“He’s a sadistic stalker who preys on their childhood traumas,” mutters the sublimely cool male detective from behind self-important sunglasses as he surveys the scene. He immediately gives a detailed suspect profile as the fourth button on his tailored button-up shirt strains at the stress of his notable pecs. He continues to saunter as his flawless observation skills take in every detail.
“There was a struggle. Notice the position of the bedside lamp.” His female partner sashays around the room in heels with her unisex-type button-up shirt similarly seeming to be two sizes too small. She speaks in flat, subdued tones, as if true detectives all have a blunted affect. “Judging from this chunk of caliche in the left shoe print, he recently returned from a week in one of four specific industrial areas in Las Vegas.”
They exchange knowing glances laced with a hint of “how you doin’?” The female investigator tosses her head and they continue to circle around the stylishly furnished, abnormally clean apartment.
This is the general vibe I get from the new CBS show Stalker. Actually, a lot of crime shows give off this ultra-cool, uber-chill oversexed world of law enforcement vibe. While I’m glad to see a major network take on the very serious and widespread problem of stalking in America, I’m concerned that it might reinforce many of the myths and stereotypes that surround this topic. This TV show is ultimately about making money even if its producers are drawing attention to a critical issue, so episodes do go for shock value.
Traditionally stalking is viewed through a narrow lens, as if “real” stalkers are only isolated, disordered individuals who fixate on a romantic interest and hide in the shadows as they follow them through their daily routine. That can be stalking, yes. But there are different types of stalkers (see also Stalking Risk Profile) and different ways of classifying those types. If you’re concerned that you’re being stalked, don’t worry about that. You don’t need to agonize through a classification you might be unqualified to make before taking the crime seriously. What’s important is that you seek help.
Back in 2010, I wrote a paper on stalking that began:
Stalking is an increasingly popular social phenomenon that touches many lives. Its protean nature frequently allows for it to be misdiagnosed or minimized. Definitions of stalking vary from source to source. Some definitions focus primarily on the physical acts or propinquity of stalking, which is usually the type of stalking showcased in the media. Many people’s understanding of stalking derives from celebrity stalking cases in which the targets have been assaulted or had their homes broken into. Reality is that stalking also includes unwanted surveillance, contact, and communications that can be conducted from a distance.
One of the most comprehensive definitions of stalking in modern academic literature is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated physical or visual proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats sufficient to cause fear in a reasonable person” (Bartol and Bartol 291, citing Tjaden 1997). Referring to stalking as a course of conduct is important because a stalker repeatedly intrudes upon another (McEwan, MacKenzie, and Ogloff 1469). Stalking is not an isolated incident but a pattern of actions that usually becomes more aggressive with time (Robinson 188, Dietz and Martin 750).
Stalking is an obsessional pursuit of another person that is willful, malicious, and threatens the target’s safety. Stalkers usually believe that they have a meaningful personal relationship with the victim whether the victim believes that or not (Miller 5, Kamphuis and Emmelkamp 795). Because stalking is a crime of power and control that is frequently an extension of domestic violence, it utilizes harassment and intimidation to keep the victim’s focus on the stalker (Sexual Harassment Support, Miller 5, 6). Ultimately, the stalker is looking for attention (Stalkingvictims.com).
Stalking is repeated and intrusive and can cause significant fear or distress in victims. For those reasons, it has been called “emotional rape” and “psychological terrorism” (Lamberg 520). Such possessive, disturbing behavior, however, is not a mental disorder in and of itself. Stalking expert Paul Mullen says that stalking is a behavior to which mental disorders contribute, and that only a few stalkers have a true obsessional disorder (Lamberg 522).
One of the most sinister aspects of stalking that can make it difficult to recognize and deal with is that stalking is illegal, but it can involve actions that are legal (Sexual Harassment Support). Acts like following the victim, keeping the victim under surveillance, loitering nearby, and sending unwanted gifts may be obvious manifestations of stalking. But calling on the phone, gathering information on their victim, sending emails, and showing up at the same public places are not so obvious, and can leave the victim wondering if they are actually being stalked. Unfortunately, all of these actions and others can escalate to physical assault, most commonly punching, kicking, and shoving, sexual assault, and even murder (Stalkinghelp.org, Sexual Harassment Support, McEwan et al. 1469).
