Perfect Stranger

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

There was one time, and one time only, when Joshua Alexander said no. He and this woman were in bed together, undressed, just starting their foreplay in earnest. Alexander had orchestrated a couple of extramarital affairs before this, and would engage in more than a dozen afterward. There were so many women out there in the ether: Women in it strictly for the sex. Women who would nuzzle in his arms, besotted with need and longing, perfectly excited to hatch wedding plans with a man they barely knew. There were women who hadn't been touched in years, and women who routinely planned afternoon assignations for those hours when their husbands and kids were away from home. There were easy exits and messy breakups.

And, this one time, there was nothing at all.

"I said, 'I can't do this. It doesn't feel right,'" Alexander recalls. "It was a little too real." This was a woman he'd met at a bar. More to the point, this was not a woman whom Joshua Alexander had met and wooed online. He felt out of his element.

Joshua Alexander is a pseudonym, a name chosen by the protagonist of this true story. It seemed only fitting that we let him select his own alias, since fabricated identities are a specialty of his. Over the past six years, he has deployed dozens of Internet screen handles in his helplessly compulsive quest for diversion, thrills, and one true love. Behind those monikers, he has concocted an assortment of "real" user profiles, on file so other chat room participants could learn more about him. Among these was Michael Peterson, an 18-year-old chat room novice looking for an older woman strictly for cyber- or phone sex. Then there was Rudy Anderson, described by Alexander as "a guy who owned an advertising business, lived pretty moderately, but made probably about $300,000 a year and traveled a lot. Rudy had four kids, but Rudy was divorced so the kids lived with his ex-wife. He didn't date a whole lot because he was always busy traveling, but he was looking for someone special to settle down with and help him run his business."

Similarly detailed biographies were created for Samuel Carlson, David Elliott, Antonio Vargas--well, there's no telling anymore how many there have been. Neither Alexander, who says that medication for depression has eroded his memory, nor his wife, who has made it her business to ferret out as much as she can about his activities, thinks they'll ever get an accurate accounting of all the names. He has even used the pseudonym Joshua Alexander before, playing the role of a Montana rancher who lost all his land to bankruptcy. That one snared a woman from North Carolina, who commenced wedding plans with him over the phone and flew in to see him even after he told her he was already married.

On rare occasions, Alexander has broken down eventually and told women his real name. That's when people have really gotten hurt.

Alexander's 44 years on earth have been rife with experiences destined to deprive him of peace of mind. He was born the 12th of 14 children, but began bouncing through a series of foster homes at the age of three, when his mother couldn't handle the strain of raising such a large brood after his father was hospitalized. At the age of 11, he was sexually molested by a member of the clergy during confirmation classes. Growing up, he and his best friend spent a lot of time exploring underground sewer routes and foraging in dumpsters for serviceable junk like coffee makers and old toys and utensils. He dropped out of high school and spent four years in the Marines, returning home to Minnesota in 1979, where he started working in a waterbed factory. Nights were mostly spent drinking in bars and singing karaoke, with an emphasis on country songs. Continuing a lifelong pattern, he changed apartments every three or four months. "I've always been easily bored and moving was a way to come up with something new," he says.

Three years out of the service, he settled down quite a bit after marrying his teenage sweetheart, loyally swearing off alcohol after a medical condition forced her to stop drinking. It was a happy union that ended tragically with her death from cancer in April 1984. By September of that year, he was distraught enough to attempt suicide by overdosing on his medication. The person who found him and saved his life, another woman he had dated in high school, soon became pregnant with his child. The two were wed in 1985, but Alexander's joy at the birth of his son could not overcome the rocky marriage, which fell apart after two years.

The loss of his first wife still weighed heavily on him during the late '80s. At karaoke bars, he became fond of singing "Honey," the old Bobby Goldsboro tearjerker from the 1960s, about a young woman who dies suddenly. His love of animals has always been another way for him to assuage his loneliness. "I'm a big fan of zoos, wild animal parks, the Humane Society," he says. "We always had at least one dog in the foster home where I spent the most time. Sometimes you can feel like a third wheel with people, like you don't belong, but with dogs it doesn't matter, they don't care who you are. I figured if you can't get real close to people, then be close to a dog. They love you unconditionally."

Alexander met his third wife, whom we'll call Bev, at a poker game celebrating his brother's release from prison in 1990. At the time, Bev was his brother's girlfriend, and she had two children from a previous marriage besides. Wary of the mistake he had made rushing into his second marriage, he did not begin seriously dating her until the following summer, when her relationship with his brother had soured. They waited another year, until June 1992, before exchanging wedding vows.

