When you're an author with a book coming out, you don't expect a cyberstalker, especially one who seems to be anything but a "fan."
My memoir, Stolen Child: A Mother's Journey to Rescue Her Son from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is the story of how my son, shattered by his grandfather's death, transformed from a regular, bright, happy-go-lucky 10-year-old into a near-stranger dominated by rules of magical thinking designed to bring his grandpa back to life. We battled his disorder and won.
The book, which was described briefly on my website before it was published, seems to have triggered a person, who — ironically, considering the book's topic — seems to be obsessed with me. I don't know if this person is a man or woman, I don't know if we've ever met, and I don't know where he or she lives. All I know, and all I can cling to, is that my obsessed cyberstalker is currently being investigated by a federal cyber-crime unit.
It started last May, when the principal of my son's school called to say she'd received a strange and disturbing email from a stranger named Ana Petruleasa. It was a warning that that the school needed to protect my son from me. The email contained not only my son's full name, but our address. It took an even more eerie twist when it continued with a piece of writing cut and pasted from a Psychology Today article on narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. My name was awkwardly inserted into the article between brackets, replacing the word "narcissist" or sometimes "narcissistic."
"With young children, the <Laurie Gough> parent is experienced as unpredictable and confusing. After all, <Laurie Gough people> are awfully difficult to understand for adults, so just imagine how confusing the capricious <Laurie Gough> is in the eyes of a young child!.... A person with <Laurie Gough disorder> will be two-faced; charming and polite in public, while critical, rude, arrogant, sarcastic and passive/aggressive in private; usually to the people who are closest to her."
As the principal read me the email, my heart started ricocheting violently around my ribcage. Who was this person and how dare he or she make such cruel and ludicrous statements, especially when my husband, Rob, and I had spent every waking moment three years prior trying to help our son battle OCD and restore him to the boy he'd been? My book hadn't even been released! Was the stalker making all these assumptions about me based solely on the book's description online?
When I Googled the name Ana Petruleasa, the only hit was the Facebook page of a young woman with huge breasts spilling out of her T-shirt. It contained the same gmail address as the message sent to the principal.
Later that week, Rob received an anonymous email saying that I was having an affair. Among its highlights was this nugget: "You appear to have a loving marriage but you are being abused by a predator." It was written to an old work email address of his that someone could have found online. Rob works in IT, and when he tried to find the email's source (not a gmail address this time) he found a server that was impossible to trace. Someone was going to a lot of trouble and knew tricks to stay hidden.
That evening, I decided to go through all of my Facebook friends to find people I didn't know personally or at least with whom I didn't share many mutual friends. I found a few suspicious profiles and deleted them and then promptly began receiving one fake-looking Facebook friend request per day for the next month. I deleted them all.
Friends out in the real world assured me that anonymous friend-requesting was on the rise and probably nothing to worry about. I stopped thinking about the cyberstalker.
I was getting ready to attend a month-long writer-in-residence program in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I posted about the program on my website, and the residency program did the same on its website. In other words, anyone who wanted to know where I was going to be in July could have easily found out. If you're a writer and writing teacher, this kind of thing happens a lot.
A week after I arrived in San Miguel, a few other writers and I were in a restaurant, laughing about how we should have known better than to pour green hot sauce on our enchiladas. A woman I'd met at a few nights earlier leaned across the table and mouthed the words, "Laurie, do you have a cyberstalker or something?"
"What?" I clanked down my fork. She walked over to me.
"I don't want to freak you out," she said, pulling out her phone, "but yesterday, after we were both tagged in that Facebook photo, I got a friend request from someone I didn't know. I rejected it. It was from a young Mexican woman with ridiculous cleavage. She sent me a message."
I looked down at her phone and my hands started shaking. It was from a woman named Egly Hidalgo.
