A Fake Girl in Damascus

Just about a year ago, prescription I received the oddest email. “Hi, search can we talk,” was its subject; an invitation I rarely decline. Its author, who claimed to be a 14-year-old boy with a rare hormonal disorder, attached a picture of himself to the correspondence. At first blush, the image appeared to be of a slightly underdressed pretty, white, female ‘tween in a tiara.

There were, as I saw it, two possible grown-up responses to this dubious plea for guidance and so I chose them both. The first was to forward the communication to the Australian Federal Police for examination. The second was to research the young man’s condition.”Paul” claimed to have a disorder called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome that had given him the silhouette of a Hollywood ingénue. I suspected he had something called Munchausen by Internet; a disorder that gave him the urge to feign illness.

It wasn’t long after the wired world plugged itself ineluctably into the internet that this phenom began. In 1998, the New York Times published a piece about “factitious disorders”. Of course, folks have been faking-it for hundreds of years but not with the precision, breadth and speed first seen in the nineties. With the rise of online support groups and medical cant always just a Google away, hundreds of fakers had risen to fame before the century was done.

There were few so celebrated as Kaycee Nicole Swenson, purportedly a 19-year-old woman battling with purported leukaemia purportedly in Kansas. On May 15, 2001 the hundreds of thousands of users who had followed Swenson’s blogged record of treatment and remission grieved when her death was announced.

Swenson, as it turned out, never was ill. The blonde former star of local track-and-field couldn’t have contracted any sort of disease given that she did not, in fact, exist. The author of some 300 upbeat posts was, in fact, a healthy 40-year-old Kansas housewife. When Debbie Swenson was outed, she was not entirely repentant. She apologised for the pain she had caused, but told The Times “I know I helped a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”

Actually, a lot of folks seemed to agree. On the internet thread that unravelled the ruse, one user wrote, “sure, it might not be real. does it really matter? if nothing else, the story of Kaycee’s death was a moving experience for some”. This week, following revelations that “Amina Araf” the Gay Girl in Damascus was not, in fact, living evidence of the wrath of Al Assad, we saw similar apologism.

In fact, the middle-aged Post-colonial scholar with his hand up Amina sprang to his own defence. He wrote from his Edinburgh home that he was trying to “illuminate” issues “for a western audience”. Apparently, he felt the world’s colossal pool of Anglophone middle-eastern commentators wasn’t quite up to the job. Thousands of others agreed. What, after all, is a little thing like identity when there are millions of lives at stake?

Well, quite a bit as it happens. The ghastly paternalism and plain old creepiness of some white dude in drag aside, authenticity matters. Especially when it comes to identity. This is not to say that one should bear the tyranny of an identity that doesn’t fit. Research and lived-experience tells us, for example, that the idea of an “authentic” gender identity can be easily undone. But, there’s an ocean of difference between moving as an individual away from identity norms and taking millions of blog readers with you.

And authenticity certainly wasn’t the case with “Paul” who, as I’d suspected, was a frequent faker. As it turned out, he’d approached dozens of others online claiming, at various turns, to have been disabled, sexually confused and physically abused. One of the users he contacted on a sexual abuse survivors site was aghast to learn that the “woman” to whom she had privately revealed vivid and particular details of a rape was not a compassionate survivor. Here was someone with a fetish bordering on mania feeding off the intimate details of her distress.

Authenticity is not an inauthentic word in the case of Amina; its value is not diminished by the focus on “issues for a western audience”. It makes a pirate handbag of Syria’s queer community.

You can produce all the Baudrillardian culture-of-simulation arguments that you wish. Certainly, the idea of “reality” may itself be imperilled in the world at large; “identity” may be a fluid thing; questioned even by neurologists. We are not yet ready to choke on this sticky, sweet Dessert of the Real.

This piece was commissioned for the ABC’s website

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