Every Step You Take

Stalk Stories

He was the perfect romance-novel suitor. He called regularly. He sent flowers and almost daily notes. He remembered her birthday and seemed to have her on his mind all the time. When she changed apartments, he sent a funny little housewarming present. Well, maybe it wasn't so funny. The gift made specific reference to an illness Shona Barnett (not her real name) had suffered as a child, and the thing about it that particularly spooked her, she says, was not the item itself— a medical specialties catalogue— but how her admirer had happened to find her new address. Because Barnett had moved to a new apartment, redirected her mail to a post office box, and switched to an unlisted phone number with one purpose— to escape the attentions of this man she'd never met.

"No one who hasn't been through it can imagine what it's like," says Barnett, an attorney. "Stalker doesn't begin to describe this crazy psychic exchange that you yourself don't initiate."

Barnett's is no isolated case. It's not even rare. A novelist we'll call Tim Parker— who also stipulated that his real name not be used in this story— got the first call from his stalker on a Monday morning. "She was phoning from a subway station to say that if I didn't talk to her, she'd jump. If I knew then what that conversation would lead to, I'd probably have said, 'Go for it.' " For the next year, the woman on the other end of the phone played out an unhealthy fixation with Parker, at first calling regularly and leaving messages on his answering machine, then visiting his apartment building, where she'd wait hours in hopes of spotting him, then depositing copies of his books at his door, the chapters heavily overscored with obsessive scribblings. "The strange thing is that, beyond a kind of literary microcelebrity, I'm not famous at all. I got very caught up in, 'Why me?' It's not as if I'm Cher."

illustration: Bill Koeb

Richard Edwards, a specialist in European art at Sotheby's, had actually met the man who became his stalker; he worked at the cleaners where Edwards took his shirts. When the counterman surprised Edwards one morning by asking him on a date, "I, at first, didn't understand the question," Edwards explains. "There was totally no frame of reference. I said, 'Thank you but no thank you' and thought that was the end of it." That week, the man began calling Edwards at home. "He'd obviously gotten my number from the computer system," he says. One call became many, and then Edwards began to find his machine filled up each evening with desperate messages. "He sobbed: 'Please call me. I need you. I love you.' It was, frankly, rather scary. The entire extent of our previous contact had been, 'Hello, nice weather. No starch. Ready by Monday? Thank you. Goodbye.' Now he was at my apartment on weekends scratching outside the door."

Because there are no data on stalking— which under the New York penal code is not technically a crime— it's difficult to gauge how frequently it occurs. It would seem, however, that this most extreme invasion of privacy is commoner than most of us thought. Abandoned by a longtime girlfriend because of his womanizing, Agustin Garcia continues surveillance of her and her family until, on the day of her wedding to another man, he appears at her house and shoots her to death. First encountered casually at the White House, a former intern evinces such intense interest in George Stephanopoulos that he's forced to obtain an order of protection against her, twice having her arrested on charges of aggravated harassment for trailing him. Without ever having met him, two women at the University of Notre Dame find themselves persistently spied on by a man working for the school as associate vice president for human resources. These are just a few of the stories.

There are also the high-profile cases, of course: John Hinckley, most infamously; the stalkers who crept into Brad Pitt's bed, scaled the walls at Madonna's Hollywood house, tracked down sitcom star Rebecca Schaeffer's home address from DMV records and murdered her in 1989. In a general way their acts symbolize a social malaise that can be partly ascribed to an overall erosion of the lines between public and private. But that, according to one local psychiatrist, hardly accounts for the increase in "invasions into people's inner lives," incursions into strangers' existences and even heads.

Think of Bill Clinton's libido as the subject of national debate. Think of "outing." Think of the gay magazine that recently printed an article entitled "Diary of a Stalker Chick" in which the writer's harassment of former lovers was framed as a series of kooky peccadilloes, not crimes. Think of experimental filmmaker Chris Kraus's critically praised book I Love Dick, in which the author pursues an obsessive relationship with a theorist. ("Between 9:30 and 11:30 I tried your number four more times but hung up on your machine. At 1:45 a.m. I tried again, your line was busy. At 2:05 I called again and finally reached you. At first you said you couldn't really talk but then you did, you did. Oh Dick, I want to be an intellectual like you.") Of several films at this year's New York Film Festival that turned on stalking themes, the most disturbing perhaps was Léos Crax's Pola X, in which a golden-boy novelist is pursued by a phantomlike woman insisting she is his half-sister.

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