Stalking: Surviving Murder in Slow Motion

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.

Sieg Heil and the Crime Victim

I’ve somewhat stopped holding my head and groaning. But I'm still not over seeing the video clip of the alt-right flashing the Nazi salute and cheer, in honor of our newly elected leader.  Nor am I over the shocker stories that came out over the course of the campaign. Indicators of a degrading support towards already-fragile rights.

Votes for Women, on Creative Commons

Votes for Women, on Creative Commons

If you shake your head at me. Tell me I just need to get over it. Say I’m over-reacting. All of these things indicate to me that you’ve never been a crime victim.

It’s already hard, even when the law supports you, to get help during and after a crime. I can only imagine, now, how much harder it will be. Especially with watching basic women’s rights be violated. (Remember how cavalierly folks suggested that our nation should just get rid of the 19th Amendment if women can’t vote correctly?) If you tell me to have faith in the system, and just get these people arrested, I’ll say again: you’ve never been a crime victim. You’ve never experienced the drain of navigating the judicial system.

Never experienced what it’s like to realize you’re not being supported, while screaming for help. Making your work, all the more harder. I think about this in context of a near-assault from this summer …


"GODDAMMIT," the homeless man screamed, "Will you JUST LOOK at me? I JUST WANT A DOLLAR TO BUY PANTS AT GOODWILL!" Then he threw the bottle. At me. It missed and shattered behind me.

He’d been following me for about a block. Asking for money. I ignored him, partly for safety: not everyone on the street is dangerously mentally ill. But, some are. Tuning them out is a way to distance myself from harm, something I hold to more firmly after acquiring a stalker, a neighbor whose door was five feet away from mine.

It only took a minute or two of talking to The Neighbor to realize she wasn’t quite right. As her erratic behavior escalated, my friend Pat observed, “The only reason why your neighbor is still somewhat functioning is because she has support. If she lost that, she would be a on the street. In fact, many vagrants haven’t lost everything. They actually do have friends and family, who struggles to get needed resources to help their mentally ill loved one.

“But their mental issues become too much, and the support network can’t deal with the crazy any more. So, the mentally ill ends up on the street. That’s where your neighbor would be if she didn’t have help. She’d be that screaming woman pushing a shopping cart, getting bounced along the system. Not your next-door neighbor.”

That’s why I rarely engage with drifters. The memory of the hell of my stalker … I just don’t want to engage with another dangerous situation.

There’s a need, such a need, to reform the health care system. Change the perception about caring for mental illness. It’s the one area where I felt some compassion for my stalker: she knew she was ill, and didn’t want to be committed. Who could blame her? We’ve all heard stories at what happens at the mental health hospitals. I’d hate to get thrown in one. Hate it.

I knew she was ill, and tried connecting her to a State mental health crisis team. It was a toss-up whether I’d call them first or the police after The Neighbor’s latest attack. I’d hear, through my front door, the reps talking to her. Each time, they’d ask how she was doing. Each time, they offered her help. (Me: listening intently. Hoping that this time, maybe this time oh dear god please let it be this time and end my hell.) Each time, she said no. The crisis team would leave, empty-handed—nobody can force care on another person. Not unless The Neighbor injured herself or someone else. Like me. The odds sucked, knowing the actions needed to force mental health care on her, would also result with my death or severe injury.

Homeless, by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, on Creative Commons

Homeless, by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, on Creative Commons

Which goes back to why I ignore the homeless. Not all of them are mentally ill. Certainly not all of them are dangerous. But that guy who just wanted a dollar to buy some used pants. Who followed me. Yelled at me to look at him already. He was dangerous. His hurling the bottle at me cinched the deal. I made the right decision to not interact with him. It wasn’t safe.

You’ll ask why I didn’t run. If I started running, it would give him permission to start running, too. I’m not fast. He’d overtake me, and then what? Instead, I fast-walked to three strong-looking men across the street. Told them flatly, "I'm going to stand with you for a bit." The Just a Dollar Guy was still behind me, wailing a high-pitched scream at his frustration. “I JUST WANT PANTS.”

"Is that guy bugging you? We've been monitoring him," said one of the guys. I started checking the back of my legs for blood, in case a glass shard hit me, and was too full of adrenaline to feel it. The four of us watched him, until he entered a store. There was nothing else to do but thank the men and leave.

I worked off most of the adrenaline rush after arriving home. These things are now uncomfortably common, after dealing with a stalker. Then called non-emergency police dispatch. I know enough about how police work to know it wasn’t worth a 911 call. Already knowing they couldn’t do anything (I wasn’t injured, therefore, no laws broken), but making a report all the same. Collecting myself. Reciting details. The time. His appearance. The bottle throwing. Causing disturbances.

While talking with dispatch, pushing down a familiar awful feeling: nothing I could do would bring resolution. What that man needed was mental help and clean pants. Reporting him wouldn’t give him those things. But it would keep him from hurting others. Maybe.

Dispatch asked if I wanted an officer to visit me. Experience also told me that it wasn’t necessary. I hadn’t been injured. Therefore, no laws were broken. (If everyone were arrested for yelling and throwing things, we’d all be in trouble.) A visit was only a courtesy, to make me feel better. I said no. They had better things to do than listen to me rant.  

Dispatch then asked if I wanted an APB, announcing the incident to the other officers on patrol. I said yes. At the very least, the police would be on the lookout for him. For his sake. For others' sake.

Then hung up.

Hours later, tried to sleep.

Tried to not ask why another mentally ill person focused their rage on me. (But still asking, “Is it because I’m so small and have a nice face? Is it because they can smell a previous victim, and think we’re an easy mark?)

Took a sleeping pill.

Went back to bed.


I think about that day in light of the Nazi salutes in my news feeds.

… of people in our grandparents’ time, whose rights were stripped away, and were taken to gas chambers.

… about discussions on giving Obamacare the axe, making it all the more difficult to get mental help.

… of how hard it already is to make a perpetrator come to a full stop.

... of how very fragile our rights are. All it takes is for one person in power, or several witnesses, to look the other way.

I’m asking myself a lot what I must do to defend.

Once again, taking a sleeping pill before bed. 

Sleepless, on Creative Commons

Sleepless, on Creative Commons

Talking about stalking on The Security Brief

“Strange,” I thought, while running my hands over the leather seats of a town car shuttling me to and from The Security Brief studio. Grateful someone else was driving, because my brain was off on a lightheaded bender, remembering. “Five years ago, I felt ridiculously grateful to score a hiding place—an unfinished basement—spending several months sleeping on an air mattress, roughly 10 feet away from a washer and dryer, while outrunning a stalker.

"In the Basement," by Jay Parker on Creative Commons.

"In the Basement," by Jay Parker on Creative Commons.

Now? Leather seats? Town car? Two (TWO!) bottled waters in a backseat caddy, waiting for the grabbing? Talking about those Dark Years in New York City?”

How bizarre.

Reason urged me to just sit back and enjoy the experience, already. Memories, however, took over. They contrasted black leather seats to gray concrete basement. A horribly anxious time, worrying about the additional financial burden—paying rent in addition to a mortgage on the home where my stalker constantly terrorized me. It’s why I didn’t take either of the bottled waters. Despite knowing they were for me, the basement said those small luxuries belonged to someone else.

Image courtesy of Good Reads.

Image courtesy of Good Reads.

Reconciling both sides of my story, the despair of the Dark Years, contrasted with great opportunities to talk about the experience … I, ah … just can’t do it. I can compare it to a scene from The Sparrow, a deeply philosophical sci-fi book. Father Sandoz is the only survivor from a mission to a newly-discovered planet. The book unpacks events leading to his trauma, including the series of Jesuit priests attempting to coax Father Sandoz into revealing painful memories. If memory serves (it’s been a couple years since I read it), one of the interviewing priests lost a limb arm in a terrorist attack. The limb loss built and shaped him. A lot of pain and a lot of good came from it. Astounding good. So much good that he couldn’t imagine his life without the tragedy. But when it came down to it, the Jesuit would have rather kept his arm. That’s how life goes: never turning out the way any of us expected it to. So, we take the bad with the good. Recognizing that both sides shape and grow us.

That’s what it’s like for me, post-stalking, post-opportunities.

My motivation for talking stalking? Draw awareness to a notably misunderstood crime. Stalking is difficult to identify. The hardest part of being a victim? Explaining why seemingly innocent actions (or actions that the stalker claims are innocent) are terrifying. Words do not come easily. Actions are explained away. Victims are called hysterical or crazy while trying to explain the terror. My hope is that talking about my experience will aid other victims, giving them a reference so they’ll have the words. Educating others on the signs, so they can give help to victims.

But. After the hubablao from the last time I talked about being stalked and blogged about being stalked, I needed a break. Talking jostled old wounds, and consequently, everything felt raw and sensitive. Those wounds needed to re-heal. So I took a break. A 15-month break, if you’re counting. Allowed those horrible memories to get buried in the backyard.

