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.
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.