real life

'For 2 years, I was stalked online. When he turned up in person, he said it was 'just the beginning'.'

Content warning: The following post mentions domestic violence and may be distressing to some readers.

It was almost two years after I received the first email from my stalker that I saw him in the flesh. He was a complete stranger - is still a stranger - and the escalation after so long was alarming, but not all that surprising. I'd been on edge for the past two years and had been anticipating, albeit dreading, the intrusion into my real life, and when it arrived, a part of me was secretly pleased that this might be the moment the police finally took my concerns seriously.

Every month, the university I work at holds a literary salon at the student bar on campus, open to, but rarely attended, by the public. The guest reader that month was Trent Dalton and on arrival, even through the larger-than-usual crowd, I recognised the face I'd only seen via my computer screen from the bizarre photos he'd sent me over the years - him grasping a flower, holding up a copy of my first book, a Valentine's Day card, a box of Cadbury's Roses. 

Even now, it astonishes me that he had the gall to email the next day to let me know it had been nice to see me, that he noticed the way I was looking at him, did I want to get a coffee sometime? He didn't mention being escorted out of the building by security, the three guards that stood between us as he warned me this is just the beginning, it's only going to get worse from here. He didn't mention the fact that I was crying. He didn't mention that a few weeks earlier, he'd threatened to rape me, if he went to jail because of it, it would be my fault.


The emails and Facebook messages were inconsistent - I experienced months of reprieve that sparked false hope he had forgotten about me - and wildly erratic in tone. I could never predict if he would be expressing his profound love for me, or chastising me for being a wicked woman, heartless and evil to have caused him this much pain. When I first contacted the police, they suggested I simply block him - advice I found to be baffling and somewhat dangerous. If this stranger who has been relentlessly harassing and threatening me for months, whose issues I do not know the depths of, informs me he's found out where I live, I think I'd like to know about it.


Watch: Coercive control is a deliberate pattern of abuse. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

I told my ex-boyfriend about the stalker on our first date, downplaying its seriousness, crafting it into a strange but a funny anecdote. This was months before the stalker showed up at my work, and the next morning, I found an ornate pocket knife my boyfriend had slipped into my bag the previous evening without me realising. 

In other circumstances, such a move would be considered a red flag, but in this instance, I was touched by the gesture. Later that day, he texted to say he ordered me a can of pepper spray from the dark web and asked for my stalker's full name. I returned the knife on our second date; the pepper spray was seized at customs. His concern, and the concern of many other friends and family members, gave me permission to realise that I wasn't being precious or histrionic. My external under reaction masked a deep internal panic, and it was okay for me to be afraid, because I should be afraid. This was not a benign inconvenience to be narrativised at dinner parties, but a very real threat to my life.  


The shifts I've had to make to my life over the past four years are time-consuming and expensive. I've turned down work contracts in order to be on campus as little as possible while still being able to earn a liveable wage. On the odd occasion I do public events, I spend hours agonising over how best to strike a balance between I’m so sorry, I know this is ridiculous and please do what you can to protect me to strangers over email. 

The career opportunities I've missed out on when having my exact location at an exact time advertised on the internet is too anxiety-inducing to bear. Flare ups of chronic pain are exacerbated by a perpetually stressed central nervous system. Often, I drink half a bottle of wine at night because the glow of inebriation makes me less anxious to be home alone. When I pass someone in the street who looks vaguely similar to this person, this stranger, I am physically repulsed to the point of nausea. I get annoyed when people post photos of me on social media without my permission, berate myself for being difficult.

Last week it infiltrated my thoughts again, as it often does, when a friend's child asked me to select a superpower. I hadn't thought about this hypothetical since I was small, and was surprised by my response and how little thought I needed to put into my decision. My superpower, I told her, it would be the ability to only enter someone's consciousness when I am right in front of them; the ability to erase myself completely from another person's thoughts.


She was entirely unimpressed but recalling the conversation that evening I was overwhelmed with resentment, with rage. The fear, I am learning to live with. That a stranger has infected what I most value about myself - my mind, my imagination - remains hard to swallow.


There is much about stalking and violence and obsession I do not understand, but a year or so before I contacted the police for the first time, a man murdered his wife and children five minutes from where I live, on a street I have driven down many times before. Often still, I feel stupid, convinced I'm overreacting. I've not been physically harmed; the violence so far has been psychological, threats that have not yet been acted upon. But then I remember Hannah Clarke, who was the same age I am now when she was killed after a period of being stalked by her ex-husband, and how, up until her death, she had never been physically harmed by the family annihilator that took the lives of her and her babies.

What I've experienced - am experiencing - is not remotely comparable to years of coercive control resulting in the most horrific murder imaginable, but what this crime, alongside so many others, continues to remind me, is that the worst thing you can imagine does not belong to the realm of fiction and fantasy and horror films and news reports in other suburbs and cities and countries. The worst thing happens every day, a five-minute drive from where you live, and it's this I remember when I'm made to feel I'm overreacting.


Image: Supplied.

Emily O'Grady is the author of Feast, the story of three women connected beyond blood, and what happens when their darkest secrets are hauled into the light. Feast is now available for purchase.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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