To avoid being plagiarized, I’m not going to post the whole paper here. Word thieves should duly note the copyright notice at the bottom.
What did you just absorb from that excerpt? I hope it’s that we Americans tend to have a dangerously myopic view of the definition of stalking because the cases we hear about the most tend to be the most blatant and outrageous. If the Hollywood it girl of the month has some obsessed fan living in her ceiling, then your ex who’s been sending you unnecessary, foul-mouthed texts for years isn’t stalking you, right? Wrong. That may well be stalking under your state’s anti-stalking laws. You need to find out and take steps to protect yourself.
In Washington State, our stalking law reads as follows. I have a huge problem with fear being a criteria for stalking but it’s very common. Some people being targeted feel righteously angry, not afraid. Others feel harassed but don’t develop significant feelings of fear. Victims of stalking react differently and I hope this will be reflected in future laws. Stalking laws should not focus on how the victim is responding, but on what the suspect is doing. You can read the full text of RCW 9A.46.110 here.
(1) A person commits the crime of stalking if, without lawful authority and under circumstances not amounting to a felony attempt of another crime:
(a) He or she intentionally and repeatedly harasses or repeatedly follows another person; and
(b) The person being harassed or followed is placed in fear that the stalker intends to injure the person, another person, or property of the person or of another person. The feeling of fear must be one that a reasonable person in the same situation would experience under all the circumstances; and
(c) The stalker either:
(i) Intends to frighten, intimidate, or harass the person; or
(ii) Knows or reasonably should know that the person is afraid, intimidated, or harassed even if the stalker did not intend to place the person in fear or intimidate or harass the person.
The statute goes on to say that it doesn’t matter if the stalker wasn’t put on notice to discontinue the behavior, and it also doesn’t matter if the stalker says they didn’t intend to frighten, intimidate, or harass the person. Someone who stalks another person in Washington State is generally guilty of a gross misdemeanor, but they might be found guilty of a class B felony under certain circumstances. These include the stalking of certain types of public employees, stalking someone when a protection order is already in place, and a prior conviction for stalking the victim or their family members.
You can see in this statute that stalking is not just following someone. The stalker could be harassing the person in a number of other ways. RCW 10.14.020 defines harassment as:
(1) “Course of conduct” means a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose. “Course of conduct” includes, in addition to any other form of communication, contact, or conduct, the sending of an electronic communication, but does not include constitutionally protected free speech. Constitutionally protected activity is not included within the meaning of “course of conduct.”
(2) “Unlawful harassment” means a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person which seriously alarms, annoys, harasses, or is detrimental to such person, and which serves no legitimate or lawful purpose. The course of conduct shall be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner, or, when the course of conduct would cause a reasonable parent to fear for the well-being of their child.
If you’re unfamiliar with the legal definition of stalking, or weren’t sure if what’s happening to you is, this sheds some light on things, doesn’t it? You already know in your gut that what’s happening to you is wrong. Trust that gut feeling– it doesn’t lie. Reading this, you might realize that you are indeed being targeted by someone who makes repeated attempts to intimidate, annoy, bother, and/or frighten you for no good reason. In Washington, that’s stalking. We have laws that address cyberstalking as well (a discussion of cyberstalking could fill another post).
As you take action to shut down your tormentor, note that your stalker might end up being charged with additional crimes as well– assault, malicious mischief, or a sex crime perhaps? Right now you might not be aware of how far their fixation on you goes. There might be obvious behaviors like harassing you with noise, showing up in online forums, or trying to be seen and heard by you.
But what if they have a camera in your bathroom ceiling or listening devices in the wall? I don’t say that to make you paranoid and that might only be true in a fraction of cases. I’m simply pointing out that you don’t know everything they’re doing. The behaviors you do know about might just be the tip of the iceberg, and many stalkers escalate.
In my experiences with stalking– experiences plural– with one exception the perpetrators were either sociopathic narcissists or likely had borderline personality disorder. Some experts refer to borderpaths, noting a blending of characteristics between these types of people. Whatever they are, none of them were psychologically normal and all of them were dangerous, whether in an emotional way or in a flat-out life threatening way. Fixating on another person as the cause of all your problems or the solution to them is never a healthy or stable place to be.