Not long after that, Alexander was one of dozens of people who received a court settlement in a class action suit against the church where he was sexually abused. Part of the settlement included two free counseling sessions, which served to stir memories of what had happened to him. While paying for further counseling out of his own pocket, he began testifying about his ordeal a couple of times per week in a series of civil trials brought by individual victims against the offending pastor. All this dredging triggered vivid, recurring nightmares related to the molestation.

Alexander's own civil case against the man he says abused him went to trial early in 1994. During the proceedings, the judge ruled that anyone the pastor had already acknowledged molesting was ineligible to testify. Since Alexander was one of the last of the alleged victims to have his case heard, this deprived him of nearly all of his supporting witnesses. In retrospect, searching for answers, he believes that his large physical stature made it hard for the jury to imagine him as a vulnerable child. He thinks the "hippie-style" appearance of his therapist also didn't play well in the conservative venue where the trial was held. For whatever reason, his was the only one of more than 20 cases in which the pastor was absolved of abuse charges.

The resurrected memories and nightmares Alexander had been battling were now exacerbated by the lack of vindication for what he endured. He fell into a prolonged depression that affected his marriage to Bev and his work as a supervisor at a firm that engraved signs and name badges. In 1998, the frequency of his medical absences caused him to be fired from his job.

Before he met Bev, Alexander had frequented Internet porn sites and dabbled in chat rooms--"mostly to goof around and cause mischief, provoke a confrontation or something," he says. After he was fired, Bev worked two jobs to make ends meet while Alexander stayed at home and spent more time on the Internet. At first Alexander told his wife, and himself, that he was spending so much time online searching for a support group to help him with his depression. In fact he made only a cursory effort to connect with other abuse victims, gravitating invariably to porn sites. But the strictly visual charge he got from porn was quickly superseded by a growing fascination with more interactive sites offering adult personals and chat rooms.

"The anonymity of the chat rooms was a big pull because I was very unhappy with who I was in real life. I was extremely depressed and unhappy with my marriage, where I wasn't contributing anything financially and having problems in the sexual department," Alexander says. "In the chat rooms, nobody has to know who you really are; you can be anything you want to be. I could be a 25-year-old biker stud, even call myself BikerStud. Or I could even be a woman, which happened a lot in the beginning when I was going into lesbian chat rooms, mostly to get pictures. When you do what they call picture swapping, they want to see more than one picture because they have a tendency not to believe you are who you say you are. If you go to the adult personals, a lot of them have a series of very provocative naked pictures. So I would just take the pictures from there."

Not surprisingly, Alexander discovered others, most of them other men, doing the same thing. "You could tell who the women were because they were more suspicious. They'd ask what I'd call female questions, like what my clothes size was. Or they'd talk about some female surgery they had a couple of years ago and ask if you'd heard of it. Sometimes they were making things up, and if you agreed with them, they caught you that way. They were very clever, and I guess they had to be. You could tell they had been duped so many times by men."

Alexander learned the rules of the game, rapidly becoming an assiduous sexual con artist. A few weeks after being fired, he began to amass his "catalog," eventually storing thousands of photos of naked women on a series of computer discs. He was masturbating a couple of times a day by now, sometimes stimulated by photo-enhanced cybersex or phone sex. Phone sex was nothing very special. You got it by using photos of younger, more virile men; quite possibly the person on the other end of the line was being similarly deceptive. Before long it felt tawdry and shallow. Alexander craved something that involved more connectedness, more romantic resonance, but he wasn't prepared to cope with the risk of rejection. His solution was to start preying on the most emotionally vulnerable women he could find.

"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."

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."

"I had gotten to the point where I wanted her to kick me out," Alexander says. "When we had sex, I couldn't come. But I could with other women, so I wanted to think it was her fault. It has to do with my sexual identity, which was probably affected by the abuse. I didn't want to live the offline life, because it wasn't a happy life for me. But it started becoming harder for me to get away with having my online life without my wife knowing about it. Here I was, having all these women adore me, and she was just ruining it."

But against all logic, Bev stuck around. "There's probably several reasons why I stayed. One is that I love him and I know that in his heart he loves me. But the other thing is that when somebody is sick, do you walk away from them or do you help them? My belief is--and this is just the way I am--you don't give up on somebody that is sick. You do everything in your power to help them.

"So many times, despite everything that he was doing, he would say, 'Don't give up on me,' or 'I really love you.' I know he has said some of the exact things to other women that he has said to me--I'm not blind. But these wouldn't be at romantic times, or in a discussion. I mean, we'd maybe be cleaning the garage and he'd come over and give me a hug, say, 'I know you have gone through a lot with me, but don't give up.' I know how he feels. In fact, one of the things that has angered him over the years is, because of everything that we have been through, I probably know him better than anybody else."

