant was Palestinian....)

What Bill did to my mind was the same. I felt violated - and this time not by a date or a stranger - but by the man I loved. He'd stuffed a bunch of lies into my head and now he was slowly pulling them out - sharp edges and all. It hurt.


The film Catfish brought all of this back to me. If you've seen the movie, then you know why. If you haven't, understand this: a catfish is something thrown into the mix to shake things up a bit - keep you on your toes. Bill is my catfish. And I say "is" in the present tense because his actions, 20 years later, still affect me. I could heal from physical assaults and even rape, but the way Bill managed to alter my perception... to fool me... I think I'll carry that around to the grave.

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