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. Recordings of these were made at the request of the police (you can listen to samples here and 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, to whom Nasreen had accused me (along with Janice and Paula) of selling her work. 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.



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.