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{ personal log }

a conversation with my sister

I did not know Kaycee Nicole, but my sister did.

Jenny is my little sister, and though it may be wrong to call an independent 25 year-old "little" I still see her that way. So when she started a weblog a few months ago, I felt a little protective of her. Jenny had far less experience with the internet than I did. She hadn't seen much of its dark side.

Jenny took to the web with abandon – telling her stories, meeting new people, forming virtual relationships. After Jenny had been reading Kaycee's weblog for a while, she began emailing her off and on.


Kaycee, according to her site, was a nineteen year old girl fighting cancer. Her story resonated with Jenny (and me) because members of our family have fought, and lost, that same battle. My father works with cancer patients for a living. Cancer has always been a part of our lives.

So when the news of Kaycee's death hit the web last Tuesday, we both felt it. Jenny told me that the cried in the office that morning. She added a button to the side of her site that linked to Kaycee's site as a tribute.

This weekend, doubts were raised about the reality of the story. "Is it possible that Kaycee did not exist?" asked a MetaFilter reader, and the ensuing hundreds of posts were like watching a train wreck – horrifyingly interesting. Some expressed shock at the very question. Others took to search engines in search of evidence.

The whole thing struck me as folly. If it had been a hoax, I didn't think Google was going to be able to prove it. Still, I kept reading. Wondering.

I am trusting and hopeful by nature. I run websites that are devoted to true stories, after all. It had never even occurred to me that this girl, so valiantly clinging to hope and strength, was not real. And besides, I had friends who had talked to her on the phone. And her story stretched back two years. Surely it couldn't be.

Then, today, Sunday, a new story emerged. Randall van der Woning (aka BWG, the person who had been hosting Kaycee's site, but who had never met her in person) posted that Debbie (supposedly Kaycee's mom, who also has a site hosted on Randall's server) had confessed that Kaycee was a construct – the combination of three people she'd known.

Randall took down Kaycee's site, Debbie apologized, and MetaFilter once again erupted in conversation. Some called for justice in the legal system. Others doubted that this new chapter was any more real than the last.

But I had other things on my mind. I had to call my sister.

She got my phone message and called me back from the subway, coming back from an audition. She said it had gone well, but she was tired. She'd only had four hours of sleep.

When the pleasantries were over, I had to tell her why I called. I paced my apartment, looking for the right words.

"Jenny, I don't know how to tell you this, but it looks like Kaycee wasn't real."


"It's complicated," I said. "I don't know what the truth is. But Debbie, her mom, confessed that she'd made Kaycee up, that she was the combination of three people, to tell their stories. And Randall took down Kaycee's site. But I don't even know if Debbie is real. Or Randall, for that matter. It's a mess."

In the hour conversation that followed with my sister, she bounced from disbelief to anger to sadness. My heart beat in my chest – I wished I could have reached through the phone to give her a hug.

Then Jenny told me something that surprised me. She said that she'd had her doubts, too. So she emailed Kaycee to say hello. When Kaycee responded, she knew Kaycee was for real. But more than that, she said she'd learned something about the web.

"You know how people are always giving you a hard time, saying that the web is not a community?" Jenny said. "Well it is, and what proved it to me was meeting Kaycee. And now...."

"I know, Jenny."

"I feel so ... used."

"I know."

And in my head I flashed to the book I'm writing about communities on the web. I remembered writing a chapter about intimacy online – all the ways people are dramatically honest. And I remembered my faithful editor Victoria, questioning my assumptions like a good editor does.

"Don't just tell us that intimacy online is a good thing," she said. "Prove it."

So I wrote about support communities, where people fighting illness can come together and support each other in their fight. And how, through virtual exchanges of intimacy, powerful healing can occur.

It was my assumption I was thinking about, while Jenny sighed into the phone. How I assumed that intimacy was its own reward. Just like I assumed that there was a real 19 year-old girl named Kaycee who was fighting the good fight.

"Jenny," I said. "The thing is, the web is full of communities. But they're made of real people in real life. And some of those people don't tell the truth, just like in real life. Some of them are energy-suckers who feed on attention. I guess, in the end, the only difference is that it's easier to lie on the web, because you don't have to look into someone's eyes when you do it."

