When someone crawls over Madonