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Possibilities, painful reality coexist in the virtual world

John Kass

January 20, 2013

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Notre Dame football hero Manti Te'o is denying he had anything to do with that hoax about his dead girlfriend who didn't exist.

"I wasn't faking it," Te'o told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap in an off-camera interview late last week. "I wasn't part of this."

More will likely come out, about Te'o and the 22-year-old named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who is now alleged to have created the fake girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Te'o may have been manipulated. He may have played along. I don't know. I wonder if he even knows anymore.

What we do know is that Te'o said he loved that girl, the one who was in the crash that didn't happen, the one who contracted leukemia that killed her, but really it didn't, because to die, you've got to have lived.

Te'o said he loved her, yet he never met her, never touched her.

To some of us, that seems impossible — to love someone you never touch, especially if you're a young and healthy kid full of raging hormones.

You never touched her hair or her hand, you never smelled the back of her neck, or put your arm around her, and you can call it love?

I'm told it happens to many people now, young and old, but first they have to convince themselves to live in another world.

Not the real world, one of flesh and bone, but that other world that comes to you through the tips of your fingers on a keyboard.

Manipulators cruise through both worlds, breaking hearts and devouring souls. In the real world, breaking a heart can have consequences.

But in that other place, the virtual world, the manipulators run fewer risks. They have loads of fun, and sometimes their victims are willing.

Last week on my WLS-AM 890 midmorning talk radio show, we interviewed Daniela Schreier, a clinical psychologist and author, who explained the phenomenon.

"At the university I had kids coming in all the time between the age range of 19 and 22, 23," Schreier said, describing the similarities in the cases.

"They had built relationships online and yet never got to meet that person," Schreier said. "Especially women. Some guys too fell for that online person and sometimes I had to tell that person, 'Look honey, you have never seen him or her. Whenever it comes close to a meeting, they disappear.'"

But they think these relationships are real?

"Absolutely, because you get emotionally into it," Schreier said.

How can you have a girlfriend whom you never actually meet?

In the physical world — the one we used to call the "real world" until there were billions of real dollars to be made in the Internet world — love can be terrifying.

It's amazingly nice, but also scary. What if she's playing you? What was that look she gave the other guy across the room? And on and on.

Just a few years ago, Ecstasy wasn't a drug. It was a state of mind. And it walked hand and hand with the possibility of betrayal and ridicule.

There weren't virtual arguments and virtual tears and virtual making-up. There wasn't anything virtual about it.

You touch her hand. She looks into your eyes. She tells you she loves you, and you begin to believe it.

And if you're lucky, you have children. If they're boys, they're riding on your shoulders one minute, and then they begin to shave and ask for the car keys.

That other world, though, the virtual world, is thought to be emotionally safer. That world can be reached by placing your fingers on a keyboard, and there's a mistaken belief that the action offers a measure of control, distance and safety.

In that world, rejection isn't in her eyes, or on her face, but on some keyboard far away. And it can always be brushed off with an easy shorthand self-mockery. All it takes is an "LOL" here and a "hahaha" there.

This is the world of avatars, and you don't even need drugs to escape. You can destroy yourself and re-create yourself again and again.

You can even grow wings and horns and fly around the universe with other mythic beasts and have adventures if you wish. Only that mythic beast next to you might actually be Lenny from the mailroom.

Or you can have virtual names and even virtual facts to season your virtual lives.

As a dad who met his wife before romance was virtual, I worry about the young people living in that virtual world. Some of them cling to it as stubbornly as the fictional Blanche DuBois clung to the world she created in her head.

Many of the kids who cling to the virtual world are children of the helicopter age of parenting, where it is hoped that risk can be avoided, or at least limited, if only we hover within reach.

So children were shuttled everywhere, to school and after-school activities and play dates and so on. Their time was scheduled down to the minute, in the hope of keeping them safe.

They can't run the streets on their own. That's considered too dangerous. So they find another place to play, where they can explore and run free.

They find it in that other world, the virtual one, where you can be anything you want.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass