Using the internet to ruin someone's life

Mark Mauer says: "Josh Olson, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for A History of Violence tells a bizarre story in LA Weekly about a friend of his who falls in love with someone over the internet who is not what he claims to be. Yeah, yeah - old story, but this one is seriously twisted, goes for almost two years, results in a woman leaving her husband and deciding to move to another state to be with this imaginary man who is a firefighter/cowboy/poet/9-11 survivor. It's a sad, scary yet funny story where Harlan Ellison of all people comes to the rescue."
200710121431 (Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan) The strange thing about something like this, about an encounter with a genuine monster, is that our minds tend to default to what’s normal, to what we know. We found ourselves talking about the situation as though Audrey had simply made friends with an eccentric person we didn’t like. Surely, it’s Audrey’s business whether or not she wants to be friends with Janna, isn’t it? Then someone would remember that a potentially dangerous lunatic was in the house with our friend.

I called Harlan. He understands people like no one you’ve ever met. We were at dinner once, and he started chatting with two biker dudes at the table next to us for a couple minutes. He asked one guy, “How long have you played chess?” The guy was stunned. Harlan had deduced from the way the guy carried himself in idle banter that he was a chess player. I’m pretty good at figuring out what makes people tick – you have to be to be a decent writer – but Harlan knows. He thought my plan was pretty solid, but offered one variant on it that was brilliant, and completely out of left field.

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  1. You know, if that’s really the lady’s picture at the end of the article there, I’m just not sure how I feel about it. It seems a tad ethically questionable (even despite what she’s done).

    The woman is clearly ill and needs help. I don’t think basically encouraging public ridicule will help her so much as drive her further into mental illness.

    She has a look of horrible loneliness and desperation about her.

  2. Wow, what an amazing story. I’ve got a couple of weird stories, but telling them now would be like performing after the Beatles.

    I’m glad that at least some of the truly weird shit in this world happens to people who really know how to write!

    Truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case it’s just as entertaining and well-spoken.

  3. I dunno. Hang around the Internet for long enough and you get blasé about this kind of thing. Especially once it starts happening to people you know and who are, their blindspot about this one person or thing in their lives apart, rational, intelligent people. I tend to chalk it up to “people do crazy shit on the Internet”.

  4. I vaguely recall reading about a similar story, this one involving a loony who was offering up (non-existent) children for adoption.

    #1: Maybe some exposure is just what “Jaana” needs to push her into getting some actual help, rather than starting the cycle again with a fresh victim.

  5. #1, I consider it similar to distributing photos of sex offenders to a neighborhood when one moves into it. This woman’s fucked a few people over on the ‘net, in a bizarre and dangerous way, and it’s not unethical to say “if lonely and gullible, exercise caution when approached by this woman.” (Not that she’ll be sending her photo right off, but y’know…)

  6. This reads just like an Ellison essay. The stylistic tropes, the bravado, the pacing, everything. Ellison even did the photo-at-the-end thing in another essay — don’t recall the essay but it came out in a collection, I believe, called Harlan Ellison’s Hornbook.

    That makes reading this piece so much weirder and disconcerting.

  7. Oh dear. That’s one very lonely, depressed and sick lady.

    Honestly, a woman this sick, I don’t think the exposure would do anything to help her.. maybe just cause herself to hide away more, get locked in some sick mental cycle. As well and as good as protecting the public may be, each of these assailants, these perpetrators, these sick individuals who do harm, are people too, at their core, just sick ones.

    I mean, this lady… I’m sure she didnt mean to cause actual harm. I’m betting she was just enjoying the attention, the feeling of being cared for, of being included in someone’s life. Because she’s broken she wasn’t even thinking about the harm she was doing.

    So I’m thinking turning them into pariahs isn’t the answer. I’m thinking finding someone who KNOWS them and actively helping them get help is the answer. Maybe I’m too much the humanist. I can’t help but think that anyone is redeemable, despite their sins. (In regards to pedophiles in particular, there is some evidence to suggest they are not “curable,” so I can’t argue that point.. but this woman is clearly just deranged and lonely).