"WARNING - Laurie Gough =WARNING! One of the people around you is author Laurie Gough. She seems like a nice person at first-but actually she is a toxic person under a silver tongued mask. Laurie Gough is a secretly sadistic NPD person who tries to get others to commit suicide. STAY AWAY FROM HER. If she abuses you, get away from her and do not be bothered by her words. Laurie's aim is to put her victim in crisis and destroy them completely. She is a wolf in sheeps' clothing and has no conscience."
I felt the room spinning. Another writer, who had also been tagged in that Facebook photo, was sitting across the table and giving me a look. "Oh God," she said. "I think I know what you're reading."
I stared at her. "You got this message too? You got this same psychotic message?" I could hear panic edging into my voice.
She nodded, looking sympathetic. "It was just so crazy-town that I didn't want to scare you."
Two other people at the table, also both tagged in the Facebook photo, checked their Facebook messages and discovered they too had received the sinister message.
After reading the latest verbal venom, I became obsessed myself. I needed answers. We left the restaurant and went to a rooftop bar that overlooked San Miguel's church steeples. Using the laptop of one of my friends who was friended by Egly, I wrote Egly a Facebook message from my friend's account: "Who are you? Nothing you're writing makes sense. Stop immediately or you'll go to jail."
Nothing happened for three days. Then Egly, or whoever hides behind Egly's profile, responded to my friend:
"Wow - results of our Laurie Gough facebook message are superior to what we expected. All we wanted to do was warn people about a covert -repeat COVERT - evil narcissist person - but now far more people know than we were able to reach originally. We didn't want anyone to get hurt-and she knows about this so she's behaving well and no one is getting hurt. Laurie Gough's brain is gornisht helfen but because she knows about the facebook for now she's staying in the sweet part of the narc mean sweet cycle (look it up) and so nobody gets hurt. GOAL ACTUALIZED! Follow what happens to Laurie Gough in the future and buy her upcoming book, 'Stolen Child' It will not say that Laurie herself caused her unfortunate son's OCD After the triumphant success here, let's take the show on the road to protect more people. Hello Wakefield Canada! You can show this message to Laurie and also to every man named 'Rob' in Wakefield Canada if they want to read it."
I read these words on my phone as I walked along a narrow sidewalk beside a busy San Miguel street. The sentences blurred before my eyes as bewilderment and outrage swelled through me. I felt unclean. Did the people passing by think I was a vile person too? The family on the motor scooter? The old lady selling gorditas at the curbside? Even though I knew the cyberstalker's words were inane, he or she was creating a chilling version of me in cyberspace, one that people who didn't know me might actually believe. How far would this person go? Would the stalker write similar things on my book's Amazon page? Would the stalker hack my computer, email all my friends, steal my identity?
Would the stalker show up at my door?
I decided to let all my Facebook friends know that I had a cyberstalker to make sure they hadn't received any suspicious messages about me. Getting the word out seemed my best defense. My friends wrote back with an outpouring of support and orders to contact the police, which I did. My best friend, who lives in Montreal, was already onto the case, sleuthing long hours into the night, asking me for more details. She thought the latest message sounded as if it had gone through Google Translate. She and Rob also mentioned that "gornisht helfen" is a rarely used Yiddish expression meaning "beyond help."
On Egly's Facebook page I saw that she'd friended the San Miguel Literary Sala, the program I worked for in Mexico. When I clicked on her "likes" I gasped. She'd "liked" almost everything I had "liked" on my Facebook page, including obscure organizations such as the Quebec Writers' Federation. Frighteningly, her other "likes" were groups with names like "Narcissistic Personality Disorder" and "Narcissism and Abuse."
The next evening I was at the same rooftop bar with a playwright from Boston named Tad. When I mentioned I had a cyberstalker, his eyes widened. "Let me see the messages!" He told me he'd studied subtext and literary translation and knew something about psychology. After spending 10 minutes with the messages, he gave me his assessment. His words would unsettle me so much I'd hardly sleep.
