Eleven years ago, Kirat Assi received a message on Facebook from a man named Bobby. There was a family connection — he was the elder brother of her second cousin’s boyfriend, who had recently passed away. Bobby wanted a shoulder to cry on, someone to speak to as he processed the grief of losing a sibling. Kirat obliged. They grew closer. When he had work worries, health problems, when his marriage began to break down, he told her everything. Eventually, they became lovers. Except Bobby didn’t really exist. What started as a simple message turned into a decade of deception and coercive control at the hands of a master manipulator.
In a six-part podcast series from Tortoise Media, host and investigative journalist Alexi Mostrous walks the listener through the extraordinary case of Kirat and Bobby. In the first episode, he describes it as ‘a screwed-up, crazy kind of love story filled with death, lies and witness protection programmes’. It’s a story so fantastical that, were the podcast not produced by a journalist with a history of investigative reporting, I might have struggled to believe it was true.
After the runaway success of the television show Catfish, in which the presenter helps victims who suspect they’re being tricked online to expose the perpetrator, I was concerned this podcast might follow a similar, often predictable, route. But then, this wasn’t an ordinary story — perhaps it stands outside the realms of formula. Equally, Mostrous is a gifted and empathetic storyteller: he knows how, when, and the amount of information to give the listener at any one time. Having Kirat play a central role in the storytelling is a masterful stroke. Where she could come across — quite easily — as slightly gullible, hearing her explain how emotion superseded reason puts the listener in her shoes.
One of the keys to understanding the deception — and its feasibility — lies in Kirat and Bobby’s background. They are both Sikh and, in their close-knit community, it is not unusual to know of a second cousin’s boyfriend’s brother — or to connect with them on Facebook. From his online profile, Bobby and Kirat had friends in common, had attended some of the same events and lived, on the surface, pretty similar lives. So, when he first messaged her, it wasn’t particularly strange.
What is really striking is the longevity and complexity of the catfishing operation, which started when Kirat was 30. The patience of the perpetrator is nothing short of incredible. It took four years of messaging for Bobby to admit his feelings for Kirat, then their relationship deepened, not entirely healthily, for around another four. Although it was never physical — he had ended up living in New York and was in ill health — it was intimate: they would fall asleep on Skype calls together. Over the course of the series, we hear masses of tender voice notes from Kirat to Bobby. In stark contrast, we hear nothing from Bobby to Kirat — save for the eerie buzzes and beeps of his increasingly incessant phone calls and text messages.
Listening to Kirat detail the years of emotional pain that she suffered at the hands of a catfisher desperate to destroy her is incredibly uncomfortable. As Bobby became more controlling, Kirat lost a dangerous amount of weight, withdrew from her friends and family, quit the radio job she loved. When the perpetrator is unmasked (about halfway through the series), I almost punched the air. ‘Finally,’ I thought. ‘Kirat is going to get some answers.’ But reason came there none. No apology, no explanation. Kirat’s voice cracking as she recounts the moment she realised she’d lost the past decade of her life to a fantasy is almost unbearable to hear. I feel no shame in saying it brought me to tears.
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