photos case writes about cyberbullies
Lesli Catsouras, the mother of Nikki , has just completed a memoir “Forever Exposed,” about her family’s journey coping with Internet trolls and cyber-bullies in addition to the toll-road-crash death of her 18-year-old daughter.
LADERA RANCH – The book began as therapy, a ritual through which Lesli Catsouras could work out her feelings of despair, horror, anger.
But now that it’s written, the Ladera Ranch mother is consumed by a fresh round of anxiety.
“My book has been such a huge part of me for so long, I’m afraid to let it go,” Catsouras says.
“At times it was all I had to get me through the rough days,” she adds. “Although I feel like I’m doing the right thing, it scares me to death.”
For Catsouras, “the right thing” means going public with a wrenching account of losing her 18-year-old daughter, Nikki Catsouras, in a violent 2006 car crash – and how details of Nikki’s death, including grisly photos and news accounts, became a source of entertainment for some Web users, as well as pain for her family.
The tale of her journey, in a just-published memoir “Forever Exposed: The Nikki Catsouras Story,” is about loss, grief and the larger fight against insidious forces in cyberspace.
It’s also an act of courage.
Now that she’s publish her book, Catsouras knows the trolls will be back. The usually anonymous online commenters who harassed her family and turned Nikki’s death into an international news story have never totally gone away. And they figure to step up their harassment once they learn that she’s write a book about a form of pain that possible two decades ago.
The mission, she adds, is worth it.
“I hope this book will send a message to anyone who has taunted or bullied someone online, or is thinking about it. (When you do that) you don’t just harm one person … you can destroy an entire family.
“I’m hoping that with more awareness, things can change,” Catsouras, 46, says. “When you say things online, you don’t see the consequences.”
GRIEF AND HORROR
If losing a child is the worst pain imaginable, the Nikki Catsouras family has had to endure that and more.
Nikki was killed on the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2006, on the 241 toll road. She’d taken off in her father’s Porsche and, while driving as fast as 100 mph, she clipped another car and lost control.
The Porsche flew across the dirt median and into oncoming lanes before slamming into an unmanned toll booth in Lake Forest, killing Nikki instantly. Still strapped into the driver’s seat, she nearly was decapitated.
That was the start of the family’s horror.
In the next few weeks, as the Catsouras family was trying to cope with Nikki’s death, photos of Nikki’s remains began circulating online. Some of the graphic images – leaked by people who worked for the California Highway Patrol – were accompanied by messages that disparaged the dead teenager and her family. A fake Myspace page was created that at first looked like a tribute to Nikki but led viewers to the horrific images.
The CHP eventually accepted responsibility for the leak. And the leak eventually led to recently settled litigation that redefined law in California as it relates to death images and the privacy rights of surviving relatives.
For Catsouras and her family, the road from Halloween 2006 to today has been anything but easy.
Lesli’s husband, Christos Catsouras, 48, recently suffered a mild heart attack. His doctor says stress over Nikki’s death and the family’s crusade to get her images off the Internet – and the harassment from strangers – contributed to his ailment.
Nikki’s youngest sister, Kira, 13, still is forbidden to go online.
“My parents don’t want to run the risk of me seeing them,” Kira says of the pictures.
Her sisters Danielle, 21, and Christiana, 19, are extremely cautious about accidentally running across the photos. And in the early stages of the ordeal, Danielle, then a high school sophomore, school to be home-schoole when rumors s that pictures of Nikki would turn up in her locker.
A former real estate agent turned real estate broker, Christos saw his income plummet when he, too, stayed offline after the images went viral in late 2006. He and Lesli have spent thousands of dollars trying to get the photos permanently delete from the Internet with the help of a private firm, Reputation .com.
Of course, that’s only part of their misery. The family still grieves Nikki, a quirky, free-spirit teenager who was planning to study photography in college.
Lesli Catsouras began writing her thoughts in a journal on the anniversary of Nikki’s death.
“It was a place for me to channel my grief, to get through the circumstances that, at the time, were too painful to bear in silence,” she says. “Instead of yelling and screaming, I would write. And that would get all the emotions out of me. I found it to be very cathartic. I would recommend it to anyone, especially to someone who has lost a child.”
Writing also was a way for Catsouras to work through her frustration over depictions of Nikki and her family that she found not only inaccurate but vicious.
Some Internet trolls wrote that Nikki was a spoiled rich kid who deserved her fate. Others slammed Christos for supposedly letting Nikki drive his car, even though she took it without his or Lesli’s permission.
Other nameless Internet posters spread misinformation that Nikki had been drinking, when in fact she hadn’t. Traces of cocaine were found in her system, but she was not high when she got behind the wheel.
For Lesli and Christos Catsouras, the photos and rumors were an ugly sideshow that distracted attention from what they see as the real egregious act: the CHP improperly releasing accident-scene photos.
Roughly half of “Forever Exposed,” which at about 88,000 words is a standard-length work of nonfiction, details the Catsourases’ battle with the CHP and Internet trolls.
They insist the lawsuit wasn’t an attempt at a money grab and say that their cut of a settlement reach in January – $2.37 million – already has been eat up by legal and other fees stemming from their attempt to rid the Internet of the images.
As for her book, Lesli says a portion of proceeds will go to charity.
“I’m not preoccupied with how well it will do,” she says.
“Forever Exposed” is available only as an online book, for $8.99; a paperback version will be available shortly, Catsouras says.
THE REAL NIKKI
“Forever Exposed” is structure in alternating chapters in both Lesli’s voice and the voice of her husband, though Lesli wrote everything.
After a brief prologue, the book starts with the day Nikki fled in the Porsche, and more or less proceeds chronologically, with Catsouras filling in details of Nikki’s life, including her brush with death when doctors find a largely inoperable brain tumor when she was 8.
In the book, Catsouras writes that the brain tumor accounted for some of Nikki’s erratic behavior as a teenager, including her experimenting with cocaine. One time, cocaine cause a psychotic reaction that force Nikki to be hospitalize for 72 hours. But Nikki, contrary to some Internet posters, was no party girl. Instead, Catsouras writes about a hippy-like teen who loved thrift stores and helping the homeless.
Danielle says she’s happy her mother wrote the book.
“It was good therapy for her,” says Danielle, an aspiring musician who works part time as a bookkeeper. “I think the people who have bullied our family should read this so they can see Nikki as a person, and not just as an image.”
Christiana, a working student, says she can’t read the book. “It’s too emotional for me,” she says. “I can’t get past the first page.”
For Lesli Catsouras, finishing the book has left her feeling restless.
She and her husband, however, have a project to keep them busy. They are working on getting a law pass in California that would make it illegal for first responders to release accident photos to the public. The CHP and other law enforcement agencies have policies in place that ban the practice, but it’s not technically a crime – yet.
“If anything, I hope our story will spread the word about cyberbullying and encourage others to be kind online,” Catsouras says.