On Being Stalked: A Postscript

Since this book was published many people have asked me if there have been any new developments. The answer is that there have been several, and even though the tale itself remains inconclusive, they seem worth mentioning.

At one point Nasreen’s harassment against me and the women I call Janice and Paula became so menacing that we made another attempt to get the police involved. By this time Nasreen had escalated from implicit threats along the lines of “your family is dead you ugly JEW” or “your daughter is fucked”, to more explicit messages, such as this one, referring to me in an email to Paula: “I will find a way to NY to murder him I’m serious”. She had also added phone calls to her repertoire, leaving dozens of violently threatening and antisemitic messages on our answering machines, several addressed to my daughter. Recordings of these were made at the request of the police  –  you can listen to one here:

– and the case was taken up by the Hate Crimes Unit of the NYPD. Their interventions brought the harassment more or less to an end. (I say ‘more or less’ because there have been resurgences since then: relatively minor, but enough to convince me to take seriously what Nasreen herself said in one of her phone calls, “This is never going to end.”)

After the book came out I heard dozens of stories about cyberstalking and internet malice (enough to suggest there was a minor epidemic going on). That wasn’t a huge surprise. What was, were the many people who contacted me with stories of being harassed by Nasreen herself. Among them were men who had been romantically involved with her, and who spoke with bewildered fondness of her charm and intelligence, as well as her charismatic personality. All of these people were as stunned as I was when she began sending them hate mail, smearing them to their colleagues and employers, and posting defamatory material about them online. None of these episodes lasted more than a few months, but the basic modus operandi had apparently been well established by the time she and I reconnected. To me, this makes the story – and Nasreen herself – more troubling, more mysterious, and more tragic.

Also among the people who contacted me was the Iranian/American novelist Porochista Khakpour, one of the writers I call X,Y and Z. Nasreen had accused me of selling her (Nasreen’s) work to Porochista, and it turned out Porochista had also been harassed by Nasreen. As with me, Nasreen had vandalized her Wikipedia and Amazon pages, posted horrific things about her on Facebook, and accused her of stealing her work and being involved in her rape. Porochista had gone to the FBI, who had put Nasreen under surveillance, though the harassment had continued.

At Porochista’s suggestion, she and I did an interview for the online magazine Guernica, and I’m including a shortened version of it here (you can read the whole thing at guernicamag.com), as I think it sheds some interesting light on this strange tale.

Below this you can find an illuminating 2018 update from Nasreen herself.

 

Interview with Porochista Khakpour, for Guernica.

April 1, 2013

Guernica: We have never met or even corresponded, though I have emailed a bit with the other “Writers X Y and Z” that you mention. I’m also a bit concerned, as in some ways I feel like we are acting out just what Nasreen feared—that we are all a team, against her, coming out together as forces that believe in her wrongdoing. Did you have this sense writing the memoir that you were actualizing her fears and paranoias, almost validating them, as here she was in your work, outed?

James Lasdun: Yes, even though we’ve had no prior connection outside Nasreen’s imagination, we are in a bizarre way validating her paranoid conspiracy fantasies by being in touch now. I guess that’s the nature of paranoia—at least on the scale it afflicted Nasreen. It casts shadows over everything. As far as my memoir goes, I did note the irony of using her emails, verbatim, in a book about being accused of plagiarism. I felt justified in using them because I felt justified in writing about someone who’d spent so many years trying to wreck my life with the emails as her weapons. On the other hand, I don’t see the book as an attack on her in any way, or even an “outing.” I actually feel it’s quite sympathetic to her, in the sense that I try hard to see the situation through her eyes and to understand the role I myself played in it. And even though her emails are pretty damning, I think she emerges, at the very least, as a force to be reckoned with…

Guernica: In summer of 2011, I went to the FBI with my pile of emails and Facebook posts and messages to others about me, and for a moment I felt a horrible sense of guilt about turning in a Middle Eastern woman, a fellow Iranian. The FBI felt quite excited that Allah came up in her messages and at times she would take the stance of a radical Muslim—they seemed to be licking their chops at that. Like she was more than the “verbal terrorist” you write of in your book. How did you feel about that? The Jewish element comes into play here, of course. But do you think this could have played out the same if you were Muslim or even Christian? As far as I know, not all of us who were attacked were Jews.

James Lasdun: I had no idea you’d gone to the FBI. It sounds like they took you more seriously than they took me. Did they ever actually do anything? I’d naively thought the anti-semitic stuff, along with her description of herself as a “verbal terrorist,” would get their attention enough for them to at least call her up with a warning, which might have brought matters to a swift end. But they basically gave me the brush-off.

The whole race/anti-semitic aspect of the emails was actually less disturbing to me personally than the accusations of plagiarism and sexual misconduct. As a Jew living in the Catskills and New York, I can’t exactly claim to be a member of a vulnerable minority, so all that business was more bizarre than threatening. Bizarre because she’d never given any indication of being anti-semitic. I have a feeling that she came out with it initially just to shock and offend (rather than out of actual conviction) and then just sort of decided to double down instead of backing off. And then, as with the “madness” in general, which I also felt to be something of a performance at first, the mask steadily became the reality. I’m sure that’s not how a psychiatrist would see it, but that’s how it seemed to me. This is, after all, someone who functioned well enough to get through graduate school and hold down a job at a major national magazine. Likewise, I think her self-identification as a sort of representatively oppressed Muslim began purely as a self-aggrandizing extension of her own private sense of injury. She never seemed interested in any of those things before she embarked on this campaign (and I believe she comes from a family that was close to the Shah in the seventies—i.e. there’s nothing remotely “Islamist” in her background). So the political/ethnic mantle she wraps herself in is hard to take altogether seriously.

That said, yes, it’s uncomfortable thinking one might be in any way instrumental in encouraging or benefiting from current phobias and prejudices in law enforcement. And yes, even though the anti-semitism didn’t seem personally threatening, being at the receiving end of that sort of thing does concentrate your mind in a strange way, especially if you’re already somewhat interested in (and mystified by) what it means for a completely non-religious person to be a Jew, as I was. So I ran with it.

This doesn’t answer your question about what if I’d been Christian or Muslim. Probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but there’s a special relationship between a certain kind of denunciatory madness and anti-semitism that perhaps allowed things to get more out of hand than they might have otherwise…

Guernica: When and why did you know this story should be public? What’s funny is that I also considered writing it, though as a long essay (I also had less interaction with her) and I kept envisioning this essay called “On Stalking the Stalker,” as I’d become increasingly obsessed with her Facebook page (she had actually blocked me but I’d use my friends’ accounts to watch her posts once in a while). I was often fascinated by how similar we seemed: visually (though she went out of the way to both make fun of my looks and to say I’d stolen her look), and even our interests (yoga, which I also taught, hip hop, which provided the soundtrack to my adolescence—even our love of PJ Harvey, Cat Power, and Will Oldham, which I consider rather particular). I wondered if she’d picked up bits from my interviews but then I felt like by just thinking that I was playing her game. Anyway, I too had to read the stuff she would send and post to build my case against her, but I did feel disturbed by watching her so closely and that unease steered me away from writing it. I’m interested in that moment you knew you’d have to resort to writing.

James Lasdun: Your point about stalking becoming a two-way business is something I was struck by, too. At a certain point, I realized I was becoming as obsessed with Nasreen as she was with me—no doubt just what she wanted. At one level that’s presumably just what happens naturally when someone attacks you relentlessly over a long period of time. But I did feel there was something more than just that. Complicity is very much something I wanted to explore in my book—my own complicity in this situation and the idea of complicity in general. It’s risky territory and I certainly didn’t want it to turn into some kind of blame-the-victim nonsense, but I think the subject is worth exploring. To adapt D.H. Lawrence’s words about murder (“It takes two to make a murder: a murderer and a murderee”) it may be that it takes two to make a stalking: a stalker and a stalkee… at least in certain circumstances. Though ultimately, as I say in the book, nothing (and in my view not even mental illness or “personality disorder”) fully explains five years—and counting—of deliberate, calculated, fully conscious malice.

