Book Review: Down the Rabbit-Hole of Online Addictions


It is impossible to review this book, There Is No Ethan: How Three Women Caught America’s Biggest Catfish, by Anna Akbari, without spoiling the mystery of “Ethan’s” identity. Thankfully, however, it is possible to review it without revealing the astonishing, mind-bending twist at the story’s end. I can’t remember ever having encountered a plot twist in fiction or nonfiction to rival it.

But enough about that. This is a book that has you pondering no end of questions about the worth (or worthlessness) of the internet. Has it improved modern life, or made it substantially, if not infinitely, worse? (Coincidentally, I no sooner typed that last sentence than the Surgeon General came out with a statement calling for warning labels, like those on cigarettes, to be placed on social media apps.)

The internet in this book is the 2013 internet—a quaint, slow-moving artifact in comparison with present-day technology—and the addictions and compulsions described in these pages, destructive as they prove to be, are made significantly more dangerous by today’s internet-enabled, instant-gratification machine.

The author is one of the three women referred to in the book’s subtitle. All three are contacted through dating web sites by what appears from his cyberspace profile to be a handsome, charming, accomplished, Morgan Stanley employee named Ethan; in meatspace, however, he is an ingeniously cruel young medical student named Emily Slutsky. (Her dubious gift for male emotional manipulation of females is astounding.) After an improbably long time being conned by Slutsky, the women—after finding each other, which is quite a story in itself—team up to track down and unmask her.

Among many details that stand out in this narrative, a particular one seems most insidious. The richer, more exciting, and more emotionally rewarding the on-line relationship with Ethan grows, the more dismal in comparison grows the real world of in-person dating of flesh-and-blood men.

All three of Slutsky’s catfishing victims spend months online with Ethan—and, in the case of one of them, two and one-half years(!)—thinking they are on the verge of a promising relationship after years of disappointment in the real dating world. “Despite his physical absence, Ethan was more present with me and more intentional about our potential relationship than any guy I’d dated in a long time,” Akbari writes by way of explaining why she didn’t bail on Ethan when his series of excuses for not meeting in person started growing implausible even to her. “It was too late to turn back now. Insatiable curiosity and a nagging what-if got the best of me. Not to mention very real feelings and a deepening emotional attachment.”

To the reader, it seems to take forever for Akbari to finally come to her senses and begin trying to discern whether Ethan is real. Once she starts down that path, the book takes on the pace and suspense of a thriller, and the story of that pursuit is a legitimate page-turner. But—the book’s subtitle notwithstanding—the most interesting material is not about how these three women teamed up and caught the person tormenting them, but how—and for how long—they enthusiastically submitted to their digitally-delivered torture.

In all three cases, elaborate plans would be made with Ethan to meet in person, only to have him cancel at the last minute. Winter weather, sudden change in work demands, a dire cancer diagnosis, emergency surgery…there was no end to the unexpected impediments thrown in the way of their meeting face to face.

All three victims are intelligent, accomplished women in their professional lives—not the sort of people, you would think, who would be so easily taken in for so long by what seems in retrospect to be such a clumsy, ill-concealed fraud. “We were the ‘women who knew better,’” Akbari writes. Yet all three fall head-over-heals in love with Ethan, based solely on G-Chat sessions, email messages, and other forms of digital communication that amount, incredibly, to a full-blown romantic relationship.

They become so emotionally dependent on their communication with him that they make it the center of their lives. “Sitting there in the chaotic airport,” Akbari writes of one of her chat sessions with Ethan, “my exhausted body melted, and I felt overwhelmed with emotion. That was exactly the kind of response that kept me coming back to Ethan again and again…. Without ever meeting him in the flesh, I felt more naked before him than perhaps any man I’d ever known.”

The question that keeps pounding in your brain as you read this book is, “What is it about the internet that can send otherwise capable people down these rabbit holes?” Akbari writes, by way of answer, “In a world of millions of virtual connections and increasingly fewer real-world interactions, we will go to great lengths to form connections, find happiness, establish trust, and bond deeply.” The more time we spend online, the drabber—and unendurable—the real world becomes.

The more I thought about this book, the more I was reminded of a Mikhail Zoshchenko’s short story, “Poverty,” written in 1920 in Leninist Russia. It is about the arrival of electricity in a rural town, and the excitement it initially generates. But when the lights are turned on, residents are dismayed at how dismal their lives look. In reaction, they immediately shut off the electricity.

When you get to the end of this book, you feel similarly about the internet. For all the hype and excitement constantly attending its various advances into our lives, in the end each advance just seems to further highlight our miseries and weaknesses. Even worse, Zoshchenko’s happy ending is not available to us. We can’t find the way, or the will, to make ourselves turn it off.

Fred Moody
Fred Moody
Fred Moody, who wrote articles for Seattle Weekly and other publications as well as books, now lives on Bainbridge Island.


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