Turning About: or the online entanglement of an email sex scam and a Christian romance novelist
There are enough uncertainties here that to do anything other than face them head on would be, at worst, disingenuous and at best, cowardly. This could all be hearsay, sort of. The leveling of voices brought on by the Internet has made it possible to peer across the room and eavesdrop on a conversation between strangers –– only the room is much bigger, and it may turn out that the strangers are estranged even to each other; they may not even know they are talking. This story follows one of those conversations, albeit a conversation in the most literal sense, as in the word’s latinate root, derived from the verb conversari meaning “to live with, to keep company with,” or literally, “turn about with.” This could be hearsay in the sense that it is my account of how two distant stories came to turn about with each other in the far reaches of the web, and that there is little other than the turning in question to go off of.
When you eavesdrop on a conversation, there’s usually a key word or a loud noise that catches your ear and suggests you zero in on the exchange. For me, this was an email I received in the spring of 2011 with the subject line, “LAY YOUR LIFE INTO OUR HANDS AND WE WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY, TARPLEY HITT” and the discovery that alongside its promise of “MIRACLE INSTANT PENIS GAINS,” the email contained a second, hidden layer of text –– an entire, invisible swath of story taken from the pages of the semi-prominent Christian Romance e-novelist, Judith Bronte.
There is little information about about Judith Bronte available online, but this is what I know. Bronte, a forty-maybe-fifty-something white woman with brown, chin-length locks (just about all you can see in her closely-cropped author photo) has been publishing christian romance e-novels since 1998. Bronte was born in South Carolina, but grew up and currently lives in Southern California. She has two brothers, was homeschooled and is very close to her parents. Bronte’s father, in fact, was the person who inspired her to write and her mother encouraged her to pursue it as a career. The mother passed away a few years ago. Bronte’s family subscribes to a set of deeply Christian values. On her author page Bronte writes, “My mother said that as soon as I was old enough to understand that Jesus Christ had died for my sins, I was claiming Him as my Savior.” Although her narratives are often religiously inflected, Bronte tries not to “hit her readers over the head with her beliefs.” Notably, Bronte has never had any extended romances herself. “The model I use time and again of a healthy marriage,” Bronte writes, “came from observing my parents' strong relationship.”
Bronte says her penname blends her favorite writer and her favorite Bolshevik: “Bronte” from the the eldest Bronte sister, Charlotte (Jane Eyre, not Wuthering Heights), and “Judith” from a young Russian girl, allegedly martyred for her conversion to Christianity during the October Revolution. I say allegedly because, although Bronte claims the girl was known only by “Judith,” presumably in a Madonna or Cher one-name fame kind of way, her existence is undocumented anywhere else online, save for a self-published novel called Judith, Martyred Missionary of Russia: A True Story, whose dearth of cited sources and Google hits makes “true story” seem more like a plea than a promise. Judith Bronte’s real name is Sarah Fall, and her pseudonym is a hardly a secret. Fall reveals her double identity at the very top of her homepage: “Hi, I'm Sarah Fall, and I've been writing free love stories under the pen name of Judith Bronte since 1998.”
Sarah Fall’s pseudonym resembles her writing: archetypal bildungsromans with blends of Christian mythos and chaste romantic intrigue. Her titles share a predilection for the word “journey” (Abigail’s Journey or Terry’s Journey or Journey of the Heart to name only a few), and her repertoire is narrow in scope: damaged ingenues, burly love-interests, nostalgic Americana, always against the backdrop of unwavering faith. Say what you will about romance novels, but Fall has no delusions about her work, which she reveals in her sole interview, a twenty-minute clip on a now-defunct radio show called Love-a-licious.™1“Some people call it ‘wish gratification,’” Fall says in her girlish falsetto. “It’s being able to put yourself in another place to be able to have your Prince Charming say whatever you want to your heroine.”
On the homepage of her website, beside the dancing animation of a brunette in maryjanes, Fall advertises her newsletter: “Keep up-to-date on all the announcements and website news!” Beneath the sign-up slot, Fall writes in tight script: “My policy is to follow the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12); I hate spam too, and will never sell or give away your email address.”
To earn the label “spam,” a moniker inspired by a Monty Python sketch in which normal conversation is crowded out by strings of nonsense (“spam spam spam spam”), an email has to be two things: unsolicited and en masse. In other words: you didn’t ask for it, and it went to a ton of people. As a result of the latter criteria, pretty much anyone initiated into email account membership is familiar with spam –– it ranks among modern certainties, alongside death and taxes. The first criteria, on the other hand, is more slippery than it seems. It is easy, for example, to confuse spam with advertisement email: coupons or newsletters you unwittingly subscribed to during one e-purchase or another. This is not spam, as technically, there was an act of solicitation, however nefariously subtle it might have been. The Department of Justice’s explainer on spam is broken into four sections –– Africa-Based Investment Schemes, Medical Products and Devices, Financial Investments, and General –– which succinctly sum up the gamut of law-breaking spam styles.
