In the United States, over 25 million people—19.1 million women and 6.4 million men—have been stalked at some point in their lifetime. I am among those who have experienced this intimate form of terrorism. For more than a decade, a former coworker, who I’ll call “Joe,” turned my life into a living hell, one in which I was constantly looking over my shoulder and fearing for my personal safety.
My nightmare began in 2009, when I met Joe while on a business trip in Manhattan. Several months later, he showed up at my house unannounced, traveling more than 1,000 miles from his residence to mine. The unwanted contact and obsession progressed from there. Joe attempted to reach me via phone, email, postal mail and social media. There were days when I would receive packages on my doorstep containing bizarre T-shirts embellished with love quotes or tens of sexually charged emails in my inbox. Joe often threatened to show up again in person. So, I placed weapons all around the perimeter of my home, just in case.
I likely contributed to the intensity of Joe’s unwelcomed contact and advances, because after asking him several times to stop, I began lashing out. I didn’t know it then, but that’s exactly what he wanted: a reaction, a response, any kind of reciprocal communication. I’m sure I made other mistakes. It’s difficult navigating through the emotional turmoil that accompanies being a stalking victim.
I haven’t heard from Joe in quite some time, but that hasn’t stopped me from being hyperaware of my surroundings and always checking the dark corners when I arrive home. I only wish I had known sooner how to better handle the situation as it was unfolding.
To learn more, on behalf of A&E Real Crime, I spoke with several experts about what you should and shouldn’t do when grappling with the realities of stalking.
What Is Stalking?
Although all 50 states have laws against stalking, varying by specific intent, degree of harassment and level of a victim’s distress/fear, there is no universal “legal” definition of this crime. According to the National Institute of Justice, stalking is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication or verbal, written or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.”
Like domestic violence, stalking is a crime of power and control and can be committed through phone calls, texts, social media messages, posts and comments, unsolicited gifts, unwelcome appearances, targeting family members, surveillance or monitoring, verbal and physical threats and property damage. Stalking can also be a precursor to sexual and non-sexual violence and murder.
“It’s almost unimaginable that we don’t have better law consistency across the nation,” Bahiyyah Muhammad, Ph.D., assistant professor with Howard University’s department of sociology and criminology, tells A&E Real Crime.
Part of the problem, as Muhammad explains, is that it can be difficult pinpointing the onset of this crime and documenting each instance of unwanted contact or communication—particularly documentation that is considered permissible or upheld in the courts. But there are clear signs that someone is being stalked and not just pursued.
“There’s a difference between an individual who calls you here and there or might be thinking about your whereabouts and an individual who’s calling you back-to-back, 50 or 100 times, reaching out to individuals you know, showing up outside your place of work or school and other forms of malice,” says Muhammad.
Unlike casually pursuing someone, stalking becomes more constant and abusive. The aggressive and intrusive nature of this crime can trigger deep fear, which is an internal warning sign.
“When you get to the point that you feel nervous or terrified to go out, are afraid to look at or answer your phone or you start getting calls from anonymous individuals, you know it’s transitioned to stalking,” Muhammad says.
Inside the Mind of a Stalker
Michael Proctor, a retired California police detective and author of Antidote for a Stalker, says there are three main categories of stalkers: the domestic violence/intimate partner stalker, the acquaintance stalker and the stranger stalker. Stalking is often triggered by a breakup or some form of rejection. Other stalkers seek intimacy, or they might be incompetent, resentful or predatory in nature.
Many stalkers lack self-esteem and live in isolation, making them feel lonely, but at the same time, they are pathologically narcissistic. This can be especially true with the domestic violence/intimate partner stalker.
“In their minds, it’s like, ‘How could you not understand that I am the best thing for you, and that I am the only thing that you need,'” says Muhammad. “The mentality is similar to reverse psychology, because the stalker believes nothing is wrong with them and everything is wrong with you, so they want to help you get it right.”
Other mental health issues, such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and erotomania (the belief that someone is in love with you), can also lead to stalking. But it’s important to note that not all stalkers have mental health disorders.
What to Do If You’re Being Stalked
Unlike other crimes, stalking only requires a credible threat, not a direct one. There does not need to be bodily harm or injury, or property damage to seek help. But because of the disparity in state and local laws and lack of law enforcement training for dealing with this unique crime, stalking victims are often forced to become their own advocates. Proctor still urges those who believe they are being stalked to reach out to law enforcement as a first step.
“The victim should keep a log or a journal of what’s transpiring between them and the stalker,” Proctor explains. “They should give this information to whomever comes out to talk with them, which is usually a patrol officer or deputy.”
In Proctor’s opinion, it’s often necessary for a victim to bypass these initial responders and go directly to the detective division or Special Victims’ Unit, who have personnel trained in domestic violence and should be familiar with stalking.
“Sometimes you just have to move up the law enforcement chain in order to get any kind of resolution,” says Proctor.
Once someone knowledgeable is working the case, they may or may not suggest an immediate restraining order, which Proctor says could cause an escalation.
“The restraining order is only as good as the people backing it up,” Proctor says. “It’s just a piece of paper unless you’ve got people who are actually willing to go out and get this person every time they violate the restraining order.”
In some states, when a stalking situation escalates, a judge may issue a criminal protective order or “stay-away” order, which allows a district attorney to open a criminal case and file charges.
Employers can also request a workplace violence restraining order on behalf of an employee who is being stalked. At the very least, a victim should notify their employer in writing about what is transpiring. If the stalker works for a different company, the employer may reach out to the other company at an employee’s request.
Other safety precautions include calling 911 if there’s an immediate threat, relocating, installing alarms and video surveillance systems and ceasing all communication with the stalker. Advocacy groups can also provide aid and support, and victims should consider therapy or counseling to work through the emotional turmoil and trauma.
The ‘Genesis’ Victim
Stalkers tend to be serial in nature, and, because of their personality, they often stalk multiple victims—but not at the same time.
“If a stalker leaves you for some reason or if there is some kind of intervention, they will often move on to someone else,” says Proctor.
But he warns that many stalkers often return to the “genesis victim,” a victim that a stalker, for whatever reason, cannot get out of their head even when they have moved on to other victims. For many stalkers, this is the first or primary victim they targeted.
To curb the rise in stalking, Proctor would like to see a national stalking database or registry.
If you are being stalked, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime at 855-484-2846.