7 Reasons I Went to the Media About My Catfish

by | Dec 24, 2019 | Blog

I’m often asked why I chose to do an A Current Affair segment on my experience of being catfished for 12 years, essentially outing the man who’d been lying to me and using his son’s identity. The truth is, the choice to do the show took a year to reach. I had a support network talking me through whether it was the right step and what it would involve.

I’d seen the anger and disgust leveled at those who complained about revenge porn and I knew even my fifteen-year-old self would be a target for public shaming.

I chose to do the segment anyway, not for a single reason, but for many of them.

 

1. Revenge

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Yes, there was a part of me that wanted revenge for twelve years of lies, three years of love and the fact a 15-year-old was gaslighted by a man 35 years her senior into doing things online she should never have considered. It certainly wasn’t my main motivation, but a part of me was happy to see the man who’d sworn me to secrecy so often, finally forced into the daylight.

 

2. Because he thought I wouldn’t

As a teen, I remember weeks of him asking me to buy a better lightbulb for when I chatted with him via webcam (although he always had good reasons why he didn’t have his own).

After two weeks, I had been too busy with school and friends to buy one. Our conversation was a countdown and before I knew it, our chat had turned his blocking me for nearly a month. He finally rang me one day to see how I was, and I immediately apologised and begged him not to do it again.

 

Somehow, I’d always be left feeling as if I was in the wrong, no matter how hard I argued. If he couldn’t talk to me for a week, that was life, but if I didn’t reply, he asked if I was talking to other guys.

Over the years, he groomed and catfished me to automatically do what he asked, naturally assuming he was right in any situation. I think he believed that this conditioning would continue, even after I found out his true identity.

He’d always been a very secretive person, something I’d come to expect. He didn’t use the Internet much, he didn’t give out his phone number, he didn’t want me to talk to his friends and family. He didn’t tell me where he worked or specifics about his life.

Going to the media went against everything he’d taught me over the years, and broke all the secrets he’d told me never to talk about. I knew he never thought I’d do it, but I did.

 

3. Because it was embarrassing

Choosing to talk about the naive things I said and did was something I knew I was strong enough and resilient enough to do. I know that many other people aren’t, so I shared my story because they couldn’t.

It’s embarrassing to come out and say that you believed a lie for 12 years, or that you’d shared sexual photos and video of yourself you wish you hadn’t. It’s not easy to admit you fell for someone you never met, or that you allowed them to gaslight and manipulate you into doing whatever they asked, even if you were a teen at the time.

One thing I’ve learned about people is that they want to know they’re not alone in their feelings, whether those feelings are happy, sad, or shameful and humiliating. I’ve done my best to share my experiences and thoughts over the years, in the hopes of helping other people feel they’re not alone.

 

4. Because the police wouldn’t do anything

Many of the things I did, said and shared online with my catfish were on a variety of platforms. ICQ, MSN, Skype, Chatrooms and at least 4 email accounts played a part over the years as the Internet changed. The time and the number of platforms meant that it was impossible to gather all the possible evidence of twelve years of communication.

I was 27 when I approached the police to tell them about my catfish, but unfortunately lying to someone online wasn’t a crime without further evidence. Due to the time since it started, and the fact I was now an adult, my case also wasn’t a priority compared to cases of people in imminent danger.

The one email I could produce was dated just two months after my 18th birthday, meaning it barely missed falling under child exploitation legislation. The case didn’t fall under impersonation or fraud either, as the law stated that the impersonator had to have received something tangible by impersonating someone. In my case, I’d never been asked for or given money, or anything else.

I was also warned that if I did find proof of any sexual content sent to my catfish before 18, I might face charges myself.

 

5. To find other people he’d catfished

We first met in a teen chatroom called Chatway in 2002. I was 15 and he claimed to be 17. Although we soon moved to talking on other platforms, we still frequented the chatroom and talked to other people who claimed to be teens.

I knew that over his time there, and during our breakups, he’d pursued relationships with other girls in the chatroom. I’ve managed to contact three of them, but I know there were others, including a girl called Rachel (Mangolady) who lived in NSW.

I hoped that someone, somewhere, would recognise the name and the voice and tell me more about the other girls.

 

6. Because no one in Australia was talking about catfish

Watching the US movie and TV show titled Catfish, was a huge eye-opener for me. Finding out that thousands of other people had created fake accounts and pursued relationships online was a huge relief. I wasn’t alone, and there was another type of dangerous persona online other than the commonly joked about ‘Nigerian Prince’.

When my segment aired in 2015, no one I knew had heard the term ‘catfish’. If it wasn’t for reruns of the US show on SBS, I may not have heard it myself. The 2019 Lincoln Lewis catfishing scandal and suicide shocked Australia and raised more awareness.  Channel Ten planned a pilot of Catfish Australia later in the year, but axed the show before it went to air.

Based on my own experiences, I wanted more people to be aware that the niggling doubt in their gut wasn’t just paranoia. I wanted to spread the word to as many other catfishing victims as possible, and that’s something I’ll continue to do.

 

7. To stop me talking to him again

My catfish and I built a strong friendship over the years; we wouldn’t have talked for twelve years if we hadn’t. He’d been there when I complained about school and friends, through my choice to choose work over University, through our breakup, my marriage to someone else, and my career. We talked about books and travel and Game of Thrones. Despite knowing the bad he’d done to me as a teen, a part of me still saw the good, the funny, the knowledgeable part of him.

That’s what scared me; the fact that despite everything, I would still miss his company and our conversations. I knew that by choosing to tell my story to the media, there’d be no going back. He’d never talk to me again. I needed that to get on with my life, almost half of which had featured him.

 

8. To stop him doing it again

I remember a conversation with my catfish perhaps a year before I found out his true identity. I’d been working with journalist Amanda Gearing who specialises in child abuse. I’d been preparing to tell my story of childhood trauma.

“Don’t tell Amanda about me,” I remembered him saying vehemently. I was surprised by the way he said it and filed it away, before forgetting about it.

Maybe he realised that it was only a matter of time before he’d be found out. Maybe he caught a glimpse of the future, in that moment, where she’d be the one who finally helped me expose him. A little over a year later, she’d help me publicly talk about what he’d done, and make sure everyone in his community knew.

I imagine the moment he was approached by a film crew and a journalist was the moment he knew it was over. I imagine he went home after that and fearfully deleted everything on his computer or in his emails which could link him to me, or any other girl he’d met online. I imagine he deleted all the fake profiles he’d set up featuring photos of his own son.

I hope that finding out the consequences of secrets kept online would be the thing that was big enough to stop him from ever doing it again. I hope.

 

I’ll leave you with this quote by Jennifer Michelle Greenberg:

Reporting an abuser doesn’t ruin their life. They did that themselves.
Reporting an abuser doesn’t damage their reputation. It makes it more accurate.
Reporting an abuser doesn’t hurt their family. It protects them from abuse.
Reporting an abuser isn’t gossip. It’s integrity.

Susannah is an Internet Safety and Mental Health Activist as well as a Digital Marketer and Journalist. She is the survivor of a childhood attack which left her with a tracheostomy for eleven years. As a teenager, she was groomed by a catfish, a relationship which continued for twelve years. Susannah has completed studies in Journalism, a Birth Doula certification and most recently, a Master of Marketing.
Susannah Birch