Guernica: I just noticed today there is a small but alive-and-kicking Facebook page now called “Help identify James Lasdun’s cyberstalker on FB.” I’m surprised no one has. A lot of commenters at the bottoms of articles and interviews by you have mentioned being harassed by her, but no names are named. And the fact that there are all these people surprised me—I thought there was just a half dozen of us, all writers. But there are perhaps more.

James Lasdun: I did hear about that Facebook page, though I have no idea who set it up. My own feeling is that if Nasreen wants to identify herself that’s up to her. She hasn’t been shy about it in the past, but I personally have no interest in revealing her identity.

Guernica: I’ve had to take action a number of times—one reading in Orange County, when she started it all, had to have extra security (at one point, since another Iranian writer was also getting the emails, the conference was in danger of being cancelled). Then years later, when people began forwarding me things they’d see about me on the internet that began taking the shape of the death threats, I wrote her to stop and told her I’d take action and she wrote, “Ewwww don’t contact me,” though she’d written me several times by then. Then years later, when there were death threats, I had to go to the FBI. It didn’t add up to much, though I know she’s being surveilled—again, her paranoia is validated by her actions. She fascinates me because she is someone whose worst fears constantly come true—like this interview—through the power of dark will and imagination. I don’t know how to put it better. It’s a terrifying power, a power I’d never want, but a power that fascinates me nonetheless.

You want to pass it all off and forget it, but it’s chilling. I’ve had my share of hate mail, but nothing like this. And even though I don’t think of her daily, or to the extent you’ve had to, certainly, every once in a while the thought of her bubbles up and it’s just very upsetting. She accuses me of stealing her work, being an accomplice in her rape, causing her mental breakdown—these issues all hit home in a terrible way. And it seems like this person was a real writing student, a journalist, a professor, a yoga teacher—all things that she shared with me. In another life, we’d have been friends.

James Lasdun: Really interesting to hear how closely your experience resembles mine—the same threats, the same incredibly upsetting accusations, even the same absurd business of having to do a reading under guard. And that fascination, too—the sense of confronting someone possessed of formidable powers. One wants to ignore it all, but the relentlessness of the attack makes it impossible, and at a certain point the nature of the threats and accusations make it a matter of necessity to do something about it.

Guernica: I want to ask you—without being too self-indulgent as this interview is about you, but this is also the first time we’ve spoken about this—where she first got wind of me, and how her interest in me began?

James Lasdun: She first mentioned you to me in—I think—early 2008, as one of four writers of Iranian descent to whom I and my supposed gang of Jewish literary thieves had sold her work. It’s such a ridiculous notion, and yet, like all her wild accusations, the sheer relentlessness of it ultimately forces you to feel you have to defend yourself against it—or it did me. Did she ever spell out what it was we were supposed to have sold you? She certainly never did to me. I always felt she at best only half-believed any of the accusations she was making, and I don’t think she cared that much whether or not other people believed them. I think she just wanted to smear—throw a lot of mud in the hope that some of it would stick.

Guernica: Last month, out of nowhere, Paula wrote me a very long email—I had no idea how she even got my personal email, as I’ve never corresponded with her—and it was a very panicked email, claiming “I felt it was unwise of him to write this book and that in doing so, he might motivate her to carry out her threats not only to him, but to others.” Did the other characters in the book try to chime in or stop you? Did you feel responsible to them? I personally don’t think you are at all, and don’t think this book will cause more problems, but I’ll bet the idea occurred to you.

James Lasdun: After Nasreen began making threats of actual harm against me and my family, I felt that there was no longer anything to be lost by going public and that it might even help matters. Basically, it seemed a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, but after five years of fairly unremitting private and public attacks I felt I had to defend myself, and it seemed at least better to be damned with a book than just continuing to cower in silence. Paula certainly had misgivings, but we discussed them and when she came to the reading that launched the book she seemed okay with it. She actually spoke very eloquently about cyberstalking in general—she’d recently outed another stalker who’d been harassing her—and so I think her feelings are evolving, or anyway mixed, though of course you’d have to ask her.