Narcissists are their own gods and believe that only their rules or worldview matter. Their workplace’s or residence’s or society’s rules simply don’t apply to them because they’re “special” and “enlightened.” They don’t believe they should have to change anything for anyone else’s sake; only they, as supreme rulers of their little realms, get to decide what’s best for everyone else. They are entitled, abhorrently selfish, and emotionally underdeveloped. They often come across as spoiled toddlers who scream until they get their way, but note that their tantrums as a grown person can cost lives.
Sociopaths act without conscience. They could care less about what happens to you. You’re a means to an end. You’re a toy. You’re something to use at their leisure and discard when they’re done. They instinctively know how to worm their way into your life through sympathy ploys and by mirroring your own dreams and desires. But ultimately they’re just human sharks, empty-eyed shells with holes in their souls. They need God far more than they need a psychologist.
Borderline personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image and emotions (thank you Psych Central). My interactions with borderline types have involved high drama, unreasonable demands for attention, irrational fear of abandonment, and them feeling grievously wronged or rejected when any adult boundaries are put into place. It’s like being in the ocean with a drowning person who keeps panicking and pulling you under. If you don’t do exactly what the borderline personality thinks is right, they will punish you.
These are some of the types I’ve encountered. They don’t necessarily fit neatly into a little diagnosis box or have been officially diagnosed. A stalker doesn’t have to be diagnosed with anything for their behavior to be stalking although many are suspected of having mental disorders. They could be a very angry person who feels slighted by you. They might be someone who thinks they’re in competition with you and has to win. They could be jealous of your successes or current relationships. Perhaps they’re a stranger who thinks they’ll gain something by being close to you or a neighbor with easy access who’s devoured by the need to try and control your living environment.
Whoever they are, whatever there problem is, as Sandra L. Brown says, the why of their situation is not as important as what you’re going to do about it. Be aware that stalkers sometimes have accomplices and allies who will also harass or hurt you, making it all the more important to seek help. Some stalkers, particularly those skilled in domestic violence, might enlist their partner or family members to participate in the stalking.
Some partners and family members might not have a choice because they’ll be subjected to violence or rejection if they don’t follow along. Sometimes misery loves company and there are many who thrive on sadism, bullying, and drama, especially when it’s a team effort. The stalker might try to communicate with you through coworkers or neighbors too. Stalking by proxy is becoming more and more of a problem– by some estimates, 50 percent of stalking cases involve stalking by proxy.
Many of the most seasoned and skilled stalkers are the ones most likely to pull the “who, me?” bit with law enforcement. They’ll have a boatload of justification for their actions ready– I didn’t mean it personally. It has nothing to do with her. I can’t control what my family does. We live so close we can’t avoid contact. I have a medical issue that causes me to do that. I’m allowed to live my life. She was making eyes at me. I’m allowed to communicate with him because of our child in common. I just had a question. They’ve been lying about and harassing me for years. They’re a troubled person who’s overly sensitive because of their past. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I’m the real victim here!
This list could fill volumes. And they’ll say it all with such slick, smarmy ease, lies and alibis flowing like melted butter. To me these people are transparent because I’ve dealt with so many of their type. Unfortunately they can be very convincing to parties who are not directly experiencing the terror of stalking. I often think back to 14 year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, Jeffrey Dahmer’s victim who escaped from his apartment only to be returned to him by the police. Dahmer told them they were having a lover’s quarrel and officers brought him, naked, bleeding, and drugged, back to Dahmer’s apartment where he was violated and murdered. If officers had bothered to do a background check, they would have found that Dahmer was a registered sex offender who’d done time for molesting Sinthasomphone’s brother.
That seems like an extreme example, but stalking victims experience similar “oh, it can’t be that bad” attitudes all the time. They’re not taken seriously to begin with and might never be until they’re physically harmed or even murdered. I know of a recent case in which the victim’s pet was killed after years of trying to get the police to take the stalker’s behavior seriously, and still, nothing happened. They had to keep going back to civil court about the stalking and ultimately were forced to move. I can name other cases in which the powers that be, whether private or public, could have taken steps to protect alleged stalking victims and did not. If we’re ever going to put a stop to the spreading wildfire that is stalking, we must start by believing, not wait until there’s medical proof of a crime.
