It was just after 7 o’clock in the evening during July in Arizona. Translation? The triple-digit heat had barely dipped into the 90s. So why did I feel a chill creeping along my arms? I rubbed them for warmth, but couldn’t shake the queasy prickling sensation. I debated whether fetching my mail at the end of my street was really worth it.
This had become my life. Even the simplest tasks were riddled with fear. Every time my phone alerted me of a text, my heart raced. Every time my dogs barked, I jumped.
I needed to make sure my family would not be a story in the news or a plotline for a Lifetime movie.
A few months prior, I had gotten texts from a random number; these escalated to lewd comments. I downloaded an app to block the number. Then the emails started. I blocked them and every subsequent account this faceless shadow created to reach out to me. Next thing I knew, I was getting anonymous gifts and small PayPal transfers. I ignored them. Twice, my back door was open. Had I just forgotten to close it? When I found a slain chicken strewn across my front lawn, I tried to justify that one must have escaped a nearby farm and been victim to a coyote or other common predator. Then, not even a week later, another one appeared. This shadow wanted me to know that his gift was not just a coincidence.
I had dutifully called the police when I suspected break-ins and had informed them of the obsessive behavior. It wasn’t the first time in my life I was told by authorities, “Well, we can’t do anything unless they hurt you.”
When I came home from an extended weekend away for my job, I was welcomed by a dismembered and headless Barbie doll … on my bed. While disturbing on its own, it was a clear reference to an episode of Dexter I had just watched two days prior. I had been alone and at someone else’s home and had only told my best friend back home in Missouri about the episode. Somehow, someone knew.
That was the moment I came to terms with a very grim fact. I had a stalker.
I wasn’t alone. One in 6 women and 1 in 19 men have experienced stalking in their lifetimes. Stalking can appear in many ways, but can be summarized as someone repeatedly engaging in behavior you have clearly expressed you are not interested in, such as: continuously calling or emailing you after you have asked them to stop, making fake online profiles to gain access to your information, following you or spying on you or convincing friends to do so, waiting at places for you, leaving unwanted gifts, or even spreading rumors about you meant to taint your reputation. The modern way to do this is over social media. One in 4 victims reported some form of cyber assault.
Though exact statistics are difficult to obtain, stalking could easily be the fastest-growing and most under-reported crime. Why? Of course, no one reason can be blamed, but a large factor is our hyper-connected society. Apps can be downloaded with a simple click to track “friends” and “family,” but not every person with this easy access has such good intent. Social media has made it easier to connect with old classmates and friends across the country, even the world, but it is also a neatly wrapped little gift for predators. As we post what we are doing, who we are with, and where we are going, we might as well be drawing a map with a giant red X on it. Many of us are lulled into a false sense of security that making our pages “private” will protect us. After all, then it is just the people we know and trust who have tabs on us. Unfortunately, 7 in 10 stalking victims knew their assailant. For that reason, it is wise never to post your upcoming plans on social media or give any personal information.
The other factor that plays an important role in the frequency of this specific crime is the difficulty in approaching the matter in the legal arena. First of all, the investigation of stalking is difficult. The acts, as they progress, must consistently display a continuity of purpose: harassment that aims to control or harm the person they have in their crosshairs. Another thing that explains the climbing stacks of these types of cases is the increasing epidemic of mental health disorders and the psychological profile of stalkers. In 1990, the first anti-stalking legislation was passed in California, and it only took six years for laws to be passed in all 50 states with varying degrees based on the element of victim fear and emotional distress as well as the requisite intent of the stalker. The problem is the punishment does not deter the perpetrator. Only 6 percent of victims said the behavior stopped following arrest or subsequent incarceration. With many stalkers hosting a variety of delusional disorders or sociopathic tendencies, it is obvious that a night or two in jail by itself is a Band-Aid at best.
That isn’t to say that reporting isn’t a wise choice. It is proactive to document the behavior so that if it escalates, you can use prior police reports in court, should the need arise to present a case. Currently, 60 percent of stalking victims do not report the incidents to the police, which not only denies the added protection that can be offered, it also strips us of the information we could gather to further study this problem and come closer to finding a solution.
However, the American Journal of Psychiatry emphasizes a need for therapeutic intervention to address underlying mental health disorders in stalkers. As adults, once these behaviors begin surfacing, psychological help often has to be court ordered, but it can be an effective way to get this person (and ultimately yourself and anyone else they may prey upon) help. A multi-faceted approach including law enforcement and courts as well as medical and mental health assistance is best to effectively treat the disorders and behaviors associated with stalking. Also, instilling traits at a young age that encourage children to be able to effectively communicate and be able to resolve conflicts in a nonviolent manner helps to give them a healthier perspective on rejection, sexuality, and self-worth.
This can reduce traits that are common in the personalities of the five types of stalkers: rejected, intimacy-seeking, incompetent, resentful, and predatory. Rejected stalkers are the most common and dangerous breed, often harboring a terrifying dichotomy that leaves them seeking your affection and approval while still having a desire for revenge. Intimacy-seeking stalkers believe, even without the slightest hint of requital, that their victims are their “soulmates” and endow them with exaggerated or often delusional qualities of desirability and excellence. Incompetent stalkers are aware of their target’s disinterest, but believe their behavior will win them over and change their mind. They differ from their intimacy-seeking counterparts in that they do not imbue their targets with any special qualities. Resentful stalkers aim to frighten and distress. They may harbor a vendetta against an individual or may just feel generally aggrieved. Their feelings of persecution give them a feeling of righteous indignation in regard to their crimes. Predatory stalkers prepare for sexual assault. They prey upon the victim’s vulnerabilities and, unlike other types, rarely give any notable red flags before striking.
No matter the type, it is a scary situation to find yourself in. I remember lying in bed three days after Barbie appeared. I had barely slept since the incident and my appetite was hardly existent. I had even done something that was rare for me: I had cried in front of my 5-year-old. I had also cried on the phone to my best friend. Then I cried in bed, just me and my chihuahuas.
When the tears finally stopped, they were replaced with rage. An uncharacteristic anger that was rapidly consuming me. All I could feel was a desire to find this person and unleash every ounce of fury I had ever repressed. How dare they do this to my already complicated life! Though my first task had been to install a security system, I also purchased a gun (I had grown up well versed and well trained with firearm safety) and enrolled in self-defense classes. I had been the victim too many times in my life, and I was not going to sit idly by while this bastard drove me into madness. I knew direct measures might only exacerbate violence, and had no intent of looking for trouble, but I had enough reason to be stressed and afraid in my life and was not going to add this one to my list.
My stalker was never caught; however, it has been six months since I have received any evidence of eyes upon me. I still don’t feel entirely safe, but I feel more confident now in my ability to protect myself and my son. I have put as many deterrents in place as possible in hopes he or she can be caught and dealt with by proper authorities if they should make another move, but have also set gradually increasing precautions to make sure my family will not be a story in the news or a plotline for a Lifetime movie.
Stalking can have a severe impact on your life, from constant fear to missing work (more than half of victims lost five or more days of work). Given that January is National Stalking Awareness Month, I hope my story will encourage you to pay attention to the red flags. If you believe someone has taken an unhealthy interest in you, document your evidence and file a police report. It is better to be safe than harmed. It may also be wise to look into self-protection, such as pepper spray, self-defense classes, a kubotan, or a firearm. With any of these options, please make sure to take all safety precautions and related training to avoid an unwanted outcome. You can also call Safe Horizon for help in connecting to resources in your area at 1-800-621-HOPE.