A Strange Documentary Experience

In recent years several YouTube channels have emerged which play a large number of full-length old documentaries. One might be forgiven for thinking this was too good to be true and that these were pirate channels, but on closer investigation they appear to have been set up by the rights-holders themselves. The economics behind such a move are less than obvious – my best guess is that the content was not likely to be broadcast on television anymore and so there wasn’t much to lose by releasing them online.

One such documentary recently uploaded is the Channel 4 film from August 2012 The Girl Who Became Three Boys (here rebranded to changed “Girl” to “Woman”) about the late-teen aged Gemma Barker who created three online male personas in order to date her slightly-younger platonic female friends Jessica Sayers (who was extensively interviewed) and “Alice” (whose real identity was withheld). These relationships naturally ended badly and Barker herself wound up serving prison time.

I watched this documentary on the night it first aired. It was a confusing experience to say the least, and stuck with me for years afterwards. Almost nothing about the story makes sense: How did Barker’s victims not notice that she and her invented characters looked so similar? Why did Barker herself claim to have been assaulted? Why were all the adults in the girls’ lives (other than Jessica’s grandmother) eerily absent from events? How deep an emotional bond can you form with a man who has neither face nor voice (to say nothing of his other absent attributes)? If Barker had autism and “borderline learning disability” then how was she capable of manipulating her friends to that extent?

It might be expected, indeed hoped, that this film about two girls being abused in this way would be met with pity and grief, but instead the most common responses I found were confused frowns mixed with cackling laughter. The tragedy at the pinnacle of the narrative was greatly overshadowed by the farce of its foundations. The superfluous Sims-esque animated reconstructions did not help in this regard, nor indeed did Jessica’s contribution as a talking head in which, far from a sympathetic wounded victim, she often appeared to delight in milking our attention. Notably, her interviewer occasionally interrupted with incredulous requests to clarify the most especially outlandish points – such as how “Connor” would still communicate solely through text messages even when physically present. In online discussions of the documentary there were many who condemned the two victims for their apparent lack of intelligence or perception. Others found the events as presented to lie beyond plausibility, surmising instead that the documentary makers or the girls themselves were leaving out further details and fabricating their accounts.

What most fascinated me about the discussion, however, was that there were people who didn’t find this story absurd. A few even brought anecdotes from their own social groups in which girls whom they knew had pulled similar tricks. The most common refrain of this faction ran along the lines of “Well, that’s just what you’re like when you’re fifteen.” as if this kind of lunacy is to be expected as a standard part of adolescence! For as long as I can remember I have been fully aware that what most people assert as “normal” life is often sharply different to my own, yet here I cannot suspend my disbelief. Some months after the documentary aired it came up in discussion during an English lesson. I and the rest of my class were about the same age as Barker’s victims had been, yet all of us who had seen the documentary were baffled at the insanity on display. Our teacher’s reaction was little different. If what this documentary depicted is in any way representative of ordinary life then I am glad to be a freak.

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