Because of spam’s ubiquity, these categories should be fairly self explanatory.2 But the second group, by far the most extensive, is slightly coded. “Medical Products and Devices” is bureaucratic euphemism –– the category includes the range of “miracle cures” and scams praying on the medically desperate, but most of it is sex (a lot of sex).
Like Fall, spam trades in wish gratification –– but what the former says in subtext, the latter puts in the subject line. Any given junk folder is likely to be filled with offers for porn, dildos, penis enlargement procedures, Russian escorts, French escorts, escorts “only TWO miles from YOU!!,” and medications from Canadian Pharmacies, for bigger, longer, faster erections. Still, if you take a moment to browse through this veritable buffet of sworn sexual enhancements, you may notice that the genre is, on the whole, distinctly un-sexy. The majority arrive in a narrow palette of beige colors, from senders as subtle as “Mrs. Paulette Hersman” or as loud as “Enlarger Pills 389!!.” The messages are concise and direct: maybe just “Buy penis enlargement pills here!” with the requisite “Click on the attachment below.” The emails channel the graphic design of a skeezy injury lawyer –– aggressive fonts, bad pictures, and a few too many exclamation points.
Before writing full-time, Fall worked as a website designer, a revelation which is somewhat surprising because her online presence seems frozen in an early-aughts digital style and because the actual reading of Fall’s books requires some virtual gymnastics. On the 15th of every month, Fall uploads a new chapter of her latest series, Dandelion Skies, on to the homepage of her blogspot site, judithbronte.blogspot.com.3 The website has almost no text –– only links to the chapters, and a note crediting the page’s peach floral frame to Blogspot’s “ethereal” theme. The links lead to a URL of still pinker design (a fuschia page with purple cursive script) –– this is Fall’s main website, judithbronte.com, where fans can find chapters, snippets of her biography, FAQ’s, and the comments page. Fall has three other web pages to my knowledge, and a facebook group called “The Works of Judith Bronte,” for her various religion-inspired literary projects. I mention the multiple pages because their inconvenient, user-un-friendly, disparateness captures what is immediately apparent upon visiting any one of them –– that Judith Bronte, an author who has made her name on digital platforms, does not really know how to use the internet.
The spam email I received seemed equally inexpert, but nondescript. It didn’t have much text –– only a short promise of penis enlargement at half the going-rate, written in bold red. But if you dragged your cursor to highlight the text, clusters of words in white ink appeared. Most of these hidden sentences were garbled compositions of simple words: “Nothing to wait until you ready,” for example. Others alluded to characters: “Maggie and jerome was waiting.” Near the bottom of the email, the sender had also camouflaged their source: “homegrown dandelions by judith bronte.”
What most don’t know about messages like this one is that they aren’t scamming the receiver as much as the vendor. According to the Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO), 80% of Western spam comes from around 100 senders. These operations are sort of like advertising agencies. They approach small businesses and promise promotional campaigns with millions of viewers. After contracts are signed, what the vendor thought to be an aggressive ad-strategy ultimately translates into a half-hearted spam email that goes straight to junk folders. According to a recent study conducted by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG), this method is effective for fewer than 12% of viewers. So while the spammer makes a tidy profit, the vendor makes next to nothing.
It’s because the spammer has no interest in his emails’ success, that their design is, like Fall’s websites, exceedingly dated. More often than not, the messages make as little effort as possible to sell you on their product.
Sarah Fall is not particularly interested in selling either. For one, her work is free (although Kindle versions go for 99¢). And she isn’t after fame. Fall has refrained from interviews or other forms of promotion, except for her newsletter and singular appearance on Love-a-licous. In fact, it’s unclear whether Fall writes for any of the other usual reasons –– inner necessity, improvement, inspiration –– either.
By her own admission, Fall doesn’t edit much. In one FAQ, she writes: “...the thought of going back and rewriting my old work is a little daunting. I have so many projects going on, I'd rather use my time writing new material.” She doesn’t seem keen to evolve either. Between her first novel, Journey of the Heart and her most recent, Dandelion Skies, Fall’s style never strays from a familiar band of stock characters and storylines. I initially found her writerly impulse baffling. It seemed to produce constant, unreflective ejaculations –– a spam-ish triumph of quantity over quality.
I remained skeptical until, at the end of Love-a-licious, I heard Fall hint at her endgame. As she explains why, exactly, she so loves Jane Eyre, Fall pauses for a moment. “Her dialogue,” she says. “She makes everyday life interesting.” Fall’s own drive might be exactly this. Maybe the quick and continual output is a strategy –– an effort, perhaps poorly conceived, but trying nonetheless, to capture the spontaneity and average-ness of everyday conversation.
