Book Notes: Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
Are stalkers more adept than the rest of us at living in a decontextualized media environment? I was struck while reading James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: on being stalked, by the fact that his stalker was just more skillful at navigating social media platforms and other online projections of selfhood than her victim, presumably the sane person in the story. A renowned poet, story writer, and essayist, James Lasdun is quite accomplished on the page, but the looming “Nasreen” seems more suited to the screen.
Certainly, stalking victims will follow a different line of thought while reading the book; more like What is Lasdun thinking writing this book? Is he nuts? Stalking is an exhausting experience; Lasdun compares it to asymmetrical warfare, which it was in his case (certainly not always), but it’s more generally a war of attrition, a grinding, enervating ordeal, and most people who go through it just want it to stop. Lasdun’s gambit in writing about it is to assume that doing so won’t worsen the situation, although it’s hard to see how much worse it could get.
What happened was this: Lasdun taught a graduate writing course in which the best student was “Nasreen”, an Iranian American woman working on a novel about a family in Tehran in the 70s. Lasdun befriended Nasreen, helped her find help to develop the work, and tried to maintain an appropriate distance as mentor, ultimately rebuffing her flirtatious overtures. At which point, she ignited into a raging ball of incandescent unfocused aggression, sending Lasdun twenty emails a day, attempting to poison his professional relationships via inappropriate messages under his address, rewriting his Wikipedia profile, and bombarding his employers with emails accusing plagiarism, inappropriate sexual conduct, running a black market in stolen student storylines via a Jewish cabal, and orchestrating her rape years before. Lasdun does everything he can to rid himself of the vengeful cyber-harridan, to no avail. As the book ends, the case remains open and the authorities seem to be tiring of him.
Some readers will agree. Lasdun’s digressions, comparing his plight to Gawain and the Green Knight, “Strangers on a Train”, and targets of anti-Semitic attacks throughout history and in contemporary Israel, might feel a bit too writerly, trying, after all, to give context to an experience that is maddening exactly because critical context is missing; as the attacker’s rancor does not connect to a tangible framework. Instead, it’s disproportionate and one-sided, like the “love” some claim for lifelike dolls. Lasdun’s story reads like there’s a chapter missing where we finally discover what Nasreen was so upset about. Writing in the New Yorker, John Colapinto asks what Lasdun might be leaving out; was there a sexual attraction fostered between the two? In The Millions, Jessica Freeman-Slade compares him to Humbert Humbert, the go-to example of an unreliable narrator (not to mention an academic sexual dallier). It’s tempting to call this sort of response “victim blaming”. I don’t think memoir readers have the same responsibilities towards victims as law enforcement however.
This is also a common outsider’s response to stalking. I was never stalked. At most, I was mildly harassed and aggressively slandered by an obsessed individual who made it his mission a number of years ago to ruin my reputation in the local community for reasons that made little sense to me and were far out of proportion to his angry fixation. I’d planted a seed in his mind by ending a brief creative collaboration and this seed grew into a thorny obsessional garden in which I was a sort of half-scarecrow half-effigy jutting up in the middle ground and refusing to be burnt. The real “me” found the fight grueling and marveled at the sheer endless energy of the poor obsessed schmuck. Every time I thought the undergrowth had died, or been cut down by the imposition of reality, I caught glimpses of its winding, spiky tendrils poking back through the soil to prick me once more. Months would go by and then I’d hear from a friend who’d been subjected to a bizarre, delusional tirade when the guy heard they “supported” me. Outsiders always assumed that there was some sort of two-sided “feud” going on, in which I was much more engaged than I really was. I felt more like a windmill being pestered by Don Quixote.
And then there was my close friend who truly was stalked a few years ago by a casual acquaintance who’d decided that she was “his girl”. They’d never so much as gone out for coffee, but there were the same unrealistic expectations of interpersonal loyalty placed on her, the same anger when she couldn’t live up to those expectations, and she felt the same embarrassment over it all and worried that somehow she had caused it. When outsiders heard about it, and the guy wasn’t exactly subtle, a common assumption was they had dated or she had led him on somehow. Obsessive personality disorders can be bewildering and inexplicable due to the out-of-nowhere quality to the behavior.
Ultimately, obsessives like Nasreen seem like deeply tormented souls desperately seeking someone to save them from their pain or, failing that, to take the blame for it. What seems to be out of whack with stalkers is a sense of interpersonal context. We encounter dozens of people in our everyday lives, the majority of whom are mere acquaintances. These people, however, can’t quite see anyone as neutral; we’re all either enemies or close friends in their personal melodrama. It’s always personal. They invest heavily in friendships and enmities almost immediately. Lacking a coherent core of selfhood, they have no stable boundaries with others.
Do any of us anymore? The Internet is the ideal medium for erasing boundaries between people because it decontextualizes personal information. In this, it mirrors television, its obvious antecedent. In 1980, George W.S. Trow wrote In the Context of No Context, a meditation on television that some find prescient, others mystifying. One of the memorable points he makes, however, is that television does away with context and insidiously removes the scale between things, so that Mrs. Johnson’s quintuplets are presented in a way that suggests they are equal in importance to the tornado in Kansas that killed 67 and the new diet cola that tastes just as refreshing as the old. The Intnernet, meanwhile, applies this decontextualized equivalence to personal life along with everything else. If an alien were to interpret the endless stream of Facebook updates, he would assume that famine in Sudan is as important as Mary’s new baby, which is as important as Jerry’s doubts about his new job. For someone who has a tenuous grasp on interpersonal context, persons online must appear much closer than they actually are. This sense that we know people intimately who we have no real contact with is, thus, strangely characteristic both of personality disorders and online relationships.
Is this why the Internet so often unleashes the darker impulses of its users and glows with their psychopathologies? Will online relationships become the model for unhealthy and unstable relations in the real world? Are mentally unbalanced individuals like Nasreen simply ahead of the curve, heralding a new age of unstable relationships?