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The 900th Post: Sex, Lies and a Sarcophagus

January 18, 2013, 10:23 am

Why celebrate 900 posts? Because by my estimation, at 3 posts a week, it’s going to take me the rest of the year to get to 1000. Between now and then I could win the lottery, be rolled over by a bus, or asked to run the Department of Education because President Obama so admires this blog.

I need gratification now! So let’s celebrate 900 posts with some news about campus sex.

No Sex, Please, We’re Irish. One of the more puzzling stories in the news this week features a star football player, Manti Te’o, from Notre Dame, who had a long-distance romance with a woman he never met. The woman claimed to have been diagnosed with leukemia and then “died.” It turns out she was an imposter, and the case is being investigated as if all of us — and not simply Te’o — are owed an explanation.

I am far more puzzled by how Notre Dame ended up in the lopsided championship game with Alabama, but I am also confused about why this breaking story is capturing so much media attention. The details seem to me unremarkable, and while the Internet makes it easier to connect kind and/or gullible people with those who will exploit them, this isn’t a phenomenon of the digital age as some journalists are claiming.  Consider:

  • Alice James, who took to her bed after the Civil War and never got up, commanding the attention of all sort of worthy people who really had better things to do. To paraphrase biographer Jean Strouse, William and Henry were smart, and Alice’s profession — in a family where women weren’t allowed to be smart — was being sick.
  • I have personally known two young women, both college students, who falsely claimed to be dying of leukemia. This was back in the twentieth century and long before any of us were connected to the Internet, which just meant that they had to be content with deceiving people in person. Differently, each wanted to be loved by those they admired, and apparently saw being “sick” as a way to secure that. Don’t get me wrong — in both cases the perp did a lot of damage to other people, but in retrospect, it was a symptom of mental illness more than a desire to harm others. As a friend remarked later about one of these people, “Well, she was sick: it was just a different disease than we thought.” Even though when these things happen it is reasonable to feel angry and exploited, it’s probably a more humane to be highly focused on what is wrong with a person who is pretending to be sick or dead.
  • For my generation, a romance about having leukemia was a female cultural phenomenon attached to Erich Segal’s 1970 blockbuster, Love Story. This only intensified after the novel became a hit movie with Ryan O’Neil and Ali McGraw, because McGraw died  more beautifully than any American heroine since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva. Hence, the Harvard students in Love Story remained teenagers forever. Their perfect love was preserved in emotional memory, causing a generation of weepy heterosexual girls to imagine falling in love — and then dying before they had to grow up, put smelly wet bags out for the diaper service, hide vodka in the piano and be divorced. I had many classmates who would have tried on the leukemia thing if they thought they could snag the boy of their dreams without taking a lot of nasty blood tests. Does leukemia still have this cachet among the young? Sounds like it. Did poor Te’o's leukemia imposter know that she was drawing on a long literary history? Enquiring minds want to know.
  • If you have not already read it, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener (2006) is a novel about a radio host who develops a correspondence, and then a telephone relationship, with a sick 13 year old boy who listens to his show.  But when the radio guy begins to notice some things that don’t make sense, and investigates, it turns out….well, you read the book. It’s riveting and creepy, and for some reason I think it actually happened.
  • This leads me to another phenomenon that is under investigated, which is women pretending to be gay men on the Internet, cruising for friendship and sex partners. I have three separate friends who have been temporarily deceived by such a person.  Are some of these imposters transgendered and carving out a fantasy life because they see a hormonal and surgical transition as impossible to accomplish? Who knows. But some years ago a circle of academic blogging friends were sucked in by such a person who traveled from blog to blog, and who arranged romantic meetups in far off cities that were then canceled only hours ahead of time.

Rule of thumb? If someone won’t meet you face to face, leukemia or no leukemia, they are not who they say they are. But kind-hearted people who are fooled by imposters deserve our sympathy, not endless investigations into their own integrity.

The Pharaohs Married Their Sisters, Ya Know, So Whazza Big Deal? One of my deep cover agents sent me this item about a longstanding game of departmental snooker at a major research university.  I am going to show unusual discretion by not reprinting everyone’s name here because I am sure everyone involved is traumatized enough already. But, again, I was surprised by this incident for the following reasons:

  • Why do faculty get all romantic with a student, have sex with him or her, and then use university funds to pursue that affair? How do they not know that this has at least an even-up chance of leading to shame and/or punishment? People are stupid, but this story is so over the top stupid that it makes you wonder how many people have been involved in suppressing it.
  • Who knew the study of Ancient Egypt still merited its own department in these days of cutbacks and budget retrenchment? For sentimental reasons (in the seventh grade, I wrote my first history paper ever on how brains were drained through the nose in the mummy-making process) I’m awfully glad to know that is still a field, with its own degree granting programs. But prior to reading about this Scandal Among the Sarcophagi, if a student had come to me and said, “Hey, I’m going into Egyptology!” I might have replied (in an unguarded and politically incorrect moment), “Jeez Louise, you’re gonna have to sleep with someone to get a tenure-track job in that!”
  • There’s a job open teaching Demotic Texts if you are an out-of-work Egyptologist. Just saying.

Naturally, someone else’s misfortune is always an opportunity to reprise the gem below. While you are waiting for the vid (“embedding disabled by request”) just chant: “Born in Arizona, Moved to Babylonia!” over and over.

OK, hit it!

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