It probably wasn't much of a solace to Jenny. But, then, not much would be. She'd given her heart over to someone in need, only to find out that they were a figment of someone's disturbed imagination.

I asked Jenny to try not to lose her faith in humanity. I told her to spend some time offline before she sent any angry emails to anyone. And I told her that I loved her.

Then I sat down at the computer and reopened that chapter on intimacy. I had some editing to do.

{ 4:02pm }



» the funny thing to me is that I wrote kaycee several very heartfelt notes and I never, ever received an answer. at the time I figured she had to conserve her energy.

now I have to guess that her creator just didn't like the cut of my jib. :)

rebecca blood  { 5.20.01 @ 4:28pm }

» ::hugs for both you and your sister::

I, too feel used. Maybe I wasn't as emotionally involved as some, but I did love "Kaycee's" site. I was sad when she died. And when all this stuff started, I vehemently defended her memory.

I do not regret having faith in her. It is always better to have faith than to be cynical. That's how I feel.

Hang in there, buddy. I am praying for you.

Redgie  { 5.20.01 @ 4:30pm }

» Hi.
You don't know me, but I've been watching your site for some time now.
Your article was really touching Derek, I want you to tell Jenny something:
Life is a collision of two things - good and bad, if you let the bad be the dominant one, and that's easy, you fall with it. if you fight yourself and your surroundings and choose the good to be the dominant one, then you will not lose faith cause of one disturbed person, you will not bow down before the bad, the untrue.
Whether or not Kaycee exists or not, she was something Jenny believed in, something Jenny gave her heart to. Cancelling all of these emotions just because Kaycee was made up or not is wrong, for those emotions are the only thing real for Jenny.

I've been there.
much love.

Ohad  { 5.20.01 @ 4:31pm }

» "Kaycee" as stated in both BWG and Debbie's site did exist but that wasn't her name. The blog was a hoax not the person.

FreeThinker1  { 5.20.01 @ 4:49pm }

» "The blog was about the lives of three people who suffered, one with breast cancer, one with leukemia, and one with Liver cancer."

– register  { 5.20.01 @ 4:57pm }

» Well, FreeThinker1 & register, I suppose that depends on whether or not you believe what you read on the web. Which is, of course, what got us all in trouble in the first place.

Personally, I'm not going to believe anything I read on that server anymore. Fool me twice, shame on me, as the saying goes. But even if I did believe what’s been written, the Kaycee we all knew was a lie. She was a construct of three people, filtered through someone quite disturbed.

Of course, what you choose to believe is up to you. I guess that’s what makes all this so interesting.

In the end, the only thing I know was real is the love that people gave to someone who, it turns out, was manipulating them. And that’s a shame. But the great thing about love is, there’s always more to give.

dmp  { 5.20.01 @ 4:59pm }

» the great thing about love is, there’s always more to give.

does anyone think that this bonds the online community more than rips it apart?

– register  { 5.20.01 @ 5:07pm }

» Wow.. I'm shocked...

...and feeling a little burned.
Lots of feelings to sort out...

...psst.. and I'm not a stalker... I was just in the 'hood and stopped by yer little store to pick up some copal and some charcoal disks... :)

– Mystery Man  { 5.20.01 @ 5:15pm }

» I hope the three people story is real. But who are they? Did they give their permission? I guess they had to have, or Debbie couldn't have passed on the gifts. But in that case, why couldn't they be named? I'm absolutely confused. I would like a little more light shed on this.

– M. Callington  { 5.20.01 @ 5:23pm }

» Register, I don't think it's so much bonding the online community as showing that it can be a *self-policing* community. Not quite as warm and fuzzy -- :) -- but infinitely better.

A good bunch of us were taken in by warm and fuzzy, myself emphatically included. I've said it elsewhere, but I'll say it again -- I give much credit and admiration to those who spoke up and questioned what was going on. I'm sure their opinions weren't popular. Kudos to them.

I think a self-policing community is important. It means that people feel comfortable asking hard questions about emotional issues. People are willing to fact-check. People are willing to hold others accountable to what they say.

I think we're all a little less trusting after the past 36 hours. At the same time, hopefully this will keep this type of situation from cropping up again.

roe  { 5.20.01 @ 5:24pm }

» I don't think it's so much bonding the online community as showing that it can be a *self-policing* community

maybe it's a bonding self-policing community; the fact that it's self-policing makes it that much more trustworthy.

