At the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, Mark waits. It’s winter in Manhattan, but he is patient. Noon comes around and the celebrity Mark has been expecting steps out of his apartment building. Mark goes forward and manages to get an autograph. That’s no strange occurrence outside The Dakota, except that Mark returns almost 11 hours later, meets the same celebrity and fires five shots at him.
That celebrity was John Lennon. For nothing else but his fame, Lennon was gunned down on that fateful evening of 8 December 1980 by Mark David Chapman. Chapman, who considered killing Johnny Carson amongst other stars, finally chose the Beatle, and later infamously told the jury that if his victim “was less famous than three or four other people on the list, he would not have been shot”.
Granted, the notion of celebrity entails a level of exhibitionism. However, when you throw uncertain individuals into the mix, the dynamics change. What is usually perceived as audience connection becomes an invitation to further that self-exposure and an admission of intimacy. More concerning is the hazy line that defines the behaviour. Does it have to end in death for it to be called stalking?
pursuit + acceptance = love
pursuit + rejection + pursuit = stalking
Is it as simple as these equations put forth by author Bran Nicol? Of course, the term ‘stalker’ only surfaced in late 20thcentury, while ‘stalking’ had hunting connotations in its original definition. There are now many ways to categorise the behaviour, but most conventionally follow five types—resentful, rejected, intimacy-seeking, incompetent and predatory.
For Lennon, Chapman’s motive is somewhat an anomaly; his goal to gain fame by taking the life of someone famous. He has stated that he harboured no hostility to the musician, who was so cordial to him in his first encounter that it caused Chapman to have second thoughts about his plan.
Apart from this exception, the stimulus for most stalking incidents fall into the five types. Resentful, where one pursues a vendetta with an attitude of righteous indignation, is common to celebrity deaths at the hands of deranged fans. Such was the murder of footballer Andrés Escobar after he mistakenly scored a goal on his own team, and subsequently causing them to be eliminated from the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The Colombian captain was gunned down just 10 days after.
We’re all aware stalking does not just apply to those who hold a status of prominence. What happens when you become the target of someone you know? The behaviour we are most familiar with in regard to stalking is the Rejected Stalker. We see it in Fatal Attraction and more hauntingly in Before I Go To Sleep, where a former intimate partner seeks revenge. But what if the stalker is someone you know, but not intimately?
Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins
“Having an obsession can be cute and harmless, but it no longer is if what you put out is materially impacting someone else’s life,” says Audrey, summing up her year-long harassment by a colleague. The man, who publicly claimed that they were in a relationship when she was already seeing someone else, did not stop after she confronted him about it. Having her actual partner occasionally pick her up from work did not work either.
Instead, he went on to incessantly send her sadomasochistic pornography, threatened to kill himself and even tried to sexually assault her in a drunken state. Evidently, the situation was a nightmare as they were working on a project together where constant interaction was inevitable. It escalated to a point where, whilst overseas, she woke up to find him in her bed.
Having acknowledged her overt disinterest but still forging ahead with crude attempts, Audrey’s stalker is classified as the Incompetent Stalker. The Incompetent Stalker often feels entitled to the victim but is inept at building upon social interactions in the proper way. Due to the sexual nature of his actions, he can also be considered a Predatory Stalker.
“In his mind, there was no doubt that he and I were just waiting before we had sex. He truly believed I was just playing hard to get and he was being gentlemanly.”
His misconception that it was only a matter of time before she finally fell into his arms was what gave him the confidence to spread lies about her. Strangely enough, that was what caused her to unravel. When a female journalist expressed a false impression of her that aligned to his story, Audrey came undone.
“It was just very damaging for another woman from the national broadsheet to have this assumption, having never met me and taking all that as fact,” she recounts. “That was when I went to get help because I had stopped sleeping and eating, not knowing how far the rumour went.”
For at least half a year, their mutual friends sided with her colleague’s narrative, until they experienced his obsessive outpour for themselves. Looking back, Audrey is convinced that the ordeal could have taken another turn if the first response she received when talking about the matter was not a blasé dismissal. “It would have made a difference if I had someone I trusted to confide in, rather than having my concerns discounted.”
