For years I said nothing.
Silent, I paid close attention to the words that others used.
I heard writers of nonfiction quote the opening sentence of Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album”: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I heard writers and readers of all genres say that stories foster empathy.
I heard people who study semantics say that overuse has divested the word empathy of meaning.
I heard an editor who solicited work from me say that, although the SOS I sent her was “stunning” and immanently publishable, she couldn’t include it in her anthology of contemporary women’s nonfiction because she had already accepted an empathy-related piece by a much more popular author—implying that two such works among a couple dozen would give empathy, normally a stagehand, too prominent a role in the theater of modern concern.
The irony of the editor’s response was that she sent it to me at an address I had asked her, for the sake of my literal safety, not to use. The essay was about my ongoing experience as an unwilling muse and criminally stalked person, describing what it’s like to live as prey under constant narrated surveillance, and what it means to pluck up the courage to stare one’s predator down for the first time, if only across a flimsy gulf of language.
How lame and half-hearted were my attempts after that, how easy my slide into hypocrisy: I did not care to place myself in the shoes of the editor whose own carelessness I felt had imperiled me—indeed, whose entire industry I felt to be imperiling me. My feelings hardened not because of the many differences I perceived between the editor and me, but because of the slim, sharp cruelties undermining the vast terrain we seemed to have in common—both of us students, teachers, writers, readers, lovers, daughters, mothers, women. What separated us was merely luck and the brittle lacquer of denial that protects bystanders from the cries of victims. This schism was no thicker than a sheet of paper, with a story on one side, reality on the other.
The editorial interaction I describe took place three years ago, not quite a year into a crisis I have since come to regard as unending. Up until that point, I had busied myself trying to open a verbal portal into my experience. As part of a kneejerk, safety-in-numbers approach, I had used the only thing at my disposal to invite in loved ones, doctors, law enforcement, forensic specialists, and finally the literary community, but it hadn’t worked. Not that the people I confided in didn’t believe my story—without exception, they did; rather, their freedom to enter and exit the story at will kept them from comprehending the relentlessness that was its fundamental quality—with the result that instead of empathy they often had dismissive and therefore profoundly alienating advice to give. Often they trivialized my situation by describing it as a problem of mere words—as if words are not fundamentally constitutive of human power and identity, and knowledge were a wheel that could be rolled in reverse, past the shame of nakedness and into the realm of ignorant bliss. “Try to ignore it,” these good-intentioned people said, their suggestion on par with the one that Didion, at odds with her own narrative instinct, receives from her neurologist in “The White Album”: “Lead a simple life.”
Oddly, the very story-ness of my predicament—its singular interiority, its invisible but no less real causes and effects, its want of a dramatic and definitive end—seemed to be what was preventing me from getting the help that a lifetime of absorbing good-guy/bad-guy narratives had taught me to expect. Indeed, there was little more than words and pictures to point to as evidence. Threats arrived cloaked in metaphor, riddles showed up that only I could solve, treasure hunts were offered that only I could follow. On the surface, the clues delineated a run-of-the-mill obsession story, unrequited affection leading to stalking and revenge as a pair of archetypes draws nearer their sadomasochistic tipping point—he a conniving liar at the top of his game and she a wet-eared ingénue who the reader hopes will emerge as a villain, if not as her own hero. “What a terrific novel this would make,” my confidantes said. “You should write it as a fiction. Your very own Gone Girl.”
But, reader, by then I ’d had my fill of fiction.
Chances are your path and mine have crossed before. Think back. Maybe you were out for a walk when you saw a gauzy scrap of fabric waving like a prayer flag from the twig it snagged on when the person wearing it—a woman, no doubt—had tried to make her escape. Or maybe you gagged over an unidentifiable clump that mysteriously appeared, rancid and teeming, under the lid of your garbage can one oppressive summer day. Perhaps the walk was through a magazine’s brisk backwoods, the garbage can in the dark alley of a book.
Reader, what if I told you it was my hunger deranging the monster in that modern allegory you bought, or my fear enervating the damsel in that gothic roman à clef you couldn’t pass up? I’m talking about the way a real stomach feels when it begins to digest itself. I mean the kind of fight-or-flight adrenaline whose stagnant floodwaters encase the mind in cement, causing all clocks and then all calendars to neglect the upkeep of their increments . . . cause time to slip the derelict bars of its cage . . . cause hours, days, weeks, months, and finally years to drain by unmoored, un-notched, and unnoticed.
What if I told you I was hunted like an animal, caught and kept and hurt and violated, then gas-lit and demonized—not once but over and over again, for some amorphous stream of years, and all in nonconsensual service to words? Would you want to know whose words and where to find them? Would you seek those stories out, read or possibly re-read them, though with scandalous titillation the second time around? Would you, reading, suffer a state of arousal akin to both the subject’s obsession and the object’s panic, leading you to question just how physiologically distinguishable, if at all, high dudgeons of lust, terror, and hatred are, and just how contagious? Would it occur to you that the reason these states are so miscible is because each is a monstrosity of appetite—lust the greed for love, terror the greed for survival, and hatred the greed for justice—or would it seem to you that the reason they strum the same chord here is that the desire they convey has been stropped to a terrible-delicious pitch of violence, an itch sharpened by a blade sharpened by an itch? Would you strain, even after you set the pages down, to hear the truths that hold the power to vivisect the whole fiction? If so, where on the scale of monstrousness would you rank your own growing obsession, your own greed to know? Would you ask yourself, Which is the whetstone and which the knife—my curiosity or these grim tales it helps to keep alive? In other words, would you do and wonder and question all of the things that I have? You, who have been in my blind spot all along, your footsteps audible behind me and a skosh to the side, in a universe too delayed and offset from reality for you to be of any help?
Reader, if I turned around and introduced myself to you right now, here, on this brand-new coeval page, the one where I finally get to tell you what happened to me in my own voice and my own words, I’m certain you would not recognize me. That’s because chances are the last time our paths crossed I wore a much uglier or more beautiful face, and bore a less common or possibly even a nonhuman name. Maybe I was called Pig or Cow or Crow or Cat or Fish or God or Devil or Doll or Dollar or Whore or Statue or Music or Beatrice or Plastic. Maybe I was called some of those words, or maybe I was called all of them. I’m here to tell you that whatever version of me you came across on those other pages, she is not as smart as I am, nor as brave. She will never pull off that escape, nor cop to all of the horrible and hopeful things I’ve learned. She is a simulacrum made from stolen pieces and the pain that theft bestows. She contains the sorest parts of me, but she is not me at all.
Dear reader, think back. Greed and violence are the only undisguised characters in that story you were told.
Written over the span of a decade, “The White Album” explores an interval, beginning around 1966 and ending in 1971, during which Joan Didion lives in an area of Hollywood so randomly perilous her acquaintance describes it as a “senseless killing neighborhood.” While the country trembles with the paranoia and restive confusion of the Sixties, Didion is trapped at the very epicenter of the era.
In nearby Laurel Canyon, silent film actor Ramon Novarro is murdered by a pair of brothers, ages 17 and 22, whom Novarro has just entertained with a meal and an ironically inaccurate palm-reading in his home. Didion obtains a copy of the transcripts from the murder trial and fruitlessly scours it for some hidden logic. Seven years later, the older of the brothers, able to toe the narrative line in ways that Didion still cannot, wins a PEN fiction contest while serving out a life sentence for the crime. Writing, he says, enables him to “reflect on experience and see what it means.”
Didion works as a reporter in these years. She flies around the country and performs her assigned tasks, all without the benefit of a wristwatch, an item whose absence converts her clockless hotel hours into countless hellish prisons. She recognizes her failure to procure a timepiece as “a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.”
She attends what is supposed to be a recording session for The Doors, a band whose lyrics “reflect either an ambiguous paranoia or a quite unambiguous insistence upon the love-death as the ultimate high,” but which turns out to entail more hours of inexplicable waiting, mounting tension, and obtuse discourse than Didion can withstand amid the sound studio’s “ominous blinking electronic circuitry” and orgiastic tangle of serpentine wires.
She reports on the activities and personalities of the Black Panther Party, and is “visually frisked” before allowed to enter the apartment of the Panthers’ Minister of Information, with whom she discusses, author to author, the financial prospects of the minister’s new book, while the latter’s parole officer supervises.
On Cielo Drive, members of the Manson Family brutally murder an acquaintance of Didion’s, and afterward Didion reports on the trial. For many in LA, the slaughter at Sharon Tate Polanski’s home satisfies the ambient paranoia of the sixties and thereby brings the decade to a close, but for Didion, who has lost faith in the narrative arc, the tension remains unbroken. Threatened, she sees the world through a veil of rhyme, not of reason. She recalls Roman Polanski spilling red wine on her dress at a party where Valley of the Dolls star Sharon Tate, not yet married to Polanski, was also in attendance. She recalls selecting that same dress for her own wedding a few years prior, on a morning that happened to coincide with John Kennedy’s assassination. She juxtaposes these remembrances with the odd reality that she is now improbably tasked to choose a dress for Linda Kasabian, Manson Family member and star witness for the prosecution, to wear while testifying about murders committed on a street whose name translates as Sky, or Heaven, Drive.