"This is a man," Tad said. "A seriously mentally ill man who was likely abused by his mother and thinks he needs to protect your son from you. He's projecting. The topic of your new book has triggered him. I think this man is in your village in Quebec. Does your son happen to like soccer?"
I swallowed. "What the hell? How would you know that? Yes, my son plays soccer. A lot."
"It's right here. The stalker wrote, 'goal actualized' in capital letters. He saw your son score a goal." Tad threw a whole nacho chip into his mouth.
"That's crazy," I stammered. "Goal actualized means the stalker's goal will be actualized when I'm exposed as the evil narcissist that I am. Besides, nobody in Canada would ever say 'Wakefield, Canada.' They'd say 'Wakefield, Quebec.' This person doesn't live in Canada."
Even as I said the words and knew they sounded rational, doubt crept in. My best friend had learned that cyberstalkers are usually men, and the profiles my stalker created (Ana Petruleasa and Egly Hidalgo) both looked like porn actresses. That seemed like a guy thing. Maybe Tad was right that it was a man. Maybe behind the cleavage, there was a man in a basement somewhere, tracking down my friends and writing threatening messages about me. A flame of fear rose up my spine at the thought.
"But why would someone go to all this trouble?" Everyone else in the bar seemed to be erupting into laughter that rang out in the warm summer night, their lives untouched by madmen.
"It's not trouble for him. He's on a mission to warn the world about you and destroy you."
"Pass the limes," I said. "I need tequila."
I'm told that women memoir writers often get accused of narcissism. Although my upcoming memoir will be my third (the other two are travel-related), I've never been accused of narcissism by anyone. I'm also told there's a current epidemic of people accusing others of having NPD. Very often the barbs come from aggrieved exes: If she can't love me, she must have a personality disorder and only love herself.
I think back to my twenties and early thirties before I got married, to my years of wrong boyfriends and wandering the world. Did I leave someone behind who might have since become unhinged? Nobody comes to mind, but it's not impossible. I've always thought of myself as a nice person. In fact, my trouble is I'm often too nice. But the more we travel through life, the more we are bound, somehow, to piss someone off along the way.
Then it struck me: I have pissed people off online. On Twitter, in fact, defending the victims of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby. Could one of their enraged misogynist fans be Egly Hidalgo? And what about the book review I wrote on Amazon and Goodreads of Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun? In my review, I expressed surprise that the author didn't seem to know that his nefarious deranged stalker had borderline personality disorder. "Not that this is an excuse for her abhorrent behaviour," I wrote. "Clearly, she needs psychiatric treatment and we need laws against cyberbullying." Could this woman be my stalker? Surely someone as relentlessly unstable as she wouldn't have appreciated me, a travel writer, diagnosing her with a severe personality disorder. Might she be trying to turn things around and diagnose me? Tit for tat? I took the reviews down.
What I've come to believe is that my stalker was once a Facebook friend, a stranger whose request I unwittingly accepted. That's how he or she had access to enough information to figure out where my son goes to school. The stalker probably also emailed me, pretending to be a fan or a potential client wanting my editing services. That would explain how he or she knows my address. Stupidly, I used to have my address listed at the bottom of my emails.
In 1999, stalking expert Dr. Paul Mullen identified five types of stalkers. My stalker falls into the category of the resentful stalker. Resentful stalkers are fully aware that the victim knows about the stalking, but continues to fulfill a distorted vendetta. The goal is to instill fear in the victim.
When authors become the victims of cyberstalkers, it's a threat not only to us personally, but to our careers. Since being an author requires communicating with our readers, we can't simply withdraw from the public eye without withdrawing from our careers, which includes sacrificing our book publicity, and thereby our livelihood.
The upside of this type of misfortune is that you realize how many friends you have and how they're always behind you. My best friend in Montreal wrote: "Laurie, something I'm certain of is this person doesn't know who they're dealing with. I know you're feeling shaken up by this, understandably, but I also know you're not the type to adopt a victim mentality and do nothing about it."
She's right. I refuse to be a victim.