Consequently, when The Security Brief came calling, it was painful to realize just how completely out of practice I was with telling my own damn story. It happened while reviewing the treatment (an outline) with a producer—who familiarized herself with the story details beforehand—so that I’d be prepared for the on-camera conversation flow. It’s always a bizarre feeling when strangers recite my story details, which became more odd when the producer referred to the police boxes, and did I ever rummage through them?, and …

… memory completely blanked out. Police boxes. Police boxes. What are the police … like the police box in Doctor Who? I don’t remember a big blue … and then my memory, instead of being helpful, lodged the Doctor Who theme in a repeating earworm loop … maybe I should ask for clarity and …

Sorry, Amy. Wrong police box. Image courtesy of Mashable.com.

Sorry, Amy. Wrong police box. Image courtesy of Mashable.com.

… oh how embarrassing. It was the time that my stalker neatly stacked a lot of banker boxes outside my front door. All were labeled POLICE, in some attempt to goad or frighten or at least pay her attention and … I chided myself, “Amy Neises, you big fat nerd. Can’t even recall your own memories, eh?” With a few hours before another too-nice town car delivered me to the studio, I found a mental shovel. Looking for and unearthing grown-over patches in my backyard. Memories buried 15 months ago.

Image by Bong Grit on Creative Commons.

Image by Bong Grit on Creative Commons.

Coaching self. Exercising atrophied memories. Reminding self of every outrageously horrible thing my stalker did, so that I wouldn’t look like a complete dolt in front of a live studio audience. Being reminded again just how incredibly hard it was to articulate the events, despite prior practice.

Practicing out loud. Rehearsing how to say those words again. Stammering. Head going blank. Uhming and oh, you know a lot. Picturing editing scissors on every foible. Feeling pressure.

Continuing to mutter the words while power walking to Central Park. It was a less-than-48-hour-trip, with only a small amount of hours available to explore that great city. Thinking back to my planned 2001 trip to NYC, thwarted when terrorists hijacked planes and …

… another dark memory colliding with the stalking years. Marveling, This whirlwind trip to New York City is brought to you by: your stalker. Hoping that the good people of New York, overhearing my rehearsing-turned-muttering—The times she followed me. The non-physical sexual assaults. Screaming through my front door. Blocking me from going to work. Dumping smoke into my home. Police stakeouts after she fled arrest. And—would just think I was another crazy on their streets. Asking myself once again, how, how, how do I process the good of being in NYC, along with the horrid events that made it possible? 

I stopped.

Realized.

I wanted to just be in the city.

To have that moment. Those precious few hours. Alone.

"Brownstones," by Garrett Zeigler on Creative Commons.

"Brownstones," by Garrett Zeigler on Creative Commons.

Nothing else. Not my stalker. Not the memories. Just me. Just to be surrounded by brownstones. And the city. What a city. 

Despite the reason for my being in the city was surviving a stalker, it was neither right nor fair to allow her to muscle into the present. No way. Not any way. She had taken enough from me already. That horrible woman was not allowed into my one brief glance Of New York.

So, shut off my brain. Lost myself in magnitude of the city. Surrounding and engulfing me. Before another overwhelmingly nice, leather-seated town car picked me up for the studio.

Despite my fears, the words came easily. When I left, after the taping, realized: it’s time to restart talking about stalking. Let’s talk about crime and its impact on victims. Let’s help people get help.

Break over.

10 things people say to stalking survivors

Right about this time, right after I publicly talk about stalking, the questions come in about being stalked. Here's the catch-all answers for the common questions that people ask me, and other crime victims. 

  1. Why don't you give your stalker's name?
    Answer:
    This is an long and complicated response. I'll boil it down to the simplest answers:
    * First. I'm avoiding potential libel suites. Even though I have evidence against her, eye witnesses, police reports, the less I say ensures a smaller headache, later.
    * Second, my stalker has left me alone for years. I enjoy the silence and don't want to remind her that I exist.
    * Third, you know that initiative to not publish the names of mass shooters, so that copycats don't get ideas? I'll let you fill in the blanks.
    * Fourth, my stalker craved attention. After her arrest, she held up court proceedings, demanding that the press be called to film her and the proceedings. (Over and over again, she bellowed for the cameras.) Now, of all the ironies, the cameras on me. So, call it stubbornness. Call it rage. But I'm not about to give my stalker the attention she desires. She doesn't get kudos for trying to destroy me. 

  2. Why didn't you tell me all the details while you were being stalked? 

    Answer: Stalking is confusing, terrifying and devastating. It consumed my life. Did my best to not burden any one friend with all the details. Trauma in general is simply a horrible, horrible thing to let drop in casual conversation. Sometimes, just I needed to talk about something else, unrelated to the big bad scary. 
  3. Do you see how you contributed to the problem? You deserved to be stalked. 