– register  { 5.20.01 @ 5:46pm }

» As one site (that dragged me into it) put it: "Let your faith in humanity die, kids. You'll be less irritating people when you do." And yeah, as much as I feel completely sickened and betrayed by this whole thing (and yes, like a total fool, thank you) - that would certainly be the easiest route to take right now. It's never been more tempting.

And right now I'm trying very, very hard not to do that. I don't *want* to be cynical yet, dammit. I don't want to become bitter and jaded. There's enough of it out there already, done by people far better at it than I'll ever be.

I want, I *need*, to still have faith in humanity. And I think I'm still willing to keep that faith, despite the risks. Even if it means I'll be a fool all over again, even if it means I'll get hurt, even if it makes me a hopeless idiot - I'm still willing to pay that price. It's a faith that's given me too many rewards, brought too many great things and great people into my life - I'm just not ready yet to find out how you can live without any faith in humanity and still call that "living". And if that's dumb, I'm still willing to be a world-class idiot. I don't care.

I still want to feel hurt sometimes rather than feel nothing at all. I still need to believe in my fellow man. I still need to believe in love.

And I still think, all in all, it's the much better end of the bargain.

Noah  { 5.20.01 @ 5:54pm }

» This has all been...unbelievable. I'm shook up. ((Hugs)) to you and Jenny.

As someone who was duped earlier than most, I apologize if my "credibility" made people believe when they shouldn't have.

I followed my heart. Sometimes that requires an optomism tax. It stings to pay it, but in the long run, it's a bargain.

Because, I'll tell you what... when I'm done healing, I hope to believe the next person, too. I'd rather be duped 100 times than shut off my compassion.

– Halcyon  { 5.20.01 @ 6:17pm }

» Everything online is based on trust - it dreadful, discovering that there can be negative repercussions to being thoughtlessly kind.

Kristin  { 5.20.01 @ 6:39pm }

» As much as everyone is feeling like they were made a fool of (including myself), I am overwhelmed by the hearts of everyone out there. People have been pouring out their love and kind words to someone that seemed to need it more than any. True, the world seems cruel and black sometimes. True, sometimes life just plain sucks. People take advantage of other's caring nature. They smash the hearts of others to satisfy some sick desire for cruelty. Does this mean we ball up our feelings and close our hearts to those around us at the risk of being taken advantage of? Absolutely not. Selfishness gets us nowhere. There are still genuine people in pain out there that need people like us. Don't give up hope.

Life is not as bad as it seems....

J.R.  { 5.20.01 @ 10:14pm }

» >>does anyone think that this bonds the online community more than rips it apart?

It's given me cause to respect some OLJs more (the ones who were brave enough to voice their doubts) and indicated to me several I plan to avoid. So, speaking for myself, it's somewhere in the middle - some of the vitriol directed at the doubters made my stomach churn, but I also feel better knowing that there are people who really do value truth, and who care enough to pursue it.

mechaieh  { 5.20.01 @ 10:28pm }

» A group of faceless strangers reached out through fiber-optic lines, breaking borders, barriers, and personal walls, for the collective feeling of support and reassurance. These same faceless strangers created a network of concern, caring, and love.

Everyone allowed themselves to feel. They connected not just with "Kaycee" but with each other. For those brief moments the idea of cold, plastic space was diminished. That was real. That existed.

Halcyon, you needn't apologize for being "taken in". You have the ability to care, without personal investment. What an amazing quality.

Just like Derek's sister. Just like thousands who really felt.

The "lie" is saddening, but the lack of a single person to focus on doesn't make the actions that were displayed any less incredible.

Derek, your sister must be a beautiful person, I hope your experience with the good side of the net shields her from being jaded.

Peter  { 5.20.01 @ 11:11pm }

» This is blasphemy! I feel kinda used and foolish too.... just when I was beginning to think you guys helped in building some of the most beautiful communities in this world!

Sad, but you must carry on!
It's no consolation but tell your sister we know what she must be feeling about this whole thing!

