Life

“Nathan Adams Isn’t Real”

Before people talked about “catfishing,” I experienced the worst kind.

A woman's hands type on a laptop in a very dark room.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dmitry Marchenko/EyeEm via Getty Images.

The first time I said the words “Nathan Adams isn’t real,” I was standing, dumbfounded, with my best friend Hannah in our apartment. It was May 2005, and I had spent the past six months falling in love with Nathan, a man who I had just discovered was not who he said he was. Panicked, we called another friend and confidante, Olivia, to tell her the news. “Nathan Adams isn’t real!” I yelled into her voicemail. Things only got more heartbreaking from there.

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Seventeen years later, I rarely think about that night or the events surrounding it. But I experienced an unavoidable walk down lousy memory lane while watching the recent hit Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist. The story of free-agent NFL player and former Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o, Untold is a compelling reexamination of the most high-profile catfishing scheme to date, told primarily by Te’o and, remarkably, the person who catfished him.

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It’s hard to know how many people have fallen prey to online dating fraud. But according to the FBI, in 2021 alone, roughly 24,000 victims in the U.S. reported financial losses to “romance scams” nearing $1 billion. Coupled with the long-running MTV series Catfish (eight seasons and approximately 200 episodes, to date), it would seem there are plenty of us out there. But in 2005, before catfish was anything other than a food best served fried, it was a lonely club.

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I wasn’t surprised by Untold’s gripping details of the hoax and how Te’o believed it for so long. Been there, done that. What has stayed with me is Te’o’s seemingly heartfelt proclamation that he has forgiven the person who, one could argue, cost him millions of dollars in the 2013 NFL draft and ruined his reputation at a pivotal time in his life and career. Faced with the same question, I’m not sure I could say the same.

In a sign of the times, my story unfolded on MySpace. Launched in 2003 and finding its way onto my computer in 2004, MySpace was nothing short of revolutionary.
After spending my life believing the only way to meet people was actually to meet people, suddenly, an exciting new world of internet humans was at my fingertips. It was the dawn of people being able to construct who they wanted to be online. My profile included quips about searching for the best margaritas in town and my lifelong love of Duke basketball.
I left out the part about how I had no idea what I was doing with my life.

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And then, I met Nathan.

I don’t recall his first message to me, only that he stood out among my other would-be internet suitors. After exchanging a few messages and obsessively dissecting his entire MySpace presence, I deciphered that Nathan was the real deal: smart, funny, and (judging by the interactions I could see on his timeline) close to his friends and family. Tall, with wavy brown hair and an impish smile, he had graduated from a major college nearby two years prior and, like me, was figuring out what he wanted to do next. I was smitten by it all.

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If you were online at the time, you might recall that the collective vibe was not inclined toward “meeting up with people from the internet,” and Nathan and I were definitely in that camp. For a while, neither of us brought up meeting in person. We lived in our internet bubble of MySpace, emails, and AIM chats—quickly moving from small talk and sarcastic banter to revealing our innermost thoughts with such ease that I sometimes found myself confiding in him before I talked to the best friend I had moved thousands of miles to live with a few months earlier.

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As I sat in my home office, job searching and counting the hours until Oprah came on, Nathan was the bright spot of most days. His quick wit made me laugh, and our conversations flowed easily, often for hours on end. We talked about our families, shared our dreams for the future, and called each other out when the other was being careless with their words. And the words, well—his sucked me in. He wrote with a kind of knowing: knowing me and what I needed without me having to spell it out as I had with other guys in the past. He was protective of me, especially when someone I went out with a few times started to become a bit, as we said, “stalker-y.” When I landed a fundraising job at a local nonprofit, Nathan sent me flowers. The more I learned about him, the less interested I was in dating anyone else; I would wait for Nathan because our connection was too special not to at least try.

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We decided that if we were “meant” to meet, we would. Having grown up in the era of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts rom-coms, I found this romantic—at first. However, as my feelings grew, I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to be with me, you know, IRL. And then, out of the blue, he “moved to Los Angeles.” I blocked him at first, furious and hurt that he hadn’t told me until after the fact. I missed him dearly. Our communication didn’t fully stop, but it was becoming clear to me that we might never meet.

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This is true, of course, because Nathan Adams wasn’t real.