  8. You gotta hand it to the mentally ill, because sometimes, they can create real-life situations that are every bit the equal of their only-imagined illusions. For think about it: this woman, in the process of spinning her deceits, makes a sworn enemy of a successful Hollywood scriptwriter AND ends up the subject of a widely read alt-weekly.

    Really, guys, there are some things you just can’t make up.

  9. So if this woman was mentally ill/delusional, how did she manage to convince someone to pretend to be ‘Jesse James’ on the phone? Why did she calmly accept that the game was up when confronted? Admittedly I’m no expert, but I didn’t get the impression that she was having a deeply held delusion challenged.

    The whole story makes perfect sense if you assume that she simply enjoys the feeling of power she gets from tricking and manipulating people, with no regard for the consequences at all. If you’re really determined to treat any form of unpleasant behaviour as an illness you could call her a sociopath. Either way, the author and his friends did exactly the right thing – get her away from her current victim, and warn as many people about her as possible.

  10. wow, what a story.
    I mean, I’ve met a few people off the internet, from message boards, but those meetings went just how I suspected (not imagined though). It was awkward. we had nothing to talk about… we didn’t know each other and we never met again… but we’re all still “normal” on the message that we frequent.

    humans, the internet… some weird things happen in this world.

  11. @Treepour

    Yeah, the Ellison voice is running through this like a ghost. More than anything, it makes me wish that there we still had people out there writing with the heart and the humanity that Ellison displayed in his non-fiction prime.

  12. DCulberson: A little off the point, but it’s sometimes possible to do quite a bit of harm by telling everyone about the “sex offender” who’s moved into your neighborhood. Those registries include a lot of harmless people — people who took a whiz in an alley at 3AM and got cited for indecent exposure, for instance. Not that I particularly want drunken alley-whizzers in my neighborhood, but handing out photos of the “sex offender” would amount to unfair fearmongering. Without caution and judgment, the sex offenders registries become a good way to slaughter someone’s reputation for a minor offense. Lumping rapists and pedophiles and public urinators and back-seat sex-crazy teens together under one banner seems a bit silly to me.

    (Even informing people about real, convicted molesters may lead to vigilantism and ostracism without making kids any safer. But that’s a more contentious point.)

  13. I have mixed feelings about this, which are expressed here far more eloquently than I could do myself:

    http://legionseagle.livejournal.com/26014.html

    Yes, what this person did was horrible; it might even be characterised as inflicting mental distress through wilful deceit. But I’m clearly not alone in being unsettled by the way in which this matter was resolved, which seemed to have as much to do with reinforcing the egos of the victim’s ‘rescuers’ as it did with helping the victim herself.

  14. I agree that this has the patina of an Ellison non-fiction story. That’s both a credit and a loss really. No one spins yarns like Ellison, but then those yarns tend to place heroes and villains in very stark terms.

    This Janna woman is clearly mentally ill. I’ve dealt with a person eerily similar in my own life. A person who claimed a childhood rife with sexual and physical abuse, awful family characters and constant turmoil. Years after I knew her I found out, definitively, that she had an almost idyllic childhood and that her parents were good and decent people deeply troubled by the “stories” she told about them.

    But what about the victim and her responsibility in this? For nigh on two years she flew completely blind on this? Most people would barely go a week without some kind of proof of life when it comes to internet romance. Two years?

    You can’t go to the funeral, or the grave or see the family or…at a certain point there must come a reckoning of common sense here.

    I feel that both women were, and are, vulnerable and lonely people who each accepted a lie as truth and lived with it. Is Janna the more responsible party? Of course, as she initiated all this. But two years? There’s more going on there than a simple con.

