Every Step You Take
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."
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.
Stalking is "a form of projection, but at a scary level," says a psychiatrist who has written extensively on obsession and hysteria (and who, like many of those contacted for this article, asked not to be identified). "But it's not a matter of 'Gee, the person I'm identified with is like me.' It's, rather, that the subject 'owns' some part of them that they can't bear to think about themselves."
In letters to her, Shona Barnett's stalker claimed to know her in a special way. He'd been sick, too, as a child. "He'd write and say that he understood what I went through, what I was going through, what I was thinking," says Barnett. "And, while I knew that it had absolutely nothing to do with me on an actual level, I began to feel that I had invited this in some way. I wracked my brain analyzing whether I'd psychically colluded with this person who maybe once on the street had asked me for the time."
It wasn't until the stalker began attempting to contact Barnett at work that she called the police. "And they were sympathetic," she explains, going so far as to dispatch a detective to the man's home. Parker's experience was notably different. "I'm walking home one day with my cleaning and I spot this woman on my stoop. Instinctively I realize it's her. So I go to a phone booth and call 911. When the cops come, I explain myself. They say, 'What's the big problem? She's got a crush. She's a fan.' " By this time, however, the fan had escalated her attentions to death threats. "It was obvious she was mentally ill," says Parker. "I felt some level of sympathy for her." Yet it was not clear what legal recourse he had. "I stopped answering the phone. I was skulking in and out of my apartment." This unknown woman had managed completely to disrupt his life.
"There's nothing out there called 'stalking' in penal law," explains Wayne Brison, a public information officer with the Manhattan D.A. Still, "if someone is communicating with another person, in mechanical or electrical or written form, making a lot of calls, say, it can be classified as harassment," which in certain cases is a felony charge. If the harassment takes the form of threats, the stalker can be charged with varying degrees of menace. All harassment complaints turn on the reasonable fear of personal injury. But it's not always easy to demonstrate that in court. Richard Edwards felt fairly certain that his "admirer" had no malicious intentions. Yet he "found the whole thing rather frightening," in part because the man's attentions seemed so randomly directed, and because the hysterical advances developed with unanticipated speed. "But how can you prepare yourself for something like that?"
And how do you break the connection? Barnett contacted a woman she knew with connections in Santeria. She was sent to a priestess who informed her that her "psychic portals" were open and that her spirit required a "gatekeeper" to ward off uninvited strangers. "I kind of got it, psychically," says Barnett. "I didn't do anything particularly, besides think about what she'd said. But it helped me to invoke a protective field." It may also have helped that she decided to press charges against the man.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.