Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: Ghost Sex, Celebrity Hauntings, and a Convenient Demon

This week, I’m going to labor the point that today’s celebrities just can’t seem to come up with anything original – even in the supernatural realm.

  • In 2011, Lady Gaga reportedly believed she was being followed around by the ghost of a dude named Ryan. A few months later, she told Harper’s Bazaar that the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen wrote her song “Born This Way” from beyond the grave (he had committed suicide the previous year). She might be the first celeb to have a ghost stalker, but she’s certainly not the first person to channel music from the dead. In the ’70s, an English senior by the name of Rosemary Brown released “new” works by major composers, including Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Weirdly, all of them spoke English.

 

  • Demi Lovato claims she has been followed around by the spirit of a little girl named Emily for most of her life. She told Ellen Degeneres she grew up in a “ridiculously haunted” house in Texas. Emily and her co-haunters like to screw around with electronics a little bit and make balloons float in the wrong direction. (Lovato also believes there might be mermaid aliens in the Indian Ocean, based mostly on an “extremely convincing documentary” she saw.)
    Even Ellen was unimpressed by the balloon story. And I’m unimpressed with the whole shebang, because it pales in comparison to the mother of all celebrity hauntings: Elke Sommer’s spooky-ass Beverly Hills house. In the mid- ’60s, Sommer and her husband, Joe Hyams, were hounded by poltergeist noises, ghostly dinner parties, and the spectre of a slovenly middle-aged man.
    While Lovato could produce nothing more than the unimpressive ghost photo you see below, Hyams became a less annoying version of the guy in Paranormal Activity, setting up microphones and even hiring a P.I. to monitor his house while he was away.

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  • Lee Ryan, a former member of some band I’ve never heard of,  says he grew up in Kent. But I think he grew up in the wilderness or something, because he didn’t recognize the ghost that visited him (via a psychic medium) when he was in his twenties. The spirit told him to work on his lower range and avoid drugs.
    Turns out it was Janis Joplin. Ryan took her advice about singing and abusing drugs, but may have forgotten to avoid abusing people.
    Michael Jackson did not grow up in the wilderness – though that might have been better for him – and immediately recognized Liberace when the ghost of the fabulous pianist began appearing to him with helpful career pointers. Jackson lined a secret room with mirrors so he could have a special place to commune with “Lee”. Then things got weird.
  • Ke$ha told Jimmy Kimmel that her hypnotherapist found a “ghost in her vagina” by waving a “ghost meter” over her body. She didn’t seem terribly concerned about this, and the whole thing may have been a publicity stunt. It’s not as disturbing as the fact that her mom dresses as a giant penis for her concerts.
    But then there’s B-movie actress Natasha Blasick. “I felt something entered the room. I couldn’t see anybody. Suddenly I could feel that somebody touching me,” she told the British TV show This Morning earlier this year. “Their hands were pushing me against my will and then I could feel the weight of their body on top of me but I couldn’t see anybody.” This sounded like a classic Old Hag encounter, until Blasick went on to say that when the experience occurred a second time she “decided to relax and it was really pleasurable, I really enjoyed it…You don’t see anybody but it’s very pleasant and it made me feel warm and fuzzy…It gave me comfort and support and love, and it did answer questions for me that there is something else out there.”
    Though the media had a field day with these crazy kids and their ghost sex, it’s all been done before. In the late 19th century, the much-persecuted sexual reformer Ida Craddock penned a series of works about her marriage to an angel/spirit she called Soph. For having the audacity to write about women and sex, Craddock was hounded to her death by Anthony Comstock.
    A few decades later, Englishwoman Dorothy Eady began receiving visitations from the spirit of Pharaoh Seti I, with whom she had been lovers in a previous lifetime. The two became lovers again, but Eady committed herself to a chaste life after becoming the unofficial guardian of the temple of Seti I in the ’50s. She took the name Omm Sety, meaning “mother of Seti”.
  • Now we move on to the dark side. Bob Cranmer is a former county commissioner in Pennsylvania. In 2003, he was charged with assaulting his 18-year-old son, punching him in the nose with such force that he was barely conscious by the time Cranmer’s 14-year-old son summoned the police. According to Cranmer’s younger son and wife, father and son had gotten into a quarrel over the bathroom. The charges were ultimately dropped.
    A decade later, Cranmer has a perfectly legitimate excuse for punching his son in the face: A haunted house. In his soon-to-be-released book The Demon of Brownsville Road, he explains that his Victorian home was possessed by a malevolent force that destroyed religious items, made a “blood-like” substance ooze from the walls, and wreaked emotional havoc on the entire family. He claims that his sons had to undergo psychological treatment to recover from the events of 2003-2006, and he has hinted that the demon infestation played a role in the family violence that erupted. What’s particularly odd about this demon is that the Cranmers had already been living in the house for 15 years when it became an “evil, evil entity” (to quote Cranmer).
    Sadly, this spirit-blaming business isn’t a new thing, either. When tomato farmer Maurice Theriault was charged with molesting his stepdaughter, professional ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren tried to pin the blame on an incubus (even after Theriault admitted to his crime). Perhaps keep that in mind if you watch the latest blockbuster inspired by the Warrens’ legacy.

 

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Somaly Mam and the Dark Side of Charity

Since 1996, a non-governmental organization known as AFESIP (from the French, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) has been working to rescue and aid young female victims of human trafficking, operating three centres in Cambodia where the young women are housed and educated.
The guiding light of this effort is co-founder Somaly Mam, a Cambodian-born woman who claims to have been a child prostitute in the ’80s. She has become one of the world’s most prominent anti-trafficking activists, racking up prestigious awards and honours. According to Mam, over 4000 girls and women have been rescued from forced prostitution thanks to AFESIP’s efforts. AFESIP’s fundraising arm, the Somaly Mam Foundation, has raised millions since its inception in 2007.
So it came as a nasty surprise to many supporters when Mam stepped down as the head of her own foundation in May, amid allegations that she fabricated not only the stories of two of her spokespeople, but also her own life story. To hear other media outlets tell it, Mam’s downfall was brought about by a single Newsweek cover story penned by Simon Marks.

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A Distressing Situation

The Newsweek article is shocking, but here’s something even more shocking: Nothing in the Newsweek story is breaking news. Not one thing.

Back in October 2012, Simon Marks, along with Khy Sovuthy, published a piece in Cambodia Daily, “Questions Raised Over Symbol’s Slavery Story“, probing the accuracy of the horrifc story of sexual slavery and mutilation told by Mam’s most high-profile spokesperson, Long Pros (AKA Somana Long). This was just one of several articles Marks has written about Mam and AFESIP over the past two years.

Also in 2012, Cat Barton wrote several articles like this one, questioning the wisdom of the high-profile brothel raids engineered by Somaly Mam.  AFESIP has received a considerable amount of criticism from other anti-trafficking orgs for allowing journalist Nicholas Kristof to “live-tweet” a brothel raid in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng in November 2011, as this violated the privacy of the young women removed from the brothel.
Barton also reported concerns that not all of the women and girls housed by AFESIP centres were there voluntarily; some had been dropped off by police following raids.

In November 2013, Lindsay Murdoch raised further questions about Somana Long’s  account and the integrity of Somaly Mam in a Sydney Morning Herald article, “Dark Truths or Fiction?

Another Marks article, published in El Mundo last year, exposed the same lies that Marks revealed in the Newsweek piece. In fact, there are few significant differences between the two articles. It’s disappointing that the world’s major media outlets ignored such an important investigative piece published by one of the largest newspapers in Spain.