    I don’t think showing her picture or the youtube video is very ethical. I understand the impulse, to protect other peole from this woman. But she’s clearly, as they used to say, mad. The broken look on her face, the lack of any affect, the fact she sat there at just took it when she could have walked down the street or responded or anything, no. She’s not a sane woman. That doesn’t excuse her or give her a free pass by any means, but I can’t see her as some single-shaded bad guy either.

  15. Look, Janna has apparently done this kind of thing several times before. And lying is not a crime, so prosecution is off the table. Sociopaths are a class of people that even psychiatrists admit are basically impervious to treatment.

    What are her victims supposed to do? This is a person who uses the anonymity of the Internet to spin false identities. Would those who sympathize with this “madwoman” want her to keep the tools of her trade, with future targets completely in the dark?

    Of course we all want to understand the mind of the sociopath – whether they were once people like you and me; the all-too-human drives that compell them to destroy everything in their path. We can even identify with the immense feelings of power and superiority they must enjoy. But at a certain point, pathological liars cannot be permitted to infiltrate the weakest structures of civilization. As Frank Pentangeli once said, “This is a street thing.”

  16. I wonder if this really happened or if it is an elaborate hoax by the author. The thing that makes me wonder is the “long, meaningful conversations on the phone” that Audrey was supposed to have had with Jesse. The phone conversations would mean that either Audrey was extremely gullible or that Janna had an extremely clever and articulate accomplice. Both of these are possible, but I think it is more likely the author created this whole thing as some sort of hoax as art form.

  17. Oh, boy, it gets weirder: another Deadwood connection:

    Remember JT Leroy (allegedly a young boy forced by his drug addicted mother to dress as a girl and work as a truck stop prostitute, who later wrote fiction about the experiences) — exposed as entirely imaginary and the joint work of Laura Albert and her husband Geoffrey Knoop.

    http://graemewatson.blogspot.com/2006/01/cult-author-j-t-leroy-exposed-as-fraud.html

    This was not the end of JT Leroy though, the author found the story quite amusing, claiming it had made him busier than ever before, the author claimed he was writing an episode of the TV drama Deadwood, he continued regular columns in magazines but started to be dropped by some publishers who requested he provide ID and a social security number when lodging articles.

  18. I’m rather uncomfortable with the fact that Olsen wrote the article at all. Whatever the mechanics of it, `Audrey’ has obviously suffered at the hands of `Janna.’ If that had happened to me, I’d just want to be as anonymous as possible, not have someone publish a newspaper story about it.

  19. I had something very much like this happen to me back in the ’90s on GEnie. So no, it’s not new, but it’s still fascinating like a train wreck.

  20. I’m disturbed by this story on so many levels starting with the flip and childish tone of the author. Compassion for everyone involved (and maturity) is what’s called for and mature he is not – despite “History of Violence” which was brilliant.

    As everybody has said the predator (and in predatory terms she’s one of the milder ones) is certainly not mentally well, not happy and not capable of living her life directly. But neither, apparently, is his friend! It is amazing to me that anyone can develop what is a full blown relationship in her mind without actually meeting the other person. This is so irrational as to put her sanity at close to the level of the predator. These two were made for each other I guess. And compared to many of the truly horrific outcomes that one hears about – this is mild. But the snide and condescending and judgmental tone of the author – who we assume is not mentally ill even though he badly wanted us to feel sorry for him and his lost love affair – is inappropriate in the extreme especially when combined with the picture. How rude! How shallow! How sadly inhumane. I completely agree with the way the situation was handled but I suspect Mr Ellison had a lot to do with the maturity of that. The poor girl who got preyed upon we hope can wake up as a result of this. The predator may have more trouble. The author we hope becomes compassionate.

  21. Treepour, et al,

    The Ellison essay you are thinking of is “Valerie, A True Memoir” (1972) – Yup. 1st thing I thought of when I read this, too.

