I had a stalker for more than a decade, an obsessed middle-aged female fan who came to every public appearance I made anywhere in Britain – in libraries, bookstores, function rooms – and bombarded me with up to 20 e-mails a day, some simple hero worship, some sexually overt and some with creepily possessive undertones. In June, 2009, after several days of unexpected but welcome silence from her, in which I thought (hoped!) she had finally gone away, an e-mail arrived which so traumatized my partner Helen that we ended up moving house and installing a security system worthy of Ford Knox.
“I thought you would like to see my Peter James collection,” my stalker wrote. The attached photograph showed a floor-to-ceiling montage of literally dozens of newspaper articles about me, the covers of every book I had written, and candid photographs taken with a long lens, of me and my partner coming out of bars or restaurants all over Britain, as well as some from within the grounds of our home. There were candles burning at each end, like a shrine. The police dutifully checked her out, and then informed me that they were powerless, under the stalking laws in Britain at the time, to do anything unless she killed me. Some comfort.
Outing my stalker publicly, in all but name, in national press and TV interviews about my latest crime thriller, Not Dead Yet – which was inspired by her – has resulted in total, blissful silence from her for more than six months. But my experiences pale almost into insignificance next to James Lasdun’s.
No book I’ve read has ever covered the subject in more emotional depth and with deeper intellectual analysis than Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun’s intensely personal account of five years – and counting – of living hell. And never have the words of Franklin P. Adams’s poem, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, had greater resonance than in his book.
Lasdun’s crime, according to him, was simply to praise a talented student. He taught a fiction workshop to a large class at a college in New York City; the work of one attendee, Nasreen, had exceptional quality, in his opinion, although this was not a view shared by the others. He writes, “The class’s response to Nasreen’s chapter was favourable, although perhaps not as warmly so as I had expected. It’s possible that this slight lack of warmth made me more emphatically enthusiastic than I might have been otherwise. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember a shift in the atmosphere as I spoke; an air of faintly sardonic attentiveness settling on the students as they sat listening to my words of praise. … Nasreen herself appeared pleased, though she didn’t seem overwhelmed and she certainly didn’t effuse in the way some students do after a positive response.”
But little did he know what his praise was to lead to. From his description of her – “… she wore jeans that looked expensively soft and faded. her face, fine boned, with delicately interlocking features …” – he obviously found her attractive, but claiming to be contentedly married, and because she had a fiancée, he thought the boundaries were safely defined. Clearly, Lasdun must have felt that in the early stages he had, consciously or unconsciously, responded to some of her flirting, because – in the least convincing section of his book – he alludes in depth, as a kind of personal metaphor, to Sir Gawain’s resistance of the amorous advances of Lady Burdilac.
But then Nasreen’s flirting changes gear, and at some unfathomable point she turns from grateful student into a venomous monster, showering him with accusations of sexual infidelity – and ultimately rape and plagiarism, and, seizing on the British-born Lasdun’s Jewish blood, unleashing horrific anti-Semitic spleen. “The Internet age has made it easy for a tech-savvy stalker to wreak havoc in ways previously unimagined,” Lasdun writes. She is indeed savvy beyond bounds, stealing his identity in numerous ingenious and highly damaging ways as she mounts an online campaign to discredit him to friends, employers and the entire outside world.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the book is Lasdun’s depiction of just how helpless the authorities are in these situations. “I imagine that by now anyone reading this document will have at least one fairly pressing question: If I was innocent of everything Nasreen accused me of in her e-mails, then why hadn’t I gone to law and tried to stop them? The answer is that I had: Several times and in several different ways.” Cease-and-desist letters were rebuffed with contempt: “Sue me, go ahead, call your little lawyers.” He then goes to the police and meets an NYPD detective who takes him seriously, but ultimately – just with the police in Britain and my stalker – there is little the detective can do, in law, beyond giving the woman ineffectual warnings; these were like poking a bear with a stick.
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