Why do we participate in online escapism?
Many people who are facing the pressures of their daily lives or are residing in toxic environments will often use digital means to “escape” their situations. According to Amanda Pearl, Escapism is a way of attempting to make negative feelings dissipate, without working through the necessary steps in order to come to relief through mental resolution (2016). This “quick fix” in fact just validates anger and normalizes a pattern of negative behavior that can end up causing mental illnesses like depression. It also may lead to obsessing over a fantasy world and neglecting the harsher, more painful reality of one’s life. Erving Goffman theorizes about human interaction through dramaturgical terms, establishing the “front” and “back” stage of people. On the front stage, we all wear masks during interactions to make sure others are also interacting with us in a way we find appropriate. Examples of this are in places like school or work. In the backstage, we can take off the mask and relax knowing that we no longer have to put on this socializing “act”. However, for people who live in toxic situations the front-end mask cannot come off as easily, and as such the internet becomes the only viable alternative. Here, some people participate in “identity tourism” to take on an internet persona to feel like they fit in and reinforce the anonymity that makes them feel their online fantasy life is better. It can also lead people to want to adapt their real-life into their online self, blurring the lines between front and backstage.
Online boyfriend = Murder?
The story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard has been extremely relevant to the discussion of digitalization for different reasons.
The life of Gypsy Rose
First, some context. From the outside, Gypsy Rose Blanchard had many severe illnesses such as muscular dystrophy and leukemia since she was young, making her mother Dee Dee the primary caretaker. In the US, there are many programs for people with serious or terminal illnesses and disabilities. Dee Dee signed Gypsy Rose up to countless “Make-a-wish” type events with all-expense paid trips as well as getting money from charities to pay the expensive hospital fees. In reality, Dee Dee had a mental illness called Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This means that all illnesses and even Gypsy Rose’s inability to move without a wheelchair had been made up, and the symptoms of these illnesses were being caused by Dee Dee herself. Individuals who experience this mental illness feel the need to make the other party dependent on them so as to gain sympathy and favors from others for taking care of a sick child (Kettler 2021). To do so Dee Dee even pulled out Gypsy Rose’s teeth and shaved her head to simulate the outwards appearance of a cancer patient.
Gypsy Rose and Nicholas Godejohn: Online love story turned dark
As I mentioned earlier, many people use the internet to escape from toxic families and experiences of their physical lives. This was most definitely the case for Gypsy Rose who went on forums and dating sites to escape the identity created for her by Dee Dee and explore who she could be. Even at the edge of 19, Dee Dee still claimed Gypsy rose was a minor, and as such her friendships and possible relationships were monitored and decided for her. Talking to people her age on the internet made Gypsy Rose more confident and she soon met Nicholas on a Christian dating site. Here, she could chat with boys and even started putting on makeup and wearing wigs to help simulate a more confident and “healthy” persona for herself. A persona she wished would be real all the time.
According to Gypsy Rose, Nicholas helped to give her the strength to leave behind her controlled life. Their online connection was so strong that he agreed to murder Gypsy Rose’s mother (Dee Dee) so that they could finally be together. This may seem like a big jump but Dee Dee had taken Gypsy Rose away from her previous online boyfriend so they hatched a plan to be “rid of her”. After the criminal investigation messages from her Facebook account were found, with one message sent by Gypsy Rose which stated, “That b***h is dead! (Kettler 2021). Gypsy Rose herself even confessed that she had wanted Dee Dee’s body to be found, understanding that what she did was wrong but she didn’t have anyone she could trust.
Reflecting on Gypsy Rose and online personas
All of us at some point have wanted to be a different version of ourselves. The anonymity of the internet gives us the ability to explore parts of ourselves that we otherwise wouldn’t show the people in our lives, whether it be because they wouldn’t support us or because of a lack of confidence. However, as we see with Gypsy Rose there are dangers to becoming too entangled in the digital. It can lead to violent decisions that some (like Nicholas) will be willing to make come true in the physical world. Many people tend to be more explicit and violent when interacting online because there is no sense of true consequences. Hiding behind a screen makes it easier to express hateful emotions as there is no one else in the room when these messages are written. However, when (as we see in this case) internet fantasies become a reality there are real consequences that can change the course of one’s life. These materialized consequences are what put people like Gypsy Rose who feel they have no alternatives, in prison.
From reading about Gypsy Rose’s story, I have learned that it’s important to have healthy channels where people can go to voice their frustrations if they are in a toxic and dangerous situation. On the other hand, it has also reminded me that it’s dangerous to get so caught up in this alternate version of oneself because it distorts the reality of your life, and can make you rationalize hurting or even killing someone to take control of one’s life instead of asking for help. If someone would have done the necessary tests on Gypsy Rose they would have seen she was healthy. She could even have walked if she felt she had the option. However, her mother’s continued comments about how no one would believe her coupled with the hope she felt from chatting online to Nicholas led her to make a life-changing decision that she ended up regretting.
‘The Presentation of Self in the Online World’: Goffman and the study of online identities. Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0165551512470051.