Women are gaslit from early childhood. We’re told that boys hurt you or make fun of you because they like you. We’re told that it’s our job to nurture, to be nice, to be responsible for everything from others’ feelings to day-to-day management. We’re denied healthcare procedures because we’re not considered competent enough to make those decisions alone, and we’re often dismissed as a modern-day version of hysteria if we complain of pain, abuse, manipulation, fear, or disrespect. We’re taught that if our instincts are screaming at us, telling us danger is near, we should dismiss those instincts as paranoia, and “just be nice.”
TW for the rest of this post: stalking, gaslighting. This is also a VERY long story/post.
I had a stalker once. (Well, I might still. For all I know, he’s reading this post. But I haven’t seen him in roughly a decade, so I hope he’s moved on by now.) I used to call him a harmless stalker, because he never physically hurt me. People told me that I shouldn’t dismiss him so easily, that even a harmless stalker could turn violent. This guy, who I’ll call JD (Laurence picked random initials for me), never turned physically violent toward me. Nevertheless, his actions were subtly violent, and years later, I recognize the way he terrorized me for what it is: not a lovesick crush that couldn’t let go, but an active attempt to be part of my life whether or not I wanted it. There’s no such thing as a harmless stalker, even if said stalker never lays a finger on you. We romanticize unrequited love in our culture – think Snape and his never-ending “love” for Lily Potter – but it’s time to pull the blinders off. Pining for someone you can’t have is fine – you can’t control your feelings – but acting on those feelings is not okay. Watching, following, finding ways to contact, getting closer to assuage your feelings while dismissing theirs? NOT OKAY.
JD was a friend of a guy I dated in high school (pic: my ex and me while dating). He went to a different high school than us, but rode on the same bus after swim practice. I began to suspect he had a crush on me while I was with my boyfriend, but because they were friends, I tried to be polite-though-distant. My instincts told me to avoid the guy, but I dismissed my instincts, thinking that I was paranoid. He seemed nice, just a little socially awkward, and I told myself that was the reason for my discomfort. When I moved across the city that summer, he worked to stay in contact with me (in a time when email and cell phones didn’t exist). I thought maybe this meant he was a true friend. I was wrong.
It didn’t take me long to get really uncomfortable that summer. He was the only person I spoke to against whom I enforced my mom’s 15-minute phone time limit, because it gave me an excuse to end the conversations. At one point, JD told me that he had a crush on a girl he went to elementary school with, even though they hadn’t seen each other since they were kids. That was a HUGE red flag, but for me, it was a relief – it meant that I was wrong and he didn’t have a crush on me. Out of relief, I said something like, “Wow, that’s really romantic.” That may have been my biggest mistake. He thought that’s what I wanted.
Fast forward. My boyfriend and I broke up. Immediately, JD tried to tell me he had a crush on me. I felt the confession coming, and panicked, talking about how much I missed my boyfriend and crying so that he would not try to tell me he was in love with me mere days after I’d left the ex. I used this strategy for a few weeks, until JD wrote me a long confession letter that he mailed to me. Then I pretended I didn’t receive the letter. I had no idea how to safely break away from this “friendship” that I didn’t want at all by this point, and I didn’t have any safe adults that I could confide in. So I made my next big mistake, and began making false “confessions” to JD that I thought would disgust him and make him quit talking to me. Instead, it made him more determined to love me.
I felt so trapped. I’d tried to pull away subtly and limit our interactions. I’d tried to pretend I was still loyal to my ex. I tried to make myself disgusting in his eyes. JD began insisting on telling me what was in the letter that I still said I hadn’t gotten, and I began to take very direct, drastic action – hanging up on him if he began talking about it, telling him I didn’t want to discuss it, telling him I couldn’t talk to him via phone any longer, etc. But he persisted, getting angrier and fiercer about confessions (red flag red flag red flag!), and so one day, my heart pounding in my ears, I shut my voice into complete monotone, told him that I’d lied and gotten his letter ages ago, and when he asked why I lied, I told him I wasn’t interested in discussing the letter or in ever speaking to him again. After that, I refused to take any phone calls from him, though he tried many times, demanding to know why I’d lied. I hung up on him a lot.
