Girl, Interrupted

Before Plain Layne disappeared, readers knew her as a fiery online diarist, an outspoken lesbian, and a beauty straight out of a Midwestern Botticelli. Afterward, they knew her as a hoax.

If you wanted to know something about Layne Johnson, all you had to do was ask her.

Before she disappeared from her online perch at a few weeks ago, "Plain Layne," as she was self-dubbed, answered anyone's questions. While the answers were occasionally elliptical, the descriptions of the lurid details of her life were never ambiguous. Despite the moniker, Layne was anything but plain. Within the past few months, she recounted a rape that she suggested led her to lesbianism, became engaged to a formerly straight woman, suffered a dramatic breakup with said woman (partially because her fiancée resented being dissected on Layne's site), hooked up and noisily quarreled with a girl from her work cafeteria, met her birth parents for the first time, got involved with a risky internet startup, and had a ton of hot sex (which, because of her linguistic flourishes, was often hottest when solo). All that while keeping up a high-volume website of 5,000 unique visitors per day and middle-managing an IT group for "Minicorp," a large pseudonymous company that from her descriptions sounded like 3M or Cargill or Honeywell. In short: Anaïs Nin, I'd like you to meet William Gibson.

Spend just a few minutes on her site, and you could learn everything about Layne. The link to her "About" page noted: "I was born in 1977 and adopted by a stable, hard-working and most of all Lutheran family in the North Woods, northern Minnesota's equivalent of the sticks." An entire Real World-ish cast of the friends and acquaintances Layne discussed in her online posts appeared on her site with photos. And a conspicuous link to "pictures" could leave Layne's beguiling, purse-lipped, gap-toothed smile indelibly imprinted on your mind. There was Layne, leaning over the edge of a swimming pool, standing in the middle of a cornfield, existing in the middle of nowhere: Each photo was practically a Midwestern Botticelli. Reading her detailed descriptions of local hangouts, you hoped you would run into her eventually.

Have you seen this girl? The unidentifiable face of "Plain Layne"
Have you seen this girl? The unidentifiable face of "Plain Layne"

In some haunts around town (mostly the hideouts with free wireless internet service and those subterranean joints that Lifter Puller wrote songs about), Plain Layne was famous, or at least some form of quasi-famous in which dungeon-cable reality TV stars and celebutantes are whispered about without guilt. When she briefly took a break from her site last year, McLean's (roughly the Canadian equivalent of Newsweek) ran a story about how people attach themselves to online identities. Layne was featured, despite turning down an interview. Fans kept a lookout for the black VW bug with the Radio K bumper sticker that the infowaif (as she called herself) reportedly drove around town. Layne could easily be your best friend, and you sort of wanted her to be. As it turned out, she might be.

Probably not by coincidence, Plain Layne became an online presence on September 11, 2001, with a post titled "Waking from nightmare into nightmare." She wrote long entries nearly every day for almost three years, until June 8, 2004, when, without warning, after a harmless post about lusting after David Beckham ("Just when I thought I'd never have sex with a boy again"), the site vanished. The archive, the pictures, and the comments all disappeared, leaving only a mysterious message in a bold Times New Roman font that almost resembled an error message. But not quite:

Trwa modernizacja serwera!
Serwisy beda czynne od polowy czerwca.

This type of chicanery was nothing new in the land of Layne. Loyal fans had witnessed her linguistic tricks and brief disappearances before. But this time, the loyalists decided to collectively investigate--or cyberstalk, depending on your view. Probing online databases, translation programs, blogs, and, of course, Google, Layne's followers used a combination of amateur literary scholarship and digital mind-sharing to investigate the ringleader. After an initial message posted on questioned the authenticity of Layne's identity, dozens of people realized they shared the same story: Nearly everyone had communicated with Layne through e-mail or instant messaging and discussed the possibility of meeting up with her in person, but no one had laid eyes on her in real life.

The community mobilized. Databases were queried and a quick web search revealed that the ponderous error message was written in Polish. Tossed into an online translation tool, the error message was deciphered into nothing more than exclamatory East Bloc internet garble: "Note! Modernization of server lasts! Services will be effective from half of June. We apologize." But one online Sherlock viewed the source HTML and noticed something awry: The date stamp had been written with javascript rather than delivered by the server. In other words, the error message was a fake.

Another clue suggested that Layne was winking to techies: In addition to being Plain Layne's initials, ".pl" is the country domain extension of Polish websites (as in Those little enigmas signaled the tipping point, which, by the time it was over, led to a tale of internet intrigue.

One Plain Layne dweller, "Jimmo" (as he called himself online), broke the investigation wide open by pointing out that Layne's writing style bore a remarkable resemblance to another Minnesota web diarist, Acanit. Others remembered Acanit as a former Iranian-via-Kenya TV journalist living in Minneapolis who kept a site a few years back. Acanit was also an attractive, bisexual twentysomething with a vivid writing style, which won her a award in 2001. Both Layne's site and Acanit's site appeared to have been hosted on the same server at one point. The day Acanit disappeared from the internet seemed to be the linchpin: September 11, 2001. (Layne advocates were quick to point out that Acanit may have taken down her site because an anonymous, Middle Eastern woman was a persona non grata during those jingoistic times.) One phrase that Acanit used also seemed acutely Laynian: "the open veins of my life." Googling those words yielded exactly one matching result on exactly one website: Plain Layne's. Other phrases quickly followed: "hell takes a vacation," "life in reverse," and "anus of North America" (to describe Tijuana) were phrases that appeared on both sites. It now seemed undeniable that Layne and Acanit were linked. Somehow.

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