– anisha bordoloi  { 5.20.01 @ 11:35pm }

» Whew...I take a brief repreive from the web and upon returning find all this out. I actually fell onto the news while looking up something totally unrelated; the irony doesn't escape me here....that's exactly the same way I originally found the Kaycee site.

I don't know what to think, and that is very unsettling. I am generally pretty sure of myself and able to come to a worthy summation.

But all THIS, I dunno....*perplexed*

I think the overriding theme here is weirdness, plain and simple. I feel a measure of revulsion, as well.

Jett Superior  { 5.21.01 @ 12:27am }

» This saga isn't going to make me stop trusting what I read on the web, the relationships I form here, because what enables trust, compassion and love is the message, not the medium.

I dis/believe people all the time - in pubs, newsgroups, meetings, on buses, bulletin boards, email. People own and use words, tell stories, create fictions or fabulous fact. If someone tells me something which resonates or sounds dodgy, I make that decision according to the person, their words, their story - gut feeling, human understanding and perspective -, not the fact that I'm reading it online, in the paper, hearing it over the phone.

I found out a friend died recently, because her daughter called up and told me. I do not hate the phone. I hate the fact she died.

Meg  { 5.21.01 @ 1:37am }

» I agree with Meg. I don't plan on not trusting people on the web. I care about the people who's weblogs I read daily and who I send email to when it looks like they've had a bad day. If one of those people is deceitful, shame on them.

I email back and forth everyday with Jenny. This being the summer here at the college, there isn't much to do, so her friendly emails are most welcome. If it turned out that the younger Powazek wasn't real, I guess I'd be upset, but at the same time grateful that SOMEONE had taken the time to chat with me about life and stuff (and Slurpees). And the same goes to all the others I communicate with.

So I guess shame on "Debbie" and who ever else was involved, but as for the rest of you, I still love you all! :)

Mike Thomas  { 5.21.01 @ 6:28am }

» I don't mean to get too far into solipsism here, but....

Well, it's hard to know that anyone or anything exists, for certain. We can only assume that someone is on the other end of the line, or even standing in front of us, based on what we perceive.

It's cruel to toy with people's emotions, but so long as people were touched, in a way, the construct of Kaycee did exist.

The important thing to remember is that the emotions that Kaycee's blog evoked in people are real. And you can't take that compassion and that generousity away from the people who gave it; it's still there.

I don't believe in "dupes."

kristina  { 5.21.01 @ 7:19am }

» I'm joining Noah's hopeless idiot club.

"I'm just not ready yet to find out how you can live without any faith in humanity and still call that 'living'. And if that's dumb, I'm still willing to be a world-class idiot." he said and I agree.

I feel very raw and perplexed and weirded out, but I still love the web and the wonderful experiences I have with it. I still love web folk which are just folks when you boil it down. I may be a bit more of an existentialist today, but I'm still a sap.

Dinah  { 5.21.01 @ 12:03pm }

» People are moved by stories... that throw up contradictions and doubts when placed under the microscope. But I'd be sadder to be without the Bible, the Koran, the Hindu scriptures; and the world's religions would be emptier also. Ah well.

– nick s  { 5.21.01 @ 12:11pm }

» gives a whole new meaning to the expression "for what it's worth."

and it reminds me of the movie "meet john doe."

the "hoax" thing is not gonna make me a pessimist, a skeptic, or bitter.

i'm just gonna use it all to my advantage. i'm gonna *live and learn,* i'm gonna reflect on the good things, and i'm gonna laugh and tell myself "gotcha again" at the bad.

i'm not gonna stop reading jenn's blog, i'm not gonna stop wishing her well.

but i understand the anger and confusion by others who've felt disappointed or duped.

– france  { 5.22.01 @ 7:57am }

» Thank you........I really appreciate the support. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who feels crappy, weird, puzzled, and disappointed. I think I'm still kind of in shock. I know that my relationship with the construct of "Kaycee" was very meaningful and taught me A LOT.....and for that, I am grateful. The emotions for me were so's hard to believe she never really existed.

I WILL go on trusting......I'd rather feel true emotions than just close the door and not allow myself to feel anything anymore. I think I'll be a little bit more cautious though....more aware.

It's true, the web is not evil.....some people are.