    Answer:
     Actually, my stalker was a repeat offender. My contribution to the problem was buying a home adjacent to hers. Getting directly in her sights. What evil did I commit that was worthy of putting my safety, health, peace of mind, finances, home, career, friendships, a good night's sleep and my cat at risk?
  4. Are you sure you're not misinterpreting events?

    Answer: Stalking is a hard crime to prove. Seemingly innocent actions have secondary, malicious, motives. Victims have to explain why those actions are frightening. This is hard to do. Because of this, it takes a long time to build evidence. If all attacks were as blatant as what's featured in the evening news, victims would have an easier time getting help. 
  5. Are you sure you're not mentally ill? 

    Answer: Describing my stalker's off-kilter actions did make me sound like a lunatic. That element went away after collecting hard evidence: police reports of stalking violations. Previous victims describing their fear. Related arrests and court appearances. After collecting that evidence, I changed how I asked for help. Starting my pleas with, "I need help with a repeat stalking offender. Today she did the following to me ..."
  6. Why didn't you call the police? 

    Answer
    : Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn't: 

    * The majority of stalking incidents are hard to describe and appear to be minor. I feared alienating myself from the police for calling over seemingly stupid stuff. 
    * It's shocking being attacked. It took time, each time, to process what happened. And then decide that professionals needed to be called. 
    * The laws at the time  defined stalking as a physical act of violence or a threat of violence. My stalker did neither to me. So, until the law changed--covering non-physical attacks--the police could only issue my stalker a verbal warning. It was embarrassing, calling repeatedly, asking for help, without results. Without an end to the attacks.
    * After a police visit, my stalker retaliated against me. Had to decide whether a temporary relief was worth the backlash.
  7. Do you see your stalker is in pain? That she needs help? That our system is broken, and has failed her?

    Answer: I absolutely agree. My stalker had deep hurts that motivated her to be horrible. In fact, that truth applies to lots of people who commit evil. 
    I did everything I could to get her help. Hoping it would be an easier, more humane rout to my own peace. 
    Which revealed more broken parts to our system. 
    Which lead to a realization: I wasn't the best person to get her help. Especially while managing a panic attack after the last hair-raising attack. Someone better qualified needed to handle that area. That person wasn't me. I had to focus on protecting myself. Otherwise there would be two victims, her and me.
  8. Can't you just ignore your stalker? Maybe she'll go away. 

    Answer:
     It's hard tuning out someone who acted erratically (sometimes putting me in danger) while vying for my attention. The more I ignored her, the more desperate she became for my attention. Leading to more attacks. I used discipline to keep her from being the center of attention, but could never fully ignore her.
  9. You're an overly-patient fool. Why aren't you doing more to protect yourself? Fight!

    Answer: Re-read the above list. It explains (in part) everything I was already managing. It also takes an incredible amount of time to prove the crime. Time that I became critically aware of, while my stalker's strikes increased. Adding to that was my transition from bookish career woman to warrior. Learning self-defense, legal limits, personal rights, diplomacy, strategy, moving costs, documenting events, and ...
    All while trying to hold onto my old life, fighting for mental health breaks necessary to prevent one woman's obsession from consuming my life. 
    All while not operating under a full night's sleep. With compromised health from a tanking immune system.
    It was exhausting. 
    So. Really. What more should I have been doing?
  10. Aren't celebrities the only people who are stalked?
    Answer: 
    I'll respond with another question. Why do celebrities seem to be the only ones who get help quickly?

An Unexpected Stalker on The Security Brief

I had the pleasure of talking on The Security Brief about being stalked by my next-door neighbor. Every episode of The Security Brief begins with a dramatic true crime story filled with twists, turns, and reveals. Each edge-of-your-seat cautionary tale in this daily, one-hour talk show offers real-world solutions designed to help you protect yourself, your family, your relationships, your home, and your property.

The "An Unexpected Stalker" episode airs on November, 3, 2016. Here is a list of stations that will air the episode. The episode will also be on YouTube, on The Security Brief's channel, one week after the air date, for one day only. 

Stalking is a hard crime to prove. Victims must find logical means to describe a stalker's erratic actions, while describing why sometimes seemingly innocent actions are terrifying. Often, we sound like lunatics trying to describing erratic actions of our stalkers. The other stalking survivor on the show and I had an interesting discussion backstage. What a relief it was, one accomplished career woman to another, to say, "So. You were called crazy, too." What a relief to say that, to another survivor, who was also solidly not a lunatic.

This is why I speak about the crime. It's my hope that as a result of talking about my experience, I raise awareness. To say, "It's not just you."  Making it easier for other victims to get help. Finding words to describe their terror. Giving tools to people who can help.

Image courtesy of "The Security Brief"

Image courtesy of "The Security Brief"