Everyday dialogue is the spammer’s gold, and junk folders are their poison. Although spammers don’t need you to buy the product, they do want you to see it –– and in order to succeed, spam messages need to pass as authentic human exchange. Unfortunately, a spam filter is a simple, but wickedly effective piece of technology. It is so slick, in fact, that the contemporary filter is largely the same as it was in 1996, when MIT computer scientist Jason Rennie first developed a program called “iFile.”
iFile was conceived to parse spam emails from normal emails (or “ham,” as they’re called in filtering communities), and it operated on a simple rule of probability known as Bayes’ theorem, after its inventor, the 18th century English priest, Thomas Bayes. With Bayes’ theorem, iFile crunched the likelihood that an email was spam by scanning its text and determining the “spamliness” of each word. “Sildenafil,” for example, a kind of generic Viagra, is more likely to show up in a spam email than a ham email: iFile would tally that. A person’s name, on the other hand, is far less likely to appear in spam: iFile would tally that too. After determining the spamliness of each word, the program would run the numbers on the email as a whole. If the ratio of spam to ham words was high enough, the recipient would never see it -– iFile would send it to the Junk folder, where it would wait to be deleted.
For spammers, this posed a problem –– most of their language (buy, purchase, penis) raised red flags. But like any pest, spammers evolved alongside their vaccine. They developed methods to fool the filters. The iFile process was simple, and so was the spammers’: all they needed was to upset the spam-to-ham ratio –– to masquerade as conversation, not ad copy.
Spammers developed dozens of offensives, but among the most popular was something called “word salad.” These programs scraped text from the internet, minced it, and camouflaged the garbled words with small, white fonts in the background of emails. The added text diluted the concentration of spammy words like “viagra” or “medication” and offset the ratio, tricking the filter into finding an email more conversational than it really was.
Since the Internet is filled with free writing, word salads were easy enough to cook up. For a few years, a common source to scrape were the classics: novels whose copyrights had expired, poems and essays that had been reprinted ad infinitum. The public domain provided an endless source of salad to feed a growing supply of spam.
This strategy had a minor pitfall. It attracted attention. As people started seeing Shakespeare alongside their escort ads, the media tuned in. In 2006, the New York Times published an article called “Literary Spam” by Meline Toumani, about precisely this phenomenon and other outlets followed suit.4 After the publicity, the prominence of literary spam waned: it was too flashy. As Toumani points out in her article, “most legitimate e-mail exchanges don’t sound like Shakespeare.” Filters caught classics, because often their language was out-dated: it didn’t sound like “ham.” It didn’t sound “everyday.” Toulani makes another good point –– modern spam filters also factor in repetition. An email packed with passages from Oliver Twist is bound to find matches all over the internet, whereas even the most banal conversation will prove to be relatively unique.
The problem with eavesdropping, particularly of the Internet kind, is that it comes with holes. In a room, you can walk over and ask questions if necessary, but online, it’s easier to avoid being found. So, I’m not sure who first sourced Fall for word salads or when –– only that they did. And I don’t know how many filters have been tricked or how many people received Fall spam in their inboxes –– only that mine was and I did. But I suspect that the reason I still receive messages filled with Fall’s words is that somewhere down the line, she did something right.
Shakespearean salads, for example, might stand out with the odd “thy” or “vassalage,” but Fall’s language is simple, plain, and conversational. Her vocabulary is narrow and laced with names. Fall’s works are obscure and unlikely to turn up matches online –– their arcanity approximates the uniqueness of real dialogue. With her monthly deadlines, Fall offers a wellspring of new material and it can’t hurt, of course, that it’s all free. I suspect that Fall, in her seemingly sterile narratives, managed to approach average conversation –– to capture the incessant banality of everyday “turning about.” And I suspect it is precisely this everyday quality which makes her so appealing a source.
1. Love-a-licious ™, hosted by Candace “The Loveista™” Chambers-Belida, is sponsored by a product which deserves a mention. The short ad, which at runs at the beginning of most episodes, opens with the gruff voice of an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. “Hey up there,” the voice says, “it's me, your crotch. My living conditions down here are deplorable –– the itch and burn are too much. Scrub me with Medicated Fungicure Wash when you shower and say, ‘hasta la vista’ to jock itch. Get Fungicure Wash at Walmart and Rite Aid. Do it Now!” When the ad’s 19 seconds are up, elevator muzak comes in and Chambers-Belida opens with her signature line: “If you’re feeling...love-a-licious...you’ve come to the right place.”
2 “Africa-based” is code for the “nigerian prince” schemers, so-called because the first wave of emails of this variety were sent from a server in Lagos by a scammer who claimed to be an imprisoned prince. These messages seek out gullible readers to lend them money with the promise of massive compensation. “Financial Investments” promise the same without the theatrics, often offering doomed business opportunities. The last group, “General,” allows for categorical wiggle-room.
3 Although Fall has always posted regularly, she has changed her publishing style over the years. When she first started, Fall published her books directly to the web in full. After 2001, Fall began writing her novels in monthly serial. She wrote chapter by chapter, posting each immediately after completion. “With God's grace, I never missed a posting deadline,” she claims on her author page. After 2014, Fall switched to a different method: penning her novels offline and, once finished, releasing the chapters by month. Mostly recently, Fall released the ninth and final chapter of her latest novel, Dandelion Sky on June 15, 2017.
4 NPR followed up with a Morning Edition feature of their own, called “Spam Goes Literary;” and by the end of the year “Empty Spam,” or an odd variant of spam comprised of only scraped text (all lit; little spam), made it into Wired Magazine’s “Jargon Watch.”