Did I handle the situation well? Not even slightly. I was a 15-16 year old kid with no idea what was going on and little experience dealing with romance and dating. But to tell the truth, I imagine there was absolutely nothing I could have done that summer to get JD to stop calling me. Even if I’d skipped all those intermediary steps, he would have been writing me letters and calling my house, because he was determined to be with me no matter what I wanted. There was a reason my instincts screamed that I should be nothing more than polite-but-distant from the beginning.
I wish the story ended there. Unfortunately, I saw JD at a swim meet several months later. He tried to corner me and force me to talk to him and explain why I’d lied and broken off our friendship. I was terrified, my vision white, hyperventilating. Thankfully, some of my teammates saw me and rescued me (pic), and they gave me the strength to shout at JD that he needed to stop stalking me and stay away. For years, I felt terrible about this interaction, thinking that I’d caused him anguish and pain, when in reality, he was the one terrifying me and cornering me and approaching me when I’d explicitly told him to stay away. Does the story end there? No. Several years later, when I was pregnant with Morrigan, he sent a long letter to my mom’s house, and she passed it to me. In it, he told me that he forgave me for all that I did, and though he’d chained me in his heart all these years, he was letting me go so that I could be free.
I was so angry, and hormonal from pregnancy, and I made the mistake of responding. I sent him a scathing letter essentially telling him what a horrible person he was and that I hadn’t thought of him at all since that last meeting, and that I was happily married and pregnant and wanted him to never contact me again. At the time, I thought writing and sending that letter was empowering. Instead, it just gave him an excuse to continue his obsession, biding his time for another seven years.
In late 2006, I began a book club at my local library. I worked with the librarians, and they set us up alternately in the quiet room and the meeting room, depending on what was available. We had bookmarks out with the name of the next month’s book, as well as the date and time, and the club was listed on the branch’s event page. If you googled my name at the time, that event page was the first result. I suspect that’s how he found me.
Several months into the club, we were all in the meeting room for the first time. I sat so that I could see the door to the library in my periphery, in case I saw someone from the group and could wave them to the new location. And in my periphery, a man walked through the door, past the hallway, and toward the main part of the library. Though I’d only seen him out of the corner of my eye, for a split second, and didn’t see his face, my body recognized him. Every nerve in my body began to hum in fear. My heart pounded so loudly that my vision began to blur again and I was on the edge of a panic attack. All I could think was that he hadn’t seen me, and soon we could close the door to the meeting room to start the club, that it was a coincidence that he was there, that I was mistaken about his identity…etc. Women are taught not to trust their instincts. Women are taught that their own bodies can’t be trusted.
My body could be trusted. It was most definitely JD. He’d gone to the quiet room, as described on the website. A librarian must have redirected him, because suddenly he was walking toward the meeting room, down a hallway that had become a long tunnel in my distorted vision, and I was trying not to pass out. He didn’t even glance at me, but chose a seat on the other side of the room while others in the group welcomed him. I was so grateful that my cousin Jen was sitting next to me or I never would have made it through those first few minutes. I struggled to form sentences as we discussed the book. The pressure in my brain built every time my eyes skimmed past him while I looked around the circle, as he smiled blandly up at me as if we were strangers. I’m not sure how many minutes passed, but I couldn’t take it. Mid-sentence, I paused, pointed to him, and said, “Do we know each other?” His response? A look of feigned confusion, and these exact words: “You look sort of familiar.”
By the end of that hour, we’d established that yes, we knew each other (he was pretending that we’d barely known each other, and he only sort of remembered me), and also he planned to come every month to this group. I felt trapped. I wasn’t about to give up the group I’d created, which was my social circle and support system when my kids were young. But I also didn’t want to fear an angry or violent outburst from JD at any moment. I had to “make peace,” and so I stopped him after the group, told him that I wanted to apologize for my angry letter to him, I hadn’t been in a good headspace, blah blah blah. He “forgave” me, and immediate grabbed me into an unwanted hug, while I tried not to shudder and Jen stood next to me to make sure I was safe. It was horrific.