Didion’s conversations during this interval, and therefore her essay, alight on such details as dress length and color, but avoid delving into the wanton violence and bigotry on which these details float. Unaddressed is Manson’s obsession with the Beatles album from which the essay draws its title. Didion does not discuss Manson’s gross misappropriation of the album’s lyrics, nor disclose the fact that prior to the murders Manson had gone to Tate Polanski’s house looking not for the Dolls actress but for the former tenant, a Beach Boys producer who had rejected Manson when the latter came to him asking for help breaking into the music business. The essay makes no mention of ligatures, Sharon Tate Polanski’s full-term pregnancy, or walls streaming with swine epithets written in human blood. Instead, the unspeakable remains unspoken and horror streaks like a phantom through the panes of a photo collage. The personalities within the essay are both watching the horror and being watched. Human experience is performative, and there are those within the frame who remember the script and Didion on the outside who does not. Without the script, effect is divorced from cause and events cluster by association. Seemingly chance occurrences are tied by too many, too tangled strings. When Didion asks Kasabian to reflect on the helter-skelter times, the star witness says, “Everything was to teach me something,” but when it comes to gleaning some worthwhile lesson for herself, Didion continues, for the entire decade it takes her to complete the essay, from 1968 to 1978, to come up with only these shining, token-flat coincidences.
Didion sees a doctor who administers a battery of psychological tests. Her interpretation of the Rorschach blots suggests to the doctor “a personality in the process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses and increasing inability of the ego to mediate the world of reality . . .” To the reader, the collapse on display is less Didion’s than the world’s. Reality has ceased to hew to the very rules that once defined it as such, and Didion’s unique condition indicates that she alone has noticed.
Didion is diagnosed with a neurological disorder and then told to disregard the diagnosis because it is merely exclusionary, less a name than a colligation of syllables.
She is advised to live simply, then told there is no evidence to suggest that living simply will do her a lick of good.
For Didion, the tension doesn’t break until she moves out of her “senseless killing neighborhood” to a home by the sea, where finally, through a painstaking process akin to exorcism, she finds peace.
Here is a story I told until doing so began to interfere with my ability to live:
One afternoon some four years ago, a man I ’d never seen before appeared at the neighborhood playground where I routinely picked up my children from school.
There was nothing subtle about the way the stranger followed me through the swarm of exuberant kids and chatting parents, all of whom I knew or at least recognized to some degree. So suspicious were the man’s movements through the park, a friend asked whether I thought the bike he repeatedly wheeled past us was equipped with a tiny camera. So suspicious was his smile when he lapped us for the final time, I asked my friend whether she noticed any canary feathers protruding from the man’s mouth.
I did not know the stranger at the park that day, but I had a sickening idea about who had sent him. When I checked the social media site of a man with whom I ’d recently had unnerving contact, I found a painting of a woman who looked eerily like me, a manic collage of cryptic jokes that seemed to employ motifs from my own writing, a poem featuring the kinds of flowers I ’d recently planted in my window boxes, an improvised recipe for the lunch I ’d just eaten in the kitchen overlooking their blossoms, countless photos of dead animals featuring creepy captions in the vein of a watched pot boils, and a video of a crowded candy store filmed at the height of an adult’s midriff. On their own, these details might’ve seemed random or coincidental, but combined they made it clear that I had just been surveilled.
I wanted to believe this was a one-time occurrence, and that I was still inviolable in my home, behind locked doors and solid walls. I consoled myself with the flimsy assumption that only my clothed outsides had been spied on and recorded. But hope soon gave way to disillusionment as the man stalking me commenced to undress me psychologically. He wanted me to know he was not to be confined to the bushes like the peeping tom of my mother’s generation. No, he could also pore over my private emails, peruse my digital photos, and get a hearty chuckle out of rough drafts I intended no one to read. He could look far beyond the dull secrets of the flesh and into my vastly more intricate and varied psyche, habits, and history. He could make a game of revealing my own nakedness to me in a bizarre online striptease.
To put an end to this, I recruited the help of my husband, by far the more tech savvy of us two, and together we filled the first six months of my stalked life with dispiriting attempts at electronic resistance. Our efforts constituted a continual uphill march—from changing email passwords to changing email providers, from switching Wi-Fi passwords to buying new routers, from purchasing new hard drives to purchasing new computers, from using onscreen keyboards to encrypting our personal correspondence. Nothing seemed to work, or at least not for very long. There were just too many invisible hiding places and access points for us to search and safeguard all at once, and too many reasons and methods for getting on the Internet. Repeatedly we went offline to purge our systems and fortify our defenses, only to find evidence of our failure as soon as we plugged back in.
We contacted the FBI and they gave us the name of a program we could use to monitor the background traffic on our router, to see how data may or may not have been traveling to and from our computers without our permission. That is when we learned about RATs, or Remote Access Tools, programs serving legitimate functions in the IT world but appropriated by hackers for insidious purposes.
RATs are easy to acquire and deploy, and nearly impossible to detect and remove. With hardly any trouble at all, a layperson can go onto HackForums (a website with over three million users as of March 2017) and download a RAT capable of utterly destroying a person. RATs give hackers total access to their victims’ computers and, by proxy, total control of their victims.
RATs consist of two packets of code—one for the hacker to install onto his own machine and another to be installed on the victim’s. This latter part sounds tricky, but all the hacker has to do is embed the RAT within a harmless-looking link or file and then trick or entice his target into opening it. Baiting someone with a RAT is easy if that person is an acquaintance or intimate, which more often than not seems to be the case. Scrolling through the posts on HackForums gives the distinct impression that the majority of RAT victims are in fact the hackers’ current and former wives and girlfriends.
A woman who has been RATted is known as a slave.
A RAT’s first order of business in the conversion of a woman to a slave is to mute her computer’s warning system, install itself onto her hard drive, and remove all evidence of its own existence.
Once up and running, the RAT can collect a log of all her keystrokes, download all her stored passwords (which the hacker can then use to reinstall the RAT in the event that she successfully removes it), turn on her microphone and/or webcam, access every single one of her files, and watch what is happening on her screen in real time.
All of this data the RAT automatically uploads to an anonymous server, which the hacker can securely access using the RAT software on his own computer. This anonymous server may connect in a daisy chain to other anonymous servers, or to an innocuous-looking server purchased through a bona fide host company like Amazon, or to a cascading fractal of anonymous and innocuous-looking servers—a morass my husband described to me as “an entire bait-ball of red herrings.”
When we ran the sleuthing program the FBI recommended, it yielded page upon page of incomprehensible code—the IP addresses of servers around the world that were communicating with the machines in our home, even after we had forced all of their chatty applications closed. We scoured the printouts in the hope of finding what the FBI called a “smoking gun,” a kind of narrative line that would lead directly from our computers to the person stealing our digital information. Once we successfully connected the dots, the FBI assured us, it would intervene on our behalf and physically track down the cyber-thief.
Maybe we would’ve achieved a smoking gun constellation if we ’d kept at it, but the bait-ball was dizzying and Rorschach-indefinite. The rest of our lives careened forward at their usual headlong pace, demanding we invest our time and energy in other people, projects, and things. When, about six months after the strange man walked circles around me at the park, my husband was offered a job in faraway California, we decided to pack up, sell our home, and relocate our family thousands of miles away to a small coastal town, where we now rent a little house not far from the ocean.
Unfortunately, nothing much changed after the move. We had left but not gotten away. In California, we attempted more exterminations with considerably less gusto than we had in the beginning. We sought the help of new forensics experts, though with markedly less faith and no more success than we ’d had before. I wrote the aforementioned SOS declined for that anthology of modern women’s writing, afterward feeling it best to keep my literary impulses to myself. How I thought that muting my own warning system, squirreling my crisis deeper inside myself, and erasing all evidence of its existence would set me free, I do not now know. The choice was neither rational nor made under comprehensible circumstances.
Eventually my husband and I shifted our efforts toward the aspects of our lives that better lent themselves to the illusion of our control. Before long we had stopped talking about the fact that I was being stalked. My status became unnamable, unspeakable—a truth that ricocheted throughout my days like a ghost no one else ever saw. It was huge and I bore it alone.
I tried to see my predicament for what it was, and to perceive it all at once. Zooming out, I watched the narrative line fray into a net spangled with symbols but devoid of reason or syntax. I saw our little home by the sea twinkle like a tiny pinprick in the senseless killing neighborhood of the Internet, a macrocosm which I suddenly realized functions in much the same way a paranoid and demoralized person does. I recognized the Internet’s thought patterns as my own. I too constellated events by association rather than cause and effect, failed to tell a story even though my very existence was founded on narratives, failed to scrounge up meaning even while pointing to the myriad places I understood meaning to live, and failed to come fully alive while doing a pretty convincing job of simulating life’s characteristics.
Instead of sitting at home watching myself being watched, I often went for walks and scanned the offing for whale spouts. At my new favorite park, I stood on bedrock that once resided hundreds of miles south of its current location, at the approximate latitude of Joan Didion’s old LA neighborhood. I knew that six million years ago, a collision of tectonic plates had pushed that piece of coast poleward along the San Andreas. This knowledge had the effect of making me feel as if I were in three time periods and two places at once—the two-thousand-teens as well as the Sixties and the Miocene, home as well as Hollywood.
One night a small earthquake gave proof that the California coast continues to detach and slide away, like some giant unpaired parenthesis on the edge of a nation it could never contain. The earthquake awoke our pet parakeet but didn’t disturb the rest of us until we learned of it on our screens the following day. This all seemed significant, but I couldn’t say how exactly. The fretwork of faults underfoot didn’t care and neither did I, much. Looking out at the purse seiners afloat the Pacific, I suffered a vague perception of our collective Internet addiction, my own information overload, the silver schools of sardines and anchovies whirling in the cold ocean below, the immeasurable gaps that persist between our electronic proxies and our feeling human souls. Dimly, I wondered, Is webbing to apathy what narrative is to empathy? If so, does the trap beget the despondence or might the arrow sometimes run the opposite direction?
The more time passed, the more removed I felt from what was happening to me.
Here is how it worked the first couple of years: from every humiliating theft, the writer stalking me selected a trophy to put on display. Pictures and verbal snapshots began piling up in print and on the Internet. They stacked up by the dozen, by the hundred, the thousand. Finding these baubles below the stalker’s name, beside his face, unequivocally mine yet disguised as curiosities for all the world to see, reassured me that I wasn’t imagining things. Here were my observations and experiences sampled, mashed together, and spun into phantasmagoria on the potter’s wheel of the stalker’s imagination. Here was proof.
Social media made evidence of his trespasses available to me daily. Some days presented an entire parade of collaged imagery—pictures and word-pictures that slid and blended with the twisted surreality of a dream. His fans, friends, and family often chimed in to praise these, having no idea what they were endorsing, let alone how he subjected their observations to the same semantic voiding and replacement that he gave to mine. When he wove the words of others into the trophy parade, they acquired a second meaning which hovered somewhere outside their authors’ true intentions, becoming masks for the stalker to hide behind and perpetrate his crimes within.
The trophies perverted my perception. They reached like a hand into my brain and finger-stirred the very memories that had engendered them, muddling and corrupting my original experiences and relationships. They worked on my consciousness retroactively and recursively. Reality collapsed into symbolism; symbolism exploded into reality. If I wrote to my mother about the new hummingbird I spied at my feeder on the same day that I happened to walk to the beach and later googled a recipe for churros, some crafty combination of cinnamon, sanding sugar, and bejeweled throats was sure to be riddled into the parade within the space of twenty-four hours. Maybe a hummingbird’s forked tongue would be shown to coil within its skull with the same logarithmic spiral as a cinnamon quill flensed from a cassia laurel tree. Maybe a sunbathing girl would be shown resting on her bronzed laurels, her brain licked clean by a Lilliputian warrior siphoning nectar from her cochlea, a beaky syringe plunged deep into her ear as if to lobotomize her. Maybe the girl would have absentmindedly grated her finger bones to cosmic dust with her nail file, beneath which an army of ants would be hard at work rolling cinnamon buns across the horizon like dung beetles conveying an arsenal of shit-suns. In spirals I would hear a reference to an essay I ’d once written about snails, evolutionary arms races, and the combative nature of sex among nonhuman animals. In the bird’s beak and tongue I would hear the stalker boast and berate me for the ease with which he had parasitized and brainwashed me. In laurels I would hear him take full credit for, as well as full advantage of, my inability to make good on a literary award I ’d recently won. What a waste I was, what a disappointment, how lazy—and all the better for him.
Whatever the imagery, I would recognize aspects of my quotidian life infused with themes of predation. And the next time I would see that particular species of hummingbird at my feeder, or bought churros for my son at the farmers market, those experiences would be charged with an electricity that absolutely did not belong to them. They would appear hybridized, collaged over, palimpsested. They would be made to bear the mental fingerprints of the man who daily fondled my thoughts and appropriated them for his artwork. These were fantastical loops and whorls only I could see, beneath which lurked inky bruises, a soreness that was my inescapably bizarre waking and dreaming experience. These were the contorted, contorting bars of my prison.
In the trophy parade, everyday phenomena bristled with the frisson of violation, tatted into the experiential web that connected our disparate lives not only to each other but also to the entire shimmering universe—to literature, art, science, current events, popular culture, politics, food, history, mythology, music. They became codes in the telescoping legend between us, symbols the stalker used to map my successes and failures, my weaknesses and strengths, my increasingly labile and suggestible emotional states. They became chords and colors with which to chart my past, my present, my future. My marriage, my motherhood, and all of my other relationships. They became symbols which said, in essence, I can see you. I know what you’re wearing. You can run but you can’t hide. Don’t worry, you’ll never be alone again. The more time that passed, the more complicated and binding the web became, the more impenetrable to outsiders, and the more cockamamie-sounding when I attempted to cipher it out loud.
Sometimes the parade flattered and even enlightened me, doting on my imagery and turns of phrase, and revealing connections that on my own I never would have made. Indisputably, it showed brilliance, inspiration, and an unswerving dedication. Occasionally, beauty and even a knowing tenderness shone through, qualities that would have had a certain seductive charm had the entire procession not been founded on theft and domination—on psychological date rape, really.
It didn’t make sense to me that someone could be so thoughtfully attentive and at the same time so cruel. In order to go about my daily life without terror, I tried focusing on what I perceived to be the stalker’s admirable traits. I watched the trophy parade with dysfunctional wooing as my confirmation bias. I read a clinical text that classified stalking as a “courtship disorder,” a phrase that stripped malice from the equation and left behind only a kind of sad, pathological inappropriateness, and afterward I clung to that reassuring diagnosis. Better to believe I was adored in a terribly misguided and unintentionally harmful way than to admit I was at the mercy of someone who regarded me as an object to be used and discarded. After all, I had work to do, meals to cook, kids who needed my help with their homework. I couldn’t go about my life in a continual, contagious state of panic, so I normalized the situation as though it were a chronic illness. Doing so was essential to the continuance of my life and the quality of my loved ones’ days—a concession but a must.
Often I thought the stalker allowed me to relax into the delusion of his adoration for no other reason than it enhanced the sadistic pleasure he derived from flicking open his verbal switchblade. On the days he chose to put his cruelty on display, his parade flayed me, cheapened me, made me feel uglier, lowlier, stupider, more vulnerable and demoralized than I had ever felt before. The more he insulted me, the more disillusioned I knew I was, the more trapped, the more desperate, and the more powerless. This, I knew, was the vulgar truth of my predicament.
Still, I watched the parade. Attempted interpretation. Tried to impose narrative. Sought meaning. Read the flow as though I were taking the auspices.
I did these things in the hope of peering past my own distorted reflection and into the stalker’s brain, where I might find something akin to a plotline or a vein of compassion. I wanted to learn his motives, his intentions, his goals. I hoped to glean some hint as to where, if at all, the uncrossable boundary between us was. How far would he finally go? In what ways would he attempt to hurt me the next time I played fast and loose with his big, dark secret? (“I will send you to hell” is one warning he had already made good on.) I wanted to ascertain how safe or truly unsafe I was. I wanted to find a clue as to how and when all of this would finally draw to a close.
Even more important, I wanted to figure out some way I could help that process along. I wanted to know when, if ever, my thoughts would truly be my own again. I wanted a fairy-tale ending. Salvation. Transformation. Redemption. I strained to hear the words that were solid enough to piñata-bash the entire fiction, a sentence or phrase that when angled just so would cause all of the human truth and mercy to spill out onto the ground, leaving a shape I could mark with a chalk outline, point to, and say See, here, this is what happened to me, this is what I’ve been trying to explain all along.
But watching the parade scroll past each day didn’t help my trauma settle into a narrative arc. It only made me feel compulsive and narcissistic. It paralyzed me intellectually and imparted a physical sickness that roved freely, irrationally, and incurably beneath my skin. Claustrophobia and self-consciousness debilitated my thoughts. I was disgusted by my inability to ignore my situation and disgusted by the repeated suggestion from outsiders that I do so. Every time I attempted to wrest control, I ceded it. Whatever I gleaned from the parade sprang to life within my adrenalized brain and began to colonize while eating it. As my reality grew increasingly storied by the writer-stalker, his stories grew increasingly real to me. Divisions blurred. I suffered depersonalization and derealization by turns. I began to regard my life as a phantom limb: a formless, prickling loss in my world, but a vivid, animated presence in his. In both realms I felt halved; in both I felt false.
Still, I looked—even after I realized my stalker was preying on my curiosity and giving me nothing but funhouse mirrors in return. Still, I couldn’t peel my eyes away. I stared into my reflection. I watched the parade like a cloven-hooved animal scanning the watering hole for crocodiles before bending her neck to drink.
Why? Because my intuition demanded I do so. Because knowledge is supposed to be power. Because in order to know where, if at all, I was safe, I needed first to know precisely where I was vulnerable. Because safety was a diagnosis by exclusion.