In March, AFESIP launched an inquiry into the allegations raised by journalists over the years. Staffers knew that Marks was working on the Newsweek piece, and apparently realized it was time to deal with the issue head-on. The details of the independent, third-party investigation conducted by Goodwin Proctor LLP have not been divulged, but a statement posted on the website of the Somaly Mam Foundation makes it clear that the investigation results were the direct cause of Mam’s resignation. In other words, Goodwin Proctor discovered that aspects of her story were fraudulent.

With so many people raising the alarm about her, why has Somaly Mam been bulletproof for all these years?

The Long Con

One reason is the compelling stories told by young women she has rescued.

The first of these “pretty victims”, as Daily Beast* writer Amanda Marcotte has dubbed them, was Meas Ratha. Ratha, 14 years old at the time, appeared with Mam on the French TV programme Envoyé Spécial in 1998, only a couple of years after AFESIP was formed. This broadcast drew international attention to Mam’s work, winning Mam the endorsement of Queen Sofia of Spain and the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. She was subsequently able to gain some U.S. government funding, and donations began to flow into AFESIP.

Ratha spoke of being imprisoned in a Phnom Penh brothel, lured there by traffickers who promised her a job as a waitress. She said her father had abandoned his large family, leaving her mother destitute.
Last year, however, she admitted that she and her sister, Meas Sokha, were sent to the AFESIP center in 1997 by both of their parents, not because she had been a child prostitute, but because the couple was unable to provide for all eight of their children. Meas Sokha confirmed this, as did Marie Christine Uguen, a woman who was caring for Ratha at the time of her Envoyé Spécial appearance. Ratha confessed to Uguen, shortly after the TV show aired, that Somaly Mam had selected her to tell a scripted story on television.
Prior to their TV appearance, Mam told Ratha that the trafficking story had really happened to another AFESIP resident, Sokha, who was too traumatized to discuss the events publicly. Ratha was stunned to discover, last year, that Sokha had been featured on the same Envoyé Spécial broadcast, relating a completely different story of forced prostitution.

It was Ratha’s story that won the world’s interest in Somaly Mam’s work, but the young woman known as Long Pros became her most visible success story, and a haunting symbol of human trafficking in Cambodia.

When she first spoke out about her ordeal in a Phnom Penh brothel, Long Pros (Somana Long) said she was 13 in 2005, the year a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to the brothel. The teenager was twice impregnated by rapists and subjected to home abortions. She refused to service the brothel’s clients on the day of her second abortion, and this so angered the brothel owner that the woman seized a chunk of jagged metal and gouged out Long’s eye. She threw the girl out into the streets when the infected, oozing eye socket began to displease customers. Her own parents refused to take her in. Somana was then rescued by Mam’s organization.

An entirely different account appears in Traffik, a 2008 book by photographer Norman Jean Roy. In this version of the story, Somana’s eye became infected after she was kicked in the face by a pimp, and it was surgically removed in hospital. Roy has worked closely with Somaly Mam, photographing girls at AFESIP centres.
Long herself told Josephine Lim, in a 2012 interview for the Australian website Our World Today, that people at the brothel had taken out her eye with a piece of steel and that she was rescued by a police raid.
Asking if Mam had perhaps exaggerated the stories of survivors, Lindsay Murdoch pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald that Somana’s story changed over time, becoming increasingly gruesome and awful.

Two years ago, Cambodia Daily reported that Somana actually had her eye removed by surgeon Dr. Pok Thorn at the Takeo Eye Hospital in November 2005, because of a benign tumour that had been growing for years. Her parents, Long Hon and Sok Hang, confirmed this. They have since refused to discuss the surgery, worried that their daughter could lose her job if they do (she worked for an Australian nonprofit program affiliated with Somaly Mam’s organization).
Te Sereybonn, who was the director of the Takeo Eye Hospital in 2005, says his staff was responsible for Long’s placement in the AFESIP centre. She was not an abused child or a prostitute, but the staffers could see that her family was in financial straits, so they contacted AFESIP to see if she could be enrolled in one of their vocational training programs.
Goodwin Proctor also investigated Somana Long’s story, and it seems they found it to be untrue. The Somaly Mam Foundation has announced it is breaking all ties with her.

The pressing question is, why did Mam fabricate sex-trafficking tales? If her organization has, indeed, saved thousands of girls from forced prostitution, then surely a few of them would be willing to share their true stories. Even if the stories Ratha and Long told were 100% true, though, Mam’s use of these young women as spokespeople for her organization would be questionable. Having to relive their trauma over and over again in front of strangers could delay their own healing.

The Star Factor

Mam would not be where she is today – disgraced and unemployed – without the support of powerful people in business, entertainment, and journalism. She carefully courted these people, going to red-carpet and black-tie events in lovely gowns. She received endorsements from Queen Sofia of Spain, Ban Ki-moon, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, and Meg Ryan. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Sarandon are advisory members of the Somaly Mam Foundation board of directors. Mam worked closely with Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife. Her 2005 memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, received dustjacket endorsements from Mariane Pearl and Ayann Hirsi Ali, two women who have survived very real hardship and tragedy.

These people are not fools. Who among us, looking into the earnest, anguished faces of young girls as they recount abduction, rape, and torture, would ask questions like, “Is she putting me on?” In the end, journalists like Marks were the ones to ask the hard questions and dig up the hard, disappointing answers.
One of these journalists should have been Nicholas Kristof. He had observed the sex trafficking situation in Cambodia up close. In 2004, he spent $350 to buy two young girls out of a Cambodian brothel. Kristof is a good journalist, but even the best journalists are human. His emotional response to the plight of women in the Third World blinded him to the reality of the NGOs working with those women. In a 2009 New York Times article, he expressed admiration for the work of Greg Mortenson, the author of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson founded a nonprofit to educate girls in Middle Eastern countries, achieving worldwide renown for his efforts, but a 2012 investigation concluded that he had misspent $6 million that should have gone to his charity, and Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million. Like Somaly Mam, Mortenson had also fabricated portions of his life story to help promote his organization. When his lies were exposed by 60 Minutes, Mortenson hit back with angry denials; today, he thanks his detractors for putting him back on the straight and narrow. Sadly, his remorse came far too late to save the life of his co-author, David Oliver Relin. Relin committed suicide when the veracity of Three Cups of Tea was challenged.

Kristof embraced Somaly Mam’s work in the same manner that people had approached Mortenson’s accomplishments – with an uncritical eye and a deep willingness to believe in the strength of the human spirit. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, co-wrote the 2009 bestseller Half the Sky, a passionate call to justice for women in developing countries. This became a PBS documentary of the same name in 2012. Both book and film featured Somana Long telling her story in her own words. She subsequently appeared on Oprah, and her story is still posted on Oprah.com.
It would be difficult to underestimate the amount of credibility that Mam gained by her affiliation with Kristof. His New York Times pieces, his book, and the PBS doc boosted her already thriving NGO into the upper echelons of nonprofit stardom.

Based on a Lie

The fake trafficking victims are bad enough. Then there is the issue of Mam’s own distortions.

On December 7, 2004, police and AFESIP raided a Phnom Penh hotel called the Chai Hour II, removing 83 women and girls to the local AFESIP center. The next day, a group of about 30 men forced their way into the center and removed the females.
In a speech she gave before the UN General Assembly in April 2012, Mam stated that the Cambodian army had killed eight of these girls. This bizarre claim was immediately challenged, and Mam had to  admit that she did not have any firsthand knowledge of events following the raid; she had relied upon secondhand information (from a “reliable source) that eight girls and women had died after the raid in a “series of accidents that may have had something to do with their pimps and traffickers.”