The extraordinary difficulty of doing anything about the problem was always mind-boggling to me. I’d naively thought that if someone sent threats like Nasreen’s they’d immediately be arrested, but it turns out to be much more complicated. After I completed the book, her threats to me did actually escalate to a level where the detective on the case felt he might be able to have her extradited [across states] to face charges. But neither Paula nor Janice (both of whom had also received violent threats) were comfortable with her being brought to New York, where she’d be able to come and go as she pleased between arraignment and trial. And since I don’t actually live in the city, I felt I couldn’t argue with that, so we’re still at an impasse. That said, I haven’t heard from her for several months, so I’m hoping she’s either getting the help she needs or has simply managed, on her own, to move on.

Guernica: So how do you imagine the story will end? The ending of the book is of course not the end of your story with Nasreen, though as you say one can hope it might end now. But what are some of the scenarios you’ve considered—from the most rational to irrational?

James Lasdun: The last I heard from Nasreen (a few months before my book came out) was a spate of phone messages in which she said, among other things, “This is never going to end.” So I have to assume there’s a possibility of unending, ever-evolving harassment. Against that there’s the more appealing possibility that some kind of intervention—police, health services, family, or just her own decision to stop—will resolve matters. One thing I found myself compelled to explore while writing the book was the effect of my silence on Nasreen. I don’t think it explains everything, but I suspect it had a larger role than I realized at the time. To the extent that the book is a breaking of that silence, I can’t help hoping that it might have some positive effect. One never knows.

 

New Update, 2018

The online publication Feminist Wednesday recently published an excerpt from a memoir written by Nasreen. Here is an excerpt from that excerpt, which follows a description of a visit to Nasreen by a Homeland Security agent after an incident at a Social Security office. You can read the whole article at:

https://www.feministwednesday.com/blogv2/writing-and-madness-in-a-time-of-terror-a-memoir-book-excerpt?rq=afarin

 

Excerpt:

After coming up empty-handed, the Homeland Security agent dismissed the policemen. My legs were still trembling, so he pulled out a chair and told me to sit down. I felt self-conscious in the dirty wife beater that I was wearing without a bra so I put my face in my hands and began to cry.

I wondered if the visit was James Lasdun’s doing. Had he followed through on his threats to press stalking charges against me even though we were on opposite sides of the country? The thought of this betrayal only made me cry harder. When I asked the agent if James was the reason they’d come to scare the shit out of me, he said there was more.

“You also made threats against a Social Security employee,” he explained. “Now, I’m going to do you a favor, because I don’t believe you’re violent—“

“I’m not!” I shouted through tears.

“Well, you made a threat against a federal agent, and she reported it. You also have a history of allegedly stalking and harassing James Lasdun. Naturally we’re concerned.”

“I stalked no one and made no such threat,” I said. “I told the woman she was harming me by rejecting my disability case and that she should be harmed by losing her job.”

I was horrified that this stranger had probably read the thousands of emails I’d sent James after he left me without a proper goodbye. I sensed that my innocence mattered little against the damning evidence the agent held in judgment of me, namely my very Muslim-sounding last name.

“If you ever step into the Social Security office without an appointment, you will automatically be arrested,” he said sternly.

“Arrested?” I was shocked. “You saw I have no guns.”

“You threatened them.”

“I didn’t,” I insisted. I was incensed that this African-American man didn’t see the racial profiling at play.

“You would not be at a white guy’s house right now if he told a Social Security agent she deserves to lose her job,” I said. But the agent wasn’t moved at all.

After he left, I didn’t feel safe. I also couldn’t stop crying and wondering, was it my madness that placed me on the radar, or was being on the radar what drove me mad in the first place?

A few days later, my disability case finally got approved, but instead of resting easy knowing that I didn’t have to worry about medical bills anymore, I was falling apart.

