One night more than twenty years ago, I was followed on my way home by a drunk who wanted to get into a fight. A block from my house, he started throwing punches. I yelled, in a Texas accent that I didn’t know I still had. He broke my glasses. And then, to my surprise, I punched him back. He ran off, and when I got home, I was happy to find a little of his blood on one of my knuckles.
Over the next few days, I told the story to anyone who would listen. I expected sympathy, which many offered. But to my chagrin, quite a few listeners suggested that I must have done something to provoke the assault. Had I challenged the man? Maybe I had made a pass at him? It was my introduction to the human weakness known as the just-world hypothesis. As it turns out, many people wish so strongly to believe in the safety of their environment that they prefer not to acknowledge that a bad thing can happen to someone who has done nothing to deserve it. In the just world that they imagine, no one gets cancer unless he has eaten or smoked something naughty. Bicyclists aren’t run over if they wear their helmets. And no one is assaulted who hasn’t at least leered at his attacker.
The news in James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have is that there is a new kind of bad thing in the world: persecution on the Internet by a clever, mentally unbalanced person. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you may have trouble believing how upsetting and disorienting it can be. And you may be tempted to wonder if a sufferer like Lasdun hasn’t somehow asked for it. Lasdun, a novelist with a taste for creepy, unreliable narrators, doesn’t shy away from the suspicion. To the contrary, he rather exhaustively invites it, revealing even private thoughts as if they could somehow have set off his tormentor. I wouldn’t recommend full confession as a litigation strategy—in this case, readers who want to fend off Lasdun’s bad news will easily find grounds for blaming him—but it does clarify the stakes. Lasdun insists on being as messy as the next human being, and he demands to know whether he deserves six years of misery, and counting, because of it.
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Lasdun first met his persecutor, whom he calls Nasreen, when she took a fiction class of his in 2003. She was an aspiring novelist in her 30s whose family had fled Iran around the time of the 1979 revolution. He singled out her writing for praise, and he was struck by the reticence and “undemonstrative confidence” of her manner. In December 2005, she got back in touch and asked him to read a draft of her novel. He declined but recommended her to his agent. She continued to send e-mails, and Lasdun, who like many novelists spends his days in social isolation, responded. Some time in 2006, it dawned on him that he “was being flirted with.” At first he did nothing to encourage or discourage her light tone. He is married, and he writes that he has never had an affair with a student, but it’s a point of honor with him that he’s not a prude. In his novel The Horned Man (2002), in fact, he took aim at the sexual-harassment codes introduced on American campuses at the close of the twentieth century, which he imagined as giving rise to what he calls “loathsome falsifications of consciousness” and even to violence. While his agent was reading Nasreen’s novel, he agreed to read part of it, too. When he met Nasreen at a café for a handoff of the manuscript, he talked with her about his fear of losing a rent-controlled apartment in New York City—a confidence that suggested he had come to think of her more as a peer than as a former student. Lasdun liked the section of her novel that he read, though he had some reservations. His agent turned her down and suggested a freelance editor.
In 2006, Lasdun told Nasreen that he was taking his wife to France to research a book together, and she crossed a line that Lasdun recognized as problematic: Nasreen wrote claiming to believe that he had had an affair with one of her former classmates and that a short story by the classmate depicted it. Lasdun suggested ending the correspondence; Nasreen apologized, however, and communication between them continued. He began to notice that some of her words and phrases were explicable only by reference to private systems of meaning, which it took him some time to decode, and he felt increasingly overwhelmed by the number of messages she sent. Despite these warning signs, he continued to play a role that he described to himself as that of a “eunuchy” mentor. Once, when he made the mistake of asking what she thought of veils, a topic then in the news, she took the question as a sexual overture. He told her to forget he’d ever asked, but she was soon sending a dozen messages a day. He suggested that she seek professional help; she replied that he was taking her too seriously. In late 2006, she began to describe an alleged affair, her dismissal from her job and a lawsuit that she was filing, in a tone characterized by Lasdun as “exhibitionistic boisterousness,” and at last he stopped answering her. “If I were a person in a novel,” he writes, his withdrawal “would show as a significant character flaw, a failure of empathy.” That’s a heroic standard to hold oneself to, and probably only a Gothic novelist would subscribe to it. The only failure of empathy that I can see is to himself.
In the early months of 2007, Nasreen forwarded to Lasdun e-mails from romantic suitors whom she had met through a personal ad placed in the London Review of Books. In July, she sent him two photographs of herself, followed by a report on her novel’s progress. And then, in a flurry of messages, she went off the deep end. “Fuck you,” she wrote, accusing Lasdun of stealing material from her and predicting that his children would grow up to be “Nazi Germans.” She charged him with modeling a character in a short story on her, and she complained about the “fucking crazy Jews.” (Though Lasdun and Nasreen had not previously discussed his background, he is Jewish.) She accused him of having humiliated her in class and of having conducted affairs in his New York City apartment—an apartment that she felt he ought to have shared with her. “Why don’t you write some more exotic stories about fucking your servants?” she asked, taking aim at “The Siege,” a story of his about an older white man who woos his cleaning woman. She also attacked his menacing novel about professors’ and college administrators’ fear of sexuality: “What is the bottom line of horned man? that men should fuck everything in sight so they don’t become underground psycho killers?” Lasdun didn’t reply to any of this. “You fucking faggot coward, say something!” she wrote.