That night in May, Hannah and I had a friend named Amy over. She had graduated from the same college as Nathan, so I showed her Nathan’s MySpace profile to see if she knew him. She didn’t recognize him, but when I showed her an adorable baby picture Nathan had sent me—one in which he bore a striking resemblance to a young Fred Savage—she not only recognized him, she knew him. “Where did you get that picture?” she asked, her face pale. I told her that Nathan had sent it to me. “That’s my boyfriend’s baby picture,” she responded. The room fell silent as Hannah and I stared at each other in disbelief. This photo, Amy said, was of her very real long-distance boyfriend, and she was the only one who had it, framed and sitting on her nightstand.

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Panicked and absolutely out of my mind with confusion, I made the fateful call to Olivia, who was one of Amy’s roommates. Next to Hannah, Olivia knew the most about my relationship with Nathan. In fact, her brother had been in a fraternity with him, and early on, she was the one who had reassured me when I became skeptical as to whether Nathan was “as great as he seems.” She was traveling in Europe before she started med school in the fall, and it was the middle of the night when I yelled those words into her voicemail: This guy isn’t real!

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She never called back. By the time we went to bed that night, Amy, Hannah, and I had figured out why: Olivia was Nathan.

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Before meeting in person, Olivia and I had exchanged MySpace messages when she reached out to give me advice on where to go for those margaritas. I saw her out a few times but felt awkward saying hello to a stranger. But when she was part of a volunteer group at the nonprofit where I worked, I had to say something. “I think we’re meant to be friends,” I joked. Which, of course, was her plan all along—it wasn’t a coincidence that I kept running into her; she used MySpace to make sure we ended up in the same places together.

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And friends we became. Olivia was the life of the party. Up for anything, any day of the week, she made the new city we lived in feel rife with possibility for me. A boring night could be turned into a lifelong memory if you just let Olivia take the lead.

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And though she seemed carefree on the outside, the truth was more complicated.
Olivia was a second-generation American with strict parents. Their expectations were high—she was to become a doctor and make the family proud. There simply wasn’t any room for her to veer from this plan.

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But my God, had she veered. When a small group of us got together that night and started to piece together the events of the past six months, it quickly became clear that the only logical explanation for a completely illogical scenario was that Olivia had orchestrated it. She had stolen the baby picture and sent it to me; it was all her. When I went to work on Monday, I found more proof (tied to the day “Nathan” sent me flowers), and reality sank in. I wasn’t the only one she catfished, either—we realized an online suitor of Hannah’s was an Olivia fake, too.

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It was heartbreaking to discover that Nathan, and his entire life, one I had become intimately part of, was all a lie. But it was more gut-wrenching and terrifying to learn that the person behind it was someone I believed to be a true friend—someone who had stalked her way into my life and manipulated every piece of information she gained about me to carry out these lies. Betrayal had occurred at every level; I feared for my safety. If she had gone this far to keep such a twisted charade going, how far would she go once it all came crashing down?

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When Olivia came back from Europe, her roommates confronted her. After denying it at first, she soon admitted to all of it with what they described as an uncanny calmness.

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It’s hard to describe what happens in the aftermath of a hoax like this—the humiliation, the confusion, the profound fear. Anyone who has seen Untold has seen a vivid example. In my case, I went to the police, certain there was real danger to me. They said they couldn’t help. I was distraught, paralyzed by fear and pain. I left my job, moved back to my hometown, and spent months trying to unravel how this all could have happened.

I never spoke to Olivia again.

When I’m feeling compassionate, I recognize Olivia’s actions as those of someone who needed professional mental health care. I see it as a desperate cry for help from a young woman who felt extraordinary pressure to meet her family’s high expectations. She felt trapped by the rigidity of her life, and this was one of the ways she created freedom for herself. I can also recognize she was likely grappling with her sexuality without any healthy outlet. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t formulate an online diagnosis for her.

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None of those things ever brought me peace, though. I found peace only when I allowed myself to start trusting people again. I found more lovers and friends—some of whom I met (gasp!) on the internet. Two and a half years after realizing that Nathan, the “perfect man,” didn’t exist, I met my future husband. When I told him this story, embarrassed and fearful of what he might think of me, he held me and thanked me for trusting him. With that admission to him, I felt the chapter close. Olivia took so much from me, but she couldn’t ever touch this real, true love.

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Watching Te’o speak of forgiveness prompted me to explore my own, but in the end, I realized that forgiving Olivia wasn’t the key to moving on. Recognizing that I didn’t have to in order to heal was.

One of the biggest revelations in Untold is what became of Te’o’s catfisher after the truth was revealed. It prompted me to Google my own. As expected, Olivia became a doctor at a major hospital system and has an impressive list of achievements in her bio.

At least, that’s what it says on the internet.

The names in this piece have been changed.

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