Stalkers employ all kinds of tactics to stay on your radar screen or to try and keep you off balance and frightened. They might be in the same place at the same time, send notes, or vandalize your property. They might be very obvious, thinking they’re simply too smart for charges to stick, or they might do those insidious little things that they can easily claim were not directed towards you or are just normal actions in the course of their day. Stalkers who employ noise as their weapon of choice can and will use that defense. There will always be a reason they feel entitled to live at a loud volume. They’ll also frequently deploy their noise when they think there are no witnesses or keep their noise level high enough to harass you, but low enough that they won’t be cited for it.
Some stalkers love picking on targets they believe will have a difficult time proving that what they’re doing is illegal. They also love fixating on people they believe are unlikely to fight back. They enjoy harassing singles, including single mothers, prior victims of violence and trauma, those with medical issues, and people who live alone. It is a sublime high to them to know that their victim might struggle to find witnesses (document, document, document, record, report!). Some stalkers like focusing on people who are accomplished in a particular field or are well-known; it’s like cocaine to them to think that they’re controlling that person’s behavior or well-being in any way. There are various reasons stalkers attach themselves.
One universal behavior of stalkers, again, is that as soon as they’re called on their behavior by the authorities, they will kick into professional victim mode. They will try to convince the police, or the courts, or anyone who’s paying attention that they’re the real victim. They can and will throw the victim and any witnesses under the bus as crazy, vindictive, unbalanced, obsessed, dishonest, greedy, or attention-seeking. They will lie, cheat, slander, terrorize, coerce, steal, and might even kill to maintain their facade of innocence. Some will even go to the authorities to report stalking by the victim before the true victim has a chance to realize what’s happening or report it themselves.
The attempted role reversal is why it’s so important to seek out specialized help if possible. The average patrol officer responding to your call might not be well-versed in the dynamics of stalking (or domestic violence, for that matter). In an attempt to be objective they might treat the situation as a mutual conflict or civil issue, or just tell the victim that what’s happening to them doesn’t rise to the level of harassment and/or stalking.
A well-trained officer, or better yet, a detective who specializes in such cases will recognize the red flags and hopefully put you in touch with an advocate to walk you through safety planning, obtaining any relevant court orders, and any criminal case that’s filed. Some nonprofit agencies also have excellent advocates who don’t need to be convinced that what’s happening to you is illegal. As they listen they’ll start to connect the dots and realize that you need assistance.
In my research, whether personal or academic, I tell others that if they’re being harassed or stalked, you can bet that someone, somewhere has experienced much of the same. It’s not likely to be the stalker’s first dance. Many police and court records are public, and many courts have archived their records online. While it might sound like reverse stalking to dig into their past, you’re doing it to protect yourself, not to harass or harm them. If you doubt how far you should go, consult an attorney or run it by the police when you report the stalking.
While the FBI doesn’t offer a comprehensive national background check, many state law enforcement agencies will check for criminal history in their state. In Washington, you can do this online for $10. Note that it only reveals convictions. If they were arrested and not convicted, it won’t be on there. It also won’t include records that might be held at local police agencies, like field interview reports, dispatch notes, or reports that document other happenings from suspicious activity to full-blown felonies.
A seasoned investigator will usually run down such history when preparing to charge a stalker. It is sometimes possible to piece together a previous pattern of behavior, or even just hints of it, by requesting records from various agencies (not just law enforcement). The point is that there are often at least whispers of anger problems, infatuations, domestic violence, inappropriate sexual behavior, harassment, neighbor issues, nuisance behavior, or maybe far more. In my nonprofessional opinion, chances are there will be cookie crumbs.
There are times, however, that there might be nothing at all. Previous targets might not have filed a report or could still be psychologically held hostage by the stalker. The victim might have been able to move on with their life. But the stalker might have been so crafty or skilled that other victims could never prove that what was happening was illegal. This underscores the importance of keeping your own paper trail– document, document, document, record, take pictures, tell trusted people, store it all in a safe place (not where the stalker can get to it or destroy it– some choose secure online storage). You will be asked for proof. You will be asked for examples. Be ready to demonstrate a course of conduct.
If you know or suspect that you are being stalked, don’t allow other people to downplay or minimize your concerns. They aren’t experiencing it. You are. You know best what is or might be going on. You need to speak to an advocacy agency or the police. While you are taking steps to protect yourself, don’t allow others to pressure or guilt you into believing that you need to continue to allow that person access to your life.