That could be chalked up to a mistaken assumption, but the story of her daughter’s abduction is not so ambiguous. In The Road of Lost Innocence, Mam wrote that in 2006 her 14-year-old adopted daughter, Ning, was kidnapped and gang-raped by traffickers in retaliation for the Chai Hour II raid. When the police found Ning, she was in the company of a “boy she knew”, who acted as a lure for the traffickers.
Mariane Pearl wrote about Ning’s abduction in a piece for Glamour.
However, Mam’s ex-husband and Ning’s father, Pierre Legros, told Lindsay Murdoch that Ning was not kidnapped. She ran away with her then boyfriend. Legros’ version of the story is supported by Aarti Kapoor, who worked as a legal adviser to AFESIP from 2003 to 2006. No police report was ever filed in connection with Ning’s “abduction”.
The creation of false enemies and phony “brushes with death” is something we’ve seen over and over on this blog, among “former Satanists“, conspiracy peddlers, and fraudsters. If you have powerful foes, you must have a powerful message, right? Disturbingly, Kapoor told Simon Marks that other AFESIP employees knew the story was a fabrication, yet elected to remain silent.

Finally, there is Mam’s own chilling tale of survival.
As she tells it in her memoir, Mam was essentially a feral child, living out her earliest years in the forests of northeastern Cambodia with no one to look after her. Her parents and maternal grandmother abandoned her in the village of Bou Sra sometime in the late ’70s, when she was not yet 10 years old. As she repeatedly laments, she grew up without a mother.
Bou Sra was in a remote, forested area that had not been heavily affected by Vietnam or the Pol Pot regime, and Mam was sheltered from modern life. By the time she left the village around 1980, she had never seen a car, hot running water, or a pair of shoes. She had to forage for food and sleep in the open.
Around age 10 she was taken away to a far-off village, Thloc Chhroy, by a man who called himself her grandfather. She was subjected to daily beatings and forced to work in the rice fields. The Khmer villagers treated her like a slave, with the exception of a schoolteacher named Mam Khon and his wife, Pen Navy. This couple took her in, though they had six children of their own. Khon told her he was her paternal uncle, but Mam didn’t believe this. She was just grateful to be unofficially adopted by the family. “Grandfather” exploited Mam until she was approximately 14, then forced her to marry an abusive soldier. Without any medical training, she worked as a nurse in the military hospital at Chup, watching helplessly as soldiers and villagers died terrible deaths at the hands of untrained medical workers.
When her husband failed to return to Chup, Grandfather sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she was forced to have sex with half a dozen clients per day. She was “about 16 years old.” She remained captive there for about 3 years. She witnessed a brothel owner fatally shoot her best friend. She was subjected to brutal beatings, rape, and electric shocks.

By the time she was in her late teens, however, the brothel owners no longer held Mam captive. She admits she worked for them voluntarily, on and off, up until she decided to leave prostitution in 1991, having met future husband Pierre Legros, a young French biologist working in Phnom Penh.

At least, that’s one version of her story. Speaking at the White House in February 2012, Mam said she was trafficked at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade in the brothel. Sitting beside Susan Sarandon on the Tyra Banks Show in 2008, she said she was sold to the brothel at 13 or 14 and remained there for 4 or 5 years. Legros has stated that when he met his ex-wife in 1991, she was working freely as a prostitute, not in a brothel but in an upscale hotel bar. Some biographies of Mam, such as this one at Women’s Conference.org, would lead you to believe that she met Legros in France.

Simon Marks probed these discrepancies by interviewing villagers in Thloc Chhroy who had known Mam as a child. These people say that Mam was not an abandoned child. She was the biological daughter of the kindly couple she mentions in her memoir, Mam Khon and Pen Navy.
According to residents who were there at the time, the family arrived in the village in 1981 from a nearby community. Prior to that, Mam Khon had been assigned to teach in a remote part of northeastern Cambodia – the same area where Mam supposedly lived as an urchin of the forest for the first 10 years of her life. Furthermore, she attended school in the village from 1981 right up to graduation from Khchao High School in 1987, the period when she was supposedly being prostituted in Phnom Penh. After graduation, she and a friend both sat for a teachers’ exam in Kompong Cham. Then, around 1987, Mam left her family home voluntarily. Never, at any time prior to age 18 or 19, was she homeless or abandoned. She was not married off at the age of 14. She was not pushed out into the streets to sell herself. There was no abusive old man posing as her grandfather. She did not sleep beside the body of a dead mother in the military hospital. There simply wasn’t time for Mam to have been prostituted as a child. Again, this “not enough time” issue is a problem we’ve seen many times in Satanic ritual abuse accounts and self-glorifying autobiographies.

Many of the other stories in Mam’s memoir have yet to be verified, like soldiers decapitating a small boy in Thloc Chhroy, and another little boy being fatally wounded by a hand grenade during military training in the schoolyard, and another little boy (Mam’s best friend) being torn apart in an accidental rocket blast.

But She’s Helping Trafficked Girls, Right?

At this point, an estimated 150 women and girls are living in AFESIP centres. We have no way of knowing how many of them were trafficking victims, and how many are simply young women seeking an education because their families cannot provide for them.

As mentioned, AFESIP has been criticized for taking in sex workers picked up in police raids. One former prostitute told Simon Marks she was taken to an AFESIP center by police on two separate occasions, and fled both times because the centre insisted she learn to sew.
This raises the question of what, exactly, the centres do to help women overcome their tough financial circumstances. In the interview below, Mam enthused that her girls may be doctors and lawyers in 10 years. In reality, the young women in her facilities are taught sewing, hairdressing, weaving, and other traditionally female skills that will allow them to eke out only the smallest incomes. Last fall, Estee Lauder announced it will be training sex trafficking survivors at a Somaly Mam beauty salon in Siem Reap.

It would not be out of line to call Mam’s behaviour predatory. She has been exploiting and manipulating vulnerable Cambodian girls to promote her cause. She has brazenly, outrageously lied to millions of people about ordeals that never occurred, which undermines real victims of trafficking and sexual assault. She has collected millions from donors under false pretenses. She has seized a heroine status that isn’t hers to claim. In a 2013 Daily Beast article, she actually likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave. I think we’ve gone well past exaggeration, here. This is cold-blooded deception on a frightening scale. We could be dealing with a sociopath.

Most NGOs struggle. It isn’t easy to raise funds and effectively operate a charitable organization at the same time, especially if that organization is anchored in a remote area of a developing country. So when a relatively tiny operation like AFESIP achieves dazzling success and brings in millions, attracting some of the most influential people on the planet to its cause, one has to wonder if the money and prestige have become more important than the cause. AFESIP seems to have a lot of both; the SMF regularly ran full-colour, full-page ads in TIME. The ads didn’t show trafficking victims, but a glamour shot of Mam herself.

Sex tourism has long been a problem in Southeast Asia, but now sex trafficking survivors are drawing in tourist money. Last November, U.S. travel company OmLuxe took 20 people to Cambodia to meet with Mam. They were promised they would be able to spend time with sex-trafficking victims. What if anti-trafficking is becoming the new trafficking? This year’s trip, scheduled for November, includes a lunch with Mam.

