A number of years ago an undergraduate student enrolled in a course of mine had her grades drop like a stone across three exams. I decided to send her an email and ask whether she would like to visit my office hours to discuss her performance. She showed up, and though the particulars escape me (i.e., did I learn this that first meeting, or subsequently?), it turns out that she was the victim of a cyber stalker. James Lasdun’s January article in The Chronicle Review about his experience being cyber stalked reminded me of this.
I’m not sure what I have to say about it, but felt compelled to say something. I’ll try this. One of the issues the victim I spoke with expressed was a feeling of isolation: she felt silly sharing it with others because it shouldn’t be a big deal as it “wasn’t even real stalking, it was cyber stalking.” She felt that she should just be able to ignore it, especially since in her case there was a distance of several states between she and her stalker. I listened, and gently at first (we had several meetings over the coming weeks), let her know that I disagreed: it was very “real,” would certainly cause distress, and I thought it was important to talk about it. I urged her to see someone on campus who was actually qualified to engage such discussion. I can’t recall whether she did so, but her grades bounced back in my course. Indeed, she was able to return to her strong academic performance and would go on to graduate school after graduating a year or more later. But the harassment did not stop: it continued, intermittently, through the years I knew her at FSU.
If you have not yet read Lasdun’s account, you may want to do so first, as I wish to comment on one of his observations. He writes:
The word was “rape,” and even though she used it figuratively rather than literally, I felt immediately the potency of its touch, as if I’d been splashed with acid…
I reacted negatively to this analogy as Lasdun explains that the woman who tormented him “had an interesting story to tell about her family’s experiences in Iran at the time of the revolution.” In the article “Acid Burn Violence in Iran” the authors explain that “This crime is not meant to kill but to punish the victim or to destroy the victim’s social life.” Further, whereas I had only been aware of the use of acid attacks against women, it turns out that during the 2004-10 period studied 51% of the victims were male (though 50% of female victims were attacked by a husband or relative, while only 12% of the male victims were attacked by a spouse or relative). Here you can read more about acid throwing.
Lasdun’s abuser created an audience, emailing not only him, but his editor and one of her colleagues. He thus makes a direct comparison with the experience the student I know, writing:
It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.
I’m not comfortable trying to judge which is worse. I am comfortable asserting that both would be at best unsettling, and more likely very difficult. Lasdun puts it this way: “the feeling of having been violated is crushing.”
What of legal recourse? The details of those conversations are no longer at my grasp, but I recall having long discussions about the legal options as I switched back and forth between listening and validating and problem solving. What I recall is that they were limited, had been exercised, and had proven ineffective.
What’s the take away here? I suppose it is this: know that this shite is real. It happens to real people. Should you be a victim, find people with whom you can talk about it. If someone you know becomes a victim, be sure to listen and validate. You will want to “fix it.” Perhaps you can. But I fear the best you will be able to do is be a sympathetic ear who doesn’t get uncomfortable and tire of the problem.