James Lasdun’s life became hell when a former creative writing student launched a vicious, years-long attack on him via the Internet. His new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, is a gripping account of how a friendly correspondence turned corrosive, and how a woman he had intended to help tried to dismantle his very life. A gifted novelist and poet (his previous books include The Horned Man, Seven Lies and It’s Beginning to Hurt: Stories), Lasdun offers a reminder of how vulnerable we are in an information age, and the power of language to both hurt and heal. He spoke on the phone from his home in upstate New York.
The book’s subtitle is “on being stalked.” I think of that term as something physical, particularly something men do to women, but this is a different kind of stalking. Can you talk about the decision to use that word?
I felt that it was the right word for what was happening. Perhaps “cyberstalked” might have been more accurate, but this was a stalking that escalated to the point of violent physical threats. There is a distinction between that and the person who shows up on your doorstep. But when someone is threatening to kill you, and threatening to kill your family, you live in a similar state of agitation. It was a pretty concerted, unrelenting assault.
My original title was going to be “Notes on a Crisis.” I wanted it to have resonance for someone who has been through an ordeal that stretched them to the limits of what they can stand. But it’s mind-boggling the number of men and women I’ve come across who have had some kind of stalking experience like this. I had no idea it was so common. Any time I’ve mentioned this story to a group of people, there’s always one person who’s had a similar experience. A lot of teachers and former students. Therapists and their patients.
For a long time you and Nasreen had a fairly friendly correspondence. Can you talk about how it shifted?
At a certain point she made it clear she wanted it an affair. And I made it clear that I was happily married and not interested, and she took that fine. She was gracious in her reply. We went on corresponding, but at a certain point, I realized she wasn’t all right with it. The volume of her emails started to rise. Several a day. I answered fewer and fewer. I went away with my family for four months and the deluge just kept on. At some point, I realized I was becoming the object of an obsession. And then this shocking shift into hate mail. This overnight change.
I had such empathy for you watching that unfold, because for so long, as you say at one point, it seemed like she was crazy like all writers are.
I have writer friends I’ve corresponded with over the years who have said much crazier things than what she was saying at that point. Email is a strange medium. It’s not like anything that’s come before. It encourages an immediate expression of what’s in your mind. That can be fantastic and liberating. But it does also facilitate terrible things. I think before email existed, a certain kind of stalking mentality wouldn’t have an outlet. I don’t think that an email stalker would have been a physical stalker in another day. But the email allows this hatred to emanate from your psyche without any kind of inhibition. It’s a very powerful tool for someone who thinks of themselves as powerless. There are ways you can do damage to someone without any risk to yourself at all.
Nasreen eventually posts reviews on Amazon claiming you’ve plagiarized her, and she makes bizarre additions to your Wikipedia page. I was struck by how much worse the situation became for you when it went public like this.
That is probably where it overlaps with cyberbullying, in which teenagers are driven to despair by the idea that the whole world can witness your mortification, and you’re up against something impossibly large. It’s an illusion, of course. The whole world isn’t that interested in you. But I’m a freelance writer, and I depend on easy relations with editors, with potential employers and I am damageable. She was very canny at mobilizing a wide audience into her assault and I felt that I was very vulnerable and I increasingly felt the need to defend myself. I had gone to the FBI and the police with limited results. I wrote the book as a kind of forensic document. So that the next time an employer took me in his office and said, “We’ve had a really weird email about you,” I would be able to say: Go to my website and you can read the whole story.
You ask, at one point: Was Nasreen simply mentally ill? And you reject that idea. Why is that?
I reject the idea that she was simply mentally ill. I think she has what would be labeled a personality disorder. But, so what? Does that excuse this? Does it absolve her of responsibility? She wasn’t engaging in a chaotic behavior that you would associate with a mental illness that would make a person not responsible for what they were doing. She had a very clear aim, which she laid out, which was to ruin me. She set about in a very rational, methodical way. She kept finding new ways of doing harm and she was gleefully aware of it. I didn’t experience this as just some ill person who, you know, was indulging in crazy behavior. I experienced it as a very deliberate, malicious campaign to do harm.
I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not qualified to do a diagnosis. Or even use the language of psychiatry. The book is steeped in Freud. It’s not that I don’t believe in different levels and layers of the psyche. But I looked at the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and you see these personality disorders and their list of characteristics and frankly, they describe me and most of the people I know. They’re very vague. It’s not hard science. It’s continually evolving. If you’re a trained therapist, those terms might be useful to you, and you have a rich context within which you can deploy them. But they weren’t useful to me. I found it more interesting to look at her through the lens of what I do know: Literature, myth, poetry, and my experiences as a writer.
