January is national stalking awareness month, a time spent educating the public about a misunderstood crime. It’s associated with rabid fans and their celebrity targets. (Remember John Hinkley, Jr. and Jodi Foster?) It’s made light of. (“I’m totally stalking the sale.”) Or, associated with a love affair gone wrong. (Insert the title of any Sting song here.)
Actually, you don’t have to be a celebrity or an ex to be stalked. And it’s no joke. Stalking is repeated, unwanted actions that cause fear. Statists from 2016 show that about 15 percent of women in the U.S. were stalked, compared to about six percent of men. Practically, it means that for 10 of your friends, one or two women and maybe one man will have had a stalker. These same statistics show that stalking causes massive disruptions in victims’ lives, because stalking can last anywhere between six months to over five years.
Stalking’s nickname is “murder in slow motion.” Little by little, perpetrators whittle away their victims’ lives with slight-of-hand terror that can easily be interpreted as innocent actions. This makes stalking a hard crime to identify, and consequently, it takes a long time to get help. Meanwhile, the constant strain of dealing with a stalker gradually whittles away victims’ resiliency. Affecting every area of their lives.
I could quote more facts, but sometimes facts are just numbers. So, let’s talk about it in a practical way: I’m one of the fifteen percent, surviving four years of being stalked by my next door neighbor.
It started as a first-time homeowner of an adorable condominium. The first week in my home, hearing my neighbor—whose unit shared a wall with mine—screaming death threats. Of course I called the police, but lacked the evidence to prove a crime was being committed. I didn’t even know The Neighbor’s name. It was horribly embarrassing.
Months passed and The Neighbor’s hysterical screams continued. That lead to my first mistake: asking her to stop yelling, in person. Engaging with stalkers only feeds their desire for a victim’s attention. But, I didn’t realize the mistake until our conversation did a U-turn, when the Neighbor relayed her fixation with me. That she wanted to be just like me. That she’d let herself into my place. It unnerved me.
After that meeting, The Neighbor found excuses to intercept my arrivals and departures. Waiting for me. Throwing open her door when she heard me outside. Asking for details of my life. Wanting to be like me. When I tried to relay to others how strange it was, it was minimized, “She’s probably harmless. Ignore her.”
Those reassurances didn’t quiet my nagging worries. My life started to be whittled away, as I became more aware of her attempts to infiltrate my life. I tried protecting myself, tying to avoid her. But when I ignored The Neighbor’s screams, they became wilder and longer. Even telling her to stop gave her what she wanted: to see me.
Several times, I caught her peering through my windows. One day, she masturbated loudly with her window open, the one closest to my bedroom. Fears of a physical sexual assault crept in. I cautiously asked a lesbian friend if women could rape women. The answer was yes.
Despite my fears, her actions could still be explained away. “Maybe she just lacks social skills.” Or, “Isn’t it reasonable you’ll hear someone when you live so close?”
That’s the problem with stalking: if it were all dramatic car chases or blatant death threats, it would be comparatively easy to address. But most of stalking isn’t blatant. It’s the victim’s responsibility to rationally describe why seemingly innocent actions are terrifying. Describing The Neighbor’s erratic behavior made me sound, at best, like an intolerant, bitchy single woman. At worse, mentally ill and paranoid. Having my fears minimized, while trying to protect myself, made me worry if I’d lost touch with reality.
Likewise, my state’s stalking law worked against me. A victim had to be either injured or murdered before the police could make an arrest. What a horrible requirement. So, I could only complain about The Neighbor’s noise. But, the homeowner association (HOA) said it was my problem. When I called the police, they asked I didn’t call my HOA.
Two years passed, and the attacks become more direct and blatant. Some days she pursued me on foot or by car. One day I woke up choking on smoke after The Neighbor started open fires in her home. Making it more awful? Even these instances were glibly minimized. She wasn’t following me—our routs just overlapped. She was a heavy smoker. Just lighting incense.
At that point, The Neighbor had overtaken my life. Stress and exhaustion made me constantly ill, without the ability to regroup at home. My career? Also threatened. Some days, The Neighbor tried blocking me from going to work. Only a police visit made her stand down. This lead to financial fears: what would happen if I lost my job because of her?
This lead to moving out of my home for seven months. I was safer, but then had the stress of paying rent on top of a mortgage. An attempt to sell my home fell flat when The Neighbor chased off potential buyers.
Help came slowly. I put on my girl detective hat and collected evidence against The Neighbor. I ferreted out legal records on The Neighbor’s two other stalking victims. I maintained a log of her assaults against me. Used my smartphone to record her yelling at me. Badgered reluctant witnesses for statements.
Then the stalking law changed. All I needed to do was to prove that I was afraid. Due to diligently collecting evidence, I had the proof to get The Neighbor arrested. I got stalking order that promised legal action if she contacted me again. It provided leverage for her eviction.
It took four years of work and stress to get to that point.
Four incredibly long years.