THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING STALKED is so harrowing, so bizarre and unexpected that it's almost impossible to react correctly when it happens -- when out of the blue you go from being a person to a person being stalked. When someone genuinely unbalanced discovers a fascination with you, a fascination he feels the need to communicate in all sorts of odd and menacing ways. In such an event, a woman's immediate reaction may be to fight back, or to talk back, or to stay in her house and cower; she may want to do one thing one minute and another the next; she may want protection from the courts or she may resent the whole idea of being protected. But as she gropes her way toward an appropriate response, she is likely to be told that while seeking recourse she should keep her head down and her mouth shut -- that what her pursuer wants, more than anything, is a response or a sign, and that a response or a sign is the one thing she should not give.
Such advice doubtless helps keep women safe; silence, as a default setting, surely saves lives and defuses confrontations. It also limits public awareness. And it's deeply frustrating -- a truth driven home recently by "My So-Called Stalker," a story that ran in the Washington City Paper in October and continues to reverberate in coffeehouse conversation as well as the courts. In that piece, a woman had the temerity to detail -- under the thin cover of a pseudonym, Theresa -- how a man with whom she had briefly worked developed a terrifying obsession with her; how over four years his visitations, profanity-laced messages and outright threats ("I can walk into [your bookstore] and blow a hole right in your . . . forehead") were unable to move the police even as they had her puking from panic. By itself, the account was remarkable. Equally striking was the response of a D.C. police spokesman who, after the story ran, said that the force would beef up its stalking protection, for fear that there might be "another victim out there."
Another victim? Well before her story ran, I attended a conference where a woman spoke (anonymously, like Theresa) about how she'd gone on a blind date and how, after she declined any further dates, the man began coming to her house at night and slicing off the blooms of her flowers. At the same time, I was learning what weird floating anxiety this sort of thing can provoke. Around then -- and for several years afterward -- I found myself the recipient of innumerable alarming phone calls, obscene postcards, letters and attempted visits from a stranger who had picked my name off an editorial masthead. The Washington Post eventually sought and obtained a protective order, yet even now it's hard to know whether -- and how -- to write about such an experience; one always fears one is giving one's pursuer precisely the recognition he craves.
My experience was hardly unusual. After Theresa's story ran, there was a flood of letters to the City Paper mail page: letters from women who'd been been followed and threatened and harassed on the phone and, often, deflected by authorities with suggestions like, "E-mail? Why don't you just delete the messages?" Having read her story, many women related their own with an energy and desperation that suggested they'd been driven mad not just by what had happened but by the fact that for so long they'd said so little.
Reading the letters, I was struck by how, even in this information age, there is much information we lack; how in certain quarters and on certain topics, there is plenty of pain that's not being aired. This may seem ludicrous, I know. Sometimes it seems that ours is a society inhabited only by publicity-seekers, by women, for example, giving birth on the Internet or twentysomethings carefully scripting their private selves for public MTV consumption. Yet what these exhibitionists accomplish, mostly, is to overshadow real women -- and men -- who are still reluctant to discuss experiences with stalking, or domestic violence, or rape, or harassment, or abortion, or crises of sexual identity, which is to say many of the most controversial issues of our time. Even today -- as legislatures attempt to regulate and resolve many different private conflicts -- the debates are fueled more by opinion than by fact. Who gets partial birth abortions? Who gets battered and why? Who decides what stalking is and is not? Who knows? Even today, those who know the most about these topics are often those who say the least -- a reticence driven in part by old-fashioned shame, and, in part, by the well-meaning paternalism of professional victim advocates, who routinely discourage women from coming forward to talk about being stalked or battered or raped, for fear that doing so would provoke retaliatory attacks.
For a variety of reasons -- some old, some new -- we know less than we think we do about the issues on which we have the strongest opinions. And maybe silence is the safest policy. On the other hand, maybe it's worth considering that the upshot of Theresa's piece was not that the stalker retaliated but that the stalker turned himself in. In breaking her silence, it turns out, she also broke his stranglehold.
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.