The Talented Mr. Schuman: Love and Mistaken Identity in the Internet Age

I fell for a guy who didn't exist and so did several other women -- until we got to the bottom of a sick person's strange fetish

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Part I: The Courtship

“Welcome to the real world :)”

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This was the first email I received from Ethan Schuman.

It was 2011, the day after Christmas. I’d found Ethan on OkCupid earlier that day. His handle was “beyondsleeping” because he was “just too excited about life to waste time sleeping.”

He was 35 years old, approachably attractive, six feet tall, “Jewish and somewhat serious about it,” with an impressive resume: Stuyvesant High School then physics at Columbia (graduating early from both); Morgan Stanley, coupled with a PhD in applied mathematics at M.I.T., where he wrote his dissertation on stochastic modeling — “fancy equations to predict stock market fluctuations.” He now worked for the government, “stealing from the rich” and solving the financial crisis. He split his time between D.C., Dublin, and New York, while still working as a part-time consultant for Morgan Stanley.

The author, Anna Akbari
The author, Anna Akbari

He grew up in New Jersey, but now owned a 3-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, and a place in Washington, D.C. He drove a BMW, had a dog named Harvey, loved elbow patches and pickles, and preferred boxers to boxer-briefs.

Unfortunately, our timing was terrible. Holidays, travel schedules, and multiple snowstorms made it impossible for us to meet for several weeks, so we communicated via email and Gchat exclusively until we met in person – and since our in-person meetup was imminent, I was fine with the temporary arrangement.

But it wasn’t all digital roses. Ethan loved to fight — about why I wouldn’t get turned on by his boxers, about how un-Jewish I am and why I wouldn’t give up bacon, about why I referred to his photos as “cute,” instead of “sexy” or “hot.” He had an uncanny knack for turning the most banal detail into a point of conflict, escalating the conversation into an emotional, heated exchange, then bringing it back to resolution and deep affection, all in one sitting, all via writing. He was skilled in the art of linguistics—and manipulation. Ethan was no amateur.

There were some oddities from the start, but Ethan never missed a beat: He used an Irish phone number, allegedly because he was still there often for work. None of my Stuyvesant or Columbia friends knew him, though they graduated soon after him. He was un-Googleable, explaining that his work for the government did not permit him to participate in social networking sites, and he was just old enough not to have an electronic footprint from school. But he never once slipped up on a detail. Everything flowed seamlessly, and whenever I pressed for more information, he bristled: “You’re just probing for stuff that isn’t there, I haven’t lied to you, I’ve been honest, don’t know what else to say, I don’t like being investigated. When you’re over at my place and you want to see a yearbook, I’ll hand it to you, but this is really unfair.”

And so, I accepted all of this as truth. At first.

Ethan mentioned a novel he’d been working on since grad school — “a sort of Talented Mr. Ripley meets Brighton Beach Memoirs about a guy who’s working at a coffee shop, feels very ostracized for many reasons, and who lives a double-life where he takes on the roles of the narrators of the conversations he overhears.” Given the circumstances, this was unsettling.

January 14th — meeting day. Finally. I texted to ask where we should meet. He said he needed a second. 15 minutes passed, then 30. No reply. I grew anxious. I left voicemails, but didn’t hear from him the rest of the night.

Shortly after our first chat, he had informed me that he’d been experiencing trouble swallowing for over a year. He’d been hospitalized, and it’d recently flared up again, so he was having more tests done. He informed me he’d just found out it was esophageal cancer and needed surgery immediately, followed by chemotherapy. I was stunned. He knew I’d recently lost my grandfather to cancer and was still raw from that loss. I couldn’t abandon someone in that state.

His surgery was in only a few days, and he didn’t want to meet while sick. Nonetheless, I called NYU Medical Center to ask if he had been admitted — half intending to send flowers, half suspicious it was a lie — and found nothing. I ran a report searching for an Ethan Schuman on the Upper West Side. Nothing. I pressed my Stuyvesant and Columbia friends to search their yearbooks for him. No Ethan. Cancer or not, things weren’t adding up.

Over the next few weeks, he set a date for us to finally meet, but once again found an excuse not to materialize. This time, I was done. Soon March 1st arrived – the day he was scheduled to start chemo. I felt a knot in my stomach, but tried not to think about him.

