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Lesson of Te'o: Heartbreak is heartbreak

Online romance has big risks, but falling in love face-to-face doesn't mean the love is pain-free.

Sandy Banks

5:00 AM PST, February 2, 2013

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I'm not sure what's more weird, the idea that Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o fell in love with a woman who didn't exist or the soap opera sideshow that has developed around the saga of his fake dead girlfriend.

We've moved from skepticism to voyeuristic obsession since the story broke last month. Katie Couric's television ratings soared when she booked Te'o and his family on her talk show last week. Dr. Phil milked interviews with Te'o's hoaxer for scads of publicity this week.

I understand the fascination. It makes for great coffee shop chatter and compelling TV. But after we've wrung out all the drama, what's the take away from this story of heartbreak and deception?

The television interviews may have clarified facts, but they didn't bring us much closer to truth.

That's because getting there requires a suspension of disbelief, an understanding that in matters of the heart, real describes feelings, not people.

If you didn't grow up with Facebook, iChat and Instagram, you might find Te'o's love story odd. It started with a friend request online and blossomed into romance through text messages and cellphone calls. Lennay Kukua was smart and pretty. Samoan, like Te'o, and respectful of his Mormon faith.

Their plans to meet always seemed to fall through. But he never doubted she existed, he said. He told Couric they'd drift off to sleep on the phone; he'd wake up and listen to her breathe.

"Why wouldn't you want a real girlfriend you could spend time with?" Couric asked him.

Because Lennay seemed real enough. "I found a lot of peace and a lot of comfort from being able to talk to somebody who knew my faith, knew my standards and understood," Te'o said.

Comfort, acceptance, someone who understands and loves the real me. We recognize that as love.

It's hard to find in real life; it's pretty easy to fake online.

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When the story of Te'o's dead girlfriend began to unravel, conspiracy theorists and football fanatics suggested that Te'o had invented the tragedy to pump up his Heisman Trophy chances.

That's a nod to the power of "star-crossed lover" sagas. But if the 800 sportswriters who pick the Heisman Trophy winner can be swayed by that sort of off-the-field drama, they are bigger rubes than Te'o.

Because the romantic charade came to light the same week that cyclist Lance Armstrong finally came clean about doping, it was easy to regard the sporting world as a morality-free zone, where everyone's looking for an edge and Te'o is just another cheater courting glory.

Should the cops be brought in to investigate? Will Te'o's stock drop in the NFL draft?

That's just us thrashing around because we feel duped and don't know what to make of this.

"Are you gay?" Couric asked Te'o. Or "the most naive person on the planet?" As if a 'yes' to either of those could tidy up this episode.

But it was Couric, in fact, who came off as naive, as she scolded Te'o for "sticking to the script" for weeks after he realized that he'd been tricked and Lennay Kukua might not even exist.

If she'd been in his shoes, Couric said, she would have gone immediately to her coaches and declared "We've got to get to the bottom of this!"

Really, Katie? At 21?

I would have holed up in my room, crying my eyes out and hoping no one would ever find out that I'd been so stupid.

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If you've ever had your heart broken, it's not hard to imagine the confusion and humiliation Te'o must have felt when he realized that the girlfriend he'd so publicly loved was nothing more than an avatar, made to order by a stranger trying to meet his own warped needs online.

His pain was real, even if the girl wasn't.

I'm sure that Te'o has drawn a lesson from this — and I hope it goes beyond online tactics, like "make sure your next girlfriend has Skype."

What he experienced online is a magnified version what happens in love in real life. People aren't always who they claim, or what you need them to be. You give your heart to someone before time reveals their mysteries. Online romance has big risks, but falling in love face-to-face doesn't replace those with guarantees.

I've learned something watching this unfold: Love online, when you're young at least, isn't all that different from love in person. You fight, you make up, you talk all night. You bond through shared revelations, intimate rituals and their requisite drama.

I found it comforting to discover that Lennay Kekua was killed off not in service of some Heisman dream, but because "she" thought Te'o was cheating on her. He was Skyping other girls and not returning her calls. That hurt, said the man who pretended to be Lennay, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

He'd fallen in love with Te'o, he told Dr. Phil. The heartbreak made him realize "I had to move on with my life."

And now that the drama is winding down, it's time for the rest of us to move on and leave this, like a disappointing lover, behind.

sandy.banks@latimes.com