I didn’t feel safe anywhere and I couldn’t take refuge at my parents’ apartment where I was forbidden by my grieving mother. When Nasrin died in April 2012, Maman Shirin didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. My frantic behavior only unsettled.

I’d stopped sleeping altogether and my sense of smell continued picking up on a scent Arezou denied smelling—the barely detectable gas meant to kill us both. My bed was covered in empty packs of cigarettes, dog treats, Xanax bottles, and Social Security paperwork. The last time I tried sleeping in it, I smelled gas seeping in from outside my window. Keeping it shut did no good: I still smelled a draft of the poison coming in through the seams.

I wanted so badly to live that I tried sleeping in my closet because it seemed the safest option. Before I gave up on sleep altogether, I decided this toxic gas was seeping in through the tiniest crevices in the walls and ceiling. My struggle to stay alive was futile.

By week’s end, I was so delirious from sleep deprivation and my fear of dying that I started going to the Korean church nearby to sleep in the flower garden. I figured this was the last place my enemies would look to find me, the dreaded Muslim.

One day I came back from the church energized and intent on airing out the apartment. I opened the front door and windows and turned on all the fans. I didn’t believe Arezou when she later told me I’d shattered a side window when I was getting rid of the gas. I felt certain that someone had tried to break in. I began placing a chair under the front doorknob at night while I waited for the intruder, the fear slowly devouring me until the sun came up. I even booby-trapped the front window with pots and pans in case I got lucky enough to fall asleep.

Arezou had nearly stopped talking to me by then. She silently surveyed the getup at the door in the mornings, told me I was having a nervous breakdown, and got as far away from me as she could.

In my isolation, I dwelled on how James had made me fall in love and didn’t even try to help me when I told him I’d been drugged and raped by a colleague at Rolling Stone magazine. I cried over the emotional support he gave me as the more seasoned writer before abruptly taking it all away. I then angrily remembered that he had sold my novel to a Persian heiress, who had republished it as her own.

It suddenly occurred to me that James Lasdun and my brother both lived in a small town in upstate New York called Shady. Shady indeed, I thought. Had my brother helped James steal my book? This must’ve been why James had lied to me seven years earlier about having a brother: He’d been alluding to my brother all along. How sadistic of him to infiltrate my family, I thought. How predictable that my brother would silence me!

After I sewed this patchwork of thoughts together, I wrote a report about the book heist and emailed the charges to the sheriff of Shady, New York. I demanded that he arrest both my brother and James Lasdun.

My charges went ignored for a week, so I called the sheriff, who hung up as soon as I said James’s name. I was furious that James had managed to get a federal agent to search my home for guns but I couldn’t even get a small-town detective to listen to me. I chainsmoked a pack of cigarettes before taking matters into my own trembling hands.

The handful of times I’d been incensed enough to call James in the past, his wife or daughter had picked up. This time I got what I wanted: James’s English accent on the other end. His voice, calm and cool, made my anger vanish. That familiar attraction instantly deflated the rage that spurred me to dial him in the first place.

Only a few hours earlier, I’d fantasized about him in a jail cell, paying for all he’d done to me. But upon hearing his voice, which I hadn’t heard since 2006, I felt guilty—even embarrassed.

I was suddenly horrified by my revenge fantasy, the vicious emails, and screaming phone calls. I was especially remorseful about my latest email attack, which focused on his daughter. I’d told him that she looked like a miserable tart. But it was I who was the miserable tart—and his abandoned daughter of sorts.

I continued yelling into the receiver just to save face, but suddenly all of my charges against him sounded as unconvincing as I felt. When my screaming finally ended, James spoke.

“Is that all you have to say?” he asked calmly. He didn’t sound scared at all, and as soon as I began screaming again, he hung up.

James’s voice was like coffee. I quickly woke up to the fact that it was 2012 and he was not the intangible character I’d conjured up in my head since I last saw him in 2006. He certainly wasn’t my soul mate or savior. For the first time in years, it occurred to me that he was not a Mossad agent and that he had not stolen my book.