I used to know a guy we’ll call “Rasputin”. That wasn’t his real name, but his real name was similarly odd and mystical. A different former friend of mine (and yes, I’m aware how many of those have stacked up) called him “Rasputin” in a bit of therapy writing he did and it was a phenomenal choice of pseudonyms. I’m also aware that I’ve referred to this person before by his real name but screw it, let’s all pretend I’m being coy here. Such pretense is thematically appropriate.
In these days of constant NSA scandals I have to laugh, because the NSA is a term loaded with absurdity for me. Just out of high school, in 1986, I knew Rasputin, and I knew his biggest secret, one of many, that he was in the NSA.
I knew he was in the NSA because not only did he tell me, but he also knew things about other folks, things there was no way he could have known. He was slightly older than me (to this day I’m not sure how much older) and had done stretches as both a “punk rocker” and in the Army, so I was way impressed. He told me of his NSA life, and it was full of adventure. When he showed up one day with a poorly bandaged stomach wound, it was because of “business” and he couldn’t say more.
Being with Rasputin gave one a license to break rules. You could say rude things in elevators and shock the other riders. You could attempt to vandalize a public service utility (but dammit they bolted Reddy Kilowatt’s head on too well to steal). You could, oh, I don’t know, steal cars. It was all okay because you couldn’t get in trouble, since Rasputin worked for the NSA. Being with him was exciting, especially for me, who was otherwise just a boring, typical, unremarkable nerd. That someone so interesting had chosen me to hang out with was amazing. I wanted to rise to the task and try to be as interesting as he was. Thankfully, I didn’t do so as much as other people I knew did.
The main reason I flunked out of the University of New Orleans was because I stopped going to class about two weeks in. I was encountering the second major depression of my life, with a myriad of factors affecting it. I can’t blame that on Rasputin; it almost certainly would have happened without his help. But one of the things in the mix was the fact that he’d told me he’d get me a job at the NSA and I believed him. Just as I had believed all the other things. When I saw a therapist after I had to tell my parents I’d failed out of school I assured her that the NSA thing was real and I had a job there waiting for me. Eventually, when Rasputin moved on to a different victim, I had to admit to her that I’d been fooled.
I say that him offering me a nonexistent job didn’t really affect my flunking out of college, but discovering the stupid things I’d believed helped intensify my depression. How could I, a kid who had been told all the time how smart he was, fall for such, in hindsight, transparent nonsense?
It wasn’t just me. Nearly everyone I knew had bought the act to some extent, including some adults. Rasputin, as a compulsive liar and manipulator, was only fairly good at what he did, though our naiveté gave his skills a big boost. First, he would separate his current target from other folks. He worked best one-on-one, when people couldn’t compare notes very well. He joked a lot, so if he tried a lie that didn’t work he could easily pass it off as a joke. He would get some detail from someone else and drop it into a conversation in such a way that made it seem as though there was no way he could possibly know it. When the people in my group finally worked out the truth about him it wasn’t because we did any major digging into his life, we simply got together and compared notes. At that point each of us almost had to laugh at the things he’d told others about us; for example I discovered that I’d been regularly having sex with a person I’d barely made out with. In fact, what astounded me the most was not discovering the big lies but the small, inconsequential ones. He lied about things that couldn’t make any difference to anyone, just to lie about them.
So it wasn’t that Rasputin was particularly adept at creating falsehoods and reeling us in. The lies themselves weren’t spectacular or well done. The NSA thing largely worked because he chose the NSA which, at the time, nobody knew much about. Rasputin suckered me and others because he was so damn cool and interesting. He was incredibly charismatic and fascinating, and having him as a friend was exciting. I distinctly remember one night in the hallway of the UNO dorms as my girlfriend at the time and I tiptoed around telling each other a “big” Rasputin secret we both knew but had been told not to give away, and here’s the thing: it was something I pretty much knew for a fact wasn’t true. Nevertheless, I wasn’t just some doof with a Doctor Who scarf in his closet, I was a cool guy who could up and head out to the French Quarter at midnight like it was no big. I wanted Rasputin to be what he said he was because that made me more than I was. Finding out the truth not only knocked me off that perch, it made me lower than I had been before.
And here’s the thing: even afterwards, when I knew “the truth”, even afterwards I went back to him. I befriended him again, not out of forgiveness like I tried to convince myself, but to go back to how things were. And I bought more nonsense, knowing it was nonsense, because I wanted the rush again. It didn’t really take, though. It didn’t work. He didn’t make me feel interesting anymore.
I tell you that story not just to finally get it out (and even with this telling I am withholding some details) but because it’s what I think about when I think about things like the Michael Dunn trial. It’s what I think about when I hear about whatever the latest thing that the right wing is up in arms about. I think about living an existence in which I’m being lied to regularly but that’s okay, because it makes my life more exciting. I think about how I tried to go back to being friends with Rasputin to get some more juice, knowing full well what he only had to offer. In my story, that’s the point where it’s tragic. Not the fact that Rasputin had, for real, lost both his father and his mother in a short span of time and that must have had some effect on his psyche. Not the fact that a bunch of us were led around like idiots by him, believing what turned out to be obvious nonsense. Not even the fact that some of the folks who were suckered by him could have gotten in very serious trouble because of what he enabled them to do. No, for me the point where it just becomes violin-driven pathos is when, after knowing all this, I try to have him as a friend again because I was feeling so small and lonely and needed to just feel that excitement once more, just once more.
The world of Michael Dunn and other right-wingers is a scary one, one where white Christians are being besieged by forces designed to throw them in camps and tear them apart. It’s necessary to be armed, to be vigilant, to be ready to protect one’s self and loved ones from these black barbarian godless hordes. Your guns will be taken away at any moment; overpaid teachers are graphically teaching your children how to be gay and laugh at God; your money is being taken by the Government and given to lazy black drug addicts; the fact that you worship Jesus must be spoken of only in guarded whispers lest you be found out and persecuted. It’s an exciting adventure, and it raises you up. You’re not just a software developer talking about libertarianism on some message board, you’re a freedom fighter, someone who knows The Real Truth and will be ready when the shit happens.
None of it’s true, but that’s okay, it’s not the point. It’s true in the ways that count. It’s true because if it’s not true then you’re not special and interesting and on top of the situation. You’re a sucker but worse, you’re just an ordinary sucker. So you go back, and you let them isolate you and feed you lies. You do things that in your heart you know are wrong and don’t make any sense but you’re swollen with the pride of being a part of something so grand and special. And when they abandon you and move on to another target, you’re hurt and heartbroken, because it means you didn’t measure up. You weren’t good enough. You have to go back to being just a regular person, with that world of excitement closed off to you. It’s not enough to not be lied to and manipulated anymore; it’s not worth the withdrawal symptoms.
I was lucky in two ways. First, I was lucky that Rasputin didn’t help me do even dumber things than I did. Failing out of UNO was no big deal compared to other activities I could have taken part in. Second, I was lucky that the second attempt didn’t take. I ended up going away to college, just far enough away that I could break out of the tightly-woven incestuous circle and move on. In a way, he helped me do that and it was one of the best things I could have done. It let me see not just him from a safe distance, but the environment in which he preyed and thrived, and it helped me in a lot of ways. I still had a lot of dumbness ahead of me and I’d still relapse occasionally, and I had a LOT of pretending to be interesting to go, but I was still on a more constructive path than before.
As for Rasputin, there’s evidence that he has reformed his ways and is doing some good. If that’s true then hey, I’m glad to hear it, but you’ll understand if I both take that information with a grain of salt and don’t spend too much time trying to ascertain its truth. You won’t fool me again, not a third or fourth time.