Perfect Stranger

Joshua Alexander looked at all the lonely women in internet chat rooms-- and saw nothing but opportunit

"Generally what you are looking for is a woman who has either been divorced, or in a bad relationship," he says. "You go into chat rooms and you just sit and listen for a while to the chat that is going on. And you listen to women talking about how they have been screwed over by men, and how their husband abused them. I would get on and I would wait and wait and wait, just listening, and then I would PM them--that's personal message, or for some it's called instant message. And I would say, I am a single white male from such-and-such an area, and I know that you have been in rough relationships or whatever, but are you interested in having any romance in your life?"

Other times Alexander would go fishing for connections, registering in a chat room under one of his many personae and spooling out the sort of banal imagery normally reserved for greeting cards and romance novels. "I'd say I was from a town close by where I really live, and that I was looking for a female interested in nice candlelight dinners, long walks in the moonlight, horse-and-carriage rides, picnics by the lake, full-body massages; someone who likes to cuddle, someone who likes kids, someone who likes animals, that type of thing. You're looking for a little handle to grab onto, anything you can use to your advantage. And it's not hard to do. I'd sometimes get PM'd by four or five women at a shot. I would never have guessed that there were that many--I guess you'd call them lonely or desperate--women in the world."

His various online identities began to take on lives of their own. "I guess it started out fairly slow. But I would have to say, after a month or two it got to be real hard, real fast. I was spending probably 18 to 20 hours a day, almost every day, online in chat rooms." Over a period lasting about a year and a half, he estimates that he made contact with more than 500 women. More than half of them received what could be described as The Works: a real photograph of Alexander himself; cybersex and/or phone sex; and, usually, open discussion of getting married one day. About 30 of these liaisons led to face-to-face meetings, with "15 to 20" ending in sexual affairs. But of these all but three ended after a single tryst.

In those days Alexander would find himself simultaneously engaged in up to seven or eight online conversations at a time--hopscotching around planning flesh-and-blood rendezvous with cherished favorites, ingratiating himself to new prospects, making detailed wedding plans with doomed brides-to-be. Occasionally it all got to be so much that he had to pause and relieve himself with some hot and heavy cybersex.

It was not enough for Alexander merely to keep straight his own personae through these revolving doors; behind most every screen name he selected was at least one woman who had been led to believe he would remember their prior conversations. "I might have five handles going and ten women I talk romance with under each handle," he explains. "If Princess123 comes on, I can't be calling her Kay when her name is Barb." He devised elaborate charts as a crutch for his faulty memory.

In full fever, Alexander would leave his computer only for bathroom breaks or to make a sandwich to bring back to his post. When his wife would come home between jobs to prepare dinner, he would quickly make an excuse--he had to check his e-mail, or do some job research--and lock himself back in his room. "The only way I can explain it is that I was determined to do everything I could to escape my real life. After a while I was so into it that it was like a role reversal. My life off the Internet was the fantasy and my life online was reality. When I was online I was ecstatic, because I could be what I wanted to be."

What Alexander wanted was to be not only sexually attractive but emotionally indispensable to a large number of women. "The most desperate or most needy women are those who consider themselves fat and ugly, who don't think that they can get a man," he says. "You take a woman who is overweight or a woman who has been scorned by men because of the way she looks, and it's a good feeling to tell them they are the most beautiful thing on the earth.

"When I would say that to a woman, she would say, 'Well, you don't even know what I look like.' So I'd ask her to send me a picture. And 90 percent of them were not what society would call beautiful. I would tell them they are still beautiful. 'Outside beauty fades with age but true beauty, on the inside, is always there,' I would tell them. 'And after talking to you for a little while, I can tell you have inside beauty, where the feelings and emotions are.' It is just basically about making them feel good about themselves."

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