The Problem Doesn’t End Here

The Somaly Mam debacle is not an isolated incident. Charity-related fraud is widespread, and it’s very easy to be taken in by slick, professional-looking campaigns that want your donations. A few of the problems in the NGO world include:

  1. Fake Charities/Charities that aren’t actually charitable
    One example of a bogus charity is Pink Pagoda, an organization that claims to have rescued 50,000 Chinese girls from infanticide and is trying to raise $1 billion to rescue a million more. While it has the outward appearance of an NGO, a legal disclaimer in teeny-tiny print on the bottom of its website states that it is not a charitable organization. It is a for-profit enterprise, and an extremely dodgy one. Its founder/director, Jim Garrow, appears to be engaged in the buying and selling of babies. I’ve covered Pink Pagoda in a recent post about Garrow at Leaving Alex Jonestown.
  2. NGOs that aren’t actually doing anything
    Many orgs have good intentions, yet suffer from mismanagement, poor planning, or misguided goals.  NGOs dedicated to ending malaria in Africa (Roll Back Malaria, Malaria No More, etc.) tout mosquito netting treated with chrysanthemum-derived insecticides as the most effective method of stopping the disease. Unfortunately, a 2003 study found that an average of 55% of African households given treated bed nets actually used them over sleeping children. This amounts to roughly 20 million children – an impressive number, but far from enough to make an impact.
  3. Trafficking Activists who may be mistaken or lying
    In Argentina, Susana Trimarco is receiving the same accolades Somaly Mam did. Trimarco became an anti-trafficking activist after the disappearance of her 23-year-old daughter, Marita, in 2002. She insists her daughter was abducted and sold into prostitution, though the evidence seems thin, and has implicated everyone from hospital staffers to the governor of her province. She began to disguise herself as a prostitute to infiltrate brothels, piecing together stray bits of gossip in an attempt to track down her daughter. By some accounts, she has now rescued about 150 South American and Spanish girls from sexual slavery. She has millions convinced that some of the highest officials in South America are complicit in human trafficking, but how much of her story is accurate?
  4. The crying wolf effect
    Charity frauds like Mam and Garrow harden people, making them less likely to donate time or volunteer hours to worthy causes.

* It should be noted that Daily Beast made Mam one of its “Women of the World” just three years ago. Last November, it published Mam’s firsthand account of her time as a child prostitute, in which she likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: The Bogus Christian Memoir Hall of Shame

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Literary fraud is an important topic at Swallowing the Camel. Whether it’s middle-aged women pretending to be teen boys afflicted with HIV/AIDS (here and here), or James Cameron’s BFF letting himself be snowjobbed by a lying WWII vet, or fake Holocaust memoirists, no one gets a free pass when it comes to literary misdeeds. So why should Christians be any different? This week’s Weirdness Roundup covers some of the most egregious frauds involving inspirational Christian nonfiction, starting with the most recent case:

  • A year after diligent readers expressed their concerns, UK Christian publishing house Authentic Media has withdrawn a popular preacher’s autobiography from the market. Tony Anthony’s Taming the Tiger (2004) told the awesome story of how Jesus transformed him from an angry young criminal to the person he is today (I’ll let you decide if that was an improvement or not).
    Taming the Tiger describes how 4-year-old Tony learned Kung Fu from his grandfather. As the book’s cover reminds us, he ultimately became a “3 times Kung Fu World Champion”. His professional debut was in 1984. The following year, he went to work as a bodyguard for international VIPs, including the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Italy, and Cyprus. In 1988 or ’89, his world fell apart when his girlfriend of three years, Aiya, was killed in a car accident. He turned his back on everything good in his life and become an enforcer for his boss, threatening and beating and even killing people who posed the slightest danger to the ambassador. He then became a burglar to raise money for an expensive medical procedure his father needed, and started getting into confrontations with police in Cyprus, where he was then living. He landed himself in jail in Christmas 1989, and it was there that an Irish missionary introduced him to Jesus Christ.
    Upon release in 1992, Anthony returned to the UK and settled down to have a family. He considered himself a good Christian, but after he was arrested for killing a woman in a hit and run (and lying to police about it) in 2001, he realized he still needed a lot of work. His second awakening as a Christian spurred him to write the memoir, which has sold more than a million copies in 25 languages. Its success gave him the opportunity to preach all over the world, and he established an Essex-based international evangelism organization called Avanti Ministries.
    The whole thing imploded when skeptical readers decided to look into Anthony’s actual background. One of the first things they discovered was that he was born in 1971…meaning he would have been just 13 years old when he became a Kung Fu grand master, and 14 when he was supposedly protecting an ambassador. He would still have been a teenager when he ended up in Nicosia prison. Also, the Saudi ambassador to the UK from 1980-1992, Nasser Almanqour, was never sent to Italy or Cyprus.
    It wasn’t just readers who were skeptical. One director of Avanti Ministries, Mike Hancock, resigned because Anthony seemed reluctant to verify the stories in his book. Hancock joined forces with another former Avanti director and a few concerned Christian ministers to investigate Anthony’s claims. Last year, they submitted a summary of their findings to the board of Avanti, the UK’s Evangelical Alliance, and Authentic Media, resulting in Authentic’s decision to pull the book.
    Tony Anthony has issued a statement saying he “wholeheartedly” defends everything he wrote in Taming the Tiger, with the exception of some details that he claims he wasn’t aware of at the time he wrote it. He admits that some names, places, etc., were altered to protect the privacy of certain people. He also claims he recently tried to publish an updated autobiography, but was blocked from doing so by unnamed persons “intent on discrediting” his ministry. Hilariously, he seems astonished that anyone would be interested in the historical veracity of his work (which is categorized as a nonfiction martial arts book in libraries and bookstores).
    Anthony’s statement includes the announcement that Avanti Ministries will no longer be in charge of its outreach programs.
  • The story of “Lauren Stratford” is by far the weirdest, most convoluted bogus Christian memoir tale of the past several decades. In 1988, her book Satan’s Underground was published by one of the top Christian publishers in America, Harvest House. In it, Stratford described a nightmarish existence as an abused child prostitute, handed over to child pornographers and pedophile rapists by her own mother (a schoolteacher). As a teen, she became a virtual sex slave to a Satan-worshiping porno kingpin known only as “Victor”. Victor’s cult engaged in everything from infanticide to cannibalism, and Lauren was forced to participate in their hellish rites. She was the first former Satanist to claim status as a “breeder”, a woman forced to bear children for ritual sacrifice, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that within months of the release of Satan’s Underground, breeders were popping out of the woodwork to appear on Geraldo and Sally Jesse Raphael. Stratford herself was invited to appear on Oprah and Geraldo as a victim of Satanic ritual abuse. Her book became very popular with recovered memory advocates and Christian therapists, and other ritual abuse survivors credited Stratford’s book with helping them retrieve their own “repressed memories”.
    Then, in 1991, the Christian magazine Cornerstone investigated Stratford’s background. The reporters couldn’t find a shred of evidence that Laurel Wilson had ever been abused by Satanists or anyone else, but they did uncover evidence indicating that Wilson/Stratford suffered a factitious disorder.
    Toward the end of her life, Stratford re-emerged as a Holocaust survivor named “Laura Grabowski”. She said she had been one of Josef Mengele’s victims, and even had a touching reunion with a fellow child survivor of Auschwitz, Binjamin Wilkomirski. The problem was, Wilkomirski had never been in Auschwitz, either.
    You can read more about the peculiar Wilson/Stratford/Grabowski saga in Part IX of my series The Prodigal Witch.
  • In 1986, Christian pamphleteer Jack Chick published a bizarre book titled He Came to Set the Captives Free, by one “Rebecca Brown, M.D.” It told the story of a crusading Christian doctor (Brown herself) who was engaged in a life-or-death struggle against evil forces in Indiana. Satanists were dogging her every step because she had rescued a young woman named Elaine from their clutches. Elaine had been brainwashed by the Satanists from childhood, and as an adult was forced to literally marry Satan in his human form.
    Having divorced Satan and her second husband too, Elaine helped Dr. Brown foil Satanic assassins and rescue other cult victims. The duo claimed to have saved about 1000 witches from dangerous covens in the first half of the ’80s alone. Brown published a second book about her battles with darkness, Prepare for War, in 1987. That same year, she and Elaine appeared on one of Geraldo Rivera’s shows about Satanism.
    In 1989, writers G. Richard Risher, Paul R. Blizard, and M. Kurt Goedelman delved into the backgrounds of Rebecca Brown and Elaine for the Personal Freedom Outreach Newsletter. What they found was deeply disturbing. Brown was really Ruth Bailey, and she had been stripped of her medical license five years earlier, after colleagues discovered she had been giving massive (potentially fatal) doses of prescription painkillers to one of her patients, Edna Moses. Edna Moses was “Elaine”. The two women had been living together in a filthy house for years, telling neighbours they were sisters. Bailey was known for her violent, unstable, paranoid behaviour. Edna/Elaine died in 2005.
    Bailey/Brown left Edna in 1989 to marry an ex-con who claimed he was tortured by Swiss rabbis as a boy, and the couple now runs a small ministry called Harvest Warriors.
    Though many Christians recognize Brown’s books for what they are (pure batshit insanity), they remain in print and continue to captivate the more gullible members of the Christian community.  In 2010, a sixth-grade science teacher in Brooklyn was mildly reprimanded for distributing and selling copies of They Came to Set the Captives Free to some of his students.
    The full story of Ruth Bailey and Edna Moses can be read in Part VIII of my Prodigal Witch series.
  • In the early ’70s, a roly-poly young Californian named Mike Warnke took the evangelical world by storm. He was loved for his Christian stand-up comedy (yes, that’s a thing, I guess), but it was his truly sinister background that drew the most attention to him. As he detailed in his 1973 memoir The Satan Seller, Warnke had dropped out of college to lead one branch of a nationwide Satanic cult that practiced blasphemous rites, lured teenagers into their ranks with the promise of sex and drugs, and occasionally raped and dismembered innocents in the name of the Devil. You know, typical frat stuff.
    Just like Tony Anthony, Warnke founded a successful ministry on the strength of his testimony. It wasn’t until 1992, nearly 20 years after The Satan Seller was printed, that a group of Christians published an exhaustive refutation of Warnke’s claims in a Cornerstone magazine article. As writers Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein revealed, Warnke hadn’t been a Devil-worshiping drug addict in college; he had already become a Christian by that time, and spent most of his time doing ridiculously wholesome things that other square kids did in the late ’60s: Bowling, going out for ice cream, double-dating with his devoutly Catholic girlfriend, etc.
    Confronted with his make-believe past, Warnke weakly explained that his Satanic following may have been a bit smaller than he originally stated (around a dozen people, rather than 1500). He would not back down from anything else in his book. A few years ago, though, he admitted to Jim Bakker that he had felt compelled to present a dramatic conversion testimony to impress the evangelical community, and made a joke about “evangelasticity”.
    You can read more about Warnke in
    Part II of the Prodigal Witch series.
  • The same year The Satan Seller was published, Doreen Irvine’s autobiography From Witchcraft to Christ was released in the UK. A prim-looking older lady, Irvine claimed to have been a teen prostitute who was inducted into Satanism in London around 1950. Over the next 12 years, she developed the abilities to levitate several feet off the ground, read minds, render herself invisible, manifest apports, and kill birds in midflight just by looking at them. She was crowned Queen of the Black Witches of Europe. Then she walked into a church on a whim and was instantly converted to Christianity. After a grueling exorcism removed 47 demons from her body, she traveled to churches all over the world, sharing her story of redemption.
    No one has ever extensively refuted the claims in From Witchcraft to Christ, probably because they are too absurd to take seriously in the first place. But the book, and Doreen’s preaching, had a profound and lasting impact that has left at least one young woman dead. You can read more about her influence in Part I of The Prodigal Witch.

