After a woman named Angela Wesselman-Pierce tricked him into an online love affair by stealing photos of a dancer and passing them off as her own, Nev Schulman stopped being a photographer and got into the online-phonies business full time. He starred in a documentary feature film, Catfish, about his relationship with “Megan.” He expanded his brand with Catfish: The TV Series, an MTV reality show in which young people get Schulman and his friend/co-host Max Joseph to investigate their various sketchy inamorata. Now he’s the author of In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age, in which he advises readers about appropriate online comportment. On one hand, who better than Schulman, who can speak from a position of experience given the many Internet liars he’s had a hand in unmasking? On the other hand, the only reason Nev has a career at all is that he was dumber than a con artist, so why did anyone think he should write a book of sincere advice when anything he says just boils down to Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does?
Before I proceed, I feel I should explain what qualifies me to comment on Nev Schulman’s life, work, and character. I watched the Catfish movie once it came on one of the movie channels for free, probably sometime in the summer of 2011, and wasn’t especially convinced by the central conceit: that Nev’s brother, Rel Schulman, and their friend, Henry Joost, just happened to start filming Nev’s nascent love affair with Megan because they filmed lots of stuff, not that they filmed it because they all suspected from the beginning that Megan’s whole identity was dubious and there might be a story they could turn into something if Nev played out the string. (Almost as soon as the film came out, a lawsuit over music rights disputed the film’s fair use claim on the basis that the story wasn’t actually true.)
The next year, MTV premiered Catfish: The TV Series, and I was riveted. While the film rests on the dubious notion that we’re invested in Nev’s beautiful love story, the series is just a parade of liars and the chumps who hardly dared to doubt them. As in Nev’s own story, the mysterious and elusive online girlfriends and boyfriends who can’t seem to manage real-life meetups generally do have something to hide; as in Nev’s own story, it’s generally that they’re not as conventionally attractive as the photos they’ve appropriated for their fraudulent online personas. I started live-tweeting and then writing in-depth posts about each episode in the second season and have subsequently hooked several friends on the show. (Hi guys! Sorry!) And while almost every episode is a snarl of deception and willful ignorance—with two or three legit love stories each season just to keep us all from getting too cynical—that’s not why I watch.
I watch it for Nev.
Though determined self-delusion is an essential element of the series—the marks know something’s up, or they wouldn’t be on Catfish in the first place—there is no one more self-deluded than Nev Schulman. In the first season, when the credulous dopes saw their hopes dissolve away upon the reveal of whomever they’d actually been talking to for months (or years!) and then cried that they didn’t know how they could have been so stupid, Nev would comfort them in the best and most appropriate way: He’d remind them (and us) that he had been fooled in exactly the same way. It was almost as though Nev didn’t realize that all he was really saying was, “Don’t be sad: you’re just as stupid as I am!” But in recent seasons, it seems he isn’t bringing up his own bad experience that much anymore. And why would he? The show has allowed him to remake himself not as a sucker, but as a detective. (To have sat through 30-plus “investigations” without ever turning to Nev and pointing out how odd it is that Nev never did any of this kind of due diligence when it was Nev’s boner leading him astray, Max must be a very good friend.) (Or else those moments just get cut for broadcast.)
And look, I’m not going to sit here and say that once someone has made a mistake, it must define him for the rest of his life. I’m saying that once someone has decided to make that mistake the subject of a documentary feature film and then to ride that star vehicle into a TV series and book deal, he ought not pretend that the basis of his fame is anything other than that, seven years ago, some lady tricked him and made him look the fool.
But that’s exactly what Nev is trying to do now. He’s recast his entanglement with Wesselman-Pierce not as a hideous embarrassment—as any of us would do—but as the turning point that changed him into the paragon of manhood he is now. “Miraculously,” he writes, “I’d been the victim of a hoax and had handled it with sensitivity and compassion, had demonstrated an ability to listen to my catfish and to forgive her despite all the mistakes she’d made. I’d finally been the nonjudgmental, sensitive, caring, nice guy I’d always wanted to be, and it had—fortuitously—ended up on tape for the whole world to see.” That sure was fortuitous, (a), and, (b), IF YOU DO SAY SO YOURSELF.
Nev’s self-image as a sensitive counselor to America’s lovelorn and naive is, in the book as on the show, undercut by his unconscious condescension toward his subjects. After describing the “consideration and awareness” he now applies to his social media posts, for instance, he writes, “In my case, because I’m a public figure, my posts can have a tremendous effect on my career and reputation. But even if you’re not a public figure, you have to consider the moments when you will be worried about your career and reputation. Because those moments will happen, whether you anticipate them or not, even if it’s just the manager of the local 7-Eleven Googling you before they hire you.” I guess that’s the only low-stakes, low-status job he could think of that people who don’t have their own TV shows might apply for.
But enough about you, back to Nev’s bad time with Angela and how it transformed him. In the preamble to Nev’s first contact with “Abby” (the first of Wesselman-Pierce’s couple of dozen avatars), we learn all about Nev’s youth, in carefully manicured tales—kicked out of schools, shoplifting, selling weed and mushrooms—that seem designed to establish him as a Fonzie-esque bad boy. “I was capable of so much more,” he writes of an aimless period in his early 20s. “Since I wasn’t particularly fulfilled in my work life, I overcompensated by spending my time pursuing women.” Someone, stop Nev before he starts complaining “self-deprecatingly” about how hard it is to find pants that aren’t too snug in the gusset!
And now? After the backlash to the movie, “I decided to use my experience as motivation to think about how I could use my platform to peacefully spread positivity.” I love his show—I LOVE IT—but “positivity,” italicized or not, is certainly not among the things it’s spreading. “I didn’t want to be a curator of entertainment. I wanted to be someone who stood for real content and value.” But if you, dear reader, are not as bold or talented as Nev and thus are not capable of standing “for real content and value” or being the leader he’s already stated he always wanted to be, it’s OK: “Being a follower can be just as daring and courageous—because once a leader has a follower, that’s when a movement can start to happen.”
I suppose Nev’s elevated opinion of himself is not entirely his fault. He’s obviously worked hard to become a media star. He even set out to turn catfish into a term denoting lying on the Internet, and though I personally refuse to use it that way, it did make it into the dictionary. Angela Wesselman-Pierce handed him the story of a lifetime, and he’s only seven years into dining out on it. I don’t happen to think he’s qualified to advise anyone about anything (with the possible exception of chest hair grooming), but that didn’t stop me from devouring this book in a couple of hours. Nev Schulman’s cultivated transparency combined with his utter lack of self-awareness makes him a fascinating figure. As he himself puts it, “Fortunately, I was born with the gift of confidence (or maybe I just didn’t have the capacity to be embarrassed).” Thank God for that.
In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age by Nev Schulman. Grand Central Publishing.