Susannah BirchIn 2002, when I was 15 years old, I met a boy called Richard on a site called Chatway. Richard told me he was 17 years old and lived in Queensland.

We immediately formed a connection and for the next three years, exchanged hundreds of emails and spent hundreds of hours talking by instant message and by phone. I once spent 18 hours out of 24 talking to Richard on the phone. We got on so well that I thought I’d fallen in love and we often talked explicitly online. One thing led to another and Richard began to demand more explicit images and webcam. Over a 3 year period, as Richard’s demands increased and he became more volatile, I’d often do anything to appease him. Finally I grew tired of his refusals to meet me and threats to stop talking to me at the slightest provocation. We broke up in early 2005 but would remain friends for a further 9 years.

In 2014, I discovered that Richard Martin was in fact not his real name and that the real person I’d been talking to was in his 60s. He admitted that he’d lied to me about his identity for 12 years and fooled me with pictures of one of his sons. 

I chose to tell my story publicly, although this was a hard decision and I still carry guilt over what impact this will have on those impacted by ‘Richard’s true history coming to light, as well as my own family. However I realised that I had to do this for a wide range of reasons. I’ve outlined the major ones below.

 

Because he took advantage of me.

After experiencing childhood trauma, being homeschooled  for 8 years and starting highschool, all I wanted was to feel normal. “Richard” made me feel normal, seen, cared for, listened to. I fell in love with the identity he claimed was his, often missing out on social activities, sleep and family time to talk to a man I’d never met, online. Always waiting to reel me back in after pushing me away, “Richard” took advantage of me in ways I’m only now beginning to fully grasp. He had a huge impact on my teenage years and an ongoing impact on my understanding of love and relationships.

I didn’t want to come forward and tell this story alone. I wanted someone else to validate that what I’d experienced was real, that what had happened to me was not my fault and to provide moral support. Sometimes, though, we have to step forward and do what needs to be done and receive validation later.

Because I believe he has other victims.

In fact, I know, I just don’t know how many or how to contact them. There is at least one other girl who he carried on a serious relationship with for several years and I do not doubt that other girls we both talked to (or who he met later) were also involved with him without knowing his real identity. After fooling me for 12 years, I have no doubt that he has honed his skills and has left a trail of lies behind him.

Because it lasted 12 years.

With the Internet now more than two decades old, it’s becoming common for people to know each other for years without ever meeting. Especially as a teenager, it’s hard to meet someone if they don’t live close by. School, lack of transport, work and family can all get in the way. Sadly, these excuses can be lies and in the case of “Richard”, they were.

Because he used his son.

For the entire 12 years that I knew “Richard”, I believed that he was born in January 1985. Over those years, he sent me pictures of what I later discovered to be one of his own sons, so I’d see a natural age progression as time passed. At one stage, “Richard” sent me a naked photo of a man he claimed to be himself. I later discovered that it was a picture taken off the Internet, with his own son’s face photoshopped onto it.

Because it’s scary.

I’ve experienced trauma before, but this is different. This is not black and white to me and it was a big step to publicly state what happened, especially as some of what occurred was quite explicit and I very much wish had never happened. Originally, I planned to tell my story using a pseudonym and change “Richard’s” details . However I have a strong support network of people who made me realise that going public is not just about me; it’s for every girl and woman out there who is too scared or too unsure to step forward.

To fight the stereotypes.

It’s so easy to believe that online predators are intimidating, ask for money, only prey on stupid people or want to meet up in the real world. That’s what all the warnings tell us and it’s so easy to dismiss those warnings because you’ve never met anyone who fit that profile.

The scary thing is that no two predators are alike. Some will talk online for months or years before building the trust required to push the relationship into new and uncomfortable territory. Studies of online groomers suggest that a reasonably large percentage never even want to meet in the real world.

Because I want to inspire others to come forward.

I know that there are other girls out there who have no idea who they were really interacting with online. 12 years after I originally began chatting to “Richard” in a teen chat room, I began to try and trace back the people I’d met there, who I’d since lost contact with. At least two more of them I’ve identified as either pedophiles or telling extremely large lies about who they really were, while spending hours each day talking to teenagers online.

Just because it happens on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s not a crime. Just because you weren’t physically touched doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. 

Because I still don’t understand why.

 

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