Now, America knows that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o never had a girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.
Despite the fact that Notre Dame—and the national college football community as a whole—swooned over tidbits of Te’o’s tragic three-year romance, including Kekua having surviving a car accident only to, later, succumb to leukemia, his girlfriend was a fake. She never even existed. All she ever was were contrived messages on Twitter and elsewhere. Her pretty photograph had been stolen off the Facebook account of another woman.
Te’o insists he was duped by someone who wanted him to fall in love with an imposter, with a ghost created by today’s technology—a phenomenon known as “catfishing.” Yet, many inconsistencies in Te’o’s own story of the couple’s supposed romance raise the question of whether he was part of the scheme. If so, some theorize his motivation may have been to create a mythical, magical story to help propel him to the Heisman trophy.
Either way, Te’o needs psychological help. One version of the story paints him vulnerable enough and naïve enough to declare his love and devotion publicly for someone he had never even met, nor Skyped with, let alone kissed. That version has him grieving her death like a devoted husband—despite never having laid eyes on her, nor touched her. The other version of the story paints him as a co-conspirator in fraud and deception, willing to manipulate the feelings of millions of people for his own pleasure or advancement—a younger, even sicker version of Lance Armstrong.
And either way, Te’o is the poster boy for a phenomenon I have been writing about for years, and which threatens our culture in a dramatic way: The erosion of reality and embrace of fiction via social networking, “reality” TV and technology.
Call it The Delusion Disease.
The same forces that have fueled the creation of a generation of deluded narcissists, with more on the way, are hijacking our attention and emotions and making us devote them to false people and false stories. The tale of Te’o is a close relative to that of Balloon Boy—the fake story of a boy who was supposedly adrift inside a capsule beneath a homemade air balloon (when he was actually at home the whole time).
But the tale of Te’o is also a close relative of Twitter and Facebook themselves, which encourage people to craft versions of themselves that are more attractive than the truth, with hundreds or thousands of “friends,” most of whom don’t even know them and have never met them, and with hundreds of “followers,” despite the fact that they aren’t famous enough to have followers, and never will be.
There have always been liars and cheats and frauds and fools, but the forces forming such people are more potent than ever, and their fakery and fraud can now go viral via the Internet and other technologies in ways previously impossible.
We are now afflicted by fiction in our lives as never before, with our very sense of what is true and what is false now threatened. And that may be the most toxic, terrifying reason why we are having trouble solving crises like the national debt, the threat posed by Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the obvious links between psychiatric illness, our shattered mental health system and violent crime like school shootings.
Social media, “reality” TV and technology have infected and intoxicated us such that we won’t—or, even worse—we can’t face facts, anymore.
Even if we were inclined to look at our real personal and cultural problems, there’s an army of doctors ready to write prescriptions for Prozac and its relatives within minutes of visiting them. Even if we were inclined to meditate on the real core of our personal and cultural issues, religion is under assault as never before. Even if we were inclined to find the real core of our personal and cultural problems, street drugs—including marijuana and opiate pain relievers—are easier to find, easier than ever, in fact, and in wider use.
In a lesser or greater way, we are all now vulnerable to, or already afflicted by, The Delusion Disease—the greatest psychological epidemic that has ever faced our nation or our species, which is destroying a generation or two, and which, most recently, catapulted Manti Te’o from football great, with his cleats firmly on the ground, into a flight of pure fantasy that swept millions along with it.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.