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.