I was horrified to learn of a case in which a teenage girl’s stalker was encouraged to keep attending church in spite of his obsession. That kept her squarely in his sights at least one day a week, feeding his fixation and lust. Yes that man needs Jesus, but he can go find spiritual nourishment somewhere else. The highest priority when dealing with stalking is to ensure the victim’s safety. The danger that the victim could be abducted, raped, assaulted, murdered, or harmed in any way should be minimized as soon as possible. The stalker should be prohibited from physical proximity to their target whenever possible. Don’t make it easy for them. You should engage in safety planning. You might need to obtain a court order so there are consequences for their actions.
If you’re being stalked, it’s time to take your life back. Below are resources that I strongly encourage you to peruse and utilize. It might not be easy and resolution could take years. But the longer you wait, the longer the stalking might go on. The bottom line is that what is happening to you could well be illegal, and you won’t know until you connect with an expert to share your experiences and documentation.
There is no law in this country, no commandment in the Bible, no unwritten mandate in the cosmos that says you have to sit there and take this. It is a violation. Time for your stalker to reap what they’ve sowed and be shut down for good.
Times Up! A Guide on How to Leave and Survive Abusive and Stalking Relationships
Document the Abuse – learn more about a valuable legal tool for victims called the Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit here
National Stalking Awareness Month
Investigation Discovery’s Stalked
The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education
Privacy Right’s Clearinghouse’s Stalking page
There are other links, specifically pertaining to domestic violence, on the right sidebar and at the bottom of my previous post Why Didn’t You Just Leave?.
Bringing this full circle, CBS’s Stalker might sensationalize the crime of stalking and help keep us trapped in our belief that only the extreme cases are truly stalking. It also has the obligatory doses of sleaze and hookups between major characters that dominate just about every show nowadays. But there is one aspect I find intriguing despite the cheese factor…
Dylan McDermott’s character Detective Jack Larsen is a stalker. He works in an elite unit dedicated to stopping stalking, but moved to L.A. from New York seemingly to keep tabs on his ex and their son. He dons a black hoodie (another stereotype) and jogs over to peer at them through the bushes (so predictable). He also has photos of them that he’s taken on his forays taped to his wall (because stalkers NEVER store photos in an organized fashion on their laptops or phones, you know– they use 8 X 10s and strings and things). Maggie Q’s character, Lieutenant Beth Davis– and oh, “Beth Davis” isn’t her real name, we learn– is a reserved and mysterious woman who’s dealt with some sort of horrific stalking in the past.
Why this intrigues me is that domestic violence occurs at a higher rate among law enforcement personnel than in the general population. It follows that stalking is also prevalent, and I’m personally aware of a number of examples. So the idea of an obsessed cop who appears as a good guy/star stalking investigator to the public isn’t at all far-fetched. I’ve known female detectives who have experienced very serious domestic domestic and stalking. Some have turned their misery into their ministry and now work to stop the same types of perpetrators who once harmed them. So even though these two fictional characters were designed to be provocative, there is some truth there.
Let’s hope Stalker’s producers realize that they have a powerful opportunity to highlight more common types of stalking cases, not just the ones that will stun audiences into tuning in for more gross-out, fringe behavior. I also hope they’ll consider including links to websites and resources in or after the show. They could at least balance the money-making, gasp-inducing racy plots with a higher dose of benevolent reality.
Stalking is a real crime. It has real victims. And every one of those victims needs to know that their case is important and they deserve justice.
From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
- During a 12-month period an estimated 14 in every 1,000 persons age 18 or older were victims of stalking
- About half (46%) of stalking victims experienced at least one unwanted contact per week, and 11% of victims said they had been stalked for 5 years or more.
- The risk of stalking victimization was highest for individuals who were divorced or separated—34 per 1,000 individuals.
- Women were at greater risk than men for stalking victimization; however, women and men were equally likely to experience harassment.
- Male (37%) and female (41%) stalking victimizations were equally likely to be reported to the police.
- Approximately 1 in 4 stalking victims reported some form of cyberstalking such as e-mail (83%) or instant messaging (35%).
- 46% of stalking victims felt fear of not knowing what would happen next.
- Nearly 3 in 4 stalking victims knew their offender in some capacity.
- More than half of stalking victims lost 5 or more days from work.
©2014 H. Hiatt/wildninjablog.com. All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/wildninjablog.com.