'Catfish' Film Exposes Lies, Mental Illness

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The film Catfish, “easily the most buzzed-about documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival,” was recently released and has so far earned nearly $2.5 million at the box office—a very respectable sum for an independent documentary. It has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.

The film is about a New York man (and his two filmmaker friends) who strikes up an online friendship / relationship with a family, including an eight-year-old art prodigy; her older sister who has taken a liking to him; and their mother. The “surprise” ending (which has been widely reported and discussed) is that the whole thing was a hoax devised by a woman. (There’s much more to the story, but that’s the plot in a nutshell.)

Some have questioned whether or not the film is at least partly staged. Kyle Buchanan, a writer for Movieline.com, opined, “All three men claim that they had no idea that anything was amiss during those several months of online and on-the-phone chats. I don’t buy it at all; I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax.”

Given that nearly every person with an e-mail address receives dozens of e-mails each week (depending on the effectiveness of their spam filter) from people who do not exist (such as Nigerian widows), it’s a bit surprising that the filmmakers were so naive. But regardless of how much of it is set up, the fact that the woman at the center of the film exists (and pretended to be at least two other people) is beyond dispute.

As bizarre as the case seems, it’s not unusual; what’s unique about Catfish is not that the filmmakers found a person who spins elaborate—even pathological—lies, but instead that the unraveling of the deception occurred on camera.

People make up stories all the time: they falsely claim to have been assaulted, raped, and even abducted. Others claim to be stricken with fatal diseases (this also appears in the film); many of those people can be diagnosed with what psychologists call factitious disorder. For reasons that are not clear, the vast majority are women.

A few recent examples:

Ashley Kirilow, a 23-year-old Canadian woman who told friends and family she’d been diagnosed with breast, ovarian, brain, and liver cancers, was given over $20,000 by donors over the course of about two years before admitting that she never had cancer.

Bethany Storro, a Vancouver, Washington, woman claimed to have been the victim of a horrific acid attack by an African-American woman. The assailant allegedly approached her outside a Starbuck outlet and threw a cup of acid on her face, leaving her badly scarred. After several weeks of fruitless investigation Storro admitted that it was all a hoax.

A Baltimore woman, Dina Leone, told her friends and family that she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Through Facebook and blogs, she updated her friends and followers about her treatment—until police determined it was all a hoax. For over three years she had pretended to have cancer, making up stories of her hardships and doctors.

People with factitious disorder often make up elaborate stories because they are seeking attention or escapism. Others do for financial gain, stealing money from those who come together to support them. As Catfish shows, many are harmless and lonely people who suffer from depression or another mental illness.

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