* * *

That same week, Gina Dallago, a now 34-year-old Philadelphia woman, gave Ethan one last shot. All month they’d been corresponding, and after multiple reschedules, she was expecting him for Sunday dinner. He didn’t show up.

Gina Dallago
Gina Dallago

A Harvard and Princeton-educated architect, Gina was sophisticated enough to know a scam when she encountered one, but she reminded herself that two summers earlier she had carried on a three-week-long OKCupid email exchange with a man in Brooklyn who was moving back to Philadelphia. After hundreds of emails, they met and dated for 10 months. So the email-based prelude to her relationship with Ethan didn’t seem all that strange.

Ethan gave Gina details about his sexual adventures with “Anna, a sex sociologist in New York” – giving her my full name and taking liberties with my career (I am not a sex sociologist), and prodded Gina about her past relationships. She revealed that she had been engaged, but never married. Her former fiance was a textbook sociopath, and the dread, confusion and crippling anxiety she’d felt so many times with him were disturbingly familiar in her interactions with Ethan. He responded to her uncertainty with a letter: “I can’t lie, can’t keep things from the people in my life, can’t deceive. I don’t have the face for it. You won’t have to piece things together or do detective work [with me].”

Gina became suspicious of a supposed booking he made at a hotel, so she called to confirm the reservation. They had no record for an Ethan Schuman. When she confronted him, he was irate. How could she insult him like this? He explained it as canceling and rebooking to secure a better rate. They rehashed this again and again, until she couldn’t argue any longer. The next day a dozen red roses were delivered to her office. The card read, “To my lady, the label looks great on you.”

Ethan particularly loved to to talk about his ex in London, Andrea*. She was the one that got away. He’d met Andrea, a now 41-year-old psychologist, in 2008 on JDate. Ethan said his webcam was broken, but he promised he’d buy one just as soon as he got a moment away from work. He said he worked incredibly long hours, and she believed him. Andrea was an experienced online dater, and Ethan’s fluent self-portrayal was convincing. He moved between high-level academic environments and sophisticated government projects, dazzling her with huge amounts of seemingly flawless detail about doctorate level mathematical modeling and the inner workings of his corporate environment. Their chats persisted, and one-day flowers arrived at her house with a note thanking her for having enough faith in him to be patient.

Ethan assured her that the webcam would soon be irrelevant, as he was planning to be in New York the week she was in Boston, so he would drive to meet her. Just as she left for Boston, Ethan was sent to Japan for work. Andrea was disappointed, but Ethan emailed her photos from Japan and messaged her throughout. She arrived home in London to a 10-page, hand-written love letter, which Ethan said he wrote on the plane, complete with intermittent chocolate smudges. Andrea booked time off from work for his impending visit to London, and Ethan sent her a link confirming his flight and another confirming his hotel. But he never arrived.

She grew more suspicious, but came up empty. His Facebook page seemed legitimate, as it had his photo and his friends also had friends. She tried reverse IP address and reverse phone number searches, but nothing worked.

But Ethan was eager to provide proof of his legitimacy. He sent daily personal photos with detailed explanations. He scanned his New York driver’s license and sent proof of actual applications for London apartments. He sent an elaborate infographic which he co-authored with Pavel Hejzlar, the then head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, as well as a copy of his undergraduate Columbia thesis and PhD dissertation, marked with Ethan’s name and the signature of an actual MIT professor who led that academic area – and he narrated Andrea through the day of his oral defense. He sent a PowerPoint presentation on stochastic processes and financial modeling, complete with Morgan Stanley’s logo and his name and title, “Ethan Schuman, Ph.D., VP of Research and Development.” Not only did he share these documents, he knew their content intimately.

Ethan’s attempts at legitimacy also involved other women. He would occasionally forward email exchanges with women who actually existed – all of us. We were all integral players in Ethan’s drama, and yet, simultaneously, distant voyeurs of each other.

Ethan had a cast of characters who would occasionally come forward to corroborate his story. His ex-wife, Katie, initiated a Skype chat with Andrea, begging her not to tell Ethan she was on his account, but assuring her their relationship was over. Ethan’s sister, Riva, emailed Andrea several times and picked up the phone once when she called Ethan’s number. Riva explained how her brother was a complicated-but-good guy and helped make sense of all the things he had told Andrea.