There are a number of other Christian memoirs that definitely set off my BS alarm, but the claims made in these books are so unverifiable that there is really no way to refute them. These include:

  • A Divine Revelation of Hell (1997) and A Divine Revelation of Heaven (1998) by Mary K. Baxter. Baxter, a Pentacostal preacher from Michigan, claims she was given walking tours of both Heaven and Hell by Jesus himself, so that she could bear witness to their physical reality. She says Hell is located near the planet’s core, is shaped like a human body, and contains many homosexuals. In Heaven, angels collect the tears of everyone on Earth and store them away in jars.
  • Blood Secrets by Isaiah Oke, as told to Joe Wright (1989). Oke is a Nigerian Christian who claims he was once a ju-ju shaman, and that he witnessed a brutal human sacrifice carried out by his mentor. The person who commissioned this sacrifice is described as a powerful colonel, and it’s quite obvious that Oke wants us to think he was Idi Amin.
    Oke became a Christian while studying accounting at college. As he and Wright tell it, a young American co-ed had annoyed him one day, but Oke was unable to “hex” her even after numerous attempts. Finally, he asked her why she was resistant to his magical powers, and she told him she was a Christian. He promptly converted, and continues to talk smack about Nigerian spirituality to the present day.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: Steven Greer’s alien + lots of other fake dead aliens

srsly

On April 22, Amardeep Kaleka‘s documentary Sirius will premiere in L.A. Though the film is mostly about magical alien energy sources, like Thrive, the highlight will undoubtedly be the tiny alien body that Dr. Steven Greer has been studying for more than a year. (Update: You can read more about that here. )

Greer’s alien was discovered by a treasure-hunter back in 2003, in the ghost town of La Noria in Chile’s Atacama desert (interestingly, a place considered similar to the Martian surface). The dessicated little skeleton, which is no longer than a pen yet has perfect proportions, was found buried  in a ribbon-tied bit of cloth near La Noria’s Catholic church. It had well-formed teeth, nine ribs, and a strangely elongated skull. The tabloids in Chile joked about a “horrible dwarf extraterrestrial”, but no serious interest was shown in the “Atacama humanoid”. It changed hands a few times, eventually ending up in Spain.
That’s where it came to the attention of Dr. Greer, an American ufologist best-known for founding the Disclosure Project. He probably heard about the humanoid during the Exopolitical Symposium held near Barcelona in 2009 (he was a presenter). Last year, he announced that his Center for the Study of ET Intelligence had gained access to the body, and would need funding to carry out scientific tests. He released a single photo and an X-ray of the “humanoid”, failing to mention it had already been in the Chilean tabloid press nine years earlier. In late October, he announced the body had been examined by “experts” using X-rays and CT scans, but still wouldn’t release more photos or give the names of the scientists working with him. For a disclosure advocate, Greer doesn’t like to disclose much. He would only say that “one of the world’s top geneticists” was studying DNA samples from the alien, and the “world’s foremost authority on skeletal abnormalities” had pronounced the skeleton non-human.