Jenn  { 5.22.01 @ 8:37am }

» Werd up Jenny.
you go girl!!! :)

Ohad  { 5.22.01 @ 10:29am }

» This actually _renews_ my faith in humanity, because a whole bunch of strangers were moved to care.

I think the Kaycee blog is more like a story or poetry--Debbie's way of dealing with her feelings. When a movie or a book makes us cry, we say it was well written. And when the marketers of the Blair Witch Project had people initially believing in the mythos, we called them innovators.

A disclaimer on the Kaycee blog would have spared people's feelings--but that would be missing the point. If we'd been spared the feelings, we would, well, never have experienced the feelings, never have found ourselves reaching out to another voice in the ether, never have created a support community of our own for each other.

Rather than wasting energy feeling mad and dumb, think about what you've learned about yourself and the other people in our little village here. I like my neighbors.

Sharon  { 5.22.01 @ 12:07pm }

» well, as someone who is already cynical and bitter and jaded, let me tell you that i've still been really affected by this, although i find it easier to dole out the hugs to those who need them since i don't. i've already been there (for real) and didn't want to go there again, which is why i didn't get so caught up with her.... well, that and she didn't answer my emails.

a lot about her was rather cliché, but i cried when i found out she was gone... for a lot of reasons. it was a relief to find out she wasn't real. i'm amazed to see how much the online community has come together over this, and just how much investigating and reporting some people have done. it's incredible! it makes me happy, but i don't know if i quite believe the supposed explanation(s) and, yes, i am rather curious to see what else comes out. see? i told you i was cynical.....


~y2kira  { 5.22.01 @ 12:30pm }

» Many, the whole world over, were taken in by all of this. Randy, Halcyon, and all of us. It is hard to imagine why Debbie woudl do this. It is impossible to think of the reasons, and have them make sense. I prefer tot take a different approach. I wish to thank Debbie for this experience.
Yes, I said I want to thank her. This has brought the blogging community together. It has torn us apart. It has allowed us to trust, and it has torn the trust down. This is truly the real world, brought to us via the web. We were betrayed, but at least we came together. How many times have we seen the litte animated graphic? I, personally, was seeing it several tiems a day goign to many of the Daynoter's sites. How many people were readign the site? Thousands if not millions by Randy's words.
If we take nothing else from this, we must know that whatr has been said forever, that the web cannot bread intimacy, we must now that is wrong. We may have been taken in by an excellent writer, spannign the works over years, literally, but at least we came together. Thast is why I thank Debbie, for bringing us all together.

GeekMeltdown  { 5.23.01 @ 9:46am }

» One thing I've not read about here is dealing with grief, at least from Debbie's perspective.

As Derek pointed out, his editor questioned him with the book - prove it. And that made him see the other side.

Now, I know NOTHING about Kaycee except what I've seen written about the hoax. And PLEASE hear me out before saying I don't have a heart for those fooled 'cause just like so many before me I've been hurt by being duped.

But if someone really did lose loved ones to cancer and this was her way of dealing with it, then I at least can understand - not that it makes it right (or wrong, for that matter). I am not going to judge that.

Having lost both my grandparents this month to cancer (plus a childhood friend to car accident), I've seen the gamut of emotions on how people cope.

Judging how others do so won't do me any good. What will is understanding that only I control my emotions. And that with faith in things I consider dearest to me (for each person I believe these different), all things can be overcome.

Best of luck to you Jenny, and to you Halcyon. You will be better people for continuing to care in a nonjudgmental way.

– Jason  { 5.23.01 @ 10:53am }

» I just have to say some things.... I have known, or thought I knew, KC for over 2 years. The person I thought I knew I really loved. I cried and cried when I thought she had died. I used her website to help my troubled kids I work with.

I knew KC as a cohost and as a friend.... and I think we are all saddened at her loss, because while there may have been no physical entity that died, the person we put our faith and love into has dissapeared and been replaced with a sense of loss.... isn't that find of like death?

– FantasmaRose  { 5.23.01 @ 1:31pm }

» you know, i have been thinking about this even more today, like many of you out there, and i don't like what debbie did, if there really is a debbie. if someone or some people really lived & died, then why not put up real info about their lives, especially if it was so touching? why fixate on Julie and attach her to a make-believe character to spread one's own poetry around on the internet?

whatever the case, it's pretty obvious that this person is extremely troubled, needs professional help and is likely to be mentally unstable right now. i wonder what will become of her....

y2kira  { 5.23.01 @ 2:38pm }

» I didn't hear of Kaycee until after the hoax was revealed, so I have no emotional investment in the story, but I am baffled by one thing: Why would anyone believe Debbie's latest nonsense that she was valiantly acting as the voice of three people who died of cancer? The woman is a chronic liar, nothing she says is true. Even as she sobbed out her confession she kept lying. She started out admitting that Kaycee was a real person but not her daughter; but then her story mutated a few times and now we're at the 3-in-one version. She keeps morphing as each new lie gets exposed. Why should this one be anything but more of her bs?
I really believe BWG and Halcyon knew nothing about the hoax, but they are taking quite a thrashing from people who think they were in on the whole thing. Yet Debbie whines that she did nothing wrong, even knowing that she hurt good people who never did anything but try to help her. She is not only totally false, she is heartless, selfish, and manipulative. What a horrible person, to hurt so many just to play her little game. Those who are willing to forgive her are to be commended, but she doesn't deserve their compassion.

– Stephanie Dragon  { 5.26.01 @ 10:53am }


Jenn  { 5.28.01 @ 1:06pm }

» Wow. I have never been so happy in my life to have missed the online event. I gave up on blogging, and MeFi, and all of it around November (to be honest, I was trickling away before that) and while I was investing so much of myself into new areas, every so often I would wonder what I was missing.

Apparently, I was missing a liar. I'm trying to remember if I took any real notice of the Kaycee situation before I left...since I had ALL a few years back (just went to the doctor today for a checkup, actually) I may have sent her a keep on keeping on email or something. I'm not sure.

I'm not sure what the lesson is in all this (the obsessed infophile in me is convinced there is one) but I'm sorry you all got a slap in the face when you extended yourselves. The danger that in the future compassion may come less freely, that people will be unable to trust...that's real, and it is the real legacy of all this. It's amazing to me to realize that I came back to blogging right as this whole thing was tapering off...a couple of months earlier, and I may have been one of the people she lied to.

Personally, I'm a cynic. But I don't want the whole world to be cynical...what good would I be then? I hope you, and your sister, and everyone else this person lied to keep your basic may be what allowed her to take advantage, but when the chips are down and people need help, it is the noblest aspiration human beings have.

Matthew Rossi  { 5.30.01 @ 3:52am }

» "You must be the change you'd like to see in the world." ~ Ghandi

This is a quote that continues to command my attention, especially in the after-math of this scandal. What do I want to see in the world? Compassion, trust, the courage to reach out - all these things and more.

Yet, the quote is scary, too, since we sometimes get hurt - just as the people who non-violently resisted tyranny did in a very real way. Just as many folks online were hurt emotionally and now question their ability to trust; their self-confidence to share of themselves.

My meditation continues to be how to honestly be the change I wish to see, and how to respond to hurt in a way that promotes that change. I can't expect that the world will be wonderful as soon as everyone else changes, I have to have the courage to be what I want to see.

It's a tough one, and I'm certainly not there yet, but it's crucially important to me.

Cheryl Eve  { 5.30.01 @ 6:42am }

» I wasn't aware of this scandal until i came across it on-line today, I personally think that Debbie and co. who made up this hoax should seek some medical attention which is very much needed. Playing with peoples emotions isn't funny and cancer isn't something that should be joked about. I feel for your sister and others involved and hope that they will be ok.

– Samantha  { 8.9.01 @ 11:52am }

» Did I believe in Kaycee ? Yes I did. And regardless of what others think, I feel that what was taught in those writings allowed many of us to better ourselves. Sure I was disappointed, but don't want to take the time to get bitter or cynical, but profit from the things I learned while following Kaycee's Journal.

There are many fine people on the Web who are struggling to find a portion of our life on the Web, I am one of them.

80 years old, with a feeble ticker, COPD and a super bad back. I get around, but not as much as I would like to. The gift of a Webtv set has opened a whole new world to me. To my way of looking at the whole thing, it was inspirational to the max.

Denver doug  { 8.16.01 @ 3:05pm }

» that woman who made up the story is a horrible person

– katie  { 8.21.01 @ 6:15am }


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