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REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
But as I went on with my life, this thing I’d done kept following me around like a shadow.
OUR LITTLE SECRET

“It didn’t take long for him to find me. He told me he was 23. I told him the truth—that I was 15.”

By Helena Bala

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala started meeting people via Craigslist in 2014 and has been documenting their stories ever since. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Tiffany, 30s

I wasn’t any different than my girlfriends. The internet had only just become easily accessible; we spent our days on AIM, changing our away messages by the minute—waiting for the boy we liked to write us. We tailored our Myspace pages so that our favorite song played when someone visited; we obsessed over our Top 8. Our parents were clueless to the dangers of the internet—parental controls weren’t common yet—so we basically got to do whatever we wanted. We all played with fire. 

Around that time, internet chat rooms became popular. I used to go online after school and before my parents got home, and I became a regular. It didn’t take long for him to find me. He told me he was 23. I told him the truth—that I was 15. From what I remember, he was into martial arts. He told me that he had a girlfriend but that things weren’t going well and that he wanted to make “new friends.” 

At first, things moved pretty slowly. For a few months, we spoke every day and developed a friendship—I had a crush on him and took to thinking of him as my boyfriend. I told all of my friends about him. I even told my girlfriends that he was 23, hoping to impress them with the age difference. He “broke up” with his girlfriend for me, and I remember that I slowly started feeling that things were getting more serious—that I owed him something because he’d made such a commitment. 

His profile said that he was in Indiana, several states away from me. I guess I felt more comfortable because it didn’t quite feel real with him being so far away. He slowly started pushing the boundaries of what I was willing to do—he asked for photos, then he asked for my phone number (which, undoubtedly, told him where I was located), and then he asked to see me on camera. He reciprocated to a certain extent: I got photos, but never of his face. His camera was always “broken,” but I could hear his voice. We spoke on the phone and texted regularly. 

It was that easy. 

This went on for a few months—maybe six—during which I sent him very explicit photos of myself. One day, he suggested that he wanted to meet me and that he would come to my state to see me. By then, I’d become more than just a little suspicious of whether he was telling me the truth about who he was: I never got to see him on camera, for instance. When I looked up his profile on Myspace, he had a lot of other “friends” my age. He only had a few photos of himself up, and it was the same ones he’d sent me over the months. 

The more I backed off, the more eager he became. He’d call or text me in the middle of the night. He sent me hundreds of messages on Myspace, ranging from romantic to sexually explicit. The last one he sent said, “I’m coming to see you tomorrow.” I remember being completely freaked out. I went to school that day and I kept feeling as if someone was watching me.

I got so spooked that I deleted my Myspace account; I never went on a chat room again—and I somehow talked my parents into getting a different phone number. I didn’t hear from him for a long while and I thought that I was out of the woods. But as I went on with my life, this thing I’d done kept following me around like a shadow, and with it, the fear that the photos I’d sent him would resurface. 

I have a high-profile career now—along with a husband and children of my own. I think about this man every once in a while; shows like Law & Order: SVU and To Catch a Predator have done a lot to educate people about what predatory behavior looks like, and what it means to be groomed by a pedophile. And even though I know that I have nothing to be ashamed of—that people like him thrive on the weaknesses of children, that I got off relatively unscathed, that I was much, much luckier than a lot of other girls in my position—I still can’t bring myself to tell anyone about what happened. It makes me feel sick to even think about it. 

For the most part, I try not to. But sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I imagine that he has found me on Facebook. It wouldn’t be very difficult: I’ve kept my name; I live in the same state. I imagine him sending me a photo of my 15-year-old self. 

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com.