Jon Carroll defends Kaycee:
June 5, 2001 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Jon Carroll defends Kaycee: His point is that most of what we get through the media, and that does include the Internet, is distant enough that we have no way of knowing whether it's real. I disagree with his conclusions--I do think it matters whether you know you're reading a fiction--but maybe he's right that if someone had to die, it's better that it was a fake person.
posted by rosvicl (14 comments total)
>As long as someone had to die, it's good that it was a fake person.

Yeah, cause then no one real will ever have to die! This could be the fountain of youth, our very own portrait of Dorian Gray!
posted by ericost at 7:08 AM on June 5, 2001

Debbie went out of her way to make contact with other people. She spent many hours on IM talking to Kaycee's readers as "Kaycee". She exchanged phone calls, she was given gifts in the form of calling cards, baseball hats by the dozen to cover a chemo-balded head, beanie babies, cards, and stuffed animals, not to mention the fact that she stole another woman's identity to do all of this.

I have e-mail in my box now from people who came from cancer support groups, and drew inspiration from Kaycee, and are now devastated to find out she was not real. I have mail from fans of Kaycee who made arrangements to meet her, and were left waiting for hours and hours, only to get an excuse in e-mail later as to why Kaycee couldn't appear. I have mail from parents who shared Kaycee's story with their children and now have to tell them it was a lie. People who have illnesses no longer want to talk about them in their journals because the backlash is a lot of hate mail and boundless skepticism. I can choose to believe all of these people are fictional, or I can plainly see that Debbie Swenson did something horribly wrong.

Debbie Swenson didn't merely tell a story, she told a lie. A vast, complicated lie and did her best to involve as many people as possible in it. There is nothing gallant in that.
posted by headspace at 7:13 AM on June 5, 2001

I'm uneasy. Comparing the net with things such as celebrity and television doesn't sit well with me. I think it's because I still like to think that the web is something different and unique.

It's reassuring to know that there are other real people out there, isn't it? When you sit down to watch a TV show like X-Files you know that Mulder and Scully won't walk into your house a few moments later. That's a clear separation of fiction. The net isn't blessed/cursed with that distinction, so you have to use something you don't need to use with other mediums: you have to use trust.

When that trust is abused or mishandled, you'll (arguably) rightfully feel cheated. You don't get this from TV; you trust that NBC's going to air Frasier and that Niles and Daphne won't suddenly look in the camera and say, "This is fake. It's all a sham." You won't be reading a Stephen King novel and have the author set aside a paragraph to say, "Oh, yeah, I made all this up."

We haven't had that kind of implicit declaration of fiction on the web as of yet, and we've just kind of trusted that people such as Matt Haughey and Jason Kottke exist. I think it adds a personal, human element to this potentially very cold medium. I'm all for it.

Perhaps because of the net's history, coming from a purely informational nature, people tend to think of things here as fact or at least fact-based. I wonder if this assumption should go out the window... I just hope we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.
posted by hijinx at 7:15 AM on June 5, 2001

I can plainly see that Debbie Swenson did something horribly wrong.
Wrong, yes. And maybe illegal, too.
posted by matteo at 7:48 AM on June 5, 2001

I'm really far too vapid and self-obsessed as a person to get sucked in (if you'll excuse the phrase, I'm not belittling those of you who did) to the blog of dying person, real or imagined, and I wasn't all that surprised to find out that it was a hoax. However, I do find it kind of inspiring that so many of you felt so much genuine emotion, both sympathy and then betrayal, over this incident.

I think that is what is worth taking away from this, or at least that is what I take from this, that the culture at large maybe isn't as aloof and cool and detached as the media would present it.

Strictly as a person on the outside, the whole Kaycee thing made me feel a kind of hope. And, as Carroll points out, no one had to die.
There must be some value to that.
posted by dong_resin at 8:03 AM on June 5, 2001

You won't be reading a Stephen King novel and have the author set aside a paragraph to say, "Oh, yeah, I made all this up."

Spider Robinson has been known to do this, actually. One of his novels (Time Pressure) begins with a statement to the effect of "Every word of this story is false." Of course, it ends with "Every word of this story is true" so maybe it doesn't count. ;)
posted by kindall at 8:54 AM on June 5, 2001

That guy's so cool and po-mo. Yikes. Newspapers can never be considered a primary source for historical research, so this guy's point is well taken to a certain degree. Still, does the column as a whole not scream, "So why by bother with any newspaper, much less the San Francisco Chronicle?" If it's all potentially a lie, he should be laid off, right? Why should anyone believe what he says about believing anyone? Does he even exist? The column, taken as a whole, is beyond cynical.

I've seen the George the Elder Bush and Al Gore up close. Let's say that I had thrown a brick at either man. Chances are the aftermath would have been pretty freakin' real. And I imagine that you have heard about it in the news. Does that mean it didn't happen? Of course not, and media are so competitive that you can pretty much discount any potential conspiracy automatically. You would get a subjective take on objective reality from each source. That said, "Man Described as Nice, Keeps to Himself Throws Brick at (George Bush/Al Gore)" would be accurate, except for the "nice" part, which is not even testable, much less remotely provable.