And it got worse. The book club had an email list for announcements and reminders, so suddenly I had to be in email contact with JD. He immediately used my email to write me a message essentially saying he wanted to “rescue” me from my bad home life. (He took “in a bad headspace” as “my husband is abusing me” and reacted accordingly, trying to be my knight in shining armor or something.) I responded as tersely as I possibly good, saying that I was fine, I was not in any danger, and like anyone else, I just had stuff to deal with. I tried to be super vague. He responded immediately, saying that he also had “stuff” to deal with, and maybe we could get together sometime to discuss “our stuff” together. GAG GAG GAG. I had no idea how to respond in a way to get him to LEAVE ME ALONE. I enlisted Jason’s help, and eventually sent an email that literally said “no thank you” with no punctuation etc. He responded that he understood, but could that be enough? No.
Soon after, he frickin’ called my landline, pulling my number from the phone book, to say he’d lost his bookmark and needed to know the time/date of the next meeting. which was total bs. First, he’d gotten my email from the message that had that info. Second, he found me by seeing the club online, and could have gotten the info there. It was VERY clear that he called simply to talk to me – especially when he showed up to the next meeting with his bookmark still in the book! I was at my wit’s end, and all the members of the club – who now knew exactly what was going on – were pushing me to report him and get a restraining order, even though the police never would have granted me that. (And frankly, I was afraid that if I tried, JD would actually become physically violent, rather than this mental campaign of stalking.)
The situation came to a head a few months after he first walked into the book club. It was the summer, and I was heading to NYC to visit my sister and meet up with some members of my favorite band. I was ecstatic for this trip. At the time, there were these two loose dogs in my neighborhood that were terrorizing everyone, and kept attacking the boys when they went out into the front yard. We’d called Animal Care Services about them several times, but they hadn’t been able to find them when they came around to look, and I’d called them again after one of the dogs almost bit Ambrose while we were all just trying to get into the car. Jason was at the grocery store for a few quick things, and I was finishing up some stuff in the house before my flight that afternoon. Suddenly, I heard those two dogs going crazy outside on the lawn, and I thought ACS might have arrived. I looked out the kitchen window only to see JD squatting down on the sidewalk in front of my house, trying to calm and pet these dogs. He was in shadow and turned away from the house so I couldn’t see his face. But my body knew. My nerves frayed, and I snapped.
Before I knew it, I was sprinting out of the kitchen and down the hall toward the front door. He had looked up my address, come to my house, and was watching where I lived!!!!! It was the ultimate violation and I was livid. I ran outside, heedless of the dogs, and ran into Jason, who had just arrived home from the store. He saw my frantic expression and asked what was wrong, and I practically dragged him down the driveway to the sidewalk. JD was five or six houses away from ours by then, his back to us, his distinctive semi-limping walk oh so casual, as if he just happened to be walking by, as if he just happened to squat down in front of my house. My anger broke into sheer panic. I would never, ever be free of this guy.
Jason brought me inside as I sobbed out the whole story. I was calmer by the time I went to the airport, but was so paranoid that I sat with my back against the wall and searched the crowd for him, waiting for the “coincidence” that he’d also be flying to NYC on the same plane. For days, I dreamed of him finding me at my hostel, or while I was with my sister, of him pretending it was pure happenstance that we’d found each other, like it was fate, like god was bringing us together for a reason. He got inside my head. He never laid a finger on me, but he violated me nonetheless. Insidious, controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, all the while making me believe I was paranoid, crazy, seeing things, imagining things, overreacting, and in the wrong.
JD continued to come to the book club for a few months after this, and then off and on for a few years. I haven’t seen him in about a decade, and I’ve never put the whole story out publicly like this. It would not surprise me to find that he’s been reading my blog all these years, that he knows where I live, that he’s created fake personas online to talk with me over the years without my consent. I still dream of him finding me with his fake bland smile, pretending he doesn’t know me, or that it’s all just chance. I will never be rid of him entirely, or feel entirely safe. I’m sure that was his intent: to make sure he’s with me always, regardless of what I want.
I have other stories of violation, more overt violation, over the years. Out of all of them, though, this is the story and the person that has had the most longterm effect on me. Why do I tell this now? Because violence hides in the dark, so I’m bringing this one story into the light. If you’re still here reading this incredibly long post, thank you. Thank you for listening.