I briefly dated a man who stalked me for two years until he was committed to long-term treatment.
There was a time before it was called “stalking”, before the notion of “sexual harassment” and “date rape.”
It was the American heyday of victim-blaming when it was the woman’s fault for dressing provocatively or getting herself into a dangerous situation. The film, Fatal Attraction, managed to bring the subject of male stalking victims to the forefront of popular culture while simultaneously painting them as sympathetic victims. Female victims were not portrayed so kindly.
It was the 1980s and my story took place a decade before California became the first state to adopt a stalking law in the wake of the murder of some high-profile victims.
It Begins in Childhood
Like most adult women, I have had my share of Mr. Creepies in my life.
My induction into the sisterhood occurred when I was just 11 and a man stopped me and a friend and asked, “anyone want to fuck?” I didn’t know what the word meant.
I have been attacked multiple times on blind dates, cornered in the restroom by a business client, had coworkers try to get me drunk after they bet who could have sex with me. There are too many to detail here -- and they continue to this very day.
Sadly, my experiences are not out of the norm as 1 in 6 women are the victims an attempted rape or completed rape in their lifetime. While men are also victims of sexual assault, women are far more likely to be targeted. Trans men and women have it even worse.
Stalkers are a constant threat, stoking our anxiety with the knowledge that they are unrelenting in their unwanted attention.
Why Women Go to the Restroom Together
It’s not to socialize, it’s because we have been conditioned to seek out the company of others as a form of protection/
Meet Mr. Nice Oblivious Guy
When I met Josh (not his real name), he seemed like the stereotypical Nice Guy. He was attractive, but not too good-looking, and he had a Midwest work ethic. His family was very important to him and he was unashamed to proclaim his love for his parents.
Josh shared a house with his three brothers while he saved for his first real estate purchase. They were a tight-knit group that supported each other.
It was the time in my life when I took my first tentative steps into real adult independence. I had recently moved into my first apartment without roommates, a tiny place I could not afford on the bleeding edge of the “good part” of town.
Josh was the district manager for the cable company. He scheduled one day a week signing up new customers for service. I could not afford such luxuries as payday neared, many times any food was a treat.
The managers of the complex had generously pointed out that I was a new tenant, a possible customer -- and single.
Such a breach of privacy was a regular occurrence in that era.
After I refused to sign up for cable, Josh chatted for a few minutes. He came from my hometown on the other side of the country which gave our conversation ease of familiarity.
It seemed we had a lot in common so I agreed to dinner.
Something Was Off
It’s difficult to pin down, but something about that first date was off. It wasn’t a feeling of danger, but more of a sense of uncertainty. I had a vague unease that I wrongly interpreted. I thought of it as we didn’t click.
In hindsight, it was that I was a placeholder for a fantasy -- almost like my presence was superfluous to an idea and the potential life I represented.
Back then, it took the form of a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. But I saw no red flags and determined I was rejecting Josh for no other reason than he was a “nice guy.” This designation had a different meaning than it does today. Decades ago, it meant someone who was rather bland and vanilla.
Josh was a perfect gentleman, the conversation was light and focused on his childhood in the Midwest. He had very definite plans for his future and unlike most other guys, it didn’t involve drinking and chasing women, but a home and family of his own. His questions weren’t too probing and he seemed to pay attention to my answers. But the evening felt almost perfunctory, like an interview for a job that I already landed.
We casually dated about a month, when something “off” wandered close to the borderlands of “disturbing.” It wasn’t yet full-tilt crazy ride, but the occasional prickly sense that something wasn’t right. It became apparent that I wasn’t there, and that anything I said or did that did not fit his narrative would not register.
I need to emphasize that last part so you understand Josh didn’t simply ignore contradictions, but it was like he never heard them. He gave no space for anything outside his notion of our relationship that existed solely in is mind.
