“You spend too much time on the internet,” my husband used to complain to me. He was right, of course, but I had little interest in changing. I had become obsessed with an online support group for problem drinkers that had helped me in a way that traditional methods like Alcoholics Anonymous hadn’t. I’ll admit, I’m an unconventional person – I do “alternative” comedy in clubs you’ve probably never heard of – and AA wasn’t for me. I loathed its moralism, its self-righteous, unbending doctrine of total abstinence. Moderation Management, on the other hand, operated on a philosophy of structuring and limiting your drinking, not necessarily cutting it off entirely, an idea considered heretical by AA and others. The organization was routinely under fire from outside critics and was so small there was only one live meeting a week in New York, which I’d been attending for two years. Through the Web, however, support was there around the clock.
Such was my devotion to the online group that checking my e-mail had become an addiction itself. The group took the form of a “mailing list,” a kind of e-mail collective: Any message a list subscriber sends to the list is instantly forwarded to all the other subscribers around the world. I knew a handful of the more than 200 list members from meetings, but most wrote under pseudonyms. Since signing on to the list, I had taken to writing daily, sometimes several times a day, often composing long letters about my life and my drinking. The list was seductive; it offered intimacy without obligations, the opportunity to trade secrets about drinking binges and arguments with spouses.
The group was not without problems – occasionally, members would post incoherent messages after they’d had too much to drink. And I sometimes fretted about the confidentiality of the list. My real-life friends didn’t know I had a drinking problem. It wasn’t a huge dark secret, but I feared that it might be misunderstood. I had become comfortable talking about it in live meetings, but those were clearly anonymous. Could a list of more than 200 people reasonably be considered safe? The introductory message had nothing about anonymity in it, except for advising people not to post under their real names. Anyone at all could join.
Many people didn’t have access to live self-help groups, so this was their only outlet. We congratulated ourselves on how supportive, nurturing, and special we all were. It was a place where we could freely discuss our own private struggles without fear, a kind of haven that the real world could not intrude on.
But that all changed, at least for me, when Larry Froistad confessed to murder.
Larry had been on the list for some months. Unlike many, he posted under his own name. He even maintained a Web page for our organization and put up photos that other members of our online group sent him. Alongside these he posted pictures of himself, his girlfriend, and his adorable, brown-haired child from a previous marriage.
Some time during the weekend of March 21, he posted that his girlfriend had left him and that he was drinking too much. When we reassured him that he would get over it, Larry responded that we didn’t know what a worthless person he really was – and then he made a startling admission: He had murdered his daughter, the one pictured on the Web page. He offered no further explanation.
“What do you mean, you murdered your daughter?” I wrote back to him over the mailing list on Sunday, March 22, shortly before leaving for a birthday party with my husband. “Is that emotional hyperbole, or cold fact?” When we got home, I checked my e-mail before going to bed. I didn’t really expect Larry to reply directly, but he had. He had sent out, to the 200 or so people on the list, a detailed confession.
During a custody battle with his wife three years ago, he wrote, he “got wickedly drunk and set our house on fire.” Once the fire was going, he climbed out the window. He heard his daughter scream, then go quiet. He climbed back into the burning house, picked up her semi-conscious body, and listened to her wheezing breath. He then dropped her and climbed back out the window, practicing expressions of shock and horror until the police arrived. He told them his daughter’s dying screams had awakened him and enabled him to escape the fire. “Those last two screams that I tell everyone saved my life – they are wounds on my soul that I can’t heal and that I’m sure I’m meant to carry with me,” he wrote.
There were dozens of responses on the list, as well as personal e-mails to me, begging for advice. I was considered a leader on the list because of my success with the program. “What can we do?” pleaded one. HELP ME HERE!, another was headed. One woman who barely knew Larry forwarded a personal e-mail he had written to her at the same time he had confessed. “Honey, I can make a difference for you,” it ran, “if you give me a chance. I would love to try being close to you.” As I sat there, stunned, “Instant Message” notices popped up on my monitor like firecrackers. Another list member, a woman from the South whom I’ll call Lucy, sent me her telephone number. We suddenly felt unsafe writing anything on the Internet. I called right away, and after some brief agonizing, we agreed that we had to notify the police.
Larry didn’t say where his crime had taken place – I dimly remembered his once mentioning that he now lived in San Diego – but he did admit in his confession that he had been flown to Rapid City, South Dakota, for observation shortly after the fire. The next morning, Monday the 23rd, praying I was doing the right thing, I faxed copies of his confession to the Rapid City and San Diego police. On Tuesday, I received a phone call from a Rapid City detective who told me that three years earlier, Larry’s 5-year-old daughter had died in a house fire in Bowman, North Dakota (population 1,700). My stomach dropped. All along I had been hoping it was a hoax, that Larry had made it all up as a deranged cry for help. But the response to my fax suddenly made it real. I had prompted a homicide investigation.
