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.
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?
Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?
Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.
I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.
But I did resolve to read the book.
At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.
Let me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.
Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.
The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.
The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.
The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:
The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.
. . .
So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.
This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.
The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.
In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.
Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.
Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.
The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:
Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …
These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories. Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …
The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.
A few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.
For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.
Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.
When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.
The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.
In the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!
It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?
Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.
Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.
Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.”
Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:
Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —
“One lemming, kid?”
“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”
“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”
And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.
In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:
It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.
What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.
Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.
The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!
Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources. When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.
Humans are very similar to most other predators this way. A bit foolish, we are. We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.
So it goes.
The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?
In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.