Months ago Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o spoke inspirationally about his grandmother and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who died within hours of each other. Still, he fought through the emotional pain and excelled on the football field. Now it seems that at least part of that story was a hoax.

According to a story on ESPN, “Notre Dame says a story about Manti Te’o's girlfriend dying, which he said inspired him to play better as he helped the Fighting Irish get to the BCS National Championship, turned out to be a hoax apparently perpetrated against the linebacker. The university issued a news release Wednesday after reported it could find no record of Lennay Kekua existing. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news conference Wednesday night that coaches were informed by Te’o and his parents on Dec. 26 that Te’o had been the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Someone using a fictitious name “apparently ingratiated herself” with Te’o, the school said, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.”

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Soon after being introduced to Te’o, Lennay Kekua told him that she had been in a serious car accident, and later that she was losing her battle with leukemia. It seems that Te’o never actually met the woman he called his girlfriend, though he says the two exchanged many text messages, e-mails, and telephone calls. Much is still murky about the case, and it’s not clear what role, if any, Te’o had in the deception. Theories range from the whole thing being a cynical publicity stunt to Te’o being the victim of a cruel hoax.

It is not uncommon for people to fake cancer and other serious diseases, usually for sympathy and attention. For example, in 2009 a young woman named Ashley Kirilow made news for fighting bravely against breast, ovarian, brain and liver cancers. She started a charity called Change for a Cure, which asked people to donate their spare change so she could donate the money to cancer research. Fundraisers were held for her, and a Toronto charity flew terminally ill Ashley to Disney World as her dying wish. Altogether over $20,000 was raised for her. Kirilow eventually admitted that she never had cancer. She had shaved her head and eyebrows to fake the signs of chemotherapy, and had spent much of the money on personal expenses.

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Kirilow was real, but Kekua was not. This case provides an interesting window into how apparently real people can exist only in a person’s imagination. As bizarre as the case is, it is hardly unique. In fact it has happened many times in the past, and something similar is probably happening to dozens of people right this minute. Manti Te’o’s girlfriend is only one of many examples of fake people who tragically die before anyone can meet them.

Like Lennay Kekua in Te’o's case, the fictitious friend is often the victim of tragedy and terminal disease. Why do hoaxers often fabricate such elaborate and tragic stories? There are several reasons. For one thing it adds a sense of urgency, intimacy, and human drama, and virtually guarantees emotional engagement and sympathy (who can refuse to befriend a person dying from cancer?). They share their struggles with tragedy, often with poems and even sometimes small gifts. Disease also an issue that most people can relate to; almost everyone has either had a serious disease or knows a friend or family member who has, adding credibility to their stories.

There’s a second, more sinister, reason why fictional friends are often seriously ill: It provides a convenient and plausible way to “kill off” the character with minimal suspicion. If the whole relationship is conducted within the context of the lurking presence of death (and the dying “friend” has shared their inspiring stories of surviving brushes with death before), it’s less of a shock when the hoaxer chooses to end the charade. It’s an interesting (and often heart-wrenching) blend of literary and real-world hoax.

An online or telephone-only relationship may seem bizarre, but it’s important to remember that strong emotional attachments can be created and maintained through indirect means. It’s easy to ridicule the victims in these situations as gullible, but not everyone who develops strong emotional attachments to people they have never personally met is a gullible, lonely sucker. It is not unusual for people to fly across the country to live with, have sex with, or even propose marriage with someone they only know through e-mails, instant messages, and phone chats.

Te’o’s case has drawn comparisons to the 2010 documentary Catfish, about a New York man who struck up an online relationship with a family, including an 8-year-old art prodigy; her older sister who has taken a liking to him; and their mother. It turns out that the whole thing was a hoax; the woman he thought he was befriending never existed. In fact the star of that film has contacted Te’o to share their experiences and offer to help with solving the hoax. Whatever the motivation for creating Lennay Kekua — and whether Te’o was a victim or co-conspirator — trust has clearly been lost.

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