The end (or the beginning) of a remarkable controversy in the Yard.
Editor’s note: It is difficult to reach conclusions at this stage; the Indy is aware of this. The facts as they are presented come from interviews that the reporter conducted with those familiar with Mr. Liu and from carefully conducted research. Of course, updates will be posted as the story develops.
Update 1:57 AM, 12/14/11: Mr. Liu contacted the reporter via phone earlier this evening. He criticized the sources and suggested that the information was false. He repeatedly denied the reporter’s requests for an interview.
At 3:42 PM on April 13, 2005, the WayBack Machine made its way across the Internet, downloading and archiving millions of websites from around the world as they stood at that very instant; the slow-crawling bot, three seconds past the minute, stored a copy of abeliu.com.
Yi-Fan Liu, who went by Abe, made his website reflect who he was. Born September 19, 1984, in Taiwan, Liu grew up with his parents and twin brother in Raleigh; at the time, he was pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Sports Management at North Carolina State University. He was, in his own words, an accomplished athlete:
Competitive junior age-group swimming… Completed NSCC SEAL Team Training… Graduated from OAR SEAL Training Academy… Classed into Texas A&M SEAL Platoon.
Liu made his way through college; about a year and a half later, on December 4, 2006, someone recorded and uploaded a short video to YouTube of their friend Abe and his website.
Why did a 27-year-old elect to become a member of the Class of 2015? It’s not really clear. He wasn’t a Harvard freshman, at least, not according to HUPD and the Harvard Facebook. He created a (since-deleted) LinkedIn profile in which he listed no employment experience, but indicated that he would be graduating from the College in 2015. Liu had zero connections as of December 11, the last day that his profile seems to have been active. Yet Liu was, indeed, a Harvard affiliate—an Extension School student.
He had a Facebook account which has also since vanished, and posted excitedly and often on the wall of his “roommate,” whose Weld dorm would serve as a place for him to sleep most nights during his time on the Yard. He became close with a small cadre of Weld residents, who later became his staunchest defenders. Liu allegedly told a new acquaintance that he lived in Lowell; he took classes, made friends, and participated in the Harvardian world; he is rumoured to have participated in the newspaper’s Grand Elections at the beginning of his first Reading Period.
On September 29, the Crimson published a photograph of a grinning Liu online, taken from a collection of photos for their Fifteen Minutes weekly magazine, showcasing the fashion sense of the Class of 2015. (The Crimson has since, for reasons unclear, closed down comments on the photograph, which focused on the mysterious origins and identity of Liu; there has been uncharacteristic silence at the newspaper on the controversy.)
His life on the Yard was like that of every other Harvard freshman; friends and acquaintances claim to have eaten with him in Annenberg, partied with him, worked with him, gotten to know him. Autumn came; people struggled through their first midterms; it snowed, for some reason, a few days before Hallowe’en—and then it got unseasonably warm once again.
Liu wove (and repeatedly re-wove) an elaborate fiction about himself to tell his new friends. At first, he was 22, a freshman who had taken a few years off; then, when his friends began to realize that he was not listed in the Facebook at some point in October, Liu revealed that he was an Extension School student, but one who had graduated from Vanderbilt and claimed to be taking myriad advanced classes at the Medical School while drawing perfectly-construed mathematical models on the whiteboard in Weld Common Room; later, he claimed to be a former Olympian who had played in Beijing for the United States (or China, depending on who he told). His friends could see that he was intelligent, approachably nice, and he seemed to just be a guy in kind of a weird situation.
On November 10, Occupy Harvard pitched its tents and began their continued occupation. Yet even in the wake of HUPD’s lockdown, Liu had access to the Yard, thanks to a stolen ID card, one stolen from a real freshman in October, allegedly while they studied in a group. As time went on, Liu’s story came into better focus: his Weldian acquaintances, suspicious, began to look for more information—discovering that he had gone to North Carolina State University, where he was accused of various crimes, including identity theft and credit card theft. Someone informed HUPD last week; according to witness accounts, this led to Liu being kicked out of the Yard, something which happened on multiple occasions. Yet Liu kept up his Harvardian life as finals slowly approached, until, suddenly, the Internet turned against him.
In the afternoon of Sunday the 11th, as Reading Period came to a close, Heather Lynn Pickerell ’15 posted a meme someone else created, and which she had found, to the same group which Liu joined at some point in the summer. ABE LIU, the Y U NO rage-face inquires, Y U NO WHO U SAY WHO U ARE?
Immediately, controversy erupted on the post, which has since been removed by the group’s administrators. In a statement, Pickerell indicated that her original intent was to make light of a strange, gossipy situation; over the weekend, rumours had begun to surround Liu, rumours which apparently polarized the freshman class. Her post turned from light to charged; Pickerell claimed to have been personally attacked numerous times by Liu’s defenders (backed up by a group administrator’s post about the situation, urging calm and telling people not to attack others). “The bottom line is that none of my intentions were malicious in any way and I did not (or at least did not intend to) insult abe or his friends in any way shape or form. Although the post has been taken down, the abe liu story as well as the meme is definitely a hot topic amongst the freshmen both online and offline,” said Pickerell.
Various other meme-ified images spread around the freshman class, generally among those who supported Pickerell and could not understand the strong reaction against her post; one derisively criticized one of Liu’s closest friends, Christian Ramirez ’15 (in whose common room Liu reportedly slept often). The situation devolved into a scandal quickly. The persistence of the controversy among Harvard freshmen has been repeatedly emphasized by many who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The HUPD report from the morning of the 8th is succinct and straightforward:
Officer dispatched to take a report of suspicious activity. Upon arrival, the officer was informed that an individual was using a falsified identification card to gain access into the yard. The individual was not in the area at the time of the incident. At approximately 1208 hours officers located the individual and conducted a field interview. The individual was checked for wants/warrants with negative results. The individual was issued a trespass warning for all Harvard dormitories and sent on their way. At approximately 1800 hours, an officer was dispatched to take a report of a theft. Upon arrival, the reporting individual informed their identification card was stolen sometime in October.
There’s a wonderful irony here. Liu made it a full semester at Harvard before his alleged lies caught up with him, all the way to 12:08 PM that day, as Lamonsters polished off their final papers and crammed the remnants of their textbooks into their brains. He lived the life of a Harvard student for months without attracting substantial attention, until the memes began and turned into a psychotic whirlwind in the hours before Primal Scream.
While hesitance is often the prescription for a journalist, I made the decision to write and publish this article at this early stage of the scandal at the behest of numerous people who contacted me personally, demanding that some part of the vast Harvard media reflect this immediately pressing and controversial issue. While many asked not to be named, fearing retribution by Liu’s friends and tension with the administration, Luis Usier ’15 agreed to go on the record about the controversy.
“I’ve known about this for a while now. I’ve been reading the Crimson, waiting to see them publish an article, and they haven’t said a single word about it. I spoke to my proctor, who seemed not to know about the situation; she spoke to the administration, who apparently weren’t aware that the freshmen were aware of the situation.” Usier, who lives in Weld and has interacted with Liu on many occasions, indicated that the issue was a primary concern for many of his friends, and that it was incomprehensible to him and them that it had gone unreported for so long. “It sounds like the administration is trying not to spread the story. Which, in my opinion, is very misguided; he hasn’t been kicked out of the Extension School, he could make more friends—this could happen again.”
Usier suggested that Liu was hardly a controversial figure until people realized he had lied so much. “I would trust him completely about everything he said, and then this happened. I’ve studied with him in the same room before. He’s such a nice guy, but this is wrong.” Of primary concern is the administration’s behaviour and the traditional media’s silence on the debacle, despite the fact that Liu has spent nearly a full semester masquerading as a freshman. “The University must realize that this has been a terrible security breach, given that we are in a time of heightened security measures, and the lack of information here is creating fear and insecurity among students—and imagine what parents would think! A 27-year-old living among their college freshmen?”
This issue—one which both the Harvard administration and the traditional arbiters of public opinion over at the Crimson have been silent about—is more serious than it might appear. Those who maintain that Liu did nothing wrong, and those in high places who have avoided the issue, must face the fact that Liu’s occupation of the Yard transcended that of the Occupiers.
It is incomprehensible that something which challenges the security of the Yard, particularly in the wake of heightened security concerns surrounding Occupy Harvard, has gone unaddressed and unmentioned for days—let alone that it was allowed to happen in the first place. One of Liu’s closest allies, in a long Facebook message, decried the arguments of the Class of 2015 as having the right to know as a whimsical fantasy after vaguely suggesting that the security of the Yard and of Weld was never threatened. Yet, when the security of an entire community of students is clearly threatened—as one might expect when a man with a history of lying about himself lives illegally in the freshman dorms—someone must be held accountable. The story must be told.
Gary Gerbrandt ’14 (garygerbrandt@college) has no time for impostors, or for a Harvard which just won’t tell its students the truth. And thank you to those who corrected my misunderstanding of military time.
1:27 AM, 12/15/11: Time changed from “1208 hours” to “12:08 AM”, and “Reporter’s Commentary” heading added above the final two paragraphs, which are editorial in nature.
2:20 AM, 12/15/11: For the sake of clarity “Crimson” and “Fifteen Minutes” have been italicized throughout, and “about” was deleted in the third-to-last paragraph.