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Nowadays people are clued into the fact that there are less-than-desirable folks lurking around in Internet chat rooms. More than a few front-page tabloid tales have shed light on the existence of chat-room boyfriends and girlfriends who, in person, are not at all who they claim to be in cyberspace.
Unfortunately, five years ago, when AOL was still rather new and entering a chat room was far from being considered an orthodox activity, people weren't so wise. And five years ago Katherine Tarbox was your average clothing- and weight-obsessed 13-year-old girl living a fairly sheltered life in New Canaan, Connecticut. In her book, Katie.com, Tarbox describes New Canaan as a cookie-cutter wealthy town filled with cookie-cutter wealthy people. Tarbox's mother worked too hard. Her stepfather spoke to her too little. Tarbox filled her days with school, choir, and the swim team. Some of her friends had already begun dating boys. But not Tarbox. Not until her older sister came home from boarding school with a laptop computer and introduced Katie to America Online.
On AOL, Katie found her way into a teen chat room. There, she met a man, Mark, whom she grew to love. Mark spoke to Katie as though she were an adult. He listened to her problems. He was available to her at times when her busy family was not. Mark became Katie's confidant. This relationship was her private, special thing. She told no one about Mark, not even her friends. Mark told her he was 23 and living in California. Katie worried about their age difference, but Mark assured her they had a real connection. Besides, he wrote her, she was mature. The relationship progressed. They both sought each other out, happily searching for each other in chat rooms and looking forward to almost daily emails. They even spoke on the phone.
Eventually, Mark decided they should meet in person. He asked Katie to fly to California. She said no. He asked if he could come visit her in Connecticut. Katie said no again. Soon Mark asked if he could meet her at a hotel in Texas, where Katie was to attend a swim meet with her team. Katie, excited and nervous, agreed. Mark bought a ticket. Finally Katie told her best friend about Mark. Her response wasn't positive; she was alarmed.
Once in Texas, Katie, now 14, went to Mark's hotel room. She didn't like his looks or his shoes. He looked old. Katie reminded herself that she loved Mark, even when he tried repeatedly -- despite her protests -- to touch her sexually. Katie's mother, also in Texas as a swim-team chaperon, eventually arrived and pounded on the hotel room door. She had been alerted by Katie's best friend and had security guards and police officers with her. It turned out that "Mark" wasn't Mark at all. He was Francis John Kufrovich, age 41.
Katie.com is far more real than any front-page tabloid tale of Internet deception. Katherine Tarbox, now 17, bravely spills her guts in these pages, carefully outlining the events leading up to her meeting with Mark in Texas. She even admits to feeling guilty, describing at length what she feels responsible for, even though she was just a young girl when she met a man in a chat room. But Tarbox doesn't end her memoir with the Texas meeting. She writes about the ensuing depression, anger, and shame. Katie's parents, severely disappointed in her, pressed charges against Mark, and Katie had to spend hours with the police and the FBI. She felt ostracized, ashamed, gossiped about. She went through many therapists and had to work hard to regain her family's trust.
Katie.com is the story of Tarbox's chat-room romance gone very wrong, but it is also just a story of a teenage girl. Tarbox's capacity to be brutally honest is considerable. Her words provide tremendous insight into the vulnerability and insecurity of young adults, which makes Katie.com a compelling tale to read for parents and teenagers alike.