On Friday evening, on the way to a dinner party with friends, Britta Froelicher picked up her cellphone in Istanbul and a Washington Post reporter asked whether she had time to be interviewed about a story on Syria. Froelicher, studying for her PhD in Syrian economic development, agreed to talk for a few minutes. The story Elizabeth Flock and I were tracking was the identity of the writer behind the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” It was supposedly written by a Syrian lesbian, but clues left online suggested that it may have come from Froelicher.
Froelicher had no idea what Flock was talking about. “I knew it wasn’t me unless I had a split personality I didn’t know about,” she said in a phone interview from Istanbul on Monday morning.
Her husband, Tom MacMaster, also denied any involvement — both to The Post and to his wife. Over the weekend, as the calls from The Post continued to come in, she became increasingly worried, losing sleep and becoming confused as to why we kept investigating her life. In one interview over the weekend, she said she felt like Sadam Hussein trying to argue he had no WMDs. “I can’t prove that I’m not this person, but I’m not this person,” she would later say. She started pushing her husband on the details. “We have really boring lives,” she said she told him. “Why would [the journalists] pick on us?”
“I knew he had a blog and we talked about Syrian politics all the time, but I never checked it,” she said. She said she was with him all the time in real life; she never thought to check up on his activities online. But as the evidence began to build, she told MacMaster, “We’re going to have to go through the storm. If it is you, than you have to say it. There is no other explanation.”
Only after their names appeared online Sunday morning in connection to the blog did MacMaster publish an apology admitting that he had been, in fact, posing as Amina Arraf, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” online. He followed it with a longer apology Monday.
Froelicher also heard a new admission Monday: MacMaster had posed as a lesbian on dating sites and communicated with women flirtatiously by instant messenger. One woman, Sandra Bagaria, had thought she and Amina were in a virtual relationship and had been planning to meet the fictional Amina in Italy in July.
“Furious does not begin to describe my feelings,” Froelicher said about that aspect of MacMaster’s elaborate online hoax. MacMaster said he had engaged in these conversations to practice his literary voice, which Froelicher said she believes. “You might think it’s naive of me to believe that.”
She also said she understood the outrage from the readers. “I totally understand that people are angry. They have every right to be angry. They were misled.”
Despite also being hurt — and uncertain about their future together, (“The trust issue is, well, an issue,” she said) — Froelicher is weathering the storm with her husband.
“He’s a very good and a very gentle person. His intentions on this were to give a voice to this. ... Though the way he did it was less than elegant.”
Moving forward, she said, she just hopes there will be some return to their “boring lives.”
“It is both of our sincere hope that people will take away the information and forgive us for the deceit,” she said.
When I asked why she felt the need to ask forgiveness too, if she did not know about the hoax, Froelicher paused and then said, “because I’m married to him.”