All I had done was to move in next door.
My Next-Door Stalker
The long, raging road to a #metoo moment.
It took more than 20 years to begin writing about the man who stalked me for 18 months after I’d moved into a new neighborhood in 1996. The #metoo movement gave me courage. But then a road-rage encounter silenced me, again.
My stalker lived in the house next door. I was 39 years old, my second marriage had ended, and my father had recently died. Our two houses were only 20 feet apart in a steep, quiet city neighborhood of older single-family homes. His was just uphill from mine, and sometimes at night, when I passed the only uncovered window on that side of the house, I would see him standing there, looking down from a second-story window, his round head silhouetted by a bare bulb on the ceiling.
The stalking began at the very first encounter. He stood on the other side of the screen door — over six feet tall, bulky with muscle, in his late thirties, and introduced himself as Mike. He held out a bottle of wine as a welcome to the neighborhood. I thanked him, but since I didn’t drink, I suggested that he enjoy it for me.
That was the moment. I was used to a confused reaction when I told people I didn’t drink, but Mike’s was resentful. He said he was a retired city firefighter and a landlord. Later, long after my trouble with him had escalated, I learned he had been forced out of his job at the fire station closest to the college as a consequence of stalking a female student.
Mike said he had a key to my house given him by the previous owners, and that he would be happy to continue their arrangement of looking after the place when I went away, mowing the lawn, or helping out if anything needed fixing.
“I installed this,” he said, pointing at the screen door.
All the red flags were waving now. Politely but without apology, I declined and asked for the key. Mike was angry. “I don’t have it on me,” he said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.” He turned to leave, but suddenly my dog lunged and barked furiously.
“I didn’t know you had a dog,” Mike said.
His words chilled me to the bone. I changed the locks that same day.
All I had done was to move in next door. But for the next 18 months, Mike harassed and threatened. He glared, yelled, and followed me. He ducked behind corners when I spotted him downtown. The district polling place, an elementary school cafeteria, was busy on November 3, 1996 — Clinton v. Dole. Mike stood facing the dark windows near a stack of kid-sized tables and chairs, his back to the room, and our eyes met in the reflection.
Mike often sat on his porch drinking beers, rain or shine, snow or sun, tossing the empty (and sometimes full) cans over the embankment between our houses. I would hear the thud and clatter as they fell on my walkway or the strip of grass by the garbage cans.
I felt him watching me as I shoveled the frost-heaved sidewalk or split and stacked wood outside the back door. I never used my front porch and rarely played with my dog in the backyard. I had trouble sleeping, I kept the lights off and the blinds closed.
One afternoon I heard bumping and banging on the roof. A branch slipped over the gutter as I looked out the window. I was afraid to go out and look, but I was sure Mike was throwing branches at my house just to scare me. That’s when I installed motion-activated floodlights and a tall fence.
I was scared but vigilant; I watched my back. I told my friends. I relied on my dog’s senses. I became obsessed and resentful to the point it made me ill. But the harassment and stalking increased.
One evening as I walked my dog (leashed) past his house on the other side of the street, Mike stood up from his seat on the porch and yelled, “Your dog barks at me!”
It wasn’t the first time he had objected to my dog barking at him. I kept walking and answered, “She is a watchdog, and that is what she’s trained to do.” It was something my wise therapist had suggested I say when he challenged me. Mike stood silently and watched me walk up the hill until I was out of his line of sight.
A bit later, I realized he had followed me. Impulsively and without thinking, I turned and walked my dog straight at him. He turned, too, and nonchalantly strolled away. I stopped, shaking with rage and fear, so grateful for my brave, protective dog.
Mike had “a history.” He had stalked several women, including the college student, and he was known to be a Peeping Tom. Contrary to his story about being retired, a law enforcement officer told me he was terminated from the fire department for “anger problems,” but everyone knew it was really for stalking the student, who had not pressed charges. The peeping charge was brought by a female tenant who said he used a camera to spy on her through a hole in the bathroom of a rental house he owned. This was not gossip, not rumor, but fact. Mike was known; he had a reputation. Yet he persisted.
I also learned about the psychology of stalking — and the law.
Stalking is a crime of power and control, overwhelmingly but not exclusively perpetrated by men against women. In the 1990s, states and the federal government began enacting stalking laws after an actress named Rebecca Shaeffer was shot to death in 1989 by an obsessed fan who had stalked her for two years.
In 1992 Congress directed the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research branch of the Department of Justice, to develop model antistalking legislation that would be both constitutional and enforceable. Subsequently, stalking is a crime under the laws of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Territories, and the federal government.
