Transcript for James Lasdun on "Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked"

Jim Fleming: James Lasdun is the author of two acclaimed novels and several collections of short stories and poetry. His new book is a memoir he wishes he never had to write. It's about the cyberbullying he experienced at the hands of a former student. Here's James Lasdun, reading from his book "Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked."

James Lasdun:  (READING) The question of reputation, to the extent that it had ever interested me before this episode, had done so for purely literary or antiquarian reasons. It belonged, I assumed, to a bygone world, where communications were imperfect and social arrangements consequently more dependent on trust and hearsay than they are now. In the past, your name, what other people could report about you, was crucial to your survival. Whether you were a medieval knight, or an Elizabethan merchant, or a Victorian governess, a stain on your honor was potentially catastrophic, and so you guarded it jealously and defended it, if necessary, with your life. In our own time, with more efficient information systems at our disposal, we were no longer, I supposed, so much at the mercy of other people's perceptions or opinions. Facts could be checked, rumors and falsehoods refuted. A phone or a plane could bring you into direct contact with a potential business partner or employer. Reputation still meant something, but it no longer meant everything, and no longer required the implied threat of pistols at dawn to underwrite it, or suicide to purge its loss. The insane dueling culture of the past, fights to the death over obscure points of musical criticism, demotion to the ranks for failing to resent an insult, had become obsolete and was fast becoming incomprehensible. People could relax finally from the state of coiled-up vigilance in which those who wished to get on in the world had spent their lives for so many centuries. And yet it seems that sometime near the end of the 20th century, by a curious quirk of scientific progress, history in this regard reversed course. The Internet emerged, and with it the arbitration of reality began to pass back from the realm of verifiable fact to that of rumor and report, from the actual to the virtual. The latter an indiscriminate tumult of truth and lies, was the zone in which our public identities, our outer selves, once again began to assume their definitive form. There was the private self still, but for anyone who interacted with the world, there was this strange new emanation of yourself: your Internet presence. And it was by this increasingly that others knew you and judged you. Very quickly it was discovered that you could manipulate it, glamorize your image, finesse your biography. And by the same token, you could manipulate other people's presences, boost an ally's standing or launch a corrosive lie against an enemy. One would think that the ease of performing such manipulations, and the large scale on which they immediately began occurring, would have long ago discredited the Web as a source of information about anything. But although we all acknowledge the need to be cautious, to discount much of what we read, split the difference between conflicting statements, and so on, our first instinct, being creatures of the word, is to trust it. And even on deeper consideration, we tend to feel that it is basically more right than wrong and that we can accept its approximations as the truth. You are what the Web says you are. And if it misrepresents you, the feeling of outrage, anguish, of having been violated in some elemental layer of your existence is, as I began to learn, peculiarly crushing.

Fleming: James Lasdun reading from his book, "Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked." As Lasdun tells Steve Paulson, the email exchanges with his former student, whom he calls Nasreen, started out innocently enough.

Lasdun: But at a certain point it became clear that she was expecting this to lead to an affair, and I made it clear that I was happily married, and again, that was fine, she seemed to take it very graciously, and I could actually read you some of an email that she sent at that time when I told her this. Steve Paulson: Sure. Lasdun: "I'm not used to having men lend me support, help, or friendship without any sort of amorous or sexual intentions. I didn't really think that's where you were taking this very benign relationship of ours." So it seemed fine, we continued to correspond, but at a certain point it became clear to me that actually it wasn't all okay and that she was getting obsessed and her emails grew. What happened was just that there were more and more of them, and I started answering fewer and fewer of them. And at a certain point I realized that I was becoming the object of an obsession.

Paulson: Did you tell her, or did you ask her, to back off?

Lasdun: Yes, I did, and she kept saying that, I must leave you alone, I must stop this, and I kept waiting for her to do that. I thought, she'll ease up and then maybe we'll be able to sort of be in touch again. I didn't make a conscious decision that I wasn't going to write back to her. There was never any gap between her emails, and I felt at a certain point that it wouldn't be a good idea to write back to her.

Paulson: So when you said that she was sending you a lot of emails, how many?

Lasdun: There were several a day. I mean, it varied, but this was over many months. In January of 2007 I went with my wife and two kids to France to do a guide book, and we were away for four months, and we were staying in farmhouses that didn't have Internet connection, so I'd only get my email once every few days, and every time I logged on there'd be 20, 30, 40 emails from her. By now I was disturbed by it but I was also very busy with this guide book, and there wasn't much I could do about it. I read some of the emails. They seemed sort of harmless in themselves, but the quantity of them was what was disturbing at that point. And then we got back in June of 2007, or July, and almost overnight, suddenly one day, well it was overnight, actually, she suddenly turned from these fairly innocuous emails to vitriolic hate mail, and accusations, first of all that I'd plagiarized her work in a story of mine. Later, accusations of sexual misconduct. Then she began widening her target to include my agent and this editor she had worked with. We were all, according to her, part of a Jewish conspiracy to steal her work and sell it to other American writers of Iranian descent, and she started sending violently anti-Semitic emails to the three of us, as well as everything else.

Paulson: And she actually called what she was doing verbal terrorism, which seems like a pretty good description.

Lasdun: Well, she had a way with words, and I'd never come across that phrase before. I don't know if she invented it, but she had a sort of pithy turn of phrase. And I think it was very accurate too. Words were her weapon, and she was conducting, I think from her point of view, asymmetric warfare. She regarded herself as somebody very powerless, and me particularly as somebody powerful, a published author with something to lose, and she, I think, felt she had nothing to lose. Where the anti-Semitism came from I do not know. I mean, there was no sign of it before. The book is very much an attempt to understand what happened, what was going on with her, what I brought to the situation.

Paulson: Why do you think Nasreen was so obsessed with you? I mean, she was fixated on you to the point where she was doing everything she could to try to smear you. She must have spent hours and hours and hours trying to construct this campaign against you.

Lasdun: Well, it is a mystery. She conducted a pretty methodical, systematic smear campaign. She began posting things on web sites about me, these various allegations. She escalated to physical threats and things but the question of why, it's very hard to answer, but in the process of writing the book one of the things that I thought about that I hadn't really thought about at the time, was the possible impact of my having fallen silent. I think it was possibly more upsetting, more disturbing to her than I realized at the time. As I said, I didn't take this deliberate decision, I am no longer going to respond to these emails, but that is what happened, and perhaps that was traumatic in some way. But I don't think it accounts for five years of unrelenting hate mail, and threats, and identity theft and all the rest of the stuff she did. I think there's a part of the picture that is to do with personality disorder, some kind of imbalance, although I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis and I only half believe in the categories of personality disorder.

Paulson: This is very much a story of the Internet age, what she was able to do, spread these emails not just to you but to lots of people you knew, to start posting on web sites where you had been published, and I guess one of the sobering lessons of all of this is it's quite easy to spread malicious gossip and it's not at all easy to figure out how to counteract that.

Lasdun: That's one of the things the Internet brings with it. It's this amazing new medium, this amazing new technology, but it does facilitate new forms of harm as well, I think, and I think it may possibly have brought into being a new kind of stalker, somebody who might not have done this kind of thing before. I think it allows people who think of themselves or who are powerless in the real world to be very powerful. It's very easy to put malice out there and to have it spread far and wide and to do quite a bit of damage to people in ways that might not have been possible before. I mean, there were stalkers before, of course, but I think somebody who does cyberstalking might not be a physical stalker. They might not want to expose themselves to that kind of danger. I even think phone stalking is a slightly different thing because there's a filter, I suppose, that happens when you've bought into speech that might inhibit some people. Whereas the Internet, email, online postings is a very direct, it's almost as if your unconscious is expressing itself directly. It's almost like telepathy. You can just send out these impulses of hatred or whatever and there's no kind of inhibiting filter between you and the recipient. So I think for people who are very impulsive and are swayed by incredibly powerful feelings that they can't control, it offers a kind of irresistible form of expression.

Fleming: James Lasdun is the author of "Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked." He spoke with Steve Paulson. Lasdun told Steve he hasn't heard from Nasreen since August 2012.

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