Looking, I found verification of what my mind didn’t want to believe but every cell in my body had known all along: I was already underwater, my skin already inside-out, my brains in the reptile’s mouth. Beyond this there was never really anything to learn, just inexhaustible madness to plumb. There was no “sermon in the suicide,” which Didion’s essay reminds us we are programmed to seek, no “social or moral lesson in the murder of five”; to hold sermons and lessons as objectives felt unethical to the precise degree that I understood doing so to be deluded. My craving for meaning was barbaric in its optimism and no less tenacious in me than whatever yearning was driving the person hunting and harassing me. My wish for resolution was a death wish and nothing more; the survival instinct of storytelling had not only ceased to apply, it was also making me sick.
One afternoon in the late Nineties, I went on a hike through the forest with some college classmates. Our trail culminated at the edge of a glacial pothole that was several feet wide and so deep that the water inside was as dark as ink. The fluid didn’t seem to absorb daylight so much as to actively siphon it from above. Some connection to an underground stream kept the pool in constant swirling motion, and a bit of water occasionally slopped, surprisingly clear in its moment aloft, over the pothole’s rim.
Natural potholes had long been a source of surprise and fascination to me, but I had never seen one so large or brimful before. The ones I had encountered in the past had been mostly empty, with dry, organic contours I could trace with my eyes if not my hands. They had appeared so incongruously smooth and circular within their rugged settings that it was hard to believe they were the result of purely geological forces.
There is something inescapably feminine and infinitely forbearing about natural potholes. To come across one in the wild is to feel that you have stumbled upon the evidence of a secret tryst, a love letter gouged for the sake of revenge into an outcrop’s maddeningly impassive face. A pothole is a revelation of absence, an ineradicable testimony that cannot be crumpled or burned, a well that tells an unequivocal story without revealing a single salacious detail. Of all the restless pacing you cannot possibly comprehend, a pothole seems to say, of all the mechanical discipline and combative wearing away, of all the ice waxed and waned, and all the eddies stirred and stilled, only this imponderable void remains. . . .
I was a graduate student in a geology program the day I stood on that black and lively pothole’s lip. I knew from books that glacial potholes form where meltwater flows between an ice sheet and the bedrock underneath—between a rock and a hard place, in other words. An irregularity in the streambed creates a pressure differential that causes a small whirlpool to develop. If a sufficiently hard stone becomes entrained in that gyre, and the current that carries it is momentous and lasting enough, the stone will grind its way vertically through the bedrock, cutting and clearing material away like the head of a rotary auger, until eventually a deep, cylindrical cauldron results.
I couldn’t imagine how many years the sloshing pothole before us took to grow. A group of students and faculty had gathered in a circle around the ancient cauldron, and I vividly recall the sight of our bright shoes on the wet, unforgiving stone. How tenuous and laughable our colorful uppers, tidy laces, and thick, ornately textured soles appeared. How ridiculously impermanent the notebooks in which we enthusiastically scrawled our diagrams and notes.
The naturalist whose job it was to keep us from veering too close to the edge said that nestled at the bottom of the borehole was the very boulder that had scoured itself a home there back in the Ice Age.
Imagine that stone residing there since before Homo sapiens crossed the Bering Land Bridge. Imagine how many times the sky had fanned open its bright white bedsheet since then, only to pull it slowly back up again. Think of the bed-making and turndown service that constitute a glacier’s biorhythms, of the stadials and interstadials, as they are called, harkening in name to stages and stadiums, performances and audiences, footraces and the units they’re measured in. Imagine two solid miles of ice and snow overhead, and beneath those—rivers of meltwater braiding tenaciously seaward. These are the kinds of tasks we put to ourselves as Earth historians.
How greedy we were to be humbled by that knowledge, how insatiable for what our minds could not grasp. That mystery, if we could ever truly comprehend it, would crush us with our own irrelevance.
In her concluding remarks, the naturalist blew the scale of our encounter out to a level that none of us had expected, titrating our curiosity with oblivion on a more immediate scale. According to local legend, she said, the boulder dwelled not alone down there but with the ghosts of the reckless youths who had drowned in their quest to appraise its size and depth with their own hands. How many doomed expeditions to the bottom in the last fifteen thousand or so years? How many cracked skulls and rusted scissor-kicks? We would never know.
I remember feeling as though the boulder possessed some bizarre gravitational force then: an appetite for the curiosity it inspired and the life its involuntary motion emulated. That mystery, if ever the boulder could comprehend, would smother it with its own irrelevance—like a palm in a game of rock, paper, scissors.
Humbled, I watched the boulder’s umbilical cord spiral invisibly downward.
“A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community,” writes Didion of the watched pot of the Sixties. There was, in the air, a “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin,’ ” an electric feeling that it was not only “possible to go ‘too far,’ ” but also that many people were already doing so in secret.
Didion is sitting in the shallow end of her sister-in-law’s pool when the phone rings, bringing word of the murders on Cielo Drive, news which horribly fails to surprise her.
I embraced the move to California with optimism. I hoped that putting geographical miles between me and the man stalking me would end the whole thing. If nothing else, the change of scenery should’ve given me the illusion of a fresh start.
Rather than provide relief, however, my newfound isolation made me even more vulnerable than I had been when in closer physical proximity to the stalker. Lonely for friends and family back home, I became more dependent than ever on electronic communication. Although my busy loved ones couldn’t always make time to respond to my notes, the stalker always did. When they did make time, his responses often arrived sooner and with more insight than theirs.
Every effort I made to reconnect to my former life seemed to funnel first and foremost into the stalker’s ear. Strangely, the fact that he now knew me better than anyone else imparted a feeling of nakedness that allowed me to write with abandon. When a confidante mentioned that she had noticed and was somewhat repelled by the change in my notes, afterward attempting to console us both by saying she was certain this new person wasn’t the real me, I knew I was in trouble. The sad truth was that I had simply begun writing to her in a more authentic voice than I had ever dared use before.
Although writing to others brought relief in the form of creative absorption, as soon as I hit send I felt my words contort into unintended meanings. When I tried to shut down this effect by ignoring the trophy parade, odd, anonymous missives poured into my inbox instead. They constituted a dream analysis wherein my hidden feelings were revealed. Did my subconscious insert itself into my writing without my permission, or was the harasser imposing an artificial symbolism in order to project himself into my world? It became difficult for me to tell outside from inside, my obsessiveness from his. Even on occasions when it would’ve been nearly impossible for the stalker to spy on me, I felt he was watching and commenting on my every perception and move. The effect was most pronounced when I was by myself. Then, I felt I dwelled at an impossible midpoint between states of aloneness and accompaniment. The loneliness that came over me at such times was similar to the kind one occasionally suffers in crowds—but aggressive somehow, externally applied, aggravated by my inability to become invisible even to myself.
The more I tried and failed to populate my nightmare with trusted outsiders and thereby to vanquish it, the more seductive and dangerous my relationship with the tormentor grew. When others failed to empathize with my situation, I began looking to his public words for validation. Whether capable of empathy or only sociopathy, he and he alone knew what I was enduring. He was the one conducting the experiment, after all, the one who had trained his spotlights and cameras and microphones on my mundane little world; he was the one rotating the microscope stage, choosing the magnification, and making round-the-clock observations; he was the one writing up the results, albeit unscientifically, and enjoying the success and adoration their publication earned him. Though our dynamic was imposed and in countless dizzying manners hellish, it was a form of intimacy, and as such fulfilled for me, in a very wrong and ultimately exacerbating way, at least one very right need: for my pain to be seen and known, its cause verified as real.
The helplessness I felt after sending each letter was commensurate with the empowerment I had enjoyed while composing it. It was terrible that all of my efforts to stop the stalker’s obsessive spying had failed, but even worse that his obsessive spying put him at a twisted relational advantage. In all my life I had never allowed anyone to get as close to me, indeed as interior, as the stalker had forcibly become; though repellant, his attention succeeded in making me aware of the intimacy I had always lacked and, on some frightening level, dearly craved. He seemed equally at the ready to fulfill that need or use it as a weapon against me. I felt like the coauthor of my own nightmare, the architect of my own cage. I prayed for words from loved ones that would break the spell.
When they didn’t come, I began addressing the interloper directly. It seemed stupid not to. Stupid to go on pretending. Stupid to ignore the obvious. Stupid not to tell him what I really thought of him, since he was already so busy making himself at home in my words. Stupid not to at least try to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps I could extort some mercy. Or, failing that, some incriminating physical violence. What did I have left to lose after the theft of my dignity?
I asked the stalker questions and he posted his coded answers in the trophy parade. His responses were full of sharp ambivalence and high-stakes equivoque. As Didion writes in “The White Album” of her paranoiac years, “Everything was unmentionable and nothing was unimaginable.”
I could not conceive of a more effective method of driving someone insane than the one the stalker had devised.
The first therapist I saw after we moved to California told me to buy a gun and get a hobby, then cut me loose with the advice that I treat my victimhood as though it were a gambling addiction. “Good luck,” he said. “Call me if you need anything else.” I only saw him a handful of times.
The second therapist I saw remembered being pelted by rock-wielding Nazi kids at the onset of the Holocaust. After more than half a century in the United States, she retained her thick accent and feisty spirit, at our first session confessing to some hard-earned expertise in the treatment of writers. “I know all about writers and their syndromes,” she said with a smile and a dismissive wave of one of her arthritically gnarled hands. She had a habit, I noticed early on, of softening her harsher pronouncements with her grin, which was bright and disarmingly warm. “The reality in their heads takes over!” she smiled and said.