Anyway, for a decidedly more thoughtful take on the media "reality" thing, you could do much worse than Daniel Boorstin's "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." It's a classic.
posted by raysmj at 10:31 AM on June 5, 2001

Meghan O'Hara, as is often the case, said a lot of things that made sense on this issue, at least to me.
posted by Ezrael at 11:53 AM on June 5, 2001

It's quite bizarre that this Jon Carroll reads the Kaycee story as, one might call it, metafiction, a fictional tale misread by others as nonfiction, written by someone not intending to deceive and edify. I'd be incredibly surprised if Jon Carroll gave her blog more than a cursory glance... in a way, his disingenuous "and it was positive" encomia mirror Debbie Swenson's deceptions: Kaycee certainly didn't make a difference in his life, until she was exposed as a fake, when he began to construe her as metafictional.

Part of the metafictionality of our web lives is that a majority of our actions on the web are literature, so just being yourself you write a story, and vice versa.

I don't like the way one says, "Kaycee doesn't exist." My alias in chat is later_wittgenstein and people call me later, I act differently, I play a part to some extent. But later is me. When I play a part, I may lie from time to time. I don't do it often, usually when backed into a conversational corner... anyway, later exists during those moments, and is a more appropriate way to refer to the human being that I am, than by my real name, until I leave the chat room. My real name is just a name. As Carroll says, I lie from time to time: Mitch lies just like later_wittgenstein does. Thus you can't say later doesn't exist just because he lies all the time. later is just me, another name for me. So with Kaycee and Debbie: same person. Kaycee is a lying voice... But she still exists, even after she wrote that she died. And remember that identities cannot be literally stolen, only copied.

Fiction is typically defined negatively: if it is lies or otherwise assumed to be a made-up story or account, it is fiction. But in disputed cases, where several voices claim that they have the true story, one must accord a sort of shadow percentage of fiction/non-fiction probability to each competing account.

Similarly, you read a work of fiction or non-fiction your own way, regardless of the author's intent or belief in its truth value. What was once read as history becomes read as romance and winds up as linguistic sediment merely studied for insight into another era. There are cases where the truth value is constantly in doubt, such as the internet.
And depending on your temperament, television news. With the latter, you run into amusing situations where the speaker is saying something, probably without believing one way or another that it is or isn't true - he is just reading the teleprompter - the writer thinks it's true, because he read it from another source, who heard someone in the white house say it, who knew it was false; and then millions of viewers decide whether or not to believe it (or, if you believe some psychological theories, believe it whether they want to or not, or both believe it and not).

In popular song, of course, it is typically unimportant whether the author or singer is telling the truth at the moment they wrote or sang the song. (It's simply a matter of convention; in another culture truthfulness of song might be constantly demanded.) If someone prefaces a ballad in concert with words to the effect that its story is true, it might be listened to more carefully and have a greater effect; and if that preface was a bald lie, would it be artistically worth it?
posted by mitchel at 11:53 AM on June 5, 2001

Thoughtful and enlightening comments above.

About Jon Carroll, from one who has been a regular reader of his columns for fifteen years. (I no longer live in SF but read him on the Net.)

He's not actually "beyond cynical," as one writer put it above, although I can see how today's column might give that impression. Perhaps Carroll was feeling a little too meta-everything yesterday afternoon. He's usually exceptionally compassionate on a human scale; he doesn't write from an institutional or party-line perspective.

Also, he's not a Net naif. He was extolling the wonders of one of the first lay cybercommunities, the Well in the Bay area in the early days of the Web.
posted by kozad at 7:50 PM on June 5, 2001

Jon Carroll is bang on the money with his piece. Probably the best bit of writing I've read about this whole story since it all started.

His comments on the blurring line between reality and fiction are true. Believe it or not, people can easily get emotionally involved with fictional characters. In the UK, for example, many thousands of people (and even several newspapers) rallied behind a fictional character in a TV show of ours when she was put into jail. Free Deidre indeed.

Many people have so much faith in fiction that it becomes their reality. Stars are often approached as if they are really their character. Some people live in such dream worlds that they can't tell the difference.

Bravo Carroll. Bravo. Fiction is reality, and reality is fiction. It all depends on the viewpoint.
posted by wackybrit at 8:36 PM on June 5, 2001

Some people live in such dream worlds that they can't tell the difference.

There's a word for people who can't tell reality from fantasy. It's 'psychotic'.
posted by darukaru at 10:20 PM on June 5, 2001

I thought it was 'Attorney General'.
posted by dong_resin at 4:02 PM on June 6, 2001

just let me know if there is a class action lawsuit against Debbie-or I would let her off the hook IF she goes thru a psychiatric examination-and stays off the computer for about 40 years.........
posted by bunnyfire at 5:25 PM on June 6, 2001

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