I don’t even know if i have seen this person face to face
“Stalkers think they are paying you a compliment when they strike a conversation with you as an artist, but it can very quickly turn into harassment,” Jennifer, a poet who performs her work on stage, says. “They have difficulty understanding the difference between supporting you at a show versus being a public figure they can project their desires on. They don’t realise there’s a person underneath who can get annoyed, frustrated or afraid of what they’re doing.”
Jennifer’s stalker, who she believes lives in Kuala Lumpur, continually creates new Facebook accounts to message and call her, for the past five years. It’s clear that he belongs to the intimacy-seeking type that imbues a deluded infatuation on their desires. Even when his actions merit no response from her, he refuses to cease.
“I think he sees himself as a lone philosopher type and is trying to connect on that level.” It’s a belief Jennifer subscribes to after learning his pattern of victims being female poets and debaters. “One thing I’ve noticed is they try to isolate me,” she observes, having had another run-in with a different man who had sent her a gift to her private house address.
“Trying to make me feel like they and I share this special world, which we do not. Therefore, the sense that I might be betraying them if I say anything about it or have any thoughts of my own.”
What is most peculiar is that her stalker’s behaviour could possibly have an OCD slant. “The reason I don’t get the calls throughout the year is because he might have a schedule,” she says. “That’s the impression I got from talking to my counterparts in Malaysia. He has a list of our birthdays and other significant days for us.”
Curiously, just as there are types for stalkers, Jennifer considers the idea of types of people who would make good targets. A common trait of sorts that makes the likes of her attractive to prey on. “They must see something. Whether they feel empowered by establishing a relationship or otherwise, it comes down to a conscious admiration. But on the unconscious level, why that person over another admirable person?”
The cursed benefit of doubt
It’s a reflex to self-analyse as an unfortunate recipient of stalking, according to psychologist J Reid Meloy. Part of the ethical reassessment of their own actions includes questioning if they have given off a wrong signal or somehow treated the stalker unfairly. Both Audrey and Jennifer tried to rationalise their stalkers’ actions and unintentionally allowed their behaviour to play out longer than it should.
The danger of taking the matter lightly by either themselves or the people around them meant that bad behaviour was excused at their expense. “It could be a generational or gender complex where we tend to disbelieve ourselves and try to be stronger as females,” Audrey points out, “and constantly put up with a lot of things that we shouldn’t.”
Jennifer attributes it to our heteronormative ideas of what men and women are like. “That social dimension that we as sad, lonely single females want attention and should accept these advances,” she thinks, is what makes stalking seem more of a celebrated activity when men do it.
Does gender matter?
“When my good friends heard that I was stalked by a woman, they laughed it off and said I was lucky to have an admirer,” Joanne, a former journalist, tells me. “Companies I worked at had no idea how to deal with it and just told me to be flattered.” She, along with the others, agree that either side of stalking is not confined to a specific gender, but stresses that its impact is almost always the same.
“She was the schizophrenic and the one with the psychological problems. Yet many like myself end up with anxiety problems and panic attacks.”
It started with perpetual emails and moved on to calls and voice mails, which lasted over four years even with her stalker’s intermittent visits to the Institute of Mental Health. It is not uncommon for the fear to be shrugged off as the victim being overly dramatic or paranoid.
For Joanne, it cost her her mental health and her career. With her stalker appearing at her office building and threatening to hire a private investigator to find out her address, the platform of journalism was something she could no longer afford, even after her stalker had been charged in court.
Course of action
Besides the obvious measure of not engaging with your stalker, Joanne advocates paying attention to their approach. “It will be extremely emotional and traumatic to listen or read every message and log them, but precisely knowing the state of the stalker’s mind and the decline in his or her psychological profile will warn you exactly how much danger you are in.”
After gathering a sufficient body of evidence, you can lodge a police report and seek their advice on getting a Protection Order. With changes made to the Protection from Harassment Act just last month, it is important to read up on it. One of the proposed changes sees individuals who breach the Protection Order arrested even without an issued warrant. Subsequent breaches then lead to doubled penalties.
A new specialised court will be established to hear both relevant civil and criminal matters, as well as the granting of Expedited Protection Orders within 24 hours and expanded coverage to protect persons related to the victim.
Since as early as 1818, stalking has existed. The word ‘obsess’ is derived from its Latin root obsidēre, which is defined as surrounded without conquering; a besiege. As Meloy aptly terms, stalking is an old behaviour and a new crime. Yet, the aftermath remains the same. You may be strong enough to endure it, but why should you have to?