When I began to spill all of the questions about character and motivation that had been troubling me, my new doctor stopped me by leaning forward and fixing me with her crooked finger. “There are certain things,” she warned, “that you mustn’t even try to understand.” Psychoses, evil, irrationality in its many varied forms. These mysteries, she said, will sicken a person to the same extent that she delves. They will take and take and give nothing but madness in return. “This man,” she declared, “is your Hitler. You must at all costs get him out of your head!”
Because I couldn’t separate what was happening to me from my relationship to language, my doctor’s advice was to give up writing altogether—forever or for as long as it took to rid my mind of any curiosity about the stalker or my status as a stalker’s object. A twelve-step program wasn’t an all-bad idea, she thought. And perhaps if my will grew sufficiently ferrous, in a few years I could eventually take up writing about something innocuous—“like birds.” Then, perceiving that my problem was fed by my isolation, specifically by my lack of community with other writers but more poignantly by my lack of community with other victims, this doctor urged me to join a support group. She diagnosed me with battered woman syndrome and told me to seek services for victims of domestic abuse.
Rather than use the computers or the Internet network at my home, the next time I walked to the grocery store I lingered in the parking lot to search on my phone for the services my doctor recommended. When I landed on the page of the county website that advertised resources for nearby women in abusive situations, a warning popped up on my screen advising me to quickly close the page, to redirect, navigate away, hurry and click the big red X before my online search left an incriminating trace, broadcasted my pluck, telegraphed my intention to speak up, to break away. Use a landline telephone or communicate in person, it said.
This made me laugh even as it caused my pulse to race. I felt scolded and I panicked, shutting down the page before copying the phone number it gave. My skin crawled and I felt giddy with sham relief, as if I ’d been watching a movie and the doomed heroine had just managed to lock herself in her bedroom, where she was now catching her breath, her back to the door through which every single person in the audience knew a blade was soon to burst. TV and movies had given me an intuitive grasp of what my research into homicide statistics later confirmed: women who are battered are in the greatest danger of being murdered while they’re preparing to leave their abusers and in the early aftermath of their escape.
But how did any of this apply to me? It’s true I would later tick most of the boxes on the Battered Woman’s Checklist, but there was nowhere I could physically go to get away. Escape was a victory I had to attain entirely inside myself, not with stubborn ignorance or practiced apathy but by squeezing out the stalker’s funhouse mirrors with true reflections provided by real, empathetic humans. Escape was using my so-called gifts to shine a light into my world with the belief that my story would console and spare others.
Could it be that there were others like me? People who would accept the absurdity I daily dealt with instead of holding it at an anecdotal remove? Where were these people and what had they found to make their lives more bearable? Had they also been told to forsake the written word? If so, how on earth would we ever find one another? It seemed to me that we must be so few and far between that only a network as vast as the Internet could possibly connect us. But, Hurry, redirect, navigate away, click the X, the website had said. The internet is not safe.
Seeing that warning pop up on my screen had stratified me into a set of nesting dolls. At my core, I was the fictional doomed heroine, overloud and overlarge, a swimming array of colors pressed against a flat, blank screen. On the outside, I was an anonymous woman sitting in the darkened audience, her live heart hammering its way out of her chest, hoping for an outcome she was powerless to abet. In between these two layers, I was the actor portraying the doomed heroine somewhere in the irretrievable past, a stranger in a time and place unknown to the other women, performing the deeds and lines of someone else’s script. I was fractured from myself and fractured from my story and fractured from help.
How, I wondered, will we ever transcend evil, psychoses, and irrationality in its many varied forms, when those of us suffering such ills can’t even join forces, can’t say I see you, you’re not alone, what hurts you hurts all of us?—when all we can exit are websites, and we ourselves are vectors of sickness, infecting and endangering those who try to help us?
When I returned to my new doctor’s office for my third appointment, she informed me with some alarm that her computer had just been hacked. She told me this in an accusatory tone, and I had to admit to myself that I had been careless in my online search for an in-network psychologist. Did I owe her an apology? Already I felt like an infectious agent, having sickened everyone with whom I came into electronic contact. Truly, I was a modern-day Typhoid Mary; in an effort to preserve my lacquer of denial, a mask within which I went about my life as normally as possible and immune to the cruelty that masqueraded as just art, I pretended with almost everyone I knew that I was not ill, let alone contagious. If this was a lie I could have believed, dishonesty might have dulled the shame of my contagion; instead, my chafing facade honed it.
As crazy as it seemed to me that the stalker would go to the trouble of hacking my therapist’s computer, it was also true that I had long ago stopped being surprised by the lengths to which he would go. Indeed, he seemed to thrive on the challenge. Though this new insight demoralized me, revealing my hungry, dumb ego for the Achilles’ heel it was, I nevertheless knew it to be true: the thrill the writer-stalker derived from pursuing me had far less to do with any magnetic talents I possessed than with the quiet fight I put up. Just as certain personality types are more likely to prey, others are more likely to fall victim; sociopaths are drawn to empaths, sadists to masochists. The books and articles I read suggested that my ready shame, marginal status, gushy heart, and instinctive reclusiveness all made me an attractive target.
After my therapist’s computer was hacked, I found it even more difficult than usual to relax in her office. A pernicious sentience seemed to be embedded within the darkened screen on her desk. I imagined the machine endowed with unblinking robot eyes and pricked robot ears and—somewhere across the continent, with itchy palms and the delusion of godliness his electronic omnipresence conferred, his body like a pale vestigial appendage to the glowing box in front of him—the fragile flesh and bone of the twitchy cybernetic stalker himself. Even as the doctor’s computer appeared to sleep, perhaps especially as it appeared to sleep, I felt it exude menace. Its hum was the tap on my shoulder toward which my attention involuntarily turned, its fan the breath on my neck that caused my skin to horripilate and my thoughts to short out as though I ’d been electrocuted. Where I was fractured, the stalker was appallingly throughgoing. Every electronic connection I scissored apart he readily mended back together. Technology allowed him to be and do things that on his own he couldn’t.
Prior to meeting me, my therapist had never heard the word cyberstalking before. She had in fact laughed when I said it, as though it were not a mainstream term but my own quaint invention. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, that she changed her tack once her own privacy had been violated, her own records and accounts compromised. She became indignant and criticized me as too empathetic toward my stalker, as being meek and an irresponsible feminist. She urged me to sing my canary silence into the world before the whole thing “blows,” the air already so toxic.
“You are like a wounded bird,” she said, “but you are not a wounded bird!”
“Write it,” she demanded.
“Just,” she warned, with a final smile and a wave of her curled hand, “don’t make it about yourself!”
My go-to reference book, published the year after I married my husband, who in two decades has absolutely never raised a hand to nor stalked me in any form or fashion, is an old but reliable text, available to me even when the Internet is verboten. After my second therapist diagnosed me with battered woman syndrome, I turned for the first time to the chapter entitled “Stalking and Domestic Abuse,” a section I had always skipped before because I had always assumed it to be irrelevant.
There I read about a study wherein 91 percent of mental health professionals dealing with domestic violence were found to “minimize the danger cues presented by their abused clients” while 40 percent ignored the cues altogether. Walker and Meloy, the chapter’s coauthors, cite the defensiveness of therapists as one possible explanation, saying that counselors may guard against “secondary victimization syndrome, which comes from listening to too much trauma.” The authors suggest that gendered coping methods might be partly to blame for empathy-guarding in mental health clinicians. The fact that women tend to be more passionate and elaborate storytellers than men means that their stories are also more likely to be dismissed by their therapists. In other words, some women may render their scary truths so evocatively that for those truths to be tolerated they must be regarded as false. For weal and for woe, empathy destabilizes.
Storytelling is not merely an organizational strategy that helps people combat chaos and information overload; it is, in the very real and imminent sense of the phrase, a survival strategy passed down from our ancestors.
Though each of us is hardwired to tell stories, in women this instinct may be particularly strong. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay “A Short History of Silence,” informs us that there is a gender bias in the research on humans under stress. The science responsible for the popularization of fight-or-flight terminology is based primarily on studies of threatened males, she says. When the reactions of threatened females are taken into consideration, a third behavior emerges: the creation of protective compassion through attentive talking and listening. In other words, it is not enough to tell ourselves stories; we must also tell our stories to others in order to live.
If women are particularly adept at sharing their truths, it is undoubtedly because women have a long, long, long history of telling their sisters stories in order to go on living themselves. Edgar Allan Poe, in his short story “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” traces the evolution of this gendered strategy all the way back to the origin of sin itself, describing the story’s heroine as “a politic damsel . . . who, being lineally descended from Eve, fell heir, perhaps to the whole seven baskets of talk, which the latter lady, we all know, picked up from under the trees in the garden of Eden.”