But it is not known how many victims and perpetrators there really are each year. The NIJ report published in 1996, the year I became a victim, estimated between 20,000 and 200,000 incidents of stalking — a ten-fold gap. The uncertainty is because, like me, the majority of victims did not pursue charges against the stalker. In my case, the police station was only a few hundred yards down our street, but that helped not at all. Instead of pressing charges, I documented and reported every act of harassment. Even though it had no effect, I wanted there to be a police record just in case.
Think about that — just in case. Like so many women, I stopped short because I was afraid Mike would retaliate if he knew I was talking to the cops.
But after the branch-tossing incident, I called it in. A patrol officer stood with me on my porch to take my statement. I knew Mike was probably watching. The cop shifted, looked at Mike’s house, but would not look me in the eye. Did I see him do it? What did I want to do about it? Did I want an order of protection? I thought, what protection could a no-contact court order provide against a man who lived literally 20 feet away? And what about retaliation?
A few weeks later, that the same cop was on the front page, fired after being charged with sexual abuse of a minor female child related to him.
A male friend offered to visit Mike with his biker buddies. As tempting as that was, I knew it would not help. I was terrified of retaliation, of a home invasion, of being caught off-guard, of being attacked at night or out of reach of help. I felt hopeless. The harassment and stalking were an oppressive weight, always there.
Eventually, I decided that for my safety and sanity I had to move out of that house. Research showed that men like Mike — abusers, stalkers, harassers of women — do not reform. Or, they change so rarely that the incidence is statistically irrelevant. In fact, the abuse and aggressive behavior almost always escalate.
A foundational research report from the Journal of Forensic Science in 2006 on sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence victimization used a subject sample derived primarily from adjudicated cases. The researchers found that intervention did not deter stalkers in the majority of cases and that stalkers tended to recidivate half the time, usually within one day of the intervention. According to the survey, the majority of stalking incidents were frequent, rejection-based, and involved close physical proximity to the victim. “Almost 1/3 of stalkers have stalked before, 2/3 of stalkers pursue their victims at least once per week — many daily — and 78% of stalkers use more than one means of approach,” the researchers wrote.
“Violence occurred in 46% of the cases. Thirty percent of subjects directed their aggression towards their object of pursuit, 26% damaged or stole property, 7% directed their aggression towards a third party, and 2% killed or injured a pet. Physical assault was the most common serious violent act (28%) followed by vandalism (26%), sexual assault (5%), abduction/attempted abduction (3%), and homicide or mass murder (0.50%). Subjects used a weapon to threaten and/or harm others or objects in 19% of the cases. In the cases involving weapons, the most frequently used weapons were knives (43%), followed by other objects (30%), firearms (18%), and cars (9%).”
Acquaintance and stranger stalkers are somewhat less deadly than intimate partner stalkers who have or had a sexual relationship with their victims. Half of these reportedly have no known histories of violent and nonviolent criminality and serious mental disorder. In all categories, the report said, stalkers frequently approach their targets, and their behaviors escalate quickly.
“Individuals who stalk bring to the table a host of life problems and failures. They are typically without a current sexual pair bond and evidence much higher frequencies of unemployment or underemployment than the general population. Their ability to love and work is grossly compromised, and likely contributes to their predisposition to pursue those who reject them. These failures are compounded — or perhaps caused — by histories of violent and nonviolent criminality and serious mental disorder for half the subjects.”
The harassment I suffered from Mike, my stalker next door, was proximity- and acquaintance-based. I did not have a sexual relationship with him, and I was not a public figure or celebrity (although I had been a local musician. Mike could have known or discovered more about me).
But why did he target me? I was looking for an answer.
“Feelings of vengefulness, wanting to hurt, and feelings of being deceived were the strongest emotional correlates of stalking,” write Keith E. Davis and Irene Hanson Frieze in their 2000 study Research on Stalking: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go?
“The early insight that stalking had to do with pathologies of love (Mullen & Pathe, 1994) has been borne out. Some stalkers want more than anything else to reestablish or initiate intimate relationships. . . . But some stalking is driven more by control and revenge than by merely reestablishing a love relationship.”
Recent research upholds these findings. The Stalking Awareness and Prevention Center, a DOJ-funded project organized in 2017, published a fact sheet with data from a 2018 survey conducted by the CDC:
• An estimated 6–7.5 million people are stalked in a one year period in the United States.
• Nearly 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking victimization at some point in their lifetime.
• Using a less conservative definition of stalking, which considers any amount of fear (i.e., a little fearful, somewhat fearful, or very fearful), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 13 men reported being a victim of stalking in their lifetime.
•About half of all victims of stalking indicated that they were stalked before the age of 25.
