After I submitted my article last week (regarding my computer repair experiences), I received several emails from the Voice Editor. She offered numerous suggestions detailing how I could fix my computer problems. She also issued warnings that were in contrast to some of the Internet advice that I had received (e.g., don’t use magnetized tools). Her advice was greatly appreciated, and really brought home for me the truthfulness of my observation about Internet communities. Previously, I stated, “if you post your tech questions, I’ve found that people are very willing to help – there is a wonderful tech community out there, and no question is too small or too dumb” (Voice, November 9).
Over the years I’ve met and interacted with many Internet “buddies” who were more than willing to help me out, not just for tech support, but with whatever the problem might be. I’ve also met several buddies who were pretty horrible, and I’ve had two experiences that cost me dearly. I had a very creepy nightmare last night that reminded me of one of these individuals, who I’ll call Mr. X. In my dream, I was forced to administer a deadly poison to others (including myself and innocent children), at the behest of Mr. X, reporting back to him each time my mission was complete. After involving a child who looked, disturbingly, like my grandson, I woke up, shivering in horror at what my unconscious mind had concocted for me while asleep. I was haunted by the dream throughout the day, thinking about what it could possibly mean. Last week, I watched an eye-opening program on Dateline about Internet predators. This no doubt formed the basis for my dream (according to research, dreams often process events that occurred up to a week previously). Recent events have also caused certain thoughts to be uppermost in my mind, thoughts about the negative things I’ve done in my life and the impact on my children.
These thoughts have been very distressing, of course, and I continually ask myself how I could have been so foolish as to trust Internet predators, not once but twice. I try to tell myself that I was vulnerable, inexperienced, and at an extremely low point in my life — all these things are true. But looking back, it’s still hard to comprehend how easily I was sucked in to the web these individuals weaved. I’m intelligent, world-wise, and not a fool. I love my children more than anything else in the world and want to protect them and keep them safe. Yet I was taken in, and most reprehensible of all — I exposed my innocent children to monsters.
Through my university studies, I have come to embrace existential philosophy. It is the search for meaning in life; the process of turning human suffering into human achievement. Friedrich Nietzsche is foremost among those I admire. His quote, “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger” has become my lifeline, helping me re-frame many of my life experiences (even the most horrible) as having contributed to making me a stronger, better person. As a counsellor, I’m now able to take these experiences and use them to help others, providing proof that humans can overcome anything and survive.
What have I learned from Internet predators that makes me stronger? In thinking about why I was vulnerable in the first place, two things seem clear. I was very isolated emotionally, and Internet relationships offered an easy option. Emotional isolation can lead to risky behaviours in anyone. I know that I would not have made the mistakes I did had I not been in emotional turmoil. Coming out of a second abusive marriage, abandoned and struggling to provide for my daughters, unable to rely on friends and family, self-esteem in tatters, depressed and miserable — I was a walking time bomb and ripe for exploitation. A state of such vulnerability is highly dangerous, and I’m not alone in my experience. Many women (and men) have made foolish decisions while in a similar state, both on the Internet and in-person. But the Internet makes it so much easier. When it is 2:00 a.m. and you can’t sleep, that comforting buddy on some remote computer connection is always there for you, helping you through.
There are good friends out there, of course, and I met many of those during my down time; wonderful, supportive people to whom I am forever grateful. Never underestimate the importance of having a good, trusted friend who can provide feedback. Now I’m better able to distinguish between the two, to recognize which relationships are healthy, and which are potentially damaging. I’d like to think that I’m smarter and wiser, and would never again fall victim to an Internet predator. But it would be foolish to make that assumption. This past summer I took a course in risk assessment as part of my Master of Counselling program. The professor told us a frightening tale about professionals working within the prison population. In helping us learn to assess psychopathic personalities (of which there are a high percentage in prison), she related a story about how several colleagues, experienced psychologists, had become involved romantically with the prisoners they were supposedly assessing and counselling. As part of the course, we were given details from Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (http://www.hare.org/home/index.html). I felt a chill run down my spine as I went through the items on the list, clearly recognizing my two Internet buddies.
So how can you protect yourself? First and foremost I think, is to know yourself and recognize your state of mind. If you are in a vulnerable condition, don’t rush into any relationship. Don’t be too quick to find comfort in words of support and encouragement from a stranger. This is easier said than done, of course. When you have been abused or hurt, it is natural to bond with those who provide succour. If at all possible, try to get the needed support and encouragement from other sources, such as friends, family and professionals. This can have a protective effect and provide a healthy balance so that your focus is not on a single individual. Don’t isolate yourself. It was in my complete and utter isolation that I became particularly vulnerable. Diversify your friendships. Try to make friends in real life to balance the ones online. Try to get involved in other activities, spend time with your children, and don’t neglect hobbies and things you enjoy.
Knowing yourself is particularly important if you are a compassionate caregiver type. Many women in abusive relationships are accustomed to putting the needs of others ahead of their own, making them very susceptible to an Internet buddy who is needy and makes her feel useful and wanted. It is not really surprising that the above-mentioned prison psychologists would fall victim to their clients, likely having personalities that drew them to men who appear to need rescuing. Everyone who is in a care-giving profession must learn to differentiate between the truly needy and the manipulators, and even the most experienced can be fooled. When I wonder how I could possibly have been sucked in a second time, I realize that it was my care-giving impulses that did me in. At the height of Mr. X’s con he called me from the hospital, his mother at his side, telling me how much he needed me.