In Poe’s “true” ending to the popular Arabian Nights story, Scheherazade—newly confident that the king will not deliver her to the executioner in the morning—entertains her serial-killer husband with a final predawn adventure. Her thousand-and-second tale differs from its predecessors in that it is not a fantastical fable designed to pique and suspend the king’s curiosity, but a true account of wonders that Scheherazade feels remiss for not having already shared with her sister, who for almost three years has had the mixed fortune to sleep on a couch within earshot of the married pair. It is to her that Scheherazade describes such mysteries as a petrified forest, blind cave fish, waggle-dancing bees, predatory antlions, parasitizing fungi, intestinal worms, epiphytic orchids, festering volcanoes, underwater forests, bioluminescent forest carpets, calculating machines, telegraph devices, daguerreotypes, a chess-playing automaton, the vibrational frequency of the human retina, the ghost light of dead stars, a flock of migrating pigeons two-billion-birds strong, and more. This she does in language that is awestruck and awestriking. She does not provide the exact names or scientific explanations for the natural marvels and technology she describes, as they are either unknown to her or too prosaic for her narrative style. Thus a steam train becomes a mighty stone-eating horse with iron bones and blood of boiling water, and miles of coral reef become the architectural feat of tiny water-breathing creatures akin to caterpillars.
Having never seen or heard about any of these phenomena or inventions himself, the eavesdropping king, whom Scheherazade wakes with a pinch on the nose to stop his obstreperous snoring, is incredulous and declares all of his wife’s words rubbish. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is the truth that Scheherazade tells her sister about Victorian women’s clothes—the undergarments that render the most desirable ladies indistinguishable from dromedaries, so magnificently and ridiculously humped are their bolstered rear-ends. At this, the king snaps, accusing Scheherazade of a verbal treachery on par with the physical treachery for which he preemptively murdered his thousands of previous unnamed wives. Enough, he says, and calls for the executioner.
As the bowstring tightens around her throat, Scheherazade does not think of the scores of young women whose lives she originally thought to spare with her gift of gab, but of the delicious harm her silence will deal to her bull-headed husband. Revenge, of a sort. There is some power in going to your grave with your secrets after all, and no small allure. Scheherazade is consoled by “the reflection that much of the history remained still untold, and that the petulance of her brute of a husband had reaped for him a most righteous reward, in depriving him of many inconceivable adventures.” When you are silenced, your stories—no matter how digressive, defensive, evocative, ornate, hysterical, naïve, embellished with wonder, or honed in metaphor—are untouchable, undoubtable, sacrosanct. In other words, yours and yours alone.
Silent, I listened to the words others used. I heard the ways in which the plight of Poe’s Scheherazade is similar to my own. She, who seems no worse for the wear physically despite not having had a solid night’s sleep for two and three-quarter years, bets her life on the transformative power of her words, taking on the role of her own hostage negotiator. By controlling the only thing left to her, she attempts to control her controller, a strategy which works right up until she begins to tell the truth. In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale” Scheherazade seems finally to understand that her husband will make good, albeit somewhat dilatorily in her case, on the oath he swore to espouse and execute brides until he dies or runs out of women. She gives up trying to talk her way out of it. As Walker and Meloy conclude, “The sad truth learned when working in this field is simple: there is nothing we can do to stop a batterer who is determined to kill a woman.”
Often I felt I would rather die than give the megalomaniac terrorizing me what he wanted, this person who managed to control, intimidate, and isolate without ever laying a hand on me, and who frequently referred to himself as my husband. I would rather take my own voice than allow him to go on filching and perverting it in the sneaky, uncatchable, incredible manner he was. I would rather silence my story than have it go disbelieved, or—even worse—believed but dismissed as unimportant. It is one thing when your strange truth is denied, another when your everyday, ordinary value is treated the same way.
I was unbelievably desperate.
Societal norms that set expectations for women to be more emotional than men in describing their situation, some women’s styles of telling their stories by adding many extraneous details and going off on tangents that often serve the purpose of blocking the re-experiencing of emotional pain and fear when retelling what happened to them, and men’s often more rational ways of describing their experiences, all contribute to the difficulty in believing women’s reports of domestic violence and stalking.
—Walker and Meloy
A story is a stream that makes its bed in your mind. It burrows in to reveal the strata you’re made of, cutting a scenic, sinuous curve through the bedrock of all you’ve ever witnessed, experienced, learned.
Even though a story’s headwaters may have nothing whatsoever to do with you, the bedrock you lend it—soft in places and better indurated in others—proscribes the height of its cataracts, the sharpness of its bends, the breadth of its potholes, the depth of its plunge pools.
Passing through, a story entrains and polishes bits of your identity. Its water lifts elements of your past and floats them a stretch before setting them gently back down, restoring you to yourself with new relevance and radiance, in an essayistic, leap-along process known to geologists as saltation.
I grew up believing that reading would make me not only a smarter person but also a better one, so my habit was to lend myself to the process unquestioningly.
Long before I had any kind of geomorphological ideas about stories, I felt that they were wholesome. Consuming books, in my mind, was akin to drinking the milk my mother poured for me: all I had to do was let my eyes fall upon the words, and they would go to work strengthening my intellectual bones. Reading was a way to care for myself while caring about others and otherness, to expand my horizons while holding perfectly still, to invest while wholly absenting myself. As I grew up I never thought to question the morals or motives of the people who authored the stories I consumed, never considered that vicarious experience might be among the good things it was possible to have too much of. I never wondered what the effect of a life lived in story might be, never imagined that someone might mistake me for a book or that a story might lift some pebble of my identity never to return it. Now, these are just a few of the ideas that bedevil me.
If stories are streams, what happens when they pour through too fast or too frequently, or if a certain narrative traverses the same channel again and again, eroding the bed so deeply over time that every new story hews to its one truth, its one narrow course? What if literary passion entrenches a kind of Grand Canyon in the mind, a beautiful riverine landscape along whose banks the flower of empathy blooms, but from whose high, steep walls its seeds cannot escape, while in the densely peopled material world above, artworks are assigned value, and the predator or prey status of their authors is met with don’t-ask-don’t-tell disdain? What would literary empathy look like if it were to grow a sugar maple’s helicopter wing, or a dandelion’s downy parachute, and with that new flight apparatus breach the canyon’s tight lip, soar into the transactional realm, and there take root? Would the man who covets my song learn to treasure the heart that presses it into existence, or would he continue to prize only the heart’s wound, and that as a proxy of himself? Would his confidantes, accomplices, and acquaintances finally find in their own hearts the will to speak up about the burdensome things they know or the suspicious things they’ve witnessed? Or do those strangers feel as I sometimes do: that my victimhood spares some other writer/reader/lover/daughter/mother from suffering the same psychological torment, because a predator will prey no matter what?
Or do those strangers feel another way about me that I also sometimes do, namely that I do not really exist, that I have ceased to be real or was in fact never real in the first place?
Or do they feel another way still? A predator will do anything to keep from being found out, after all. He will lie, discredit you, convince others that you are crazy, and work hard to make their perception the truth. When you bellow into the void he will make sure that his voice and not yours echoes back. Scream all you want, is the return you will get, familiar to you from all of the dramas you grew up watching on television, no one can hear you.
I saw the way the stalker’s people looked at me the night I went where I was invited but didn’t belong. The event was a literary gathering I had learned about through a certain publishing group’s mailing list. When I arrived, the anxious sidelong glances of the people in the room suggested to me that I was the abuser and that the beloved author in our midst, the one who was stealing and profiting from me, who ’d been debasing me for over a year at that point, was the victim. I couldn’t tell from their faces what they knew, only that their secrets were deeply unsettling and that I was garbage to them. And I saw that as long as I wasn’t around, whatever those dark secrets were, those people wouldn’t have to face them.
For me, the membrane between life and literature had been peeled away, but for others, I could see, it was intact. For them, the membrane seemed to create a dead space wherein they could paradoxically idealize and devalue words, wherein literature could maintain dual status as just art and Art with the capacity to transform and transcend. There, literature was truer than the truth, above it somehow, and therefore capable of doing no real harm yet limitless good. The writer stalking me took shelter in that false dichotomy. It allowed him to invent word animals with unique elements of my personality, and word humans with private episodes from my past, then horrifically slaughter those creatures on the page—all without constituting a so-called credible threat to my health or well-being. He could, in forensics parlance, perform sham executions and, like so many of his colleagues, do so under the aegis of the first sentence of “The White Album.” According to the psychology literature I read, as long as the stalker maintained his creative outlet, he was less likely to act out physically. So, when the writer stalking me said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” what I heard was I tell the world stories in order not to kill you. And when his fans and I applauded his efforts, it goes without saying, we did so for different reasons.
No matter where along the banks you stand, you’re always downstream from a story’s headwaters. The truth I’m telling you now is alive, its waters ageless. From the shore, it reads like the oldest story in the book. Woman meets man. Man charms woman then makes creepy comment, reminds woman of the power that is his assumed birthright, the servitude that is hers—something having to do with comeuppance and her biblical ties to sin. Man suggests she has belonged to him since before they even met, since before she was even born. Woman says, No thank you, I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding, I think I ’d better . . . Man pretends to be cool but follows woman home, lingering in the shadows until the flick of a switch lets fall the effacing veil of darkness. Man breaks and enters, ties and gags, takes everything woman refuses to give and some things for which he didn’t even know to ask. Man returns home to loving wife, the next day tends to his classroom full of young writers clamoring for his approval, posts his latest stunning book review. The following night, man returns to woman who is still bound and gagged, takes what he continues to want and what continues to fail to satisfy, and again absents himself. Man thinks that by saying thank you when he leaves he renders his trespasses consensual. Woman becomes her own hostage negotiator, which is easy, because all she has to do is open her mouth and he will hear her. All she has to do is send a text message to her sister, perhaps, or press a few keys on her hacked computer. Language, for these two, is sex. Attention, power. This goes on daily for years. At nighttime he comes to her as though she were his virgin bride. Mornings he declares her treacherous and slaughters her in his celebrated prose and verse. On paper she lives forever in the anonymous, unaffected manner of a stone. A diamond perhaps. Something that in a few billion years will relax into pencil lead, a substance more useful than trophy-like, a softness with which her ghost can scratch out some alternate and highly meaningful version of events.
