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In 2003, award-winning poet and novelist James Lasdun taught a fiction writing workshop in New York. One of the students, a young woman whom Lasdun refers to as Nasreen, stood out from the other students as a gifted writer. Lasdun encouraged her to develop her skills and build her confidence by assuming a role as her quasi-mentor. But he was unprepared when she began to make advances at him. He turned her down, but shortly afterwards the amorous e-mails developed into hate-mail, containing what Lasdun describes as “verbal terrorism”.
This was just the start of what would become a lasting web-based campaign entrenched in obsessive love; a campaign to destroy Lasdun’s standing, reputation, life and his entire self; a campaign which is still on-going.
Lasdun spoke to renowned psychotherapist Susie Orbach at a Royal Society of Literature event in February, discussing his memoir Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. The book is a last-ditch effort to understand why Nasreen became so obsessed with him, and what, if anything, he did to encourage it. Beneath all this is the question ever-present for Lasdun: “will this ever end?”
Litro attended the event and spoke to Susie Orbach about destruction, desperation and obsession, and how the internet and modern communications have enabled the sinister phenomenon of online stalking to flourish, providing opportunities for stalkers to penetrate their targets’ lives and minds in ways that would have been inconceivable just five years ago.
Sex, Obsession and Destruction
The phenomenon of stalking is the product of obsessive love, whereby one person becomes a construct to another person; purely an object to be fixated upon rather than a subject in their own right. Lasdun, as Nasreen views him, has become a construction of her imagination, his subjectivity and self completely disregarded, as opposed to an other with whom she is, or potentially could be, in relationship.
This is referred to in the therapeutic world as transference, whereby a person becomes the recipient of transferred unconscious material originally directed at someone else in the client’s life. Lasdun has become the recipient of Nasreen’s conflictual longings, desires and desperation for validation and help. The fragility of Nasreen’s mind no longer allows her to view Lasdun as a person in his own right but just as the object. He becomes the recipient of an obsessive love that is continuously gaining momentum, entrenched not in reality or in what is happening between the two of them but purely in Nasreen’s own mind .
Susie Orbach makes it clear that, in this case, stalking is not about sex but about a troubled person longing to be understood, recognised and seen. As a young writer, Nasreen was looking for validation of her work and admiration of her skills, as is very common in the specific student-tutor relationship, and when she got such recognition from Lasdun she received something that she was desperate for, but also terrified of, and didn’t know how to handle.
“What got me was the whole relationship between the professor and the person who’s wanting to learn; how difficult that relationship can be when you’re adults, when you desire to be recognised and seen, and how you could misconstrue things that happened,” Orbach told us.
Lasdun spoke of how, shortly after he had praised Nasreen and offered her guidance and support, he received a seductive e-mail proposing they commence an affair, which he firmly but politely turned down. A response from his protégé revealed that she was unused to having such attention from men without them expecting something in return. As this pattern of paying for a man’s support and friendship with sex had become entrenched as the norm, she was thrown when Lasdun presented her with a different experience. This was an important point in the interactions between the pair, and perhaps initiated the beginning of Nasreen’s descent into obsession. The pattern with which she was so familiar – and which was therefore safe and comfortable to her — was broken, leaving her unable to process the situation and handle a genuine, caring interest from someone who didn’t want anything sexual in return.
But then the ensuing attachment to Lasdun became obsessive. Orbach explains that this is about a lot more than sex or sexual attraction. Stalking is an off-shoot of obsessive attachment – not to be confused with obsessive sexuality or sex addiction, which are different phenomena altogether – whereby a relationship stops being interpersonal and starts being based on objectification. Stalking is an extreme internalisation of a relationship, denying opportunities for real, genuine attachments to come about. In that sense, to stalk someone is a defence which prevents the stalker from developing an actual, reciprocal relationship, which is often the thing people in this state of mind most want, but also the thing of which they are most terrified.
To illustrate her point, Orbach tells us about the case of a woman who, after one date, spent upwards of 30 years waiting for the man to get back to her. To the woman in question, this man was not a person, but an object. By remaining attached to him, and to the idea of how things could be, she allowed herself not to be in a real relationship with someone else.
In those with sufficient instability, the actions of the stalkee may come across to the stalker as provocative and enticing, even if that wasn’t the intention. Lasdun could never have known that something as innocuous as praising a student and recognising her talents and potential could have led to something so murky, sinister, and destructive, that would take over his life and change him from the person he once was.
The internet has provided a whole new platform for potential stalking. Legitimate methods of gaining information on people can be used by those with a more sinister objective. Orbach told us about the potentially invasive and penetrating power of the web, and how it has changed the face of the therapeutic profession. “Years ago people would come for therapy and know nothing about the therapist. Now they know all sorts – your background, where your children went to university. It’s changed the relationship. That’s not necessarily a bad idea – and I wouldn’t describe this as being stalked — but it can certainly throw a therapist.”
Cyber-stalking, as opposed to ‘traditional’ stalking, is a phenomenon which is taking on its own momentum. Lasdun spoke of the effect the web has had on our reputations, in contrast to the days when “reputation still meant something, but not everything, when facts could be checked”. In these times of multiple virtual realities, thousands of entries can be searched in order to dig up information — or should we call it ammunition? As Orbach says: “One can’t track what is being tracked — you don’t know what’s ending up online, who’s putting what up, who’s saying what, so you never know what’s going to come back at you.”
It was the web that enabled Nasreen’s campaign to destroy Lasdun so effectively. Through the web she started to implant her own view of him in the minds of other people, potentially destroying his reputation. She bombarded him with emails, setting up new addresses as fast as he blocked them. Her actions resulted in, Lasdun says, “‘a panic inside my head”.
Stalking, or any form of obsessive attention, “forces the other to be preoccupied by something they didn’t invite. It breaches their safety and has a huge impact”, says Orbach. Such actions destroy the other from the inside out, creating an internal state of panic and hyper-vigilance that penetrates right to the target’s core and disables them from feeling safe and in control. “In a stalking situation, you are simply a recipient,” she explains. “You are not in a genuine relationship.”
“Stalking is a phenomena, a construct of the mind gone mad,” Orbach says. “It’s about wanting and needing, but feeling like it’s not legitimate. Then turning this yearning into something legitimate in oneself, before ultimately turning it into destruction.”