When Alexander said he was going to take a trip one weekend in November 1998, Bev knew something was wrong. In the face of her ceaseless questions, Alexander quickly broke down sobbing and told her he'd planned to go off into the middle of the woods, take all his medication, and just go to sleep. "It felt like there was no place left for me to go," he says. "Offline or online, both weren't working, and I just didn't want to have to deal with it anymore."

After a week of rest, intensive therapy, and visits from friends, Alexander left the hospital feeling renewed. "It seemed like things were clearer, that there was a reason to live," he says. "But I had all this support when I was in the hospital. There is something I want people to know. People are well-meaning when they visit you; they say if you need anything and need to talk, please call. But when you take them seriously and call, they do everything possible to get you off the phone. That's part of what drove me back to the Internet, because it was one of the few places I felt safe. It was like a support group because, once again, I could be anybody I wanted. The fact that Bev couldn't have kids anymore had become a real big issue with me. All my life, I had never felt normal; I always felt like I was the one outside the box, looking in. And I decided I wanted to be part of a family."

 

By early 1999 Alexander was spending all his waking hours in chat rooms; he no longer believed he could function in any other setting. He began one day like all the others, logging into the Yahoo chat rooms Single Parents and Single Again. Launching into his litany about moonlight walks and cuddling on the couch, he asked if there were any ladies over 25 who were interested. Almost immediately, a personal message appeared from a woman we'll call Shirley. It initiated the most dramatic Internet-related relationship he'd ever experienced.

"From the beginning, everything she said just felt right," Alexander remembers. "Right away, she asked, 'Are you for real?' 'Of course,' I answered. I told her I was a single father with a four-year-old, that my wife had died after our daughter was born. She said she was a single mom of a teenage girl, that she had been divorced for about six years and had been in relationships that didn't work. She sent me her picture probably within the first ten minutes. She was about five-ten and 110 pounds, with long brown hair and a beautiful smile. She wasn't real curvy but very proportionate, and very easy to talk to. She said a lot of things I wanted to hear; that I was very romantic and it was hard to believe there were any of us left. Right off the bat she asked, 'Where have you been all my life?' She asked me to marry her within the first 15 or 20 minutes, then put LOL after it so I knew she was joking. I said, 'You tell me when and we'll get married, LOL.'"

They started talking about their kids--Alexander outdid himself gushing about the daughter he didn't have--then discovered a mutual love for camping, country music, and high-speed romance. "I asked her, `Do you believe in love at first sight?' She said yes, then asked me, 'Do you believe people can meet and fall in love in a chat room?' I said I did and she answered that she did too.

"I told her that I believed it because my brother and his wife had met over the Internet," Alexander says. "Which wasn't true. I told her I worked two jobs--that I owned a karaoke business and an Internet business. She said she worked at some little shop in northern Minnesota, doing secretary-type work. After about a half-hour she asked for my phone number. I gave the one for the cell phone and told her to call that evening, when I knew I could leave the house and be alone." That night they flirted for another half-hour and set up a time to talk online the next day, when Shirley could log on to a computer at the library.

Alexander began that conversation by saying he had been thinking about her. He felt like they were made for each other. Shirley quickly upped the ante, saying, "I hope this doesn't scare you, but I feel like I'm falling in love with you." How could he be scared? Alexander replied. He felt the same way. "Then I asked her if she'd ever had a full-body massage. When she said no, I segued into something sexual, told her I knew how to reach my hands into every part of her body. This was our second time online and we were already having cybersex, so intense, with language you can't use in the paper. I said, 'God, that is best I ever had. I wish you were here so we could do it for real.' 'I wish you were here,' she said. We started talking about getting together, moving pretty fast.

"I tried to put it off because I had also been chatting recently with three or four other women, but as we continued talking all the time online and on the phone, it got to the point where I felt like I needed to meet her." By then, Alexander had dropped the pseudonym and revealed his name.

When he pulled into Shirley's driveway--on a weekend that he'd told Bev he'd be visiting friends up north--Shirley dashed outside and jumped on top of him, proclaiming her love all the while. She also informed him that her daughter knew about the wedding plans they had been making over the phone. Alexander revisited her home two weeks later, and found that "it was even better than the first time. We spent a lot of time having sex, couldn't keep our hands off each other. I was very physically and psychologically attracted to her, and that was so rare."

A month later, she called him on his cell phone. "We had talked before about if she ever visited her parents down in the Twin Cities, I would take her and her daughter to the Mall of America. She called and said she was at her parents' and wanted to know if we could pick out wedding stuff."

When Alexander came by to get them for a trip to the mall, it didn't seem the right time to tell them that Bev had learned of the relationship. Meanwhile, to pacify his wife, Alexander had sworn to her that the day's meeting with Shirley was for the sole purpose of breaking off the relationship and letting her down easy.