The North Dakota police called on a daily basis, asking for all the postings Larry had sent to the list after making the confession. None of them quite understood how the Internet worked, so I had to explain. They told me that the police chief of Bowman had been the officer who answered the call the night of the fire, and that all of the local police had known Larry and his family well. That was one reason they’d ruled the fire accidental, even though some aspects of the blaze hadn’t added up. No one believed he could have done such a thing. Not poor Larry, who’d gone through such a rough divorce. “You’ve done the right thing,” the officer in charge of the investigation assured me. “He might have gone out and done the same thing all over again.”
The officer asked me to go on posting to the list as if nothing had happened, and to please not let anyone know that the police were involved.
I was unreasonably frightened that Larry would find out about me somehow and perhaps even come after me. The officer mentioned that out of 200 or more people who had read the confession, only two of us had contacted the police (I later learned a third person had also come forward). He said, “We’re asking ourselves, what sort of group is that?”
What sort, indeed? The morning after his confession, apparently realizing what he had done, Larry had started writing e-mails suggesting that he had imagined the whole thing. “This situation is very confusing to me,” he wrote. “Is there a chance I’m not the horrible person I feel like?” He mentioned his mother was schizophrenic, and he later maintained that he had been on medication. Many people on the list commiserated with him and lashed out at the few who admitted they were disturbed by the confession. “Frankly, I’m offended,” went one e-mail. “This is a SUPPORT group.”
People I had come to trust were eagerly circling the wagons around a man who said he had murdered his daughter. One group member defended him as “one hurtin’ puppy.” Another counseled Larry, “Please don’t blame yourself.” And Frederick Rotgers, the professional therapist who acted as the list-keeper and whom we called Fred, maintained that not only was Larry mentally ill, but the child probably never even existed!
The police told me they would swear out a warrant for Larry’s arrest the following week but still needed to do some legwork “to get all their ducks in a row.”
Meanwhile, feeling I needed advice, I phoned the founder of Moderation Management, Audrey Kishline, and told her what was going on. I expected she would understand what I had done and support me. Instead, she was shocked to learn that the police were involved. She admitted that she hadn’t wanted to go to authorities in part because of possible adverse publicity. Our controlled-drinking support group was controversial enough already, Audrey felt. And besides, she added, “what’s done is done. I mean, the child has been dead for a while, hasn’t she?” Reached later, she insisted that she was not sure the crime had actually happened or “whether it was our responsibility to do anything about it.”
In the days following Larry’s confession, all I could do was sit in front of the computer and obsess. As I was speaking to the detective one afternoon, my call waiting went off. It was Lucy, hysterical.
“Fred outed me to the list!” she said, referring to the list-keeper. “He told the list I went to the police!” Quickly, I went online. She had accidentally sent the list-keeper a personal e-mail that she meant for me, with a derogatory note about his “sucky” attitude. Enraged, the list-keeper responded on the list – to all 200 subscribers – making it clear it was Lucy he was replying to. He again pointed out that the child probably did not exist, and he stated that his 25 years of experience as a therapist had taught him how to read people pretty well and that Larry was no criminal. Then he announced that the police had been notified.
The next day, Friday, March 27th, Larry was arrested in San Diego, where he was held without bail. After his arrest, the police told me, he acknowledged feeling responsible for his daughter’s death and having memories of setting the fire. I asked Audrey to put out a statement saying what had happened. I thought this would settle things down on the list.
How wrong I was. Audrey’s statement read, in part, that the group had initially “decided not to take any outside action. The event had already occurred, and there was no discussion about ‘planning’ to commit a crime.” She added, with evident disapproval, that “several members independently took this matter to the authorities.”
That night, the list erupted into anorgy of finger-pointing, wild accusations, character assassination, the works. “Have fun with this, you cads and hen-peckers,” one woman wrote. “You have afforded him the opportunity to occupy that rack he has so long sought.”
For most, the issue was not the murder of a 5-year-old girl but whether it was ethically right to turn in “one of our own,” as Larry was called repeatedly. “What bothers me is the apparent judgmental and unforgiving attitude,” wrote one. I stayed online reading until the wee hours, as did many of the other list members. A man I knew from my live meeting wrote a profanity-laden letter lashing out at the “meddlesome tight-assed ratfink minimus of an oozing worm turd” who had turned in his good friend. “This cyber canary will be discovered,” he continued, “and will get whatever measure of curse or blessing that karma has to give.” I shuddered to think how he would react if he knew it was me. Finally, I left my desk and collapsed on the couch. It was three o’clock in the morning.
The next day, I arranged to stop receiving mail from the list. Larry has been extradited to North Dakota to face charges that he murdered his daughter. It appears from news reports that his lawyers will try to prove that his confessions, both to the police and to the list, were induced by alcohol and mood-altering drugs. Internet legal experts agree that as far as his confession to the support group is concerned, there’s little or nothing he can do to have it suppressed on the grounds of therapeutic confidentiality. The police intimated to me that many new details would emerge over the next two weeks but declined to be specific. In any case, Larry Froistad willed this upon himself. If he is, in fact, guilty of murder, it seems clear to me that he wanted it known and that he wanted to be caught. For my part, I feel certain I will have to leave Moderation Management, not just the online group but the live meetings as well. That breaks my heart. Now when I need to talk, it will be only to my husband or to an old, trusted friend. Or I’ll write it all down in a journal that I can close and put away in my desk.