There followed years of e-mails and voicemail messages containing obscenities, anti-Semitic screeds, accusations of sexual impropriety and artistic theft, demands for money, expressions of longing for Lasdun’s death, and nonspecific threats against his family (for example, “your daughter is fucked”). Nasreen sent similar e-mails to Lasdun’s agent, to the freelance editor that his agent had recommended, and to writers who taught with him. She repeated her accusations in online reviews of his books on Amazon and Good Reads, and she tampered with his Wikipedia biography. She friended people close to him on Facebook so as to share her accusations. She berated him in e-mails to his British literary agent, to the personal-ads department of the London Review of Books, and to his employer at an upstate New York college where he taught writing. Once she had figured out how to forge an e-mail’s headers, she sent him obscene messages that appeared to come from his employers, colleagues and former students, and sent obscene and anti-Semitic messages to others that appeared to come from him. Someone signed his name to an anti-Semitic comment left on the Jewish literary site Nextbook. On the website of the British newspaper The Guardian, she accused him of having arranged for her to be raped.
Lasdun consulted the FBI, who said that unless Nasreen explicitly threatened to kill him, the bureau couldn’t intervene. She mocked a cease-and-desist letter that a college sent on his behalf. There was a brief respite after a detective from the New York Police Department called Nasreen to warn that she could be sent to jail, and another respite after a similar call from a police officer in Lasdun’s upstate village, but Nasreen always resumed her campaign. “My adversary was stronger than I was,” Lasdun admits. He reports that, as of the writing of his memoir, “Nasreen’s emails continue.”
Doesn’t Lasdun know how to block a sender’s e-mail address? Yes, and nowadays he sometimes resorts to blocking, but Nasreen repeatedly sets up new e-mail accounts, and lawyers and police have advised him to read and save her messages in case she does some day progress to death threats. “It was like swallowing a cup of poison every morning,” Lasdun reports of this duty. It left “a bruised, unclean feeling,” and it vitiated his powers of attention. “I couldn’t write, read, play with my kids, listen to the news, do almost anything, without drifting off, for longer and longer intervals, into morbid speculations about what new mischief she might be getting up to.” The mere sight of her name in his inbox could demoralize him for a day. He couldn’t talk about anything else, and he worried that he was becoming a bore. He lost sleep; he became irritable and touchy. And almost as a matter of self-defense, he became paranoid. Which friends and colleagues had been sent Nasreen’s accusations? What if they were too embarrassed to ask Lasdun himself for a rebuttal? In the battle to save his reputation, Lasdun was at a disadvantage, because in the human mind, disgust travels along paths of association, not logic. “The nature of a smear,” Lasdun writes, “is that it survives formal cleansing.” Moreover, as Lasdun himself explains, the “spirit of fair play” obliges people to listen open-mindedly to stories of victimization even when they sound farfetched.
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Indeed, Lasdun bends over backward to consider how he might be guilty. He worries that his early praise might have destabilized Nasreen. On the one hand, he suspects himself because her overtures led him into a private erotic reverie about her, and on the other hand, he suspects himself because he never acted the reverie out and it could be that the “rejection of a woman’s offer of love is a sin against nature.” Is it necessary to say that Lasdun is merely human?
If there’s a circle of hell reserved for offering premature praise, there’s no room for Lasdun because it’s full of parents from Park Slope, Brooklyn. And in my experience, which happens to be a homosexual’s, a person can get away with a lot more sinning against nature than Lasdun admits to. Moreover, I doubt that a sexual liaison was what Nasreen was really after. A police detective suggested to Lasdun that Nasreen might suffer from borderline personality disorder, and if so, she probably called on eros mostly as a way of seizing his attention.
Lasdun seems most bothered by the charge that he stole from Nasreen in his fiction. In his 2007 story “The Woman at the Window,” a woman pretends that her apartment door is jammed as a pretext for offering herself sexually to strangers. The woman recalls that she and a childhood friend used to nerve themselves for dares by counting to three: “One, two, three, and without hesitation the highway at the end of the school road would be run across blindfolded.” The image seems to have inspired Nasreen to refer to this character in her e-mails as “a psychotic jaywalker,” and she accused Lasdun of transferring to the “psychotic jaywalker” an idea about surrender that she had shared with him. Lasdun imagines defending himself in a courtroom scene, demonstrating to jurors that the story in question was based on a real-life incident that happened in 1986, that he used the word “submission” rather than “surrender,” and that he wrote previously about the idea in a poem published in 1997 and in essays published in 2001 and 2006. But Nasreen’s out-of-the-blue flirtation, he admits, may have been what spurred him to turn his decades-old memory into a story. “I stand guilty of appropriating some kind of echo or semblance of Nasreen’s ‘essence,’ for literary purposes,” he writes. “Not a crime, perhaps, in the eyes of the ordinary world, but by my own standards definitely troubling.” Maybe it does trouble Lasdun, who, indulging his Gothic predilection, makes the border between Nasreen’s mental illness and his short story more murky than I suspect it actually was. But there’s nothing guilty about appropriation. Taking from experience is what novelists do, and they have done it since Defoe. Ideas, individual words and perceptions of a person’s way of being in the world can’t be copyrighted, and everyone, in every walk of life, has the right to represent their own experience, including their experience of other people.
A last doubt to allay: Lasdun admits to wanting to believe that Nasreen is sane and morally accountable for her actions, because if she’s mentally ill, he isn’t sure her case holds literary interest. In an attempt to broaden the question, he investigates in the book’s closing pages whether anti-Semitism is a mental illness or something more insidious and more general. The inquiry is intriguing, but he doesn’t get much purchase, and he doesn’t really need it. Although provocations like Nasreen’s must be especially difficult for novelists—who cultivate susceptibility even to delicate feelings and habitually daydream about what different people think of one another—the problem that she represents isn’t at bottom literary. Online stalking could rattle anyone. Even if compassion requires us to excuse people like Nasreen from responsibility for their actions, the threat they pose is worth writing about, because current laws don’t adequately contain it.
In this same issue, David Auerbach writes about Internet microtargeting and the vast amount of information collated from the web.