Dear reader, think back. Have you been held underwater before? If so, did all the sermonizing, theorizing, and moralizing you felt compelled to perform afterward help you to convince yourself that you were better for what you endured, that you suffered not in vain but for a higher purpose? Are you grateful for the swimming lessons? Is your instructor waiting on the other side of the screen for you to ladle him with the same thanks he showed you when his hands were pressing against the back of your skull and water burned its way up your nose and down your throat?
When I opened my eyes underwater, I could no longer locate the narrative I’d perceived so clearly from the shore.
My mind’s eye zoomed out to take in as much of the watershed as it possibly could at once. Crises alienate us from ourselves, and with the distance I achieved I was able to see that, where previously my writing and survival instincts flowed as one, they now unraveled into many disparate threads, like a mountain river choking on sediment. Again and again, I watched their currents collide, collude, and diverge. Forking their bed were such koan-like questions as these:
How do I use writing to heal myself when my words are what originally attracted and continue to fuel my predator?
Is committing my torment to paper akin to locking it down, or to providing it a sanctuary from whence its tendrils can grow and thrive forever?
How does a person of ordinary name and means hold her own in an age when hacking, predation, and plagiarism are de rigueur?
How can I benefit from the short-term relief that writing brings without suffering the long-term ills of either hiding or exposing my words?
Does the conversion of harm to beauty legitimize abuse as a creative strategy, furthering the arts as a realm wherein anything goes, the lovelier ends justifying the grislier means, the works valued all the more if the wounds are kept open to suppurate and bleed?
What does it ultimately take for the word to transcend the page, to connect a reader to a real-life situation so incomprehensible that it sparks yet fails to escape the confines of her imagination, fails to go beyond temporary perspective-taking and beget true change?
If a writer succeeds in choreographing an hour-long electrochemical light show in her reader’s brain, and that aurora wows the reader but doesn’t succeed in preventing the writer’s tragedy from befalling her, or compel her to intervene when she recognizes the evidence of similar trespasses taking place all around her, or provide succor to someone who has already run afoul of hatred and abuse, then how can it possibly be worth the risk the hunted person takes when she shows her hand, bares her soul, lifts her voice?
If what Solnit writes is true, and “The earth is seven-tenths water, but the ratio of silence to voice is far greater,” then doesn’t it follow that there are far too many people keeping mum from the shore?
What if, when a woman lifts her voice, no one stands up to join her?
Reader, how easy was my slide into hypocrisy?
How lame and half-hearted my attempts?
When I hinted that our paths have already crossed, I didn’t just mean that the stalker entertained you with the evidence of his pathology and his trespasses, I meant that I hid out and watched you praise and make a success of his work. I heard you tell him that he was great. I saw your beaming smile next to his. I stalked you, in the timid legal way that is somehow unremarkable in this day and age, and by keeping silent I allowed you to become complicit in the harm he dealt. I deprived you of what I would have wanted in your shoes—the ability to choose whether or not to endorse damage as a method as well as an aesthetic, the right to open my mind and wallet to art that is ethically created. Instead I allied you with all that is at best ignorant and at worst immoral in the world, pitying you in the first case and hating you in the latter, as if feeling those ways toward strangers could spare me from the anguish of continuing to feel them for myself. I’m truly sorry for that.
Of all that I’ve been through, I’ve questioned exhaustively but resolved precious little. While grappling, I dusted every corner of the double-bind I am in, which is the one suffered by any person aware of participating in an unbalanced power scheme: to remain silent is to forgo self-worth and to speak is to invite retribution. When the stalker inevitably got his eyes on the SOS wherein I describe what it is like to live under his cruel and increasingly devious surveillance, to be the glum loser in a never-ending electronic arms race, he reminded me via the trophy parade that he’s already laid claim to more than a decade of my private records, reveries, and images, and he is not bound by anything as trite as empathy in his quest to appropriate more tools to wield in his sadistic mind games.
Giving up after my interaction with the anthology editor was easy, and felt like all that remained to do. I had already endured nearly a year of dehumanizing exchanges with police, forensic experts, FBI agents, therapists, and eventually even my own husband, all of whom seemed to want to choreograph a game of psychological twister in my head, calling out the limbs of a pose I was constitutionally incapable of striking. Perhaps these helpers needed to defend themselves against secondary victimization syndrome, or perhaps they needed to guard against the pain of their own ineffectiveness, or perhaps they were simply acting in accord with the same sexist norms to which I had once been blind myself.
In any case, I was to ignore the face pressed to the glass (“Don’t feed his ego”), be boring (“He will go away if you don’t give him anything enticing to look at”), trust my prey instincts (“A woman knows when she is being hunted”), stay away from the Internet, and at the same time go about my days “as though everything were normal.”
In other words, I was to tell myself irreconcilable stories in order to live.
A dangerous rift opens within you when you dwell alone inside an invisible nightmare, when in order to get along with the people on whom you depend and who depend on you, you must trap your truth beneath a mask of unconcern. You become, in the words of André Breton’s surrealist manifesto, a “vessel placed between the container and the contained,” subject to a do-or-die “delirium of interpretation.” You watch things unfold at a kind of hypnogogic remove, bristlingly alert to the possibility of clues, and drawn like a magpie to glints of light that seem to want to hint at a way out. You feel shock and disappointment when none of that light shines from the resources advertising such help.
The authorities my husband and I consulted promised they stood at the ready to rescue me just as soon as it was clear that my body was threatened. In the meantime, the intangible things I treasured—my privacy and peace, my mental well-being, the bud of my career, my intellectual property, the trove of memories being ransacked and revised in the stalker’s hands, the identity those memories constituted—were simply not worth the inestimable time and expertise that guarding them would cost. Sisyphus is currently having a more rewarding go with his unwieldy boulder than any of us could possibly have with this particular wheel of justice was the gist of their argument. Not only is the technological climb notoriously steep and slippery, but so too are the escalations of an obsessive person. Sorry, they said. Call us the next time you catch the little jerk-off sneaking around the backyard.
All of this the little jerk-off watched, uniquely comprehending the harm to my self-esteem that such dismissive attitudes caused. In our shared yet separate attentiveness, the two of us became as much a we as he could’ve hoped for. We were a pair of sneaks united by our desires to hide our vulnerabilities from the other, both of us greedy for the other’s secrets and fiercely protective of our own, both of us junkies for evidence—some kind, any kind—of the other’s motives and plans, both of us alone in the hunt for what we felt we were entitled to and wanted almost more than anything else in the world. Both of us were desperate for more power than we had.
When someone from the outside spoke to me, I had a sense that the stalker and I enjoyed a truce for as long as it took for the faster of us to process that person’s message. Listening, we heard in the same way (and often at the same time) all that the people sworn to protect, serve, honor, and uphold said to me.
The implications of their pronouncements outweighed the few words they used. You are to blame for your own victimhood, their words suggested. You are being punished for being too much yourself. You should be your regular self and at the same time someone less curious, intelligent, creative, honest, visible, vocal, attractive, sensitive, feminine, weak, strong, dumb, loathsome, loose, withholding, and righteously indignant than you are now. Someone more doll-like than human. Until your stalker grows tired of you, you’ll just have to forgo a handful of rights deemed irrelevant to livestock but inalienable for free people. The continuation of your life matters, but not its quality. Better to live miserably than to die of proof. Look away. Look down. Your value resides in your flesh. Danger must come from outside your skin if it is to constitute an existential threat. It must arrive in a form rather more muscular than electrical. Help is conditional. Help isn’t coming. Help yourself. Master the technology that even we experts don’t fully comprehend. Better yet, get rich and hire someone who can. Find someone capable of sniffing and disabling invisible code. Find someone able to sweep for infinitesimal cameras and microphones. Put these someones on a payroll and have them work around the clock for the seven years that constitute a statistically average stalking episode. Install cameras and microphones of your own.
Or better still, be ignorant. Be silent. Embody the nothingness that ignorance and silence beget. To be preyed upon is a matter of choice.
Here is how to choose freedom over bondage: give up all forms of electronic entertainment, education, accounting, shopping, photodocumentation, and correspondence; never mind that you are freshly transplanted to a tiny town after a cross-country move, that friends and family are far away, that you miss not only the people but also the amenities of your recent urban home, and that it is the twenty-first century; write exclusively on paper, telephone exclusively on landlines, mail exclusively in envelopes, photograph strictly on film, research exclusively in public libraries, shop only in physical stores; dwell in a bygone era, saturated by musty obsolescence, alone, dividing your slow-motion hours among a thousand taxing contortions—taxing to perform, taxing to remember to perform—all in the pursuit of business as usual; and (as if that weren’t enough) ensure that every last one of your correspondents and loved ones follows suit.
