DURING THE COURSE of writing my latest novel, I became acquainted with a young woman named Veronika, who makes a brief appearance in its pages. Thomas World is the story of an everyman who begins to suspect his life isn’t real, and may in fact be a game or simulation in which he’s the main character. The novel documents Thomas’ journey through madness as he searches for answers to existential questions, and ends with a world-bending confrontation in Berkeley, California with a Creator who may or may not be Philip K. Dick—himself a well-known science fiction author who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia and turned his own madness into solipsistic thrillers about artificial reality.
I first crossed paths with Veronika on MySpace in 2007, back when it still reigned supreme over Facebook (remember that?). By the time she found me, I had been blogging on the site for eighteen months, and had acquired thousands of readers. New visitors were common, and I knew from experience that not all of them were who they claimed to be. The nature of MySpace made it the perfect breeding ground for aliases and fake identities.
Veronika was presumably a 21 year-old blonde bombshell from Sweden, and her detailed online profile lent unusual credibility to her claim: hundreds of pictures, scores of friends, including her boyfriend Shane, her cousin Elin (a former police officer in Sweden who served in the army and trained as a military law enforcement specialist in the Livgardet), a roommate, classmates from her university, etc. Her profile also told the story of her arrival in theUnited States, of recent great tragedy (her mother’s death), and featured a voice recording of Veronika reciting her favorite quote: “Hello, this is Veronika. Welcome to my MySpace page! Remember, in the words of Ernest Hemingway: The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong in the broken places!”
Even considering the staggering amount of detail on her profile, however, I was highly skeptical of her identity from the beginning. The comments she left on my blog seemed to indicate a vast amount of life experience and wisdom not normally found in such a young adult…to say nothing for her Playboy bunny exterior, which, stereotypically speaking, doesn’t match well with the intellectual type.
These suspicions, however, fueled a burning curiosity in me. The effort to create a profile with so many pictures and details would consume hours. Days, really. In addition, the person would be forced to create the fictional profiles of Veronika’s boyfriend, cousin, friends, etc., and then go to the trouble of occasionally signing into MySpace as these characters and leaving comments on her fictional page. In retrospect these suspicions and my subsequent investigation are similar to the plot of Catfish, though my experience occurred three years before that film was released.
In any case, whoever Veronika really was, why had she (or he) contacted me?
Not long after Veronika appeared on my blog, she began to send me emails. Long emails. She told me very little about her young, presumably stylish life at Santa Monica College and instead wrote how the American Dream was a fantasy:
Actually, your experience in the United States of social mobiity [sic] is becoming increasingly anomalous, and is in fact an [sic] historical anomaly. The United States has never had a particularly high rate of social mobility, and its rate of social mobilization (tracked by the number of people who change social classes) has become the worst in the First World tier of nations in the past 25 years, and its income inequality one of the worst.
And then, when I mentioned the type of novel I was working on at the time (Thomas World), she wrote this:
I’m a business economics student and most of the books I read are on far less interesting topics such as the federal reserve and the international monetary exchange rates…The picture that is emerging of reality is that what we think of as the “real world”, of course, doesn’t exist at all: this is the Matrix. Plato had the right idea when he wrote of our world as the shadow of the real world, rather than reality itself. Those ancient Greeks were pretty smart!
Over the course of a few months I exchanged emails with Veronika on a wide range of topics including theoretical physics, the future of computing, philosophy, the nature of reality, economics, sociology…just about everything. We enjoyed a lot of the same music. She told me about her love of golf (I’m a golf addict), the many courses she had played; she discussed (at great length) about life in Sweden and how the United States could learn a thing or two from her home culture. She even recommended a film about simulated reality, eXistenZ, which I hadn’t seen before, and from which I borrowed a few ideas.
What fascinated me about my contact with Veronika was that I found myself becoming friends with her…or at least who she purported to be. And of course I must admit that, deep down, no matter how severe my doubts about her true identity, I wanted to believe she was real. I wanted to believe there really was a 21 year-old Swedish girl who was gorgeous enough to be a Victoria’s Secret model and also (apparently) knew more about the subjects of my own novels than I did. Intellectually I knew this wasn’t true, yet I forged a connection with the person I wanted her to be, and the experience was not unrewarding.