Over the two and a half years that Ethan pursued Andrea, several serious health issues kept them from meeting. Heart and esophageal conditions, a mugging, and a car accident all kept Ethan from materializing — but he offered full medical details and X-rays as proof. His sister had polycystic ovaries and early onset diabetes, and he said her blood sugar problems were progressing. He gave Andrea a detailed account of the drugs she was on, as well as the risk factors, asking Andrea to look into the condition to help Riva, as he was too distressed to do it himself — extremely concerned, she dedicated a great deal of time to the research. There was an empathy-inducing circumstance at every plot-turn.

Eventually, Andrea’s own health and well-being began to suffer. She couldn’t sleep. She failed assignments at school. She stopped eating properly. Ethan was well-aware how distressed she was, but he persisted, nonetheless. Unlike other predators, Ethan seemed to want nothing from his women except their emotional investment. He wasn’t using them for money or sex, so his refusal to materialize just didn’t add up.

Part II: The Unraveling

On March 3rd, 2011, I received a message from a friend I contacted when trying to investigate Ethan. Gina had sent him a Facebook message about an Ethan Schuman who went to Stuyvesant and Columbia. She wanted to know if my friend knew him. She included one of the same photographs Ethan had sent me. I contacted her immediately, and using only Andrea’s first name, nationality, a photo, and a YouTube video Ethan had sent me, we also tracked her down.

Our stories were shockingly similar, and Ethan’s life details were consistent with each of us. None of us had actually talked on the phone or met him, but he was communicating with all of us simultaneously, incessantly.

So who was Ethan Schuman? How had he managed to masterfully manipulate us? And how many other victims were there?

Gina had read an article about a case of mistaken digital identity, and while still communicating with Ethan, had a vivid dream about a woman turning into a man and seducing her — so she became convinced Ethan was a woman. Andrea and I contended he was too masculine in his correspondence to be a woman and too “real” to be completely fake. No one was that good.

Before we’d put all the pieces together, Gina confronted Ethan. He was indignant: “Don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t a way to verify a man’s story. I never gave you my accurate name. I’ve had bad experiences in the past which have left me particularly careful. I don’t appreciate being a source of amusement.”

Ethan had been operating on a clever combination of biographical truths and lies, mixed with actual stories of his other women. We pored over every name and detail he’d ever mentioned, hoping it would lead to a real person. Once we considered the fact that it could be a woman, we combed through old correspondence for clues as to Ethan’s real identity. Andrea remembered Ethan mentioning an old MIT roommate named Emily — and we started some creative Googling. After less than 48 hours of sleuthing, we found a woman we believed to be Ethan Schuman: Her name was Emily Slutsky, a now 29-year-old woman from Livingston, New Jersey, who was a medical student in Ireland. She’d won as many awards in science as she had in writing and literature. We were certain this was Ethan. But we needed proof.

Gina called Emily’s parents and said that she was an old college friend. The parents informed her that Emily was back at school in Ireland and gave Gina her Irish number — the same number from which we received regular text messages.

Emily Slutsky
Emily Slutsky

We confronted Emily. She confessed that she’d been operating as Ethan since high school. We learned that the photos she used were of a high school classmate. She created this alternative online identity using his image as her own, completely unbeknownst to him. We gave her a Sunday deadline to inform this man of her actions, tell her family, and seek medical assistance. In typical Ethan fashion, Emily took this opportunity to explain herself via long, eloquent prose:

I was in a horrible place years ago and got involved in this charade, with the sole motive of finding an outlet through which to vent my frustrations. After that, things began to improve for me – I began moving closer toward the life I wanted to have. At that point, though, I didn’t know how to extricate myself from Andrea – from the instant gratification of being able to share with a stranger who cared (even if I was speaking in riddles and rhymes most of the time).

I did not want to manipulate anyone and I began to feel a responsibility to care about her (however twisted a way it was that I expressed it). And yes, the narrative/fictional world that I created for myself was addictive. It became a great retreat from actually dealing with my own life and feelings.

