* EditorÕs note: Marion is on vacation. This column first ran in 2004.
This is a story about risk, but it doesnÕt start out that way.
It starts with a heartbreaking message that arrived in my e-mail two weeks ago. It was a group message, sent to a listserv I belong to for people who have experienced detached retinas. For purposes of this column, I have shortened the message slightly.
ÒMy life is in shambles. I moved to New York City this past Wednesday, and I suffered a detachment on Friday. Emergency surgery took place on Saturday. I am completely blind in my left eye.
ÒMy retina specialist told me prior to surgery that the prognosis is Ôiffy.Õ IÕve been told I cannot lift anything so I cannot even do any food shopping for myself or even unpack. I signed a nice contract to work here and now I cannot work. IÕm just a mess.
ÒMy father, who I was extremely close to, passed away four months ago.
ÒIÕm 25 years old and my whole future was ahead of me and now IÕm completely blind in my left eye. IÕm devastated and alone. Donna.Ó
I read this message moments before my husband and I were heading out for an engagement in San Francisco. Even though I wanted very badly to reply, I didnÕt have time. Fortunately, I knew that other people on the listserv would respond right away.
I hoped that one them lived in New York City and could offer advice on how to access social services there.
I knew that when I got home there would be at least a dozen messages of support for Donna, and I confess that I actually enjoy having my mailbox clogged with this stuff.
This is the first health-related listserv IÕve belonged to, and I find it helpful. The members experienced the same medical emergency as I did and many of the same lingering symptoms. At first, I sought them out for their knowledge and sympathy. Now I find that IÕm hooked for other reasons, mostly a fascination with the listserv itself.
I like following the membersÕ stories, and I enjoy belonging to a group that is more diverse than anything I could find in Davis.
IÕve read messages from people who canÕt afford to get new glasses. IÕve read messages from truckers, who canÕt afford to have bad eyesight. IÕve read messages from religious people and those who have no God. Three motherly types send messages of comfort that are like a beautiful quilt in their variety.
A few people donÕt write English well. Others compose like academics. There is one sweet man, Ken from Tennessee, who just sends warm words of greeting, typed in very big print, and tells us heÕs still hoping to get his eyesight back.
IÕve tried to imagine what would happen if all these people met. I picture them entering a big room, seeing each other in person for the first time. Some would have piercings, some would have dreadlocks, some would be gay, and some would be rednecks. I suspect that, thanks to the listserv, theyÕd find ways to get along.
Oddly enough, when Donna in New York City began answering the messages of concern, she wrote exclusively to Jeffrey, who asked some off-beat questions like, ÒWhat three things in life do you love most?Ó I couldnÕt understand why she was drawn to the one member of the listserv who, on other occasions, has revealed himself to be destructive, a flamer and a bully.
On the plus side, Jeffrey turned out to have two sons living in New York, and although I would never have advised a young woman to be so trusting, Donna invited them to her home where they fed her, unpacked her bags and hung her pictures.
She wrote, ÒNow my home has life to it. My spirit is definitely in this place now, thanks to you.Ó She sounded tremendously relieved and grateful, although I didnÕt quite understand why she posted her thanks to the whole list instead of to Jeffrey.
Apparently, I was not the only person with questions, because about 12 hours after DonnaÕs rescue, another member of the listserv posted a message saying, ÒDonna is Jeffrey and Jeffrey is DonnaÓ. Knowledgeable about computers, this individual had traced IP addresses to find the truth.
Donna was a hoax.
For the next 24 hours, group members processed this information. Some were angry at Jeffrey; others tried to understand him. Several people posted theories on why he did what he did.
I didnÕt feel I could explain JeffreyÕs behavior, but I felt I had been handed a reminder.
The Internet is both wonderful and risky. The same instrument that provides warm companions to help you with illness, also brings rascals and liars, and youÕre lucky if all they do is deceive you for 24 hours. People exist out there who can tug your heart strings and make you do things you shouldnÕt do, and they will be particularly successful with people who are vulnerable and young.
Be wary. ItÕs a brave, but dangerous, world.
Ñ Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com. Her column appears Sundays.