A friend of mine had almost finished her undergraduate degree when a dude started to stalk her. Rang her phone a dozen times a day from a variety of numbers. Emailed prolifically, describing at length his masturbatory practices while staring at (fully-clothed) pictures of her he’d found online. Stood outside her classes waiting for her during the day. Stood outside her apartment at night.
My friend is an animal lover. After she mentioned that she was, um, not interested in a relationship with this gentleman, she began to find animal corpses on her doorstep in the morning. The barrage of emails she received now included lengthy paeans to necrophilia.
The stalker was a student at her university. The university did nothing. She filed for a restraining order. That accomplished nothing, either.
My friend dropped out of school and moved several hours away.
She’d been a great student, always taking more classes than required. She was only a junior, but with two more credit hours, she would’ve graduated.
I met her after a miserable year she spent away, degree-less, with school debt, marginally employed. My wife and I convinced her to return to school and live on our couch. The stalker was still in town, still enrolled at the university – he kept failing enough classes that he was really dragging out his tenure here – so I walked our friend to all her classes. I’d sit in the hallway and type. This was before my daughter was born; I was lucky in that my work could be done most anywhere.
After a semester of this, my friend graduated. She was able to move on with her life. But it was dumb luck that we even met her. It would’ve been so easy for her to join the ranks of our nation’s erstwhile students who racked up heinous college debt without earning their degrees.
Stalking wrecks lives.
Out of any ten women in the United States, chances are that one of them will be stalked sometime. An appreciable – though much lower – number of men, too.
Most people, when stalked, suffer from all the hallmarks of PTSD. Sleep disturbances, memory loss, stress & its accompanying biomedical ailments, depression, that sort of thing. And the suffering can extend long after the initial traumatic experience. If somebody stalks you for a week, you might sleep poorly for a month. Somebody stalks you for the better part of a year, it can take half a decade or more to reclaim your former life.
And, yes, you could come down with some of those PTSD symptoms even if you weren’t being stalked, as long as you sincerely believed that you were.
Of course, believing that you are being stalked, when you aren’t, sounds a lot like mental illness. Believing that a wide network of strangers is using the internet to coordinate their harassment of you? That sounds even more like mental illness.
Indeed, most of the scientific studies on the phenomenon of group stalking has concluded that the people who believe they’re being stalked this way are delusional. The consequences of the belief are real, but the foundation for the belief is imaginary.
This is a tricky subject for me to write about. After all, the human brain evolved to identify patterns, to seek connections between things. Pattern recognition allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce in a chaotic, hostile world. And it just so happens that some people are exceptionally good at this, as though more evolved along this axis: those people have schizophrenia. They often perceive meaning and intent even where no such patterns exist. A superpower in one context might be a handicap in another.
Just because someone bumped into you on the street, and then someone else spilled coffee on your shoes, and then a third person whispered something hateful nearby, does not mean those people coordinated their behavior in an attempt to destroy you.
There is a risk that, by investigating the phenomenon of group stalking, some number of people prone to this sort of belief could be inoculated with the idea. Perhaps, left to their own devices, they’d never imagine that a group of strangers would stalk them. After reading about others with this fear, they might search for signs of such stalking in their own lives.
Given sufficient data and a desire to find patterns within it, well, seek and ye shall find. This is the problem with a lot of contemporary biomedical research.
And yet. There is also harm in reflexively dismissing these fears. Because the internet is a powerful tool for harassment. Women who offer astute commentary about computer games, or women who write about science, or women who write about politics, or women who have sufficient epidermal concentrations of melanin to thrive at low latitudes, or, really, women who display any authority at all online, are often barraged by vitriolic hate mail. Death threats, too, but almost none of these threats are taken seriously by law enforcement, even when the threats are accompanied by trawled-for personal information like a home address or travel plans.
Internet-organized harassment has real-world consequences. From what I’ve read, it’s always been pretty tough to be a middle-school girl, but that doesn’t really justify the girls who’ve been harassed to death in the last few years.
Plus, the phenomenon of anonymous groups of strangers teaming up to stalk someone is real. The environmental activist Bill McKibben, for instance, is quite obviously being stalked because more and more photographs of him in a wide variety of locations keep appearing online. In his case, the stalkers seem motivated to quell his activism – and, sadly, they are succeeding. Like almost all victims of stalking, McKibben reports dampened enthusiasm and the sense that he is caged off from parts of his life. He felt unable to attend a friend’s funeral because he didn’t want to lure stalkers to the event.
Although McKibben’s stalkers dislike his environmental activism, this hardly seems like sufficient reason for a group of people to collaborate on harassing him so thoroughly. So it does make me wonder just how little cause a group would need to select a victim. In Lorraine Sheridan & David James’s 2014 study they concluded that, out of 128 self-purported victims, “all cases of reported group-stalking were found likely to be delusional, compared with 4% of individually stalked cases.”
I’d like to find this comforting. Perhaps the phenomenon is not real. Perhaps only persons suffering from schizophrenia will imagine that this is happening to them.
Except that McKibben’s case shows that this does happen. And we now know how little data is necessary for a group of would-be stalkers to find an appropriate victim. Using just a list of whom you have communicated with, metadata of the sort hoovered up blithely by the National Security Agency of the United States, a group of stalkers can identify where you live, your romantic status, and a variety of other sensitive traits.
This data isn’t so difficult to come by – it’s protected less rigorously than credit card information, and that’s swiped from retailers semi-regularly these days. So it is certainly not implausible for a group to victimize a total stranger based on some occult selection criteria known only to themselves.
I don’t want to abet anyone’s delusions. And yet, I can’t help but fear: what if they’re not crazy?