Before the Notre Dame Heisman-finalist and Lennay Kekua, there was Ms. Krabappel and Woodrow.
"For people my age, this is unfathomable," Notre Dame University athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the media during a press conference just hours after Deadspin revealed that star linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend, who had supposedly died of cancer in September, had been a fabrication . "Versions of this in different forms we would understand, but the sort of online social media, virtual nature of this, it's hard for us, hard for me."
It's convenient to blame the Internet for the Manti Te'o mess. If you believe Swarbrick's interpretation, Te'o was the victim of online scammers who had cunningly exploited, in Swarbrick's words, "the most trusting human being I've ever met." But the technology that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo used to dupe Te'o, or that Te'o and Tuiasosopo used to dupe the entire national sports media (or some still-to-be-revealed combination of these), didn't exist on February 13th, 1992, the date that one of the most disquieting episodes of The Simpsons' 23-year run aired for the first time. Viewed today, that episode, "Bart the Lover," affirms that human nature was no different before the Internet arrived, and the web is just another venue where con artists and sadists can prey on the overly credulous.
The episode begins at the end of a typical day at Springfield Elementary School, where the recently divorced Ms. Krabappel's fourth-grade class is watching a movie about zinc ("Thank goodness I still live in a world of telephones, car batteries, handguns [gunshot sound] and many things made of zinc!"). The bell rings, and Ms. Krabappel's pupils rush for the exits. Part of the genius of The Simpsons is (well, was) its almost Dickensian ability to impart humanity and psychological depth to what lesser shows would have treated as throwaway characters. The next two minutes or so, a darkly comic glimpse into Ms. Krabappel's lost and lonely soul, is a master class. "If anyone wants to learn more about zinc, they're welcome to stay," she says to an empty hallway. "We can talk about anything. I'll do your homework for ya?" She drives home alone, in the rain. She buys a scratch-off ticket at the Kwik-E-Mart. "Still teaching?" Apu asks her. The ticket yields two dollar signs and a cherry. "For one more day, at least." Her apartment is a spinster's walkup. She isn't someone who just needs a man--she's someone who needs anyone. She takes out a personals ad in Springfield Magazine.
Enter Bart Simpson, who earns a month of detention after accidentally--though remorselessly--killing the class goldfish in a yoyo-related mishap. This isn't even close to the darkest thing Bart will do this episode. Bart finds the ad in his teacher's desk, and for reasons no more (or less) complex than boredom or petty revenge, he decides to answer it. An elaborate fiction ensues: The man's name is Woodrow. He has the soul of a poet ("truly yours is a butt that won't quit") and the face of Gordie Howe. And he has inside information: Bart overhears Ms. Krappabel saying she wants a man who can fix her car. One letter later: "I put your picture up in my garage to inspire me while I gapped my spark plugs."
Ms. Krabappel should have been able to see through the deception. Her crush knows her just a little too well, and he's a little too cagey about personal details. When "Woodrow" stands her up at a romantic dinner (Bart goes to see Ernest Needs a Kidney while his teacher sits alone at The Golden Truffle), she actually believes she's been stood up, rather than simply cheated.
Thanks to those crucial few minutes of exposition at the beginning of the episode, this makes perfect sense. Ms. Krabappel's life is so lonely, so absent of meaning, that she is willing to buy into a pretty transparent fiction. And why shouldn't she have? Woodrow gives her moments of genuine happiness. Someone emerges out of nowhere to affirm her self-worth! Of course, this only ratchets up the cruelty of Bart's deception--he picks out an emotionally vulnerable mark--but it also introduces the possibility of self -deception: In the end, Bart slides a farewell letter under his teacher's door, and she is deeply moved as she reads it ("Any time I hear the wind blow it will whisper the name--Edna"). In a weird way, it is to everyone's benefit for the lie to acquire the status of truth.
Which brings me back to the Manti Te'o weirdness, a saga in which the self-deception cascaded from Te'o to the national sports media to Heisman voters to casual fans. Everyone wanted to believe this story was true, Te'o included. This is no less the case if Te'o was perpetuating a deliberate fraud, as circumstantial evidence suggests. He lied about meeting Lennay Kekua in person, talked about her death of cancer two days after he supposedly learned that Kekua's identity had been faked, played in a game the day of her funeral, and was friends with Tuiasosopo, the man suspected of maintaining Kekua's persona and online presence. Assuming the hoax was partly Te'o's doing, there's still the matter of him tearing up on camera when discussing Kekua, and the larger matter of Te'o spreading a story so plausible, so brilliantly fleshed out, and so irresistible to the media that he was able to make Kekua live, breathe, and then die.
"Bart the Lover" is a reminder that these kinds of deceptions long pre-date the internet. But for that matter, Cyrano de Bergerac is a reminder that they long predate the invention of personals ads too, and chapter 29 of Genesis is a reminder that they even predate European drama as well. Te'o's invented girlfriend is pretty mindboggling, but human beings' ability to lie to themselves, to happily and even deliberately live out comforting and deeply meaningful falsehoods, has boggled minds for millennia. Leave it to The Simpsons to point towards the reason why.