February 1, 2013

Also, what is this set? (CBS Television via Reuters)

More twists in the wild, nonstop thrill ride that is the Manti Te’o story, as it spirals down out of the rarefied air of National Stories into the deep valleys of Things That Appear on Dr. Phil! But if the recent revelations are any indication, this tale of the hoaxed Notre Dame linebacker whose dying girlfriend turned out to be entirely the creation of aspiring musician Ronaiah Tuiasosopo — through hours of phone calls and more texts than you can shake a stick at — deserves better than the company of A Girl Who Decided The Best Way To Lose Weight Was To Cut Fat Off Her Legs (the plot of a “Dr. Phil” episode I saw once).

I know this is not “real news,” but it is riveting, for all that.

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has now told Dr. Phil that he was in love with Manti Te’o. Well, he wasn’t, exactly. Lennay Kekua, his character, was. And he still insists that he was the voice behind those 1,000 calls!

This saga reminds me of the David Henry Hwang play “M. Butterfly,” based on the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, who lived for twenty years with Shi Pei Pu, a Chinese opera performer he thought was female. Dedicated to the deception, Shi even produced a child. Tuaisosopo has shown admirable commitment to his bit, but nothing anywhere near this level.

The play deals with a number of questions not present in the Te’o story – imperialism, for one — but it does make one point that is a good one if we want to give everyone the full benefit of the doubt.

In it, one of the characters says, “Why, in Chinese theater, are women always played by men? Because only men know how women should act.” That’s not just Chinese theater. Some of our literature’s most famous women – Juliet, Ophelia, Cleopatra – were created and first played by men.

Add the fake girlfriend Lennay to the pile. As presented to the world and to Te’o in her voluminous tweets, she was an intriguing mixture: a pretty face, retweeted platitudes, vague subtweets, hardcore football fandom. One of Lennay’s first tweets was a retweet of the sentiment “women fall in love by what they hear. men fall in love by what they see. That’s why most women wear makeup and most men lie…” There are whole theses to be written on the exercise in performing the feminine that happened on that Twitter account, and I am not writing a thesis, but — still.

“IT’S GAMETIME FOR MY OTHER HALF!!! Go Irish! #5 babyyy! Love you Honey! You are most welcome for my amazing pre-game speech! lol GOD BLESS!” “Lennay” tweeted in November 2011. “When you fall in love with your best friend, you’ll discover everything life has to offer except THE END. #Love,” “Lennay” tweeted on Valentine’s Day 2012.

Is this What Men Want? Best friendship, pre-game speeches? Ronaiah Tuiasosopo seemed to think so.

In the first hour of the Dr. Phil interview, Tuiasosopo as often refers to her as “Lennay” or “her” as in the first person. He knew what she would say in a given situation and what her values were. She was a deliberate creation, a character, quite literally a fantasy woman. How much of Lennay was really Tuiasosopo? How much was just a concatenation of characteristics — football cheers and bouts of drama — that Tuiasosopo thought a guy like Te’o might find pleasing? At a certain point, all characters blur the line.

And then there’s the Internet aspect. Creating a false character used to be the exclusive purview of writers and the folks who sent elaborate false letters to the Lonely Hearts columns in the 1880s to extract money from widows under false pretenses, to pick an oddly specific example. Who, growing up on the Internet, has not at some point pretended to be someone else online? A/S/L? More like two half-truths and a lie. It was a masked ball, and that was half the fun. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” ran a cartoon in the New Yorker in 1993. It was true. Pictures were optional. If the other people in the AOL reference chat room suspected that you were an odd 12-year-old, not Gen. Sherman’s ghost, that was all they could do: suspect.

But now we are living in the Social Internet, Web 2.0, or something, where you increasingly have to have a real face before you can join the party. This makes it much harder. What if you do not want to join the party with your real face?

Well, you do what Tuiasosopo did.

These days, most relationships unfold online and in the real world, perpendicular and complementary axes. You can trace the history of a relationship through subtweets and Facebook posts — statuses Liked, songs recommended, trickling expressions of affection, the courtship enshrined on Facebook walls for everyone to marvel at. Especially for a relationship that unfolded online, the trail is telling.

In general, the part of a relationship visible on the Internet is only one axis of a graph in multiple dimensions. In this case, there was only one other dimension: the phone calls and texts. There were no meetings. There was no iceberg below the surface. The surface was everything.

But what a surface. What a character!

“I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man,” the deceived diplomat says late in Hwang’s play. “Anything else simply falls short.”

Much more may yet be revealed. This story may unravel. But — there’s something to that.