Most people have had a few unwanted admirers in their past – those who are a bit too fervent in their feelings or who take a break-up badly. Most women I know may have had one two stalkers in their life. I’ve had 12.
They cut across a wide swath of ages, jobs and geographies that represent my life – as a teenager and college student in Arkansas, in my 20s in Louisiana and Nevada, and in my 30s and 40s in Oregon.
This litany of stalkers, consisting of 11 men and one woman, includes:
- A high-school boy who put threatening notes and drawings of bloody knives in my locker. My dad met with the school superintendent about it, and the stalking stopped. Today the kid would have been expelled and the police called, but this was before Columbine and dozens of other gut-wrenching school shootings.
- A college ex-boyfriend who lived across the street and for months pounded on my door and screamed threats whenever he saw me come home. Foolishly, I did nothing other than ignore him, and he eventually gave up.
- A work client who bombarded me with increasingly scary gifts, cards and threatening demands that I date him. He wasn’t allowed past the front security desk in my building, and I notified the client’s boss in writing about the stalking.
- A police officer who worked in my government building and spent several weeks following, calling and threatening me because I wouldn’t go out with him. When he was stupid enough to say on a voice mail he was “coming after me” if I didn’t date him, I went to his boss and played the voice mail. Not surprisingly, the officer had a pattern of stalking women and this was the last straw. His boss fired him immediately, and I spent months worrying about potential acts of revenge.
- My first newspaper editor who hired me as a 17-year-old summer intern, tried repeatedly to kiss and fondle me, and then three years later showed up unexpectedly at my college apartment. At that point I told him to go away, and thankfully he did. But today he works as a prominent columnist and editor at a large daily newspaper. No doubt he continued to traumatize other young interns over the years. He got away with it, and that bothers the crap out of me.
- An ex-boyfriend who followed me to and from work every day for several weeks. I contacted his boss and HR and told them about it. He stopped the more obvious stalking but continued to find every excuse to walk past my office and stare at me.
- A guy I went out with only once (gee, I wonder why) who threatened to shoot me if I didn’t continue to date him … and who began driving slowly past my house in his truck – with gun visible on the gun rack – late at night. I was living with my parents for a few months after college, and my dad sat out in the carport with a loaded shotgun all night waiting for the guy to show up again. (Hey, this was Louisiana. What can I say?)
- A highly-sexualized-come-hither female co-worker I barely knew who began leaving flirtatious notes and earrings inside my mailbox at home. I was accustomed to guys stalking me, but not women. This one threw me for a loop. I opted for the direct approach and told her I was straight, not interested, and to cease and desist with midnight visits to my home mailbox. She got the message and left me alone.
The harsh reality is there are a lot of mentally unhinged people out there. But the real issue, of course, is why one person has been stalked so often. People look aghast, for good reason, whenever I mentioned that I've had 12 stalkers.
Several friends have said I look “approachable,” whatever that means. Others surmise it’s because I grew up in the South where graciousness and good manners trump nearly everything.
There’s some truth to that. I remember not wanting to come across as rude, and no doubt I went too far in the opposite direction. As I learned the hard way, stalkers function as heat-seeking missiles toward anyone who exhibits even the smallest kindness.
As I’ve gotten older, the stalking has subsided considerably. But my daughter is nearly 15 and will enter the dating realm soon. Based on my years of unfortunate experience, here are some steps to help her and anyone one else handle stalkers:
1. Trust your instincts:
Don’t shrug off your suspicion that someone could be mentally unbalanced or a creep. Younger women especially tend to think, “Maybe it’s just my imagination,” and before they know it, they’re in a situation that’s difficult to get out of. It’s not your imagination. Listen to your inner voice.
2. Take action:
Don’t just sit around and wait for the behavior to escalate. As soon as you realize the person is a potential or real stalker, develop a plan of action and start implementing it immediately.
For example, I sent one stalker a certified letter telling him if he didn’t leave me alone I would go to the police. I’ve enlisted co-workers or security to escort me in and out of the building, I’ve filed police or campus security reports, and I’ve gone to HR and the stalker’s supervisor.
3. Shut down all communications:
If you’ve communicated clearly that the stalker’s attentions are unwanted but the behavior persists, do not continue to engage. That’s what your stalker wants. Like a dangerous puppy, your stalker thinks any attention is good attention. Don’t continue to respond to emails, texts, phone calls, letters, etc.
4. Document, document, document:
Keep detailed proof of the stalking behavior, (e.g., emails and letters, voice mails, texts, online comments, photos of flowers/gifts sent, etc.). If your stalker is too smart to create a paper or electronic trail, keep a detailed written log with dates of the behavior.
5. Forget about being nice:
Forget about hurting someone’s feelings or adhering to cultural norms about manners and sweetness (even if you grew up in the South like me!). In hindsight, I believe my tendency to be too polite was my number one reason for the abundance of stalkers in my past.
This doesn’t mean you should be rude or cruel. Instead, you should be businesslike, unemotional, polite … and very firm. Don’t provide any loopholes for them to misinterpret things, and don’t worry about hurting their feelings. Your job is to take care of yourself – not them.
6. Learn from your mistakes:
This does NOT mean blaming yourself – after all, you’re the victim here. But it does mean evaluating strategies you could have used to potentially discourage your stalker. Again, your job is to take care of yourself.
The most important piece of advice I can share – whether you’re a grown woman, man or a teenager like my daughter – is to take potential stalkers seriously. Never underestimate the depth of their emotions or the strength of their convictions. And whatever you do, don't worry about being nice!