  22. The world is full of lonely and damaged people. Although she is clearly an emotional vampire I still feel sorry for her. It’s also hard to say exactly how much harm she caused; she’s not “Dr. Oyme Nkenga of Nigeria asking for help releasing 1.7 millions US Dollars inheritance.” I question the posting of her name and photo, but also see it as an obvious comeuppance: the grief she inflicted has been returned in kind. Maybe it will cause her to think before doing something similar again, maybe it will warn others of her calumny, or maybe not.

    The human condition is the human ego. We lie to ourselves and others prop ourselves up emotionally, we refuse to admit when we were wrong, we start wars over foolish things that we think slighted our respective countries. . . . Humans walk a fine line between rational and irrational at all times, logic versus endorphins.

  23. There are several of us in Pagosa Springs, Colorado who KNOW this story is true — she left town blanketed in a web of lies several years ago.

    Back then her focus, or target, was Dan Fogelberg. The internet wasn’t as pervasive as today (1996-2000 or thereabouts) although she was starting to get into it even then. She had created an elaborate personal history involving Dan Fogelberg (he was her first husband and they had had a child who died), John Denver (her second husband played in his band) and, of course, the infamous Ted Bundy interview.

    She introduced herself to me at a very vulnerable time in my life. I was young and naive. She worked her way into my life by playing the sympathy card (the “gang rape on Christmas Eve” story). I believe she must primarily target women by appealing to their sympathetic nature — how can you be mean to or walk away from a morbidly obese woman (and she is, with horrible asthma too) who’s been through SO MUCH awful trauma in her life?

    It was my husband who eventually woke me up from the stupor of my naivete. Once I was out of the ring, it all seemed so obvious and stupid of me, but she is brilliant. She knows just what to say and do and just when to say or do it. That was one good thing about reading this story — it’s not just me; she’s THAT good.

    Janna was SO GOOD in person (I suspect even better than on the internet) that incredibly she became Fogelberg’s counselor here and I believe possibly even helped to break up his second marriage. She would house sit for them when they traveled (this is true – I went to their house with her once).

    Many of the lies she tells today are still the same (i.e. that she’s got a Masters in Psychology) but she appears to have moved on to different obsessions — swapping Fogelberg for Deadwood and who knows what else in between.

    As a past victim of Janna’s sociopathic manipulation I personally feel vindicated by the article, photos and video. I feel NO sympathy. I know I should be able to find compassion for her, but she is cunning and does these things intentionally. I’m sure mental illness is behind it but why doesn’t her family step in and get her help? Surely her daughter or mother or husband must know at least some of what she’s been perpetrating for at least the past 13 years. How many other victims have there been that, like me, have remained silent?

    The saddest part is that some of her victims follow her for years. She had a female entourage who lived with her here in Pagosa. She needed them to run her errands, cook for her, clean her house, etc. One of them (Flamehead) moved to CO and back to IL with her and for all I know is still with her unless she finally saw the light too.

    Janna’s husband Bill may be the male accomplice mentioned in the article. When I knew her, Bill lived in IL and she was accusing him of sexually abusing her teenage daughter and stealing more than $70,000 from her that was spent on calling 900 numbers. Bill he later moved out to CO to be with Janna. RED FLAG – duh.

    I could go on and on, but I think she finally f***ed with the wrong person and is now paying the price. I’m sure she’s getting off on all this attention even though it’s negative.

    I’m posting this simply to verify the veracity of the story. I was shaking by the time I finished it. I hope that others will avoid being taken in by her or her ilk. It’s not just an internet phenomenon, trust me. And she’s not innocent.

  24. Well, it’s 2010. And Janna St. James is still at it. On the internet, defrauding people.

    She and the cast of characters she creates like to say, ‘karma bites you in the ass.’

    If so, she will be reborn in lower existences for many millions of years.

  25. Lost and found – are you still out here somewhere? I would like to talk to you.

    I posted above about her 2010 activity on the internet. JSJ is still active and I have met the evil.

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