The thing is that there’s nothing grossly wrong with my life. I’ve been successful. I come from a good family with people who love me. I have friends and have experienced, traveled, lived. But for some reason, I’ve never really been fulfilled, always unsatisfied with my reality – hoping to find a reality that somehow feels more vibrant and passionate to me. The realities of everyday life somehow depress me. I know now that that’s completely my own fault. I’m obsessed with the lives of others, when really, my life is just as interesting to comment on.

I started up again with Anna and Gina because I thought that it would be my smoking cessation program. Trading in the pack a day to only a few cigarettes a day until I’m really ready to quit. I thought Anna and Gina would be my buffer as I extricated myself from Andrea. That obviously didn’t work. Through no one’s fault but my own. An addict who relapsed on several occasions.

You have to understand that I was disconnected from reality while I was talking to you three. It was playing out a movie for me. Ethan Schuman was present, but I was only in the audience during the performance. In convoluted ways that could take a book or two to explore, I was handling my own personal issues via the vehicle of Ethan Schuman.

There will be no relapse because I’m done with this.

We notified her sister, Debra, and her medical school, University College Cork, Ireland, but her sister never responded and the school chose not to pursue the case or intervene. So we went on with our lives, trying to bury Ethan Schuman far in the past.

Two Years Later

In February 2013, I mentioned the name Ethan Schuman on an anonymous blog. Within a few days, I received a message stating that Ethan was at it again. I immediately deleted the post and contacted the person.

Rachel**, a mid-30s New York woman and Emily’s latest victim, had been pursued by Emily/Ethan for two years. Emily’s virtual harassment caused great emotional and physical damage to Rachel, who experienced severe back pain and chronic stress that affected her work performance and mental health. Distressed, Rachel’s sister re-Googled Ethan’s name (something she’d done multiple times over two years). This time, she found my blog post.

Emily also met Rachel — a highly educated professional with advanced degrees, like each of her other victims — on OkCupid, right around the time that she confessed to us. Emily then disappeared briefly and sent a mass email from Ethan Schuman to Rachel and half a dozen other women, telling them to check out one of my websites – an attempt to legitimize Ethan’s social network. We believe all the women on the email were Emily’s current crop of victims. Within a matter of weeks she recontacted Rachel and continued to harass her for the next two years.

– – –

Psychologists believe that pathological liars have 25 percent more brain connections than non-liars, which facilitate rapid in-the-moment storytelling – the sort of quick thinking needed to weave complex lies on-the-spot, without missing a beat. And the means of extending these “talents” to an ever-wider audience is greatly facilitated and amplified by technology. “Someone who’s smart can do a lot of harm using the tools of the Internet,” says Eric Goldman, professor of law and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara Law School. “If these individuals decide to go rogue on society, they can use their gifts for anti-social objectives and ruin the lives of many people.”

Emily is part of this rogue intelligentsia. She has a degree in nuclear science and engineering, biomedical engineering, and literature from M.I.T. (she was also editor-in-chief of M.I.T’s Rune journal and president of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, where she stirred some controversy), has an M.S. in medical physics from Columbia, an M.D. from University College Cork, and a post-graduate certificate in clinical informatics from Cornell. She has conducted research and interned for Mt. Sinai and Lenox Hill hospitals in New York City, and was employed as an academic tutor for WyzAnt tutoring. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the NIH. No one would guess that she also leads a double life as a cyber-harasser. She says she wanted to escape her real life, and Ethan Schuman was her vehicle for the actualization of that fantasy – though it quickly became an addiction that affected the lives of countless women over the nearly 15 years she’s masqueraded as him. (I invited her to comment for this article; she did not respond.)

The man whose photos Emily used was forced to delete his social media accounts and remove all photos of himself online to protect himself against her. For over a decade, she circulated images of him and his family, then continued to self-present as him for years after writing him a confessional letter. She sent him this in 2011, prior to her 2-year “relationship” with Rachel:

I needed an escape from reality. As a writer, you must understand this need to spill your guts/frustrations/inner-workings through the conduit of fictional characters, words, dialogue. I didn’t feel like I had the fodder to write a novel, so instead, I found my subconscious pulling me toward creating a new reality on the Internet. I wanted the new persona to be as different from me as possible, so as to not cross-over into my reality in the slightest. These were two disparate worlds that I in no way wanted to intertwine. Posing as a fake woman served me no purpose because I already experience the world as a woman. I needed something entirely different.