We Broke Up, or I Thought We Did
When I turned down attending a barbecue at his house, he showed up on my doorstep anyway. It wasn’t overly aggressive, it was like I never said it. Maybe I didn’t make it clear? Nothing got past his impervious filter if it was criticism, annoyance, or any form of dissent. These things did not exist.
At that barbecue, I asked his brothers what was wrong with Josh. They laughed and said their father used to toss them in the air. They said Josh landed on the roof and suffered a head injury. I have no idea if they were joking.
On the drive home, I tried to break it off with him.
A week later, Josh stopped by and asked me to go for a ride as he had something to show me. I felt sorry for him and wondered if his obliviousness was a symptom of his head injury. I reluctantly agreed, thinking I could explain it to him again.
He had been saving his money and had purchased a three-bedroom home at auction. It was an ugly Brady Bunch ranch house in a depressed area, but he had made a great deal on the place.
Josh asked me for my opinion. I said it was nice and was a good starter home. I made the appropriate polite comments. We stood in the outdated kitchen and I again told him that I didn’t think we should see each other any more.
It didn’t register. Instead, Josh told me he was glad I liked the place because he bought it for me. He outlined how we were going to get married, then have kids, and how we would grow old together.
“This house is just the beginning,” he said.
My stomach sank when I realized this wasn’t just a fantasy, it had become a solid plan and he had moved forward by buying a house. My objections ignored, he told me that all the things we had in common were a sign from God we should be together.
I moved soon after and gave the apartment managers my work address to forward any mail. There was no way I was going to let him know where I was living.
Then It Got Weird
I worked in the corporate headquarters of a financial services company that had very serious security — coded locks, security cameras, a guard. Over the next two years, Josh showed up with flowers, cards, stuffed animals, and gifts. He never got past the reception area.
He called weekly. The receptionist always put the calls through to various coworkers who took turns trying to convince him to leave me alone. They told him I had moved in with a boyfriend. They said I was on my honeymoon. One smart ass told him I was giving birth.
Josh called my family, repeatedly. He begged them to give out my home address, but they refused. He tried to follow me home from work, but I went to my boyfriend’s house instead.
None of these things registered with Josh.
As A Woman, Discrimination Became Worse Later in Life
Most women are not ready for the silent form of gender discrimination that awaits them.
Because he had not harmed me, law enforcement would not get involved. I was told I could get a restraining order if he had made a credible threat. After all, I had dated the guy, and all he wanted to do was buy me dinner.
“Why don’t you be nice to him?” one officer said. “You could do a lot worse, you know.”
We hired a new receptionist and she put his call through to my extension. Josh told me his parents were coming into town the next week to meet me because we were getting married. He offered to sign the deed to the house over to me if I would have dinner with the three of them. I hung up.
I decided to try a new tactic since talking didn’t work. I wrote a letter explaining that I was not interested, I gently suggested that his repeated attempts to contact me over the past two years were a sign that maybe he needed to seek professional help.
Josh Gets Committed
The mail was returned to me. My letter been crumpled up, ripped apart, taped back together perfectly. Not a seam was out of place. Josh had scrawled “Die you bitch” with a thick red felt pen across the entire page.
I was scared.
I knew Josh was at work, so I called his house and his oldest brother answered. I told him what had been going on for two years and about the letter. I said I was afraid to go home. I asked him to give me one good reason I shouldn’t take the letter to the cops and have Josh arrested.
There was a sigh of resignation on the other end.
His brother quietly asked me not to go to the police. He apologized and assured me that the problem would be handled and that I would never hear from Josh again. I said if I did, I would go straight to law enforcement. I only agreed because I knew the cops would not take it seriously and I couldn’t prove Josh had sent me the letter since it came back in my original envelope.
Josh was committed to a pricey inpatient treatment hospital in another part of the state. Four months later, I received a letter from him written on their stationary. He acknowledged that his behavior was “disturbing” and he apologized for scaring me.
It was dry, cold, and unemotional. It felt like he had been coached through it It was also the only time that it seemed like something other than his fantasy finally registered.