Stalking Victims Live With Fear That Doesn't Diminish Easily
I was lucky, if you can call it that, to have been stalked before the digital age. Nearly 30 years ago, a stalker had to rely largely on land lines and the U.S. mail to instill fear, and a stalking victim had to rely largely on herself and her friends for protection.
I've been thinking about stalkers a lot lately, because of the Erin Andrews case and especially because of continuing debate over whether Andrews somehow "asked for it" because of her hair and her clothes and her looks. I'm no Erin Andrews, nor was I 30 years ago. But an August 2009 report by the Department of Justice says that during a recent 12-month period, 3.4 million people age 18 or older were victims of stalking. They can't all have been pretty blonde women with high-profile television jobs.
I was stalked long ago, before there were reports on stalking, before we even had a name for it. I first met my stalker, a fellow journalism student, when he asked to interview me as part of a class assignment. We sat outside, he asked me a few questions, and that was it -- until his professor pulled me aside about a week later. She was worried, she said, about the tone of his story. She wouldn't show it to me, not because of privacy concerns but because she didn't want to upset me.
That was the beginning of two years of what I would describe as near-unrelenting hell. My stalker also wanted to be a sportswriter, so I saw him nearly every day, at every football and basketball practice, at every game, and of course every day in the halls of the J-school. I was always there, in the newsroom of the student paper, which had a glass front facing the hallway that led into the building. My stalker became a fixture at those windows, standing and staring in at me.
The phone calls started soon after. He never said a word -- in fact, after the interview, he never spoke directly to me again -- but he'd call nearly every night. Then the letters began -- and for the first time, I was truly afraid for my life.
The letters -- it's hard to talk about them, even after nearly 30 years. I learned later that my stalker was taking a religion class and a human sexuality class at the same time. The gist of what he had learned, apparently, was that God wanted us to have sex. I thought by now that sentence might make me laugh, but even now, all I remember is the terror of coming home at 2 a.m. from closing up the newspaper for the night and finding in my mailbox a 12-page letter -- handwritten, front and back, single-spaced -- containing graphic descriptions of God's wishes.
I lived with those letters, that wretched bundle of filth, in my cedar chest for 20 years before I finally got rid of them during my last move. Few people knew the entire story, and if something happened to me, I wanted the police to know where to look.
My friend Gene was with me one day when I pulled one of the letters out of the mailbox. He read it, and mobilized the troops. I wouldn't be left alone in the newsroom, ever. At practices, someone would always sit with me, at least one person and sometimes more. If I was seated near my stalker in the press box, the seating cards would be switched before the game to put as much distance between us as possible. One of the basketball players found out, and offered me a present: his switchblade, which he'd brought with him to campus from New York. I was tempted, but declined.
I assumed the end of the semester would mean a break from stalking, but when I arrived for my summer internship at a Missouri paper, a letter was there, waiting for me.
Why didn't I call the police? It never occurred to me. The only stalking cases I'd even heard of involved celebrities. How was I going to convince the police that this person was a threat? What were the chances they'd believe I hadn't done anything to encourage him? Later, when I was rattled enough and ready to call, some administrators at the journalism school urged me not to. They felt my stalker was fragile and didn't want me to push him over the edge. The basic message was this: If I turned him in, he'd commit suicide, and it would be my fault. So, no pressure.
Another year passed: letters, phone calls and . . . stalking. One morning I woke up early and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. The undeveloped land across the street was covered with weeds and high grass. There, sitting in the wet morning grass, staring back at me, was my stalker. He'd been there all night.
Everyone has a tipping point, and mine came with a strange phone call one night. It wasn't my stalker; it was a therapist. He wanted me to come in for a joint session with my boyfriend. My boyfriend had told him that I was to blame for a lot of the problems in our relationship, and while he knew my boyfriend had issues, it would really help my boyfriend's treatment if all three of us could talk together.
I still remember standing there, in the dark, phone in my hand, shaking, as this guy went on and on about my boyfriend and my poor treatment of him. You see, my boyfriend wasn't in therapy. The boyfriend he was describing was my stalker. Slowly it came to me: I was being chastised by a mental health professional for being mean to the man who was torturing me. And finally, I snapped.
When I was done unloading, and the therapist was done apologizing, I gave him a message: One more letter, one more phone call, one more sighting of my stalker anywhere near me, and I was going to the police. Period. End of story. Whatever he subsequently said to my stalker, it worked, because it stopped. All of it.
The fear didn't stop. Not for a long time. For years, reaching into a mailbox was an ordeal. Even now, when I see an envelope addressed in unfamiliar handwriting, I get that old familiar frisson of fear. I have resisted all suggestions to create a Facebook page because of my stalker. I hesitated a long time before writing this, and more time before giving it to my editor, because I don't want this column to be seen as encouragement to my stalker.
Some people may think that the worst thing that happened to Andrews is that video clip on the Internet. As awful as that violation of privacy was, remember that Andrews also has to live with the knowledge that this man stalked her all over the country, that at times only a hotel door separated her from a clearly obsessed and disturbed man. As hard as it is to remove a video from the Internet, that's how hard it is to remove that kind of fear from your mind. And that's why I'm tired of the endless debate about whether Andrews somehow "asked for it." Just stop. Believe me, no one asks for this.