Initially I found random photos on the Internet, but eventually, women became more dubious, started requesting a greater number of photos and I was not able to produce that. You became the face for this new, false identity I created.

She regularly intermingled images from her own life with his – to the point that it became difficult to know where one ended and the other began.

Emily isn’t just some misanthropic, sex-crazed guy or a scam-artist looking for money. She’s a female medical professional, a public employee, and a tutor to young adults. Yet, she has serially manipulated other women, while taking advantage of an innocent man and his family by falsely distributing their images. While posing as Ethan Schuman, she feigned cancer and various other serious medical conditions, using her medical training and experience with patients to prey on innocent victims. For anyone touched by these life-threatening issues, the thought that a doctor would use their knowledge and power in this way is unthinkable.

Professor Goldman laments that the law doesn’t handle people who engage in non-financially motivated virtual offenses very well. “Because there’s so much grey area, it is hard to prosecute. It’s difficult for the law to draw a bright line and say it’s legal or not legal,” he explains. When it comes to damages done, he sees potentially hundreds of overlapping laws that could come into play, but argues that emotional distress is squarely relevant.

Some states are trying to create legislation that protects its citizens from people like Emily. California passed an “E-personation” law that forbids the online impersonation of another person, with the intention of doing harm – and yet, how do we define “harm”? And when does it become prosecutable?

Even if it evades the law, what of ethics? Don’t we hold our medical professionals to a higher standard? Michael Brannigan, a medical ethics scholar at Albany Medical College says that the question of harm is also central to medical ethics. “We often think that harm has to do with physical harm, but it can come in many forms and guises, including blatant deception.” He recalls the Western code of medical ethics, the Hippocratic Oath, whose main principles are beneficence and nonmaleficence. This code refers specifically to how doctors practice medicine, but Brannigan argues it is not just about medical ethics, but also professional ethics. “We’re legally free to create fictitious characters, but in instances like this, that can be harmful. She exploits the potential vulnerabilities of her victims and uses her medical degree for a rubric of her fake identity. I don’t know of any doctor or medical professional who would justify what she’s done. If she behaves this way online, does that not mar her as a professional? I, for one, would say yes. It really comes down to character, and her behavior blemishes her character as a professional. You can’t separate professional from human being.”

Through the sophisticated intermingling of truth and fiction, Emily spent years hiding from others and herself, attempting to erase her identity, while simultaneously publicly exposing herself and others. But eventually, her digital breadcrumbs caught up with her. Uncovering the “real” Ethan Schuman proved just as difficult as recognizing that someone with Emily’s pedigree was leading a double life. It’s not just the virtual victims who were fooled, but everyone she’s ever encountered. “Real life” now extends beyond our fleshy fingertips and encompasses our online presence and digital communities.

Brannigan believes “trust is the oxygen of our relationships.” Whether you meet in a chat room or the waiting room, “truth” is increasingly elusive when the majority of our time is spent communicating with absent bodies. How do we really know who we’re dealing with, and how do we establish trust? Goldman insists this is a fundamental social question for the next millennium. “One of my closest contacts is someone I met online and who became integral to my life, but whom I didn’t meet in person until three years later. Trusting people online is now part of today’s social fabric. This is a sizable issue for all of us.”

Gina, Andrea, and I share many similar traits. We’re confident, independent, well-educated, and have thriving social lives. None of us are or were desperate daters, and we’ve all had enough (normal, healthy) relationships to make shrewd decisions. We are the opposite of the person you might picture in this situation. And yet, there we were. Even the most accomplished, clever person is no match for someone of Emily’s psychological mindset.

In stories like these, there is often a lot of mockery – a lot of victim blaming: How could they not know? This could never happen to me. But the question is not how the victims could be so gullible, but rather, why and how Emily could operate so flawlessly for so long — and how many times you or someone you love has or will be similarly duped.

Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, writer, and entrepreneur. She currently lives and works between New York and San Francisco. Follow her: @annaakbari

* Name changed to protect the victim.

** Name changed to protect the victim.

The Talented Mr. Schuman: Love and Mistaken Identity in the Internet Age