A Cyberstalking Story
It’s been an interesting year so far (in the sense of the supposed Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”). As I’ve said in a previous post, my family was affected by the Manchester Arena bombing, which led me to withdraw from most of my writing-relating activities to focus on the process of grieving. But I’d actually withdrawn from social media before the bombing, and that’s because of a Series of Unfortunate Events, as I’ve come to think of it (sadly, not the the Lemony Snicket book).
I’m not going to get into the details of what happened, but I’ll sum it up by saying that I became the target of a stalker who initially contacted me online, then by “snail mail.” The contact began with a discussion of my writing, then devolved into personal questions about me, then became threatening (and disgusting). I found the Series of Unfortunate Events initially bizarre, then upsetting and finally quite frightening. Logging into my social media accounts, reading my email and eventually opening my post became a trial and a source of dread.
The stalking has stopped, and the stalker (I think) has realized the error of his ways and offered an apology for his behavior. Although scary, this has been (as with all things), an educational experience for me, and I’ve come up with the following learning points:
- Don’t take the stalking personally. We live in a culture that still blames the victim, and I’d internalized this more than I realized. I thought I’d done something to cause the stalking: over-shared, over-engaged, whatever. Talking with both my husband and others who have experienced cyberstalking reminded me that I engage with thousands of people who treat me kindly and respect my boundaries, but only one person who didn’t. The problem was not me; it was him.
- Don’t suffer in silence. I made this mistake for a long time. I thought the stalker would go away if I ignored him (he didn’t; the behavior escalated). So I didn’t reach out to anyone in my support network: my family, friends, other authors, about what was going on. In fact, I only “admitted” it when my husband opened (and read) a letter from the stalker. His horror and fury when I showed him the comments and emails I’d received gave me much-needed validation and made me realize that ignoring the behavior and hoping the stalker would go away was not the answer.
- Don’t give in. Several people advised me to simply withdraw, particularly from social media. If I wasn’t online, if I didn’t read my emails, then I wouldn’t be upset by what the stalker was posting and sending me. I followed this advice for a while, particularly while I lined up the cavalry (see next point), but then I rallied. Social media is the primary way I promote my books, get feedback on my writing and engage with my readers. Why should I let him drive me away? And I am so glad that I didn’t. When I came back to Facebook (which I hadn’t been on for three months), I found the most lovely engagement from a reader waiting for me. That kind of engagement is why I publish, and one nutter should not be able to take that away from me.
- Use the privacy tools available. Most online platforms have features that allow the user to block content or other users. Blocking the user initially worked for me, but then the stalker set up new accounts by which to contact me. I kept blocking each account and complaining to the service provider and over time, Gmail and Facebook got wise to his tricks. I’m not clear if they did this by way of blocking an IP address (which I understand is the most effective way), or some other method, but they eventually shut him down. (Twitter was not involved in my cyberstalking and I understand they may be the worst at blocking abusive users.)
- Escalate if you need to. I didn’t end up bringing a criminal complaint against my stalker, but I did get advice from the fraud squad of my local police force, who assured me that they take cyberstalking extremely seriously, it is a crime, and they would assist me if I decided to bring a complaint. Because I was successful in getting the online platforms to shut the stalker down, and a very sharply worded letter from a lawyer-friend stopped the postal contact and elicited a pretty abject apology, I decided not to go down this route, but I felt much better knowing it was available to me.
- Lift yourself back up. The thing that bothered me the most about the Series of Unfortunate Events was that it sucked all the delight out of an avenue of engagement that I’d formerly enjoyed. I got lucky in that, on my return, there was that fabulous engagement from a reader waiting for me, which made me feel my effort had been worthwhile. But even if that hadn’t been the case, I have a bunch of techniques for lifting myself back up that I could have employed which I’ve talked about here.
So that’s my stalking story, which has a happy ending in that I’m back online and feeling positive again. Also, perhaps bizarrely, these months have been extremely productive in a writing sense: over 200,000 words in a Regency romance I can’t publish, but I’ve had a great deal of fun writing and which was really cathartic during the worst of the stalking and the aftermath of the bombing.
I wouldn’t wish my particular “interesting times” on anyone. Cyberstalking is no fun, even if you’re someone who doesn’t give a shit what other people think of you (and I’m not). But it doesn’t have to grind you down, drive you away, or make you a victim. Illegitimi non carborundum!