June 11, 2014 —
I remember learning about catfish from my grandmother. She lived on Route 97 between Narrowsburg and Callicoon and had a small pond in her backyard. When I was a boy, we would sit out by the pond and throw pieces of bread in for the catfish. I loved watching these strange prehistoric creatures nibble the bread up quickly.
“Those are catfish,” my grandmother explained while pointing out their whiskers.
Defined in the dictionary (a word since 1612) catfish are “any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels.”
Years later, when friends Henry, Rel and Nev got back from their road trip to Michigan, which would later become the documentary “Catfish,” they told me the story with such excitement that my heart raced. Over the next two years we all worked tirelessly to turn the 100 hours of footage into a taut 90-minute documentary.
(Spoilers ahead.) The documentary followed Nev as he befriended “Abby,” an eight-year-old painter who is inspired by his photographs. Online he met “Abby’s” family—her mother “Angela,” her father “Vince,” and her beautiful 19-year-old sister “Megan.” Nev and Megan hit it off, and their online relationship became romantic.
Eventually Nev got wind that not everything was what it seemed to be, and (with the support of Henry and Rel and a bunch of camera gear) drove out to Michigan to get to the bottom of the mystery.
They discovered that Angela, Vince and Abby were real people, but that Angela was the correspondent behind all of their online accounts, without their knowledge. Actually, she had created an entire online fantasy world with 16 different personalities, including that of Megan. Nev was crushed, but miraculously the denouement was all captured on video.
I always saw the whole piece as a detective story, but once the detectives uncovered “who,” they stuck around to find out why the person acted as he or she did. In this case they found that Angela’s day-to-day life was very difficult; she had two severely handicapped sons and the fantasy—painting as Abby and having a long-distance relationship with Nev—was an important escape for her.
It was always unclear just how much Angela’s husband Vince knew about what was going on between Angela and Nev; seemingly she had told him that Nev was buying her paintings. Nevertheless in support of his wife, he agreed to sit for an interview, and in a semi-prophetic moment he described his wife as a “Catfish” and told this story: