On Being Stalked

give me everythingIn the autumn of 2003, James Lasdun ran a fiction workshop at an American college where he met a talented Iranian-American student whom he calls ‘Nasreen’. He praised her work and encouraged her and they had an entirely ordinary and satisfactory working relationship. Two years later, she sent him the finished manuscript of her novel in the hope he would read and comment on it. Busy at the time, Lasdun did the next best thing and offered to put her in touch with his agent. He then embarked on an email correspondence with her, for the most part benign, but including some mild flirtatious remarks, which he took to be (hoped were) ironic. When James told her that he was planning a cross-country train journey, and she replied that she wanted to smuggle herself into his cabin, ‘I began to realise that something more explicitly discouraging than a mere tactful silence was going to be required of me.’

At first Nasreen seemed to take it quite well. But her emails continued to multiply in his inbox and the tone became inconsistent; there would be some apologetic emails, some normal, some angry and troubling. As the volume increased to dozens a day, and the sentiment turned to outright hostility and rage, Lasdun stopped replying. Whilst this would seem like the only way to proceed, the absence of his voice seemed to catapult Nasreen into a fantasy world of her own making in which she was a victim of all sorts of malpractice. She accused him of plagiarising her work, and of stealing it to pass on to other writers (who then published before her). She insisted he’d had an affair with one of the other students in her writing class, she went on to claim that he had ‘organised’ a rape that had happened to her before the two of them met at the fiction workshop, and there were of course, reams of vicious criticism about his writing all peppered with anti-Semitic attacks. And then she spread her net wide, sending written allegations about him to all the colleges he worked at, altering his wikipedia entry, forwarding unpleasant internet material to friends and colleagues in his name, leaving atrocious reviews of his books on amazon, etc and etc, until Lasdun was nearly half out of his mind with anxiety about what she would do next, and whether he would ever work again.

My total failure, after all these months, to slow down or in any way inhibit the flow of hatred had had a demoralising effect (as I write, the BP oil catastrophe is unfolding and it is impossible not to picture Nasreen’s hostility as that blackness on the spillcams, billowing unstoppably from the ocean floor, my efforts to staunch it as ineffective as BP’s with their feeble funnels and top kills). I felt flayed, utterly defenceless. Every email sent lacerating spasms through me as it struck, each with an afterburn, a half-life that was nowhere near over before the next one came in, so that I could never regroup my own forces.’

What, you may ask, did he do about it? Well, pretty much everything possible to block her, including trying to involve the FBI. But as a supposedly ‘privileged’ white male claiming wrong done to him by an Iranian woman, and a student at that, he was on the wrong side of the PC divide, and in the case of a relatively new internet, outside the boundaries of the law. And it was not easy trying to put what was happening into words: ‘the harder I tried to be neutral and objective, the crazier I sounded.’ There’s a painful moment when his boss at the college turns up with a ‘very weird email’ about him, a tirade of verbal abuse in fact, which looks pretty bonkers on the face of it, but which nevertheless unsettles an always-jumpy head of an American college. Lasdun is dismayed to find that his boss expresses some concerns about the accusation of ‘daytrading fiction’, which is Nasreen’s claim that he sent her work out to other writers to use, something Lasdun had thought would appear patently absurd. It’s the same old story – some of the flung mud always sticks.

What raises this book above the undeniably fascinating category of car crash literature, however, is the brilliance of the writing and the depth of thought that has clearly gone into Lasdun’s account. Retreating into his inner depths to try to ascertain the extent of his own guilt, and to understand the nature of their imploded relationship, he is drawn towards literary works and writers that echo or simply speak to his situation – Gawain and the Green Knight, D. H. Lawrence, Tintin. Some of these long digressions offer incredibly potent glimpses into the sorts of darkness and pain we are manufacturing in our modern technological age, due in part to our mindless reliance on the internet:

One would think that the ease of performing such manipulations and the large scale on which they immediately began occurring would have long ago discredited the Web as a source of information about anything, but…our first instinct, being creatures of the Word, is to trust it, and even on deeper consideration we tend to feel that it is basically more right than wrong, and that we can accept its approximations as the truth.’

He’s right, of course. The lack of policing on the web and the opportunities it offers to upset, harm and smear others is something that hasn’t had much thought given to it yet. You’ve got to hope that the example of James Lasdun does set some sort of process in motion (not even phone calls from the police deter Nasreen, as she realises on some level that no one will really take the trouble to stop her). And yet, what ultimately intrigued me about this book was the refusal on Lasdun’s part to see Nasreen as simply mentally troubled. The emails he reproduced came across to me as quite self-evidently nutty (and vicious and rageful), but he believed that labelling her behaviour as psychotic would free her from responsibility when he felt sure her attacks were calculated. But it also ‘becomes, for literary purposes, less interesting (at least to me).’ And here we come to the quiet crux of the matter; Lasdun becomes entangled in Nasreen’s web of hatred for ‘there was also something manifestly creative in her unstoppable productivity, a vitality I couldn’t help envying.’ There is a force, albeit one of negativity, that attracts him magnetically and which prevents him from dismissing her and walking away. For me this begs the question of why it should be so much easier to do the things that are wrong, for us and for others, than it is to make the enormous effort to do things that are right. But maybe the saving grace of the whole situation, and the reason it damages him so, is that Nasreen offered him a convoluted way of suffering for art. This is an extraordinary book, but one that came at a very high price.

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101 thoughts on “On Being Stalked

  1. If that ever happens to me (God forbid it should), I’ll call a lawyer and get a restraining order. Anyone violates those, off to jail immediately. That’s what happened to the guy who stalked a rabbi I know.

    • Lasdun was told that he couldn’t prosecute unless he had proof that Nasreen was making death threats, and anti-Semitic ones, on a regular basis. So he couldn’t block her emails in case he missed the vital evidence that would finally give him leverage to deal with her. Of course she stopped short of that, just wishing he and his family would die, which isn’t the same thing. It’s a really grey territory it seems, so we’ve all got to hope that new legislation or just new ways of dealing with online harassment come in soon.

      • That’s a strange condition. Wouldn’t “simple” death threats be enough to get a restraining order, whether they contain anti-Jewish slurs or not?

      • I checked the book after reading your comment, to make sure I wasn’t getting confused. Lasdun thinks he is the victim of a hate crime, which is a federal offence. So he contacts the FBI, and they tell him: ‘I would need direct, repeated death threats and even these would have to be explicitly related by my being Jewish’ for him to be taken seriously. I know, it seems amazing, but that was how things were at the time he looked into them.

  2. Wow! Thank you for the recommendation, I’m going to have to check this out. This story was nuts! It’s sickening on some level to hear things like this, but it’s also intriguing to read about different levels of the psyche like this.

  3. An incredible story. I’ve seen some similar sorts of online attacks in other fields, and we must wonder just how long we must wait to have the legal recourse for libel and slander on the Web that we have when they occur in print or face-to-face discourse.

  4. This sounds like such a fascinating book – how helpless one would feel in this situation. I couldn’t work out from your review whether there was any end to the stalking?

    • Well that’s exactly what Lasdun suffers from most in the end – this awful feeling of impotence because he can’t protect himself. By the end of the book (five years later), she’s still stalking him. Makes your blood run cold, doesn’t it!

    • Lilian, the writing in this book is amazing – I think you’d appreciate that part of it. I was so intrigued by this idea that she had to be aware and responsible for what she was doing for the situation to be interesting in a literary way. I’ve still not got to the bottom of that.

  5. “so much easier to do the things that are wrong, for us and for others, than it is to make the enormous effort to do things that are right”

    I never understood stalking. Psychological problems aside, who has the time? It looks like it takes a lot of energy to be evil and I’m too tired at the end of the day to wreak havoc on much more than a beer.

  6. I think the internet does need some protections against stalking and cyber bullying. There was a case here in Missouri where two teenage girls were friends, stopped being friends, and one girls mom made up a fake profile of a boy. The remarks the mom made were so hurtful, the other girl hanged herself. They tried, but she wasn’t able to be persecuted under any stalking, harassment, or endagering a child. Now a law that was created after the girls death protecting people from online harassment could actually help the mom against people who are now harassing her for being a bad person.
    The internet is still fairly new, and the law seems to be trying to catch up to it. Personally, after studying domestic abuse in legal classes, I think stalking laws need to have more teeth in their punishments. Stalking is a serious crime that can ruin someone’s life, and can lead to the ultimate death of the victim.

    • It seems like the law really struggles with this sort of intimate relationship problem, where you have a normal situation turned sour. Date rape is a sort of related thing, I think. But yes, bullying, stalking, harassment of any kind can turn really serious and have huge consequences.

    • I agree that punishment for stalking should be more severe. However stalking does not only occur online. Jilted and estranged spouses or boyfriends have easily escaped lawmakers by stalking and killing their prey. It seems mostly males have concluded the obsessive pursuit with death of their victims.
      Police involvement to prevent stalking appears to be weak. That is a problem since the victim trusts in their authority and protection.

  7. I read an article by Lasdun a while ago where he talked (more briefly, obviously) about all the stuff that happened with Nasreen. Totally fascinating! Because I like slightly morbid memoirs. Can I ask how self-pitying the book gets (if at all)?

    • Oh Jenny, it really was fascinating in a dreadful way. I didn’t find it self-pitying at all, but then in all honesty, I think people to whom dreadful things have happened are allowed a bit of license. But the first part is very straight and factual, and the second, where he goes into the sense of his own guilt, brings in a lot of literary works, and the third is about his trip to Jerusalem to work out how he feels about the religious element of the stalking. So there’s not much space for self-pity. He does talk at one point about how anxious he’s grown, but I think the first quote above I drew from there so it should give you some sense of how he sounds. I mean, it’s obvious that he’s immensely distressed by what has happened and it really does his head in. But he’s not interested in blaming anyone, for instance. I’d be very intrigued to know what you make of it.

  8. This one book, when I read an excerpt in Entertainment Weekly, had me shaking my head. It’s a book I want to read, but sadly universities don’t know how to handle situations like these. Friends who are professors have gone to department heads to discuss situations where they’ve been threatened or harassed and there’s nothing you can really do.

    • Yes, he does eventually approach the authorities at his college, who are shocked and upset but can’t really do much for him. They offer him their lawyer, but that won’t work because the college isn’t Nasreen’s target. Lasdun remembers being given a talk about avoiding sticky situations with students, so it’s clear colleges are very well aware of the potential for these problems. But they can only try to prevent them, at the moment, not cure them.

  9. Having been stalked, it’s never easy to divorce yourself from culpability. You always question and examine and wonder if a different word, a different response would have altered the situation.

    I too could not excuse my stalker as simply mentally troubled. He wasn’t. His efforts were calculated. Misguided he may have been, but mentally disturbed no.

    To Rami Ungar in the comments above I would say that lawyers and pieces of paper only protect you if they get caught. It’s never that simple.

    Nice review. Excellent writing of your own.

    Regards,
    ES

    • Your thoughts chime with all that Lasdun is saying in this book. He’s haunted by the possibility of his own culpability, although it seems very clear that he didn’t do anything wrong at all. And you’re quite right about the lawyers. I’m really sorry to hear you’ve had to go through this. I can imagine how horrible it must be.

  10. Yes, this is a common problem, the law is too slow to catch up to new technology. Though, the internet has evolved faster then probably any other technology.

  11. Well. I’m glad his story’s finally out. It seems like a terribly unfair situation.. I wonder, did that lady ‘Nasreen” have any idea what she was doing to his life.. or her own? I can empathize with Lasdun, I was hacked and stalked too, just online, thank God. Deleted everything and every account I had, and it was at least six months before I did something directly on the net again. This is definitely a book I will read. Good post!

  12. Your review and observations are for the most part perspicuous but I dismiss the view that Lasdun was suffering for his art. I doubt that any man would pay that price. I found myself wondering if there might be a correlation of the Stockholm Syndrome at play in his admiration of her efforts. I will read this book – thank you.

  13. In my first book, my main character is stalked by an anonymous admirer. The behaviors of the stalker were loosely based on some experiences of mine, but they were no where near as bad as this. It seems this book demonstrates exactly what I have been afraid my situation would turn into if I don’t handle things just right. This is a very sobering review, and I can’t wait to read the book.

    • I really feel for anyone who has had to go through this sort of experience. Lasdun is very good on getting across the impotence he feels, with so many people indifference to what’s happening or slightly suspicious he’s brought it on himself. Hopefully, the potential for bullying and stalking online will eventually be reduced – it’s a truly overwhelming experience, it seems.

  14. There’s nothing more terrifying than someone like this, someone who’s willing to put themselves at risk just to damage your reputation. I guess that’s one of the risks of putting yourself out there.

  15. How terrifying! And it sounds like from comments he is still being stalked? I don’t understand why he won’t say she is mentally ill. One can be mentally ill and calculating at the same time, I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive. Her behavior is not normal.

    • I should have known you’d put your finger right on something that was niggling me at the back of my mind! Yes. that is the problem – Lasdun really does equate mental illness with diminished responsibility, but there are many degrees of psychosis, and for the most part, they come with manipulative behaviouf. It’s definitely a flaw in his thinking.

  16. I’ve been stalked a few times in my life, one of the cases ended in court, so I wouldn’t read this. Not because I’m still traumatized or anything, no, just because I know this topic inside out.
    I my case the man I had to go to court with was a psychopathic schizophrenic but he was an exceptionally severe case. Anyhow most stalkers, I would argue are at least to some degree mentally ill.
    One has to be super careful.
    I remember hearing other women making jealous remarks at the time – “Nobody has ever been this besotted with me”…. I think people don’t realize that when you go through something like this you’re pretty much a city under siege.

    • Oh yes, I think I recall you saying this before. This is an unusual book in that it’s very literary and includes all sorts of intriguing digressions. If it weren’t for the stalking aspect, I would think you’d appreciate it very much. I’m ure that some people don’t get what it’s like. There’s such a huge difference between imagined and real experience in these sorts of experiences.

  17. Wow, well that’s one way to get the true story out: write a book about it! That’s pretty cool, I hope his name is cleared. Some people go WAY too far. Thanks for sharing this though and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Thank you! I hope he feels better for it, too. Though I do wonder how his stalker will react to seeing their story told in his words and under his name. Hopefully his publishers have offered him some protection.

  18. Not for me, I would get too angry reading it. Something that does interest me about this is that no one seems to have commented on the fact that it is a woman stalking a man. In a funny way I find this quite positive. Twenty years ago a male colleague of mine was stalked by a female student and it took a great deal of persuasion to get the authorities to take his complaints seriously because stalking was something men did to women and not the other way round. However bizarre it might seem that does appear to be some kind of progress.

    • You know, that struck me when I was reading it. Lasdun himself seems aware of how his situation must look (and he’s mostly concerned, as anyone would be, that he won’t be believed, or that he’s exercised more power than he knew he had). But nobody he speaks to in authority, either at his college or in the police, treats him as ludicrous. I think it probably has to be counted as progress of a sort!

  19. Many years ago I was stalked by a maintenance worker at my church. He seemed harmless enough at first, and I knew he had gone through a post divorce breakdown, but it escalated over time to him showing up at my front door when I got home, my car in dark parking lots, someone was getting in my home and stealing “personal” items. It was a very awkward conversation with the head priest at our church, after all, everyone thought he was such a sweet guy. I eventually had to get the police involved, but couldn’t prove he was the one breaking in my home, so I had to leave my parrish, move, change my phone number to an unlisted number, as suggested by the police, as they said these things can esculate to violence. One word, nightmare……

    • I do feel so sorry for people who’ve had to go through this. There seems so very little that can be done. I do hope the situation is resolved now, and that life is peaceful.

      • It was a process for sure, and I guess the hardest was trying to understand why I had to turn my life upside down to move on, and the stalker was probably never made to understand the pain he inflicted. BUT, it was many years ago, and while I am less trusting for sure, I am in a peaceful place with the situation, living many states away.

  20. The effects of stalking and harassment are simply horrific.

    It’s quite disgusting that someone should not be believed due to the colour of their skin, gender and class. It can happen to anyone, from anyone. Racism!

    A really well written post, thank you!

  21. As someone who has suffered to a slight extent (and yes, as a 63 year old white male I’m the wrong side of the PC divide) I can tell you that some people (including Google -as it was done through a Google account) don’t take it seriously. I really pity him. I appreciate that the person stalking me was probasbly mentally ill but that does absolutely nothing to make it easier for the victim and I have never resolved in my own mind the issue of whether that frees her of responsibility.

    • It’s one of those things that tend to be sent up and presented for their funny sides, but it really isn’t funny at all, is it? I can see that it would be immensely disturbing, not least the difficulty of figuring out what went wrong and what might have been changed (if anything at all).

  22. What a scary and incredible story! I’ve seen this book advertised somewhere (I remembered the vivid title), and I really need to see if my library has it. If not, I’ll probably have to break my pledge and run out and buy it. Reading your review gives me the shivers.

  23. Great post, thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine what that man is going through, constantly trying to prove that he is innocent must be tough. This book will help, no doubt! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed as well.

    • Thank you! Lasdun is quite eloquent on the awful paradox that means insisting on his guilt makes him sound less innocent. But I do think anyone who reads this can see the situation quite clearly for themselves from what he writes.

  24. I, for one, will not read the book. Doesn’t interest me in the least. Why? Well, that’s personal. So he writes on the back of someone’s unhappiness and deranged behaviour. And he is the victim. Well, good for him. At least it’ll get him some sympathy and, no doubt, plenty of royalty from all of you.

    Like your commentator Stefanie remarked, and I am astonished that she is the only one who picked up on it: “… but he believed that labelling her behaviour as psychotic would free her from responsibility when he felt sure her attacks were calculated.” How weird is that? And how utterly vindictive: “… would FREE her from responsibility.’ How do ‘psychotic’ and ‘responsibility’ go together? He “FELT sure her attacks were calculated”. Calculated? You could have fooled me. His statement makes zero sense. And actually marks him as a rather unpleasant person in his own right.

    U

    • Well, that’s a different point of view from the ones that have come in so far. I think it’s difficult to judge the characters involved without having read the book, but I quite understand it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

  25. This is such an interesting and controversial topic to explore. This is a good place to start…thanks for sharing.

    Best

  26. Really scary-fascinating. How he almost came to admire her for her determination.
    I wonder if there were reactions from her when the book was published?

  27. I had a stalker who made my life so crazy that when she moved from incessant emails and phone calls in the middle of the night to comments on my blog, I put some of her nasty emails up in a couple of blog posts so people could see who she was. It turns out that my husband and I are not the only people she has stalked and harassed. I’ve been contacted recently by two more people bringing the total that I’m aware of up to six, so far.

    • In the book, there’s one NYPD officer who seems quite sympathetic to Lasdun’s situation, and it turns out that he’s got a relative with a personality disorder who has done similar things. If personality disorders are at the root of that sort of behaviour, then the chances are good for repeat offences – it may be the only way that person knows how to love (or hate, or love themselves), which is a disturbing thought. I hope it helps to know that your experience was not so personally directed (although it will always feel that way at some level, I’m sure).

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  31. You have a VERY good point. I have friends how have been stalled and I’ve gotten to know girls who are stalkers. People need to keep in mind that stalkers are people are purple too, they sometimes get in over their head.

  32. I do under stand how scary a serious stalker can be. My uncle had one and she threatened my aunt and their kids leaving pics of herself and pics of my uncle. We were scared that the stalker would try to harm my cousins.
    Keep in mind that there are different stalkers.
    There are the dangerous ones who threaten you and cause harm
    Then there are the sad stalkers who follow around their exes.

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  34. How frightening. Like Simon I was curious to know how it finally turned out, but it sounds like it’s still happening, which really shocks me. Someone can get away with such blatant behavior? In a weird, twisted sort of way, it almost sounds like some sort of Stockholm syndrome (though I know the situations are different and cannot perhaps be compared) where the victim feels some sort of ‘sympathy’(?) towards the perpetrator. I’d heard of James Lasdun but have not read any of his work. This would be a draining reading experience I suspect.

    • I can see how it will take a very long for me to get this story out of my mind. Thanks for the recommendation litlove.

      And already, like Danielle, I get the sense that he is enjoying this in some sort of way, putting it better as “stockholm syndrome.” There’s this obvious attachment.

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  36. The same thing happened to me. Its a paralysing and terrifying process. The police wouldn’t help, despite death threats and an attempt on my life. I spent a vast amount of money with solicitors, but it was hopeless. The viral nature of the internet, false names and identities, and an extreme level of hate means that laws and legal processes can never contain such a person.

    I believed it ‘could never happen to me’. I was wrong. It can happen to anyone. Wrong place at wrong time, and your life is over.

    My stalker was different than many. She had money, and was well connected. Her partner was a senior police officer. It meant she was untouchable for four years.

    I now live in hiding. I was forced to leave my home, and my country. There is still a contract on my life, which she openly boasted about.

    Never think it can’t happen to you. It can happen to anyone.

  37. What a frightening experience to have. The internet makes it easier for our privacy to be violated like this. If you come across the wrong sort of person you can really have a problem. I had a bit of a stalker in college. If he had had the internet at his disposal I am quite sure he could have made my life hell.

  38. it can really grow to a scary as hell experience especially as what boardinginmyforties said earlier with all the technology and social media available to us nowadays, I also am growing in fear for my kids…. : ( and what their future would be like

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