Know the warning signs of a potential predator (or psychopath) and listen to red flags that arise. Check things out. Psychopaths are accomplished liars who often make grandiose claims. Try to verify things if you can. This does not always protect you, however. My first Internet buddy’s father was a respected and well-known artist, a nice man. He was a nice man with a dangerous psychopath for a son. Mr. X lived with his parents, also nice people, who seemed quite oblivious to the havoc wreaked online by their con-man son.
Most importantly, I think, is to ensure that you have a healthy life outside of the Internet. A life that is balanced, in which you spend good, quality time with your children and other loved ones. A life where you take care of yourself physically and emotionally will reduce your potential vulnerability. No doubt, there are many other ideas and suggestions that can be added to this list.
In contrast, I do have many wonderful Internet relationships. I belong to several forums where I have met interesting and supportive people. I still maintain a few long-time friendships from when I was going through my difficult times. I’m older and wiser, and as Nietzsche says, stronger. I’ve learned to exercise great care with Internet relationships. I try to take the best from these relationships. Although, I might wish it were otherwise, perhaps I needed to experience the worst to be able to truly value the best.
Although I don’t deceive myself into thinking I am no longer vulnerable to a bad Internet relationship, I think I’m in a far more powerful position now because I have come to know myself much better. Knowing yourself means having a relationship with yourself. Another existential philosophy states that we must be able to stand alone before we can stand beside another; “before we can have any solid relationship with another, we must have a relationship with ourselves” (Corey, 2001). Education, too, is key. I know that my life has been permanently changed for the better through my university education. I have become truly empowered in the process. Learning existential philosophy has given me a new outlook on life events, both positive and negative.
As humans we need relationships with others, but we must recognize the difference between one that is neurotic and overly dependent, and one that enhances life for both parties. Internet relationships, by their distance nature, can become one-sided and dysfunctional. It is far easier to accept a particular personality descriptor of an individual we meet online when we don’t have other criteria to balance the picture: the observed interactions with other people, the reactions of friends and family, the visual clues to behaviour, etc. All of those things that create a complete picture of the individual within his or her environment. So, an even greater degree of caution is needed.
Internet buddies can be wonderful. I continue to be astounded at the relationship-building possibilities of the world wide web. Although, I hope to never lose my inherent good faith in people, I will continue to approach these relationships with extreme caution. It is likely that my subconscious will continue to haunt me in my non-waking hours. I will always carry a burden of guilt for having allowed myself to be deceived, but I have no intention of providing any new material for the process!
Signs of a psychopath (taken from Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist):
“¢ Glibness, superficial charm. Smooth, engaging, charming, slick, never at a loss for words.
“¢ Grandiose sense of self-worth. Grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, opinionated, cocky.
“¢ Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom. Excessive need for excitement and stimulation, taking chances, risky activities. Bore easily and fail to finish tasks to completion.
“¢ Pathological lying. Can be moderate or high, ranging from cunning, crafty, sly and clever to highly deceptive, unscrupulous, manipulative and dishonest.
“¢ Conning/manipulative. Deceit and deception used to cheat, con or defraud others, with a lack of concern for consequences to others.
“¢ Lack of remorse or guilt. No feelings of concern for the pain and suffering of victims, disdain for victims, unconcerned, coldhearted and unemphathic.
“¢ Shallow affect. Emotional poverty, limited depth of feelings (regardless of surface show).
“¢ Callous/lack of empathy. Lack of feelings towards people in general, cold, inconsiderate, tactless.
“¢ Parasitic lifestyle. Intentional manipulative and exploitative financial dependence on others. Lack of motivation and inability to take personal responsibility.
“¢ Poor behavioural control. Irritability, impatience, threats, aggression, verbal abuse, lack of temper control, acting hastily.
“¢ Promiscuous sexual behaviour. Brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs and indiscriminate sexual partners, great pride in discussing sexual exploits.
“¢ Early behaviour problems. Behaviours prior to age 13, including lying, theft, vandalism, bullying, running away from home, cheating.
“¢ Lack of realistic, long-term goals. Inability to develop and execute long-term plans and goals, aimless existence, lacking direction in life.
“¢ Impulsivity. Lack of reflection or planning, inability to resist temptation, foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, reckless, without considering the consequences.
“¢ Irresponsibility. Repeated failure to honour commitments and obligations.
“¢ Failure to accept responsibility for own actions. Denial of personal responsibility, absence of dutifulness, effort to manipulate others through denial.
“¢ Many short-term marital (or serious) relationships. Lack of commitment to a long-term relationship, undependable.
“¢ Juvenile delinquency. Early behaviour problems before age 13, aggression, crimes.
“¢ Revocation of conditional release. Violation of probation or parole (if arrested).
“¢ Criminal versatility. Able to commit a diversity of types of criminal offenses, taking great pride in getting away with crimes.
Sources for additional information
The Friedrich Nietzsche Society — http://www.fns.org.uk/index.htm.
The Psychopathy Checklist —
Antisocial Personality, Sociopathy, and Psychopathy — http://www.angelfire.com/zine2/narcissism/psychopathy_checklist.html
Corey, G. (2001). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.