I do think Nasreen was probably writing from a place of unendurable pain. The book isn’t an attack on her. I feel that it’s sympathetic. But I didn’t experience her as a poor, sick person. She certainly didn’t experience herself like that. I think I would have diminished her if I had written it as a psychiatric diagnosis. I can see that some people think I should have.
I was surprised by it. But I understand what you’re saying. You talk about Iago in the book, and if someone came in and said, “Well, Iago’s just a sociopath,” that’s a much less interesting play.
It’s not really scientific language. It makes us feel a little safer. It makes us feel like we have a handle on it, even when we don’t know what it is. It makes us feel more comfortable than the idea of just pure malice. We’re not comfortable just generally talking about evil, or something like that. But I felt that I was experiencing a “motiveless malignancy,” which is Coleridge’s term for Iago.
It makes me think that all these things–the DSM, Shakespeare–are really just attempts to explain human behavior, right?
Exactly. And human behavior is a mystery. I think what Ovid’s Metamorphoses was to the ancient world, the DSM is to our time. It’s a work of mythology that actually doesn’t know it’s a work of mythology.
So one of Nasreen’s paranoias is that you’ve used her words in your own work. And yet, we’re reading this book in which you have, in fact, done that by publishing her emails. You must have had mixed feelings about that.
This is not a book I would have chosen to write, ever. It’s a book I felt compelled to write. And it was the first relief I had from an experience that was completely taking over my life. Yes, it’s a weird irony that she accuses me of plagiarism and then I publish her emails. But my feeling is that – here is someone who set out to destroy me. For five years. And I’m justified in writing about it. In order to write about it, I needed to use emails. Because those were her weapons. There was no possible way of getting what happened onto the page without reproducing this stuff. There would not have been a book. I thought that if I couldn’t use that, for whatever reason, I would not have published the book.
You reached out for help from the FBI and the police, and my impression was that they weren’t terribly helpful.
The detective who was involved when I wrote the book was helpful. He would call her up and it would be a bluff, but that did stop things for a while. But they started up again, and he wasn’t that interested in getting further involved. I felt very helpless at that point.
Since finishing the book, we ended up with a very sympathetic detective in the hate crimes unit of the NYPD. He is currently handling the case, and it’s progress in the sense that the case is being taken seriously, but we’re up against many problems. Nasreen moved from New York to California. What she is doing would be considered aggravated harassment. That’s a misdemeanor, not a felony. In order to face charges, she would have to be extradited to New York, and that would be expensive and cumbersome and they don’t normally do it for misdemeanors.
More recently, she did escalate things to the level of threat. She used the word “murder.” I’m going to come to New York and murder you. And the detective felt that we could extradite her then. The problem is, she doesn’t have a criminal record. She’ll get arraigned, go in front of a judge, stay for the trial, and then she’ll be loose in New York. And I’m not the only one receiving these threats. There are two women in their 60s and 70s (Lasdun’s agent and a book editor), and one of them was not comfortable with the idea of facilitating Nasreen’s trip to New York. She felt it was better to leave her in California, and I couldn’t argue with that. I don’t live in the city. So we’re at an impasse.
It’s hard for me to believe that these kinds of threats can just continue. It’s hard for me to believe that there’s nothing to be done by law enforcement.
It strikes me as a case where technology has outpaced the laws.
Yes. And even if there is a law, you’re up against the practicalities of enforcing that law. It’s a very complicated picture.
How has this changed the way you feel about the Internet?
The Internet is amazing. I’m in awe of it. But like any new serious technology it brings up all kinds of new problems. It will be addressed over time.
Have you heard from Nasreen since the book’s publication?
No. The last time I heard from her was in August. I finally blocked all her emails, and she hasn’t come up with a new one yet. She went from emails to phone messages, and the last attacks were a spate of unbelievably violent phone messages, which I had to listen to because I had to digitally record them for this detective. But I haven’t heard from her since then. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what her situation is. I’m glad not to have heard from her.
But are you scared that you will?
There’s a person out there who declares that she intends to harm me. In those last phone calls she said, this will never end. She repeated what she had said in an email, which is the title of the book, that I needed to give her everything I have. I just accept that it’s not going to end. I spoke to someone who’s had a stalker for 30 years.
Nasreen has gone quiet in the past, and I would think: She’s finished. She’s done. It happened right after I turned in the book, and I thought: What am I doing? I’m just going to stir up all this stuff again. If I didn’t publish the book, maybe that’s the end of it. I was seriously thinking of pulling it. But it started up again, worse than ever. And I thought, I’m going to publish this book. Because if I publish the book, then I’m in a different relationship to this whole experience. And I feel that it’s a real book. I wouldn’t publish it if it were just me whingeing, as we Brits say. I put a lot into this book that I wanted to write about for some time.
Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon. She writes "The Smart Blonde" column on beauty culture for D magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour and Texas Monthly. She is working on a memoir about drinking.