Perfect Stranger

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

Alexander says this with such gravity and humility that it seems almost impolite to point out that the hundreds of women desperate enough to believe him have been taken for a long, scarring ride.

For more than an hour, Alexander, his wife Bev, and I have been sitting out on their porch overlooking a lake in a town west of the Twin Cities. Alexander is a large, beefy man. The self-description he provides in chat rooms--"Six-foot-three, 275 pounds, strawberry-blond hair and blue eyes"--seems pretty accurate. "I used to have fairly long hair and a full beard and mustache. People would tell me I looked like a cross between a biker and a mountain man," he says. He is now wearing a sleeveless shirt that reveals the muscle and flab on his shoulders and biceps. The bandanna tied over his head and the two-day stubble of beard adds to the overall impression of him as "BikerStud" a decade or so past his prime.

How much of what he told all those women does he really believe? If he had the choice of being with a woman who he considered beautiful just on the outside or one who was beautiful just on the inside, which would it be? "In my experience, most of the women who are beautiful on the outside know it and are kind of conceited," he replies. "For men, I guess there is always that fear that because she is so good-looking, she can have any man she wants; that the next man who comes along who is better-looking than you, boom--you are gone.

"Whereas you take a woman who is overweight and maybe not a model type, but is beautiful on the inside, and you know they are not going to be looking. They are looking for somebody who is just into them, and they will do just about anything to keep you. And to me that is much more attractive. In all sincerity, I would much prefer to be with a woman who doesn't think real highly of herself." When I look over at Bev, she is listening intently, with no change in her facial expression. "But at the same time," Alexander continues, "yeah, I would probably go with the real beautiful woman a time or two, because it would be hard for me to believe that anybody that good-looking would actually want to be with me. So I guess I have a problem with my looks, thinking that I am not that attractive.

"For quite a while," he sighs, growing more philosophical, "I thought that my main goal in life was to find women who had been hurt by men and make them feel better about themselves. These women want respect and consideration, and I could give them that. At some point, you start to believe what you are saying because you see how good it makes them feel. When you tell them you love them, you really believe it. If you don't believe it, they aren't going to believe it either. It becomes a serious relationship for you. It doesn't matter that you have a wife sitting out in the living room, never mind seven other 'serious relationships' up on the screen. You can't make the distinction between fantasy and reality anymore; it has all become 'real life' for you."

Owing either to an enormous gulf in their marriage or a huge reservoir of denial, Bev didn't grow suspicious of Alexander's spending his life in front of the computer until six months had passed. It was only after she began seeing phone numbers on scraps of paper (and discovered a romantic Internet greeting from one of his women up on the computer screen) that she confronted him. "That was probably the worst period of time in our lives," she says. At first he'd say, 'Well, I'm just looking at naked pictures,' and I'd say, 'Honey, I know better than that. I can find out where you have been on the Internet, and I can tell if you have been in the porn rooms or not.'

"I started doing all I could to stop his compulsion. When I found a strange number on the phone bill, I'd call it. And I'd make him switch cell phones with me. There was one period of time where he had wedding dates set with six different women at the same time, all of them making wedding plans!

"I would go into the chat rooms and say, 'He is married; he is not talking to you anymore.' Some of the women just went ballistic. They'd call his cell phone and I'd answer and say, 'Hey, he's sick. Do you realize that a majority of the people in the chat room are suffering from depression of one form or another? These are sick people. Are you taking an anti-depressant to maintain? You must be sick too.'"

"The thing you have to understand about this addiction," Alexander interrupts, "is that there comes a point where you don't care anymore."

"That's true," Bev assents. "He literally did not care what I did. If I convinced someone not to talk to him anymore, he'd go out and find somebody else--and it didn't take long, either."

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