•Stalkers use many tactics including approaching the victim or showing up in places when the victim didn’t want them to be there; making unwanted telephone calls; leaving the victim unwanted messages (text or voice); watching or following the victim from a distance, or spying on the victim with a listening device, camera, or GPS.
They used to ask women what they were wearing when the assault occurred. Maybe they still do, because misunderstanding about what provokes attacks persists. We haven’t stopped blaming the victim. Among many agonizing school shootings of recent years, the headline from a news story circulated on social media stands out: “Spurned advances provoked Texas school shooting, victim’s mother says.” According to the Reuters News:
“Shana Fisher, 16, who was killed in the attack, told the L.A. Times that her daughter rejected four months of aggressive advances from Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, who is in jail accused of murdering 10 people early on [May 17, 2018] at the high school in Santa Fe.”
Social media and the public rightly and roundly objected to shifting the blame for the stalking off of the shooter and onto the murdered girl’s perfectly rational behavior in response to stalking. She said no, repeatedly.
Davis and Frieze say consequences for victims who survive are severe and prolonged, “as indicated by the PDS (post-traumatic diagnostic scale) arousal scale, in their background levels of fear, and in the view that their world has become a more dangerous place in which to live. . . Stalking victims may be analogous to hostages or even to incest victims.”
I can tell you that this is true. My stalker-next-door left me with a generalized fear and anxiety, a certainty that the world is fundamentally dangerous. Like a shadow, the experience followed me into the future. It swept into itself every past minor harassment, medium trespass, and major abuse from men — you know, the ones almost every woman experiences in her life. Suspicion and hypervigilance were like tinnitus, a constant buzz behind nearly every thought and decision. And sometimes I wondered if I had brought it on myself.
These feelings and thoughts are shared by all who experience abuse, not for what they have done but for who they are. But most people, whether through luck or privilege, are mystified by it and have trouble believing it could be that bad. Even now, 25 years later, the trauma comes through my outraged social media posts about Trump, the abuser-in-chief, for example. Inevitably, it seems, comments include a certain amount of victim-blaming and ’splaining.
Following the death of Hugh Hefner in September 2017 — that supposed harmless old “philanthropist” who mainstreamed porn (what a guy) — The New York Times published a cleared-eyed OpEd that I reposted on social media. There were a few negative comments. I was lectured about having my nose in the air and taking too much enjoyment in trashing the old dude.
I began writing this essay as a way to argue against those minority voices.
Just weeks later, the Harvey Weinstein New York Times story came out. I had never talked about Mike, my next-door stalker, in any public forum. The flood of #metoo accounts gave me courage, and I posted an abbreviated version on social media to almost universal support. But one male friend warned me not to take my “phantom suspicions” too far. “You attract the energy you put out,” a female friend cautioned. And of course, several ’splained that “not all men are like that.” Stipulated. I wondered what the good men were doing to get justice for victims and raise better boys, besides lecturing me to lighten up.
I am still uncomfortable about telling this #metoo story. Not for the vulnerability of disclosure — I hope and believe it can encourage others to be brave, safe, and proactive about violence against women. I am uncomfortable with expressions of sympathy, outrage, and sadness because I know it is largely down to my privilege as a white woman with resources, the support of friends, professionals, and money, that I escaped. Imagine having IPV, abuse, and stalking and being forced to weigh that against homelessness and perhaps the responsibility of small children, against the nearly inevitable escalation of violence to rape, beatings, abduction, or even murder. I only had to make sacrifices of money, pride, and a leap of faith.
My watchdog and I moved to a neighborhood across town, and my circumstances improved in every way. Even though Mike continued to follow me two or three more times — once in his car as we both drove along a back road — I did not feel the same level of danger or threat.
Songwriting and a return to performing helped me recover agency and purpose. For about a decade, I was a minor touring and recording artist. After one of the many small-town shows I played in those days, a woman with a concerned expression asked me, “Are you OK? Your songs are so sad and a little scary.” “Yes,” I told her, “I’m OK. I really am.”
That was 20 years ago. What has changed for victims of stalking since my experience in 1996?
It is worse. Much worse.
First, the internet has broadened the menu to perpetrators: cyberstalking, spying, trolling, and identity theft. The bad guys are emboldened and empowered in forums and groups where mass-murderers are revered. Real-time physical crimes of harassment and violence are also on the rise. From the run-up to the general election in 2016, reports from men and women of all ethnicities and circumstances say harassment and intolerance are up — way up.
News analysts and culture historians (here, for example) attribute it to the chaotic political climate in the U.S. characterized by President Donald Trump’s callous incitement to intolerance, disrespect, and violence against immigrants, intellectuals, POC, persons with disabilities, the BLM movement, and of course against women — from Trump’s attacks on Democratic rival Hilary Clinton during the presidential campaign to leering at beauty pageant contestants to oversexualizing his own daughter and famously boasting about grabbing women’s pussies.
By 2019, public rituals of hate and cults of intolerance were out in the open. With horrific regularity, Black and brown people are openly murdered, attacked, over-incarcerated, and routinely harassed by fearful, aggressive civil police officers and federal border patrol agents. Protesters are injured and mowed down by cars. Gun violence is way up, and the FBI says right-wing activists pose a critical domestic terrorist threat. It is no longer a lone gunman or disaffected student in the public square or school who kills to satisfy a desire for power and control, horrendous as that was and still is.
And now, the pandemic. During lockdowns, domestic violence, femicide, IPV, and elder abuse have increased worldwide.
“‘Self-isolate,’ ‘stay at home,’ ‘practice social distancing,’ and ‘recession’ are all words likely to be terrifying to many women who are living with intimate partner violence,” wrote Eve Valera in “When Lockdown Is Not Actually Safer: Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19.” Their lives “are often filled with fear and danger under normal circumstances, but during this new normal of the global pandemic, the lives of these very often ‘invisible victims’ are at an increased risk for more violence — and even murder.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that a study in May of domestic abuse calls to police in 14 metropolitan areas around the U.S. found the pandemic and accompanying public health response had led to a 10.2% increase in such calls. The new research finds evidence that physical abuse has both increased and escalated, even as the number of victims coming forward has decreased. An unverified Facebook meme puts the rate of increase at 30%.
I began this essay in 2019 after Hefner’s death and the resurgence of the #metoo movement, during the “old normal.” But then something silenced me — a road rage encounter with a man, a stranger in a very large, late-model pickup truck.
He followed me through the parking lots of two shopping plazas, in broad daylight, in a downtown commercial area. Traffic was heavy, with visitors attending college reunion weekend. His truck nearly blocked the entrance into the first shopping plaza as I was turning into it, and I shook my head at him.
He leaned out his window and said, “Don’t shake your head at me.”
“Fuck off,” I snapped back. That was a mistake. But I drove on through the first shopping plaza, crossed the main road with the light, parked in the second plaza across the street, and got out of my car to do an errand. Suddenly, the truck came up fast behind me, sounding the horn, and blocked me in.
“You broke the law!” he yelled through the open window.
I yelled back: “Are you following me now? Are you chasing me? Do you want me to call the cops?”
“I am a cop!” he screamed. Then he peeled out and took off, speeding through the busy shopping plaza.
I was terrified. Was he gone, was he coming back? What if he’d had a gun? He might have shot me dead, right there. Was he really a cop? Why didn’t I think to take a photo or video? It happened so fast. Even if I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was a cop — off duty — why did he switch from protector of the public interest to overt aggressor acting outside the bounds of law and civility? If he was a cop and he caught my license plate, then he might know my name and address. The next day, I crept outside at dawn to see if “BITCH” had been spray-painted on my garage door. The terror lingered long after the incident. I was punished because he felt humiliated, disrespected — not for a minor traffic violation of cutting through a shopping plaza parking lot, but for shaking my head at him and telling him to fuck off. For standing up to him.
I could not finish writing the essay after that. It’s taken me until now to finish, to feel safe.
Toxic masculinity. The open, empowered ego of intolerant white males is the new normal. It’s always been there, of course, but now it’s unleashed, enjoying daylight, just as it has at other times in U.S history, from the systematic genocide of native people to slavery, Jim Crow laws, Japanese citizen internment camps, the civil rights movement, and on.
No one deserves abuse because of who they are. I am a privileged white woman in her sixties who talks back. But if stalking and harassment can extend to someone with privilege and freedom, it is far worse for others. For LGBTQ, BIPOC, the disabled, immigrants, their children, first-generation emigrés, and the elderly undeserved abuse is frequently more violent, frequent, and persistent. This climate of terror is a kind of stalking perpetrated and enabled by society and even by law. The roll-back of civil protections and liberties further legitimizes it.
The memory of my stalker next door never sleeps. When it’s triggered, sometimes I take flight, and sometimes I fight. I resist the urge to take on the stalker’s vengeful pursuit of teaching them a lesson, but sometimes I fail and I just want to hurt them back. The question of what I should do, we all should do, to stop the rising violence and terror echoes in my mind.
If someone asked me today if I am OK, would I answer “yes?” Would you?
If you know you are at risk, reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799-SAFE (7233) or 1–800–787–3224 for TTY, or if you are unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. They are available 24/7 and can work with you to find help in your area.
Have a safety plan. Even obvious things may not seem obvious when you are in a terrifying situation. Having a safety plan will help with that. You can get help creating a plan here.