Atacama Humanoid

The Atacama alien

Steven Greer has a – how shall I put this? – rather checkered history in the field of UFO studies. He has promised big things before, with no payoff:

  • Throughout the ’90s, he claimed the ability to summon and communicate with UFOs using lights, lasers, and mental telepathy.
  • In 2008, the Orion Project announced it was developing a free energy device. Delay after delay pushed its unveiling all the way to the spring of 2010, when the Orion Project declared the work could not continue until their funding needs were met (a mere $3 million or so). Greer repeatedly insisted the device was already functional, yet it has still not been revealed.
  • In 2009, he practically guaranteed that the Obama administration would give full disclosure about UFOs and ETs by the end of 2010. (video)

Greer claims the secrets of aliens, free energy, and antigravity spacecraft are being kept from the public by a massive conspiracy possibly known as PI-40, comprised of Freemasons, Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, and…uh…Mormons. He says most of his associates, including Eugene Mallove, were murdered because they came too close to the truth about aliens – just like Marilyn Monroe and former CIA director William Colby. He also thinks the government has possessed the capability to induce cancer from a distance since the 1950s.

You would think the Atacama humanoid results would be big, big news in the world of ufology, but skepticism and disinterest remain high. I’m guessing this is partly because of Greer’s track record, partly because he won’t even release the names of these world-renowned scientists, and partly because we’ve been through all this before. Since the ’50s, we have been subjected to a veritable parade of alien fetuses, alien autopsies, alien skeletons and alien skulls – nearly all of which turned out to be terrestrial. Let’s take a quick look at some of the alien corpses of years past. Be warned that a few of the photos are kinda gross.

1953: Spaceman hit by a truck

georgia monkey

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a bald monkey.

Three young men in Georgia reported to police that they had struck what appeared to be a 2″-tall space creature with a pickup (the alien’s two companions had managed to escape in their flying saucer). A local vet confirmed the round-eyed, jug-eared being was no animal known to mankind, but Emory University anatomists who studied the body disagreed: The Georgia alien was a shaved Capuchin monkey with its tail removed. The three men confessed to staging the hoax to get into the local paper. Today, the spacemonkey is displayed at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation museum. (read more at The Museum of Hoaxes)

1979: Puerto Rico’s baby Conehead

Puerto Rico Alien

Consume mass quantities.

As one version of the story goes, two teenage boys exploring a cave near Cerro Las Tetas stumbled upon a whole colony of aliens, and bludgeoned one of the creatures to death in their panic. The pickled alien was revealed to the world by ufologist Jorge Martin later that year. It was never subjected to thorough scientific examination, however, and its current whereabouts are unknown. Señor Martin has since moved on to other dead aliens that are definitely fake. (read more at the Forgetomori blog)

1995: American alien autopsy

alien autopsy

His name was Bob.

Supposedly a film of doctors conducting a peculiar autopsy on an alien killed in the Roswell crash of 1947, the film turned out to be precisely what it looks like: A hoax utilizing rubber aliens, animal parts, and raspberry jam. The owner of the footage confessed to fakery, but stubbornly insists it was a “recreation” of genuine Roswell autopsy footage that is too damaged to be shown.

1996: Dr. Reed’s alien, AKA the Screaming Alien or the Microwave Burrito Alien

Burrito Alien

Protip: Fake aliens always look more real if you stick ’em on a space blanket.

You could probably compose several novels, an entire History Channel series, and an opera out of the hilariously dumb saga that is the “Dr. Reed” hoax, in which a Seattle psychologist enthralled Coast to Coast AM listeners with his tale of encountering a landed triangular spacecraft in the Cascades, watching a very fast alien vaporize his dog, then capturing the alien and stuffing it into his freezer. The alien wasn’t quite dead yet, however, and let out a horrifying shriek when Reed opened the freezer. Reed claimed the body was stolen by government agents who continued to stalk and menace him (though they somehow forgot to confiscate his photos of the UFO and the frozen alien).
“Dr. Jonathan Reed” was soon exposed as Seattle gas station attendant John Rutter. Incredibly, Rutter still insists his alien story is essentially true, and has made many fantastical additions to it over the years, including the discovery of an alien bracelet that either allows him to teleport (skip to the 7:00 mark) or just sit on a couch in a Mexican TV studio. (read more at UFO Watchdog)

1999: The Starchild skull

starchild skull

In 1999, American novelist Lloyd Pye purchased what is probably the skull of a hydrocephalic child. But he’s pretty damn sure it’s an alien-human hybrid, and won’t stop talking about it.

2005: Yugoslavian alien autopsy

Yugoslav alien

I prefer them medium rare.

Basically the same as the American autopsy footage, this film was said to have been taken in the former Yugoslavia in 1966. In photos sent to UFO Casebook by one “Ivan Kremer”, doctors are shown examining the charred corpse of an alien, supposedly recovered from a crashed UFO in the village of Otocek. Italian skeptic Andrea Zoboli later took credit for the hoax, citing the American alien autopsy as his inspiration.

2006: alien in a jar

attic alien

Antiques Roadshow estimate: $3.50

During renovation of a cottage in Gunthorp, workers found a jar containing what appeared to be (and was) a realistic alien model made from clay. Who put the alien model in Barney Broom’s attic, and why, remains a mystery. (read more at the BBC)

2008: Russian alien autopsy

Russian alien autopsy

Might be Joan Rivers. Somebody check.

The makers of this film were quite innovative. They opted for colour instead of black and white, chose a small alien dummy rather than a child-sized dummy, and zoomed in on the alien instead of standing ten feet away. The film even includes footage of Russian soldiers surrounding a crashed UFO that looks about as real as Tara Reid’s breasts. B for effort, guys.
This is not to be confused with a  “KGB” film that shows unmasked doctors hovering over random bits and pieces of an alien (judging by the hair on the lady doctor, this one was shot in the ’80s or early ’90s).

2011: Siberian alien and Russian refrigerator alien

Siberia alien

finger lickin’ good

The Siberian alien was probably the biggest dead alien story to hit the news since the American autopsy. Media outlets around the world carried stories of the cell phone video shot and posted to YouTube by anonymous teens, showing a pitifully one-legged alien entity sprawled in the snow. The Kremlin actually launched an investigation, and within hours an “alien” made out of old bread and chicken skin was found in the home of one of the kids in the video. Two boys confessed to creating it.
A few months later, Marta Yegorovnam of Petrozavodsk produced photos of a plastic-wrapped alien corpse she had been storing in her fridge for two years. It looked somewhat like the lovechild of Jabba the Hut and Kermit the Frog. Sadly, no one ever had the chance to examine Ms. Yegorovnam’s disgusting leftovers, because she surrendered them to the Karelian Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Academy disclaimed any knowledge of the fridge alien. (read more at the Daily Mail, which was one of the few mainstream media outlets to bother with this)

Russian fridge alien

C’mon, lady.
At least put it in the crisper.

Date unknown: Roswell alien that looks suspiciously like the masks from the movie Brazil

roswell alien  brazil

Wednesday Weirdness Updates

Developments in the two stories covered in this week’s Weirdness Roundup

  • The saga of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s bogus dead girlfriend is getting even weirder. Te’o still insists he was the victim of a hoax, but according to both athletic director Jack Swarbrick and an article published today in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Te’o now admits he knew “Lennay Kekua” wasn’t really dead. Early last December, three months after she supposedly succumbed to leukemia in California, she phoned him to confess that she staged her death to evade some drug dealers.
    If this story is true, then Te’o was complicit in the hoax for at least a month. He reportedly told Notre Dame officials about the call, triggering a hush-hush investigation in late December, but he and Notre Dame apparently elected not to share their findings with the public.
  • Salon has published “Your comprehensive answer to every Sandy Hook conspiracy“. I wouldn’t call it “comprehensive”, exactly, but it does cover the basics. One of the most popular pieces of “evidence” is that the webpage for the United Way Sandy Hook support fund was created three days before the massacre, according to the Google timestamp. But as this article points out, wonky timestamps are more the rule than the exception; one Fox News article on Sandy Hook is dated by Google as having been published in 1983. That’s 13 years before Fox News existed, and 9 years before Adam Lanza was born.