Your failure to reconcile our contradictory advice will be deemed symptomatic of obsession and paranoia, possibly of a sympathetic nature. Your inability to turn a blind eye to your circumstances will indicate a personal lack of restraint and also a willingness to participate in your own victimhood. You will be judged to be complicit, asking for it, a masochist, and a whore for the attention. Didn’t your own friends admit at first that they were jealous of your predicament, of all of that dedicated, unconditional attention funneling your way? Didn’t one of them swoon with self-pity when she admitted that she ’d never been sexually harassed before, mistaking her good luck for a lack of feminine charm? Don’t all the popular movies and songs blur the line between relentless sociopath and unrealized soulmate? Doesn’t a single, epiphany-thin syllable determine whether the obsessive follower is to be a homicidal stalker or a perfect match in the end—a subjective yes or no uttered by the pursued love interest while a particularly emotional song swells? Ask yourself whether the syllable you chose matched the tone of voice in which you spoke it. Ask yourself if your psychic skirt isn’t a little too short. As long as you keep looking left and right, forward and behind, over and under, around and through, your vigilance will be interpreted as proof of your inability to rise above your status as meat. Are you, or are you not, a thirsty zebra scanning for crocodiles before dipping your neck to drink, your eyes wide to the beast that you know, or even hope, will explode out of the mirror one day—that reflection comprising your lines, the words they are made of, the alphabet like so many water droplets clumping and scattering intractably through space? Don’t dream in black and white. Don’t play the piano in your sleep. Don’t let your mind tap out invisible zeroes and ones that conjoin, disjoin, and negate, anastomosing like strands of a Boolean noose or a chaotically frayed stream: yes or no, lover or murderer, heads or tails, true or false, silence or speech. Don’t try to find out or even wonder how that man knows what you’re going to say before you open your mouth to speak. So what if he appropriates your voice, your story, your pain, your language—in some cases, verbatim.
Get over it.
We don’t have the patience.
The compromised compromise or else.
And so I was at an impasse. On one side of the rift lay a physical realm wherein promises were kept when easy, and on the other lay a psychological state wherein a single promise bound me like a finger cuff—tighter the harder I tried to pull free of it. When the stalker swore to me that he would always be there, I believed him; when he said I needed to be more rather than less of myself, I believed that, too; when he said that no one but him would ever go to such lengths for me, or pay such close attention, I sorely knew those things also to be true. In the ordinary world, men recognized for their goodness and bravery told me the lie that I was okay; in its shadow, a coward decked out in devil horns told the truth that I was not. In the first world, I felt small and invisible; in the second, gigantic and overly scrutinized, a sunken whale sucked at by lampreys who pried off big mouthfuls by tying themselves into knots and yanking for all they were worth. Shhhh, go to sleep, lulled the one side; Wake up and write! demanded the other. I didn’t go to all of this trouble just for you to bite your own dumb tongue off!
In between these two irreconcilable worlds I could barely hear myself think, so I kept quiet and listened to others instead. I listened to the scientists and the humanists, the ordinary and the experts. I listened to words on screens, words on paper, and words on lips. I paid extra-close attention to writers whom I perceived to be cut from the same cloth as I am, devotees of the weird and wondrous actual, artists who admit the genres are blurry but ultimately hew to what they call nonfiction. I was surprised by how many of these writers said the same thing. Over and over, I encountered “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and each time, I felt something ugly and rage-filled boiling in the schism of my surreality. Many more authors seemed to take the self-preserving fork of Didion’s next one or two sentences—“The princess is caged in the consulate,” or “The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea”—than followed her trail to its true and morbid end, and this felt like a denial of the crisis at the root of Didion’s essay, a misappropriation of her words, and a failure to console me for the “rather more electrical than ethical” cutting-room reality in which I dwelled.
I wondered if my reaction to so often hearing the Didion quote was not just an angry refusal to be shrunk by narrative, but also a recognition of the difference between trauma past and trauma ongoing, between a river with an established bed and a river at its flustered, rocky headwaters.
Multiple readings of “The White Album” helped me to see that storied violence is functional violence: cathartic, instructive, consumable, and inevitable, it is violence at a safe remove. Immediate violence, on the other hand, is irrational and fracturing; no framework abides its chaos. To tamp real horror into a narrative is to render that horror falsely comprehensible, falsely tolerable, falsely small, and falsely justifiable. It is, in a sense, to fictionalize.
The problem is, fiction requires distance in order to provide distance, comfort in order to provide comfort. When trauma takes up residence inside a truth-teller like Didion, the conversion of violence to story—whether for entertainment, money, a lesson, or a moral—becomes both untenable and unattainable.
When a madman set up shop in my life, I lost the capacity for story but kept the literary device that surely antecedes it: like Didion, I retained my ability to draw comparisons. I discovered the obvious, which is that analogical thinking is foundational to every mental process. It is the basis of recognition and, when recognition fails, of problem-solving. A predicament, I discovered, is merely a situation without a ready likeness. I didn’t know how to solve my problem, or understand why I was saddled with it in the first place, but I could obey my impulse, which was to keep saying to myself Here, this is what it is like, again and again. I hoped that by doing so I would eventually land on a comparison, if not an ear, that would yield a solution.
The result was a flood of metaphors to rival the trophy parade. Mental analogues blended into each other with no diminishment of their defining aspect, like a sky full of clouds changing shape as they drifted overhead, mutely defying me to name them but not fooling me as to their true identity for an instant. My days became an endless game of charades with the sky, one my ancestral mind still believes it can win. From the outside this effort might look like perseveration or even addiction, but from the inside it feels like pure, stubborn hope, a sustained attempt at picking the lock, a terrible-delicious greed for the dignity and freedom I deserve.
This is my so-called simple life.
At no point has it involved assuming ignorance as a victory pose, nor have I had much luck confining the metaphors to a tidy logic. There are simply far too many ways to arrange my suffering, and absolutely no combination of words that will ever justify the abuse that has engendered it. In the last four years, the more troublesome events in my life have been underexplained and overdetermined. I’ve been the repeated target of engineered coincidences. Things have ceased to go by their universal names. At some point, time slipped the bars of its cage, leaving me alone in the hollow with only my predator’s empty cup and disembodied voice to keep me company. There life revealed itself to be all middle, all simultaneity. The people who loved me read the vignettes for the story that isn’t a story, and didn’t care to read them again. They imposed an artificial ending that for me doesn’t exist.
Enough, they said. Be who you were before.
Write it as a fiction.
Success is the best revenge.
But I don’t want to tell a story in which I am a hero, villain, victim, or some crafty combination of all of those. And I know that to hold revenge as a goal puts me in danger of flipping the sadomasochistic dynamic when what I really need is a complete extrication from it. Sing, you dumb bird, the hunter says, dragging his empty cup along the bars between us, as though he were not my jailer but a prisoner in the neighboring cell.
Now I lean into the best salve I have found, which blooms from the ease I feel when I give up on narrative and allow myself to exist instead in the blended present, my hypervigilant mind culling phenomena by rhyme above reason. Circling the unsolvable problem, my thoughts bore their way through panic, past apathy, and down to the most ancestral before they can access—a primeval stratum Breton identifies as the “point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not perceived as contradictions.” A point at which thought approaches birdsong.
The princess is caged in the consulate of her own clinched heart; her ribs are the bars. The man with the candy leads the children into a waterless sea that hovers invisibly overhead; wading in, the humans become subatomic particles and the candy turns into tailless rodents. Here a fisherman is the vibrational frequency of the human retina, and I am the ghost light of dead stars. Some call this place Cielo and others call it Heaven, and no one here doubts for a moment that truth is far stranger than fiction.
Maybe Scheherazade has martyrdom on the brain when she steps onto the stage as some crafty combination of hero, villain, and victim but I am not resigned to her fate. Look how effortlessly I can cut the paper doll free, lift her out of the accordion folds, and let her unfurl into a black and white garland of nameless girls, each creased down the middle and linked at the elbow, identical save for the unique combination of words tattooed onto her feet, limbs, dress, hair, and face. Look how I can circle the chain into Matisse’s Le Ronde, twisting an end so the girl with her back turned appears to trip and fall, breaking the loop and holding it permanently open, creating a space for sparks to fly between us flattened screens, us emptied-out vessels, us un/holiest of muses. If silence is paper, then surrealism is a whetstone, and I am uncrushable scissors. The truth is, when crises are ongoing, we tell each other “shifting phantasmagoria” in order to live. We sing with the reflexivity of birds and are relieved just as long as the tune pours out, saying, Here, this is what it is like, I am real, let me tell you, again and again.
Breton, André. “What Is Surrealism?” Lecture, Brussels, Belgium, 1 June 1934. www.sas.upenn.edu>Courses>Spring02, accessed 31 July 2017.
Didion, Joan. “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Dorset, 1989.
Solnit, Rebecca. The Mother of All Questions. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.
Walker, Lenore E., and J. Reid Meloy. “Stalking and Domestic Violence,” in The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, ed. J. Reid Meloy. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.