In fact, as long as I deluded myself into believing Veronika was a real person, our dialogue was in almost every way indistinguishable from many other online friendships I maintain. Even when I didn’t delude myself, I still enjoyed the discourse and the sort of cat-and-mouse game we played. It was rewarding in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but which ultimately shaped the creation of Thomas World.
At one point, Veronika offered me her phone number(s). In a message titled “If you are ever in the Los Angeles area,” she wrote:
and want to play a round of golf, email me or call my mobile at 310-230-[withheld] (I don’t have a landline telephone in California, sorry). Don’t be put off by the bilingual greeting; I have Swedish-speaking people who call me and even though they speak English, we have to keep the mother tongue alive.
Or if you’re in Sweden, you can call me :) Actually, I’m in California, now, of course, but I’m in Sweden for Yule holidays and of course every summer. You can golf at 10, 11 pm, even a bit later on some summer days. 20 hours a day of golf! Now that’s heaven.
And then she provided her Swedish phone number and instructions on how to dial internationally.
Of course I never called these numbers. Even though I believed Veronika to be an impostor, calling her was a line I didn’t want to cross. And lest you think she was after more than just good email conversation, know that Veronika never came close to making any sort of inappropriate comment. In fact I could never discern any motive for this person to engage me in conversation except to make a friend. So why did she feel the need to hide her identity?
And why had she offered me phone numbers? Did she expect me to call them? What would have happened if I did?
I cannot emphasize enough the enormous effort required to maintain such a sophisticated ruse. In addition to the hours she consumed to build her profile, Veronika spent more hours writing to me, and even more constructing her story. As far as I could tell she never once contradicted herself. I imagine she must have built a cast of friends and relatives the same way I do when I write a novel, must have somehow kept track of all the lies she told me…the effort would be analogous to a part-time job.
But Veronika did make mistakes, and with those errors I was finally able to verify my suspicions about her identity. I tracked her all the way to her employer, which was in Californiabut nowhere near Santa Monica. In fact, the city in question is related to Thomas World in a way that is stunningly coincidental.
My first real clue that Veronika was lying was the problem with her IP address. To obtain that address, I sent emails to her that contained images hosted on my personal Web site, and then matched the times she opened those emails with the times those image files had been accessed from my Web server. The IP address was nowhere near Santa Monica but rather in Hayward,California (south of Oakland). Because of how the Internet works, this knowledge by itself didn’t necessarily prove Veronika wasn’t in Santa Monica…until one day when she claimed to be writing to me from various coffee shops during a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, yet the IP address never changed.
While that sort of detective work was gratifying, it was pretty basic and didn’t put me any closer to the real Veronika. What did put me closer was her first significant mistake: the Swedish phone number. On a whim, I searched Google for similar numbers and somehow found a Web site (tollfreeforwarding.com) that allows you to purchase phone numbers that appear to ring in countries all over the world but in fact are forwarded to whatever real number you choose. The phone number Veronika provided was virtually identical to several other numbers offered on the site for Malmö, Sweden, where Veronika claimed to had lived.
These were nine-digit phone numbers, and the only difference between hers and those on the site was the very last digit. In fact, the phone number she sent me was the missing number in a sequence…like, if the last four digits of her number were 1234, the site was selling 1232, 1233, and 1235. It seemed obvious she’d purchased her number from tollfreeforwarding.com, which meant that not only was she spending an enormous of amount of time to create this artificial identity, it was also costing her money every month. And when I researched the California number, it turned out not to be a cell phone as she had claimed.
The next mistake she made—and this really was a colossal error—was when she emailed a song she wanted me to hear. I think she meant to send me an MP3 file but in fact attached one with the extension .mp4, which as you may know is the type of file used by iTunes. Though I was hesitant to open the file I eventually did, and that’s when I was presented with an amazing bit of information: an email address I’d never seen before.