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

Notamused

  • Off the Hook: Conspiracy theories about the shootings in Connecticut, if they can even be called “theories”, are starting to draw attention from mainstream newspapers, websites like Salon and Gawker, and TV reporters. I’ve talked a little about these theories (here, here, and at Leaving Alex Jonestown), but the Sandy Hook conspiracy meme is far more contagious than I realized. 8.5 million people have viewed a 30-minute YouTube video by anonymous user Think Outside the TV. It’s basically a mishmash of outdated information culled from early reports, misinformation, and the “media lookalike” nuttery of Ed Chiarini, the Texan who believes the Pope is actually Robert Blake. Among other weirdness, TOTV includes the “theory” that one of Adam Lanza’s victims, 6-year-old Emilie Parker, is not only alive and well, but met with the President for a public photo op after she was murdered.
    The media is critical of websites such as Sandy Hook Hoax, which was started by Jay Johnson. Johnson bills himself as the New Age Messiah, and boasts that he “solved LOST” with the aid of an Egyptian goddess. He has also written a screenplay about his life (or, as he likes to call it, the “greatest true story ever told”). His evidence for a grand Sandy Hook conspiracy is essentially the same as TOTV’s. He is quite indignant that family members don’t publicly cry enough for his satisfaction.
    But not everyone in the mainstream media is critical of the Sandy Hook theories. Ben Swann, an award-winning reporter with Cincinatti’s Fox affiliate, devoted a segment of his Full Disclosure Web series to the possibility that Newtown, Aurora, and the Sihk temple massacre involved more than one gunman, citing early interviews with non-eyewitnesses and footage of Newtown police chasing a suspect into the woods (this man turned out to be a parent, Chris Manfredonia, who may have fled the school). To Swann’s credit, he didn’t actually tack a theory to any of this. It’s interesting to note, though, that he has been a guest on The Alex Jones Show. Jones, as always, is at the forefront of conspiranoids who insist that nearly all mass shootings are false flag operations perpetrated by drugged-up Manchurian Candidates on behalf of the New World Order.
    A World Net Daily article by Aaron Klein attempts to tie Adam Lanza to other “Satanic” killers, and even suggests the possibility of a Satanic conspiracy.
    Other online Sandy Hook theories too ridiculous to attract U.S. media attention include wacky Biblical interpretations of Google maps, “Newtown is a hub of Satanism”, “Lady Gaga and Satanism had something to do with this“, “Freemasons had something to do with this” (a theory that also emerged in the wake of the Dunblane massacre in 1996) and of course Jews did Sandy Hook. And Jews did Sandy Hook.
    We could pass this off as harmless crankery – and most of it is – but we must face the fact that conspiracy theories have real-world consequences. In this case, an entire county in Connecticut shut down its schools after the Christmas break because the religious conspiracy website Revelation Now warned that a map in the latest Batman movie predicted another school attack. Gene Rosen, a retired Newtown resident who assisted six children after they bravely fled their classroom, is being harassed and slandered by conspiranoids who think he’s a paid “crisis actor”, a Satanist, or even a paedophile (merely because he took children into his house). The anti-Semitic wing of the Sandy Hook peanut gallery is certain that Gene Rosen’s ethnicity is a key to his involvement in a mass murder conspiracy. He has been threatened with death.
    Yes, the Sandy Hook “theories” are idiotic – but they’re also deadly serious.
  • I know, I know, it’s really serious: It can be said that the only perfect girlfriend is an imaginary one (or maybe that chick with three breasts). Devoutly Mormon Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o seems to have taken that literally.
    Last September, media outlets around the nation relayed the touching and inspiring story of how Te’o led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 victory against the Michigan State Spartans just days after his beloved grandmother passed away and his girlfriend of nine months, Stanford graduate Lennay Kekua, lost her battle with leukemia. Lennay, 22, had been diagnosed after a car accident early in 2012. A cover story in the September Sports Illustrated Regional hailed Te’o as a “star student” who had “restored the shine to the golden dome” in spite of his personal tragedies. Writer Pete Thamel described how Te’o spent his few free hours on the phone to Lennay, comforting her as she lay in her hospital bed. Even after Lennay slipped into a coma, he continued to call and speak reassuring words through the phone. Her death on September 12, coming just six hours after the death of his maternal grandmother, was a devastating blow to the 21-year-old design major. They had been good friends since 2009, and began a relationship in January. A Yahoo! Sports piece describes how Te’o dedicated the September 15 game against the Spartans to his gran and his girl, grateful for the support of Lennay’s family after he made the difficult decision to stay with his “football family” and play Saturday’s game rather than fly to Oahu to be with his and Lennay’s relatives. Writer Dan Wetzel opined that Te’o is just the kind of player Notre Dame needs – young men of “accountability and awareness”, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick is quoted as saying Te’o “may be the perfect Notre Dame football player”. Even I heard about this amazing kid, and I don’t follow college ball.
    The warm fuzzies lasted all the way up until this week, when the sports news site Deadspin released its investigative report on Te’o’s story. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey could find no evidence that Lennay Kekua existed; she was not registered at Stanford, birth announcements can’t be found, no obituary was ever published, and no one other than Manti Te’o has ever met her (remember, he did supposedly meet her in person; according to an October story in the South Bend Tribune – which has been yanked offline – Brian Te’o said his son Manti met with Lennay several times in Hawaii in 2010 and 2011). They could find no record of a 2012 traffic accident in California involving a Lennay Kekua. Nor could they find any relatives of Lennay, like the older brother (Koa) mentioned in the Sports Illustrated article. Sure, there were photos of Lennay (one was shown on CBS This Morning the day of the Notre Dame/Michigan game, and her Twitter feed featured a few more), but Burke and Dickey claim to have traced them to a woman in California who was shocked that her pictures have been misrepresented to the media as photos of a woman she doesn’t know.
    Te’o and Notre Dame are insisting that Manti is the victim of a cruel hoax. Having never met his girlfriend in person (which contradicts his earlier stories about meeting her), he was duped into believing that a voice on the other end of the phone was Lennay Kekua. However, he has not addressed Deadspin‘s examination of the Twitter accounts belonging to him and to “Lennay”, which indicate they met online in 2011 rather than in-person in 2009. At this point in the story, it’s still possible that Te’o is a hoax victim. But here’s where things get sticky for him. The California woman told Deadspin that an acquaintance named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo asked her to pose with a sign reading “MSMK”, supposedly to cheer up someone who had suffered a car accident, and she obliged. “LoveMSMK” was the name attached to Lennay Kekua’s Twitter account. Here’s the problem for Te’o: He knows Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and exchanged Tweets with him all last year (he even plugged a song recorded by Tuiasosopo). Then there’s the issue of a supposed relative of Lennay trying to hush up the controversy by sending emails to webmasters, contacing Nev Schulman of Catfish fame, and being given a shout-out on Manti’s Twitter feed. It looks like Manti Te’o may have been undone by his own twittering.
    I don’t know how common fake girlfriends are, but cancer hoaxes occur with troubling frequency. Just two months ago, the Wednesday Weirdness Roundup featured another one that had the town of Gypsum, Colorado mourning a little boy who never existed.
    Anyway, time will tell. For the rest of the story, you’ll have to read Deadspin‘s exposé yourself. This post is already far too long for a Wednesday Roundup. In honor of the fictional Ms. Kekua, let’s have a musical interlude…

This (Charming?) Man

A peculiar website, thisman.org, is asking everyone if they have ever dreamed of a certain unknown man (pictured below in an artistic rendering). The story goes that in 2006 a psychiatrist’s patient – name and location not given – dreamed of this man several times and created a picture of him for some reason and gave the drawing to her psychiatrist. For some reason. This man had given her helpful advice in her dreams, so I guess she figured this had therapeutic implications. For some reason.
When another patient spotted the picture, he recognized the guy as someone who had appeared in his dreams, too. This doesn’t seem like a very compelling coincidence to me (“I see balding unibrows in my sleep!”), but the psychiatrist decided to distribute the picture to colleagues to find out if their patients were seeing the same man in their dreams. Supposedly, over an unspecified period of time, 2000 people reported recognizing “This Man” from their dreams. Hence the website.