Oh, it was a great day: "We tried on wedding rings. Shirley tried on wedding dresses. Her daughter tried on bridesmaid dresses. I tried on tuxedos. It was an exciting time." Of course the day was marked by the typical premarital jitters. "At this point I'd already been married three times. Even if this was for real it would be the fourth time, so I naturally had reservations. But I couldn't help enjoying myself. I was tickled pink seeing how happy Shirley was, and how ecstatic her daughter was that her mom was getting married and she was going to have a daddy."

On the way out of the mall, Alexander was explaining why they couldn't come along to pick up his daughter when his cell phone rang. It was Bev, wondering what was taking so long.

As Shirley's daughter went inside her grandparents' apartment complex, Alexander asked Shirley to take a walk with him on the path behind the building. "I said, 'You are probably going to hate my guts, but I hope you'll understand. I am married. The reason I never told you is because I didn't think I'd ever see you again. It's a very unhappy marriage and I want to leave her.' She was very upset at first, but then she sort of did a 180 and said, 'I understand. I'll wait for you for a month and day.'

"I told Shirley I didn't want her calling the cell phone or the house because my wife doesn't want the marriage to be over and I didn't want to hurt her. Of course I had been telling my wife that I wanted the marriage to continue. Shirley finally agreed that I would call her but she shouldn't call me. We were probably together another two hours on that walk.

"I drove home and wasn't in the house for more than ten minutes when Shirley called. She wanted to know if I could come back out and see her. And I got pissed. Because my wife was home. I said, 'I told you not to call!' She said, 'But I need you.' 'If you keep calling, you're going to make things worse,' I said and hung up on her. She kept calling and I got madder and madder because I knew I was in big trouble.

"Finally I turned the cell phone over to my wife.

"I never talked to her again," Alexander says sadly. "She must have called every day for about a week. I don't know what my wife said to her. One time I tried to talk to her online, but she just called me a bunch of dirty names and pretty much read me the riot act. She said don't ever talk to her, that I had ruined her and her daughter's lives. After that I never saw her online again."

 

After D-Day at the mall, Alexander still had a handful of Internet women to fall back on, with more always waiting in the wings. But he says he has never had another physical affair since then. In nearly five hours of conversation, the closest he comes to explaining why is when he's sitting on the porch beside Bev. "There is a bottom line," he states. "Eventually it comes down to the reality that, who is to say that if I were to leave my wife for one of these women that I met online, that I wouldn't continue to do this behavior with that other woman? I am who I am and I do what I do. Would anything change?"

With ongoing therapy and Bev's vigilant monitoring, he says he has learned to control his compulsion. After a recent knee injury that kept him out of work for five months, he once again is holding down a full-time job. "Part of the healing process is finding something else to put your energy into. My therapy is out in the garage--a new motorcycle. We got a boat and spent time out on the lake, but there's only so many times you can see it. With a bike, you can go anywhere. I still spend a lot of time on the Internet, but now it is looking at sites for motorcycle parts and accessories, or the schedule for police auctions. It's like the motorcycle is my new addiction."

He still goes out to karaoke bars on occasion. "Music has always been an outlet for me. I used to play the guitar whenever I was bored or depressed, but now I mostly sing. I like anything by George Strait and Garth Brooks. I do Elvis's [American] trilogy, a series of classic American, patriotic songs. One of my favorite songs is 'It's Only Make Believe,' by Glen Campbell. Another is a song by John Michael Montgomery called 'The Little Girl.' It's about a little girl whose father is a drunk and her mother is a drug addict. She is always hiding behind the couch, afraid, and one night her dad kills her mom and then himself. Some people from the city take her far away and she goes to a family she loves. It's a beautiful song.

"I won't lie to you," Alexander says a little later. "I still go into the chat rooms sometimes. I'm a hell of a lot better than I was six years ago or six months ago, but an addict is still an addict. Anytime you get on the Internet, there is that itch to get in there, especially if you are going through a hard time. It's tempting for me because it was such a wonderful experience. But the difference is, now I know it is a fantasy world. And I don't go so far as to get involved in relationships. I don't meet people physically and I don't tell them that I love them anymore.

"I'll say I am single sometimes, but I don't try and start a relationship. I try and make them feel good about themselves without allowing it to be taken too far. I might say, I am not interested in a long-term relationship--but if I were, I would have no problem having one with you. But let's just be friends.

"For the longest time, I had a low opinion of myself, and so I know what that feels like. It's easier for me to boost other people's egos than my own. It is gratifying to me to help somebody who is depressed, or self-conscious about their looks. Sometimes I tell them to be true to themselves, and they may call back and tell me they had a date the other night for the first time in years. That's gratifying. There is no better feeling in the world than helping somebody else. A lot of people think that if you can touch one person it is all worth it.

"But the flip side of the coin is how you do it," he says gravely. "You have to be very careful how you do it."

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