See, if you want to play one of your iTunes-protected songs on someone else’s computer, you must first enter your email address and password to authorize that machine for your library. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for Veronika), iTunes pre-populates the email field, and when I searched Google for that email address, I found an amazing thing.
On Flickr, there was a picture of Veronika’s “mom.”
And she wasn’t dead.
The woman in the photo was and is married to a gentleman who posts many of his personal pictures on Flickr. The owner of my newly acquired email address had posted a comment asking the photographer about a bracelet his wife was wearing in this particular photo. Later, when I looked through the photographer’s album, I found many pictures of his wife, and in one of those images I saw Veronika’s supposed grandmother.
As I suspected, “Veronika” had found pictures on the Internet and spent hours compiling them, uploading them to MySpace, assigning identities to the various people that appeared in these photos. She had created a virtual human with whom I shared a (sort of) friendship online—an insane amount of effort, all to befriend someone using a different identity than her real one. But I still didn’t know who she was.
I wasn’t alone in my curiosity about all of this. One of my real MySpace friends was just as skeptical and performed Internet searches as well. Using Veronika’s Gmail address, the two of us found posts by her on various liberal political blog sites, and we also ran across accusations by other users who, like us, suspected Veronika was fake. Some of these users had made connections between Veronika and a number of aliases that had appeared on these sites over time. Someone even posted a list of them, so we began to search those names on Google as well.
And finally, amazingly, I found a comment by one of those aliases where she mentioned me by name.
While deriding Jenna Bush for landing a rich publishing contract, the alias (a male this time) claimed to be my friend, posted the names of my first two novels, a link to my Web site, and made a recommendation on which of my books to read.
And she (he?) bragged about how she (he?) was helping me with research on my next novel. Thomas World.
What do you call a relationship like this? Was Veronika a friend? A stalker? As I said before, she was never inappropriate with me, never threatened me; in fact had I known this person as their true identity I might have enjoyed a friendship with her (him?) But no structurally sound relationship can survive on a foundation of lies.
Finally, one day, I confronted her via instant message. She denied the truth, of course. I didn’t share with her all the information I had gathered, but for the bits I did reveal, she offered quick explanations. Not long afterwards we stopped chatting completely, and I never heard from her again.
But before Veronika disappeared from my life, I found one last bit of evidence. Since she almost always wrote emails to me at night, and claimed to go to school during the day, I sent her another picture during one of our afternoon IM sessions. I wondered if, during the day, she might connect to the Internet with a different IP address than the one she used at night. I was correct.
The IP address revealed the name of her employer and was not located in Hayward, California.
It was in Berkeley.
The setting for the final scene of Thomas World, and where the story’s inspiration, Philip K. Dick, lived most of his life.
About a year later, as Thomas World was being shopped for publication, I consulted old emails and notes and searched the Internet for the sites and pages where Veronika appeared in the past. By then a few new returns had appeared on Google when I searched for her email address.
One of them turned up a name I hadn’t encountered before. An actual first and last name.
So I searched the Internet for that name and combined it with the name of the employer that hosts the Berkeley IP address.
I think I found her.
I may never know if I’m correct, and even if it is her real name, I don’t know many more details about her.
I think she’s a woman. I think she encounters a lot of girls near Veronika’s age in her daily life, and that probably influences the types of aliases she chooses.
Whoever is behind all these fake profiles commands a brilliant understanding of many subjects, primarily economics and Swedish culture, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to interact with the world as herself.
I’m not at all comfortable with her deceptions, the way she steals photos of innocent people from the Internet, and particularly not with her pretending to be a college coed.
But I can’t deny she helped me write Thomas World. Partly because of the content of our conversations, but more because of the very nature of our online friendship. The elaborate realities Veronika constructed for herself—as a way to play the role of a young woman she clearly isn’t—shaped the idea of Thomas, a failed screenwriter so disappointed with his actual life that he nearly lost it looking for a more rewarding alternate reality.
It’s probably nothing more than coincidence that Veronika approached me in the way she did, at the time she did, or that she works in the same town where a master of simulated worlds forged his writing career. Still, I can’t help but wonder if somewhere Philip K. Dick is laughing.