I’m guessing this is viral marketing for an upcoming indie movie involving dreams, capitalizing on the mysterious success of Inception. Tip-offs:

  • There would be no reason for the patient to remain anonymous, but even if she simply wanted to avoid the embarrassment of asking a stupid question, she could have come up with a pseudonym to make the story seem less generic and questionable. It has a definite urban myth flavour to it.
  • We don’t know who these 2000 people are or how their recognition of This Man entered the data stream. Are they all psychiatric patients? Did they come forward on their own, or were they specifically asked if they recognized the guy? Who’s collating the dream sightings?
  • This man looks like a lot of other men. In fact just this week alone I think I’ve seen this guy driving a cab, eating a churro, and arguing with his wife over whether to see Black Swan or The Green Hornet. She won.
  • This man looks somewhat like a celebrity stalker. If he gave me advice in my dreams, I would probably ignore it.
  • The website makes this “enigma” seem far more intriguing and mysterious than it really is. This man doesn’t have any stand-out features like wings or glowing eyes. He just, um, shows up in your dreams and maybe says some stuff that you can’t fully remember in the morning. Barely worth the trouble of creating a website. Even as a viral gimmick, it kind of sucks. Now if Stephen King was chasing you on a tricycle until you turned into a pile of Wheaties, that would maybe be worth the effort.

Update: I was close, but not quite there. This Man is actually a hoax concocted by Italian marketer Andrea Natella of Guerilla Marketing. It doesn’t seem to be connected to any specific project; Natella sometimes just creates viral content for the hell of it, and was a part of the Luther Blissett Project.

Some Rather Pointless Hoaxes

  • No, Lindsay Lohan has not been poisoned. The search term “Lindsay Lohan Poisoned”, which popped up on Google Trends and elsewhere two days ago, is a publicity stunt by Alex Jones. He’s promoting an 11-minute video on the supposed dangers of ADHD medications, fluoridated water, vaccines, GMO food, etc. It’s amazing how many errors one person can cram into 11 minutes.
  • I’m not sure just how or why people fell for this one, but a few did: An email declared that on August 27th, a mysterious “second moon” would be visible in the night sky. NASA and umpteen science blogs were quick to set the record straight – the “moon” was Mars (which was nearly 200 million miles away). Weirdly – but to their credit – the Planet X people didn’t even try to capitalize on this.
  • Another peculiar email claims that for the first time in over 800 years, the month of August will have 5 Sundays, 5 Mondays, and 5 Tuesdays. This actually occurred just 6 years ago, and will happen again in the years 2021, 2027, and 2032.
  • There have been several shark sightings off the Massachusetts coast this swimming season, but at least one of them turned out to be completely bogus. Didn’t Bugs Bunny do this like 50 times?
  • Misleading internet headlines have given many people the impression that Buddy Valastro, star of The Learning Channel’s Cake Boss, was charged with sexually assualting a minor last week. In reality, Valastro’s brother-in-law was arrested and allegedly confessed to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. As an employee of Carlo’s Bakery, he sometimes appeared on the show.
  • David Bowie has squashed rumours that he’s collaborating with Lady Gaga on a new single. The rumour popped up simultaneously on a glut of arts and entertainment outlets, many of which posted a *copy* of a document confirming that Bowie was doing co-production, guitar, vocals, and writing for Gaga’s next album. I’m not naming any suspects here, but I find it interesting that Gaga’s producer, RedOne, has been hyping this already-overhyped popstar even more than usual lately. He recently told Billboard her next album will be “shocking”, adding that it’s part of his job to “keep her evolving”. He has a lot of work to do if he wants her to evolve to the level of Bowie…

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

  • One of the biggest, spookiest boogeymen in the H1N1 vaccine hysteria is the use of squalene in oil-based vaccine adjuvants. What the paranoia-peddlers fail to mention is that oil-based adjuvants aren’t used in human vaccines, as I explain in “Much Ado About Squalene” at Leaving Alex Jonestown. You might as well be worrying that your ground beef is being replaced with unicorn meat.
  • An illustrated biography of alien abductee/artist David Huggins has been released. Huggins believes he has sired at least 60 human-alien children, and has painted hundreds of eerily fascinating pictures of his experiences. You can see a few of them at this page devoted to Huggins and the biography’s author, Farah Yurdözü.
  • As if the hoax wasn’t annoying enough, Balloon Boy Halloween costumes are now on sale.

I Like a Strange Balloon

By now, you’ve probably all heard the harrowing tale of “Balloon Boy”, 6-year-old Falcon Heene of Colorado. Earlier this week, Richard and Mayumi Heene reported that their son had probably accidentally drifted away in the basket of an enormous helium balloon, shaped like a flying saucer, that Richard had constructed. Such contraptions are common in the Heene household: The Heenes are stormchasers, and Richard calls himself The Science Detective.

The balloon was tracked by helicopter, but proved to be empty. Falcon was actually hiding out in the attic of his family home. When interviewed with his family on CNN Thursday, the boy candidly said he remained hidden even when he heard people searching the house for him because, “You [Richard] told me we were doing it for a show.”

The Heene family has appeared twice on the TV reality show Wife Swap, and they’re anything but bashful. Mayumi is outgoing, bursting with energy, and almost insanely cheery. And Richard… well, there’s no way to be polite about this. Richard is a Grade A a-hole. He’s demanding, abusive, erratic, and just plain rude. Clips of his Wife Swap appearances show him screaming, “You’re lazy!” at stand-in “wife” Sheree Silver, flinging a full carton of milk at her, and ranting about her ineptitude as a science partner. When Mrs. Silver phoned Mayumi to learn some coping strategies, Mrs. Heene admitted that Richard usually behaves the same way towards her.
Silver has been quoted as saying that she doesn’t consider Richard Heene capable of using his son in a publicity stunt, though he is “eccentric”.

Others aren’t so kind. Though Laramer County Sheriff Jim Alderden says local authorities still believe the family was genuinely concerned about Falcon, an adjacent county is considering charging the Heenes for the cost of the search and rescue effort.

I don’t know if this incident was a publicity stunt or not, but either way it’s a messed-up story. Leaving huge UFO-shaped helium balloons lying around where your children can board them is not smart, nor is taking your three kids stormchasing with you (as the Heenes admittedly do).
I’m guessing this was a stunt. The Heenes seem desperate for attention, and apparently don’t care how they get it.

Richard Heene has responded angrily to accusations of hoaxery.

Oct. 18th Update: It’s a hoax, Sheriff Alderden announced at today’s press conference.

Sources:
“Police want to interview ‘balloon boy’ family” by Jorge Barrera. Ottawa Citizen. October 16/09

– “Colorado balloon boy’s story leaves bad taste” by Jessica Leeder. Globe and Mail. October 16/09