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.
Lasdun keeps his beautifully written narrative intensely personal. He makes journeys in the book, by train across America and later to Israel, in an attempt to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and, de facto, his own microcosmic version of it. He writes vividly about his time in Palestine and Israel, and the invisible brick walls he sees that are just as solid and eternal as the Wailing Wall, and all the time he is dogged by his demon, trashing him on Amazon, writing accusation after accusation.
Part of his problem is her intelligence; Nasreen knows how and where to wound him. After she denounces him in a widely circulated e-mail as a racist and a thief, a mediocre writer and a danger to young women, the idea emerges that he needs to write this book for the sake of his future. “My motive initially was purely defensive, and there was one particular incident which triggered it. I had been invited to apply for a teaching job, when an e-mail arrived from Nasreen. In it was a link to a website where she had posted a long article about the traumas she’d endured at the hands of her ‘puffed-up former writing professor.’”
As Nasreen becomes more monstrous, like a malignant virus, sapping and encircling him, Lasdun’s writing becomes ever more powerful; he is on a quest, like the Gawain of his metaphor, for understanding and resolution. There have been many academic papers and books written about stalking; one of the most informative is Dr Lorraine Bell’s Managing Intense Emotions and Overcoming Self-Destructive Habits. As becomes evident through all the analysis, the Chinese proverb, “Before you seek revenge, first dig two graves,” applies to the stalking scenario. It is as destructive to the perpetrator as the victim.
Lasdun’s book is a work of semi-autobiography, but it grips like a fine thriller, catching something of the claustrophobic terror of Nancy Price’s suspenseful 1987 classic Sleeping With the Enemy, and it exposes, in all its rawness, that fine borderline between sanity and madness. But the greatest strength of Lasdun’s book is that it is real, a nightmare that continues long after the last page has been turned. A nightmare with an ending neither he nor anyone, least likely of all his antagonist, Nasreen, knows, for the mind of the stalker is truly unpredictable.
During my research for Not Dead Yet, I met the celebrity-stalking team of the Los Angeles Police Department, known officially as the Threat Management Unit. Its Chief, Luis Moore, told me of the stalking of Justin Bieber’s former girlfriend, Selena Gomez, by Thomas Brodniki. After his arrest, Brodniki’s statement to the police included these bizarre, confused, yet profoundly chilling words: “Selena Gomez and I are the holy chosen ones of God. … I'm not overly concerned if I meet Selena in the flesh because it may be like scripture says … ‘No man has seen the face of God.’ … Maybe us being together is too much like seeing the face of God. … One of my favorite scenarios is Selena flies out here on March 23, 2016. We start seeing each other, and we don't even touch each other for a month.”
Selena Gomez was lucky; her stalker, armed and determined, was apprehended before he could do any harm. But I am reminded of the sinister words of the IRA after their failed attempt to blow up British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”
That is the shadow in which every stalker’s victim walks. As Lasdun concludes, “It’s hard to know whether to be struck more by the conviction and energy of the effort, or by the tenacity of the silence surrounding it. Somehow they seem the measure of each other.”
The question that everyone who reads this page-turner will ask, of course, is whether Lasdun is telling the whole truth. Is there something important he has omitted in their “relationship”? I can only judge from my own experience. My folly was to respond politely to the very first e-mail my stalker sent me: “Dear Peter I thought you looked nice in that black T-shirt and I liked the way you smiled at me.”
In hindsight, I would have been wiser to ignore it rather than reply with a pleasant, brief, impersonal thank you. But if I had been teaching Lasdun’s class, I would have done exactly the same thing he did. That is the real chill this book leaves you with: The knowledge that, any day, this could happen to anyone.
Peter James is a British crime-thriller writer. Not Dead Yet, the eighth in his series featuring DS Roy Grace, was the first novel to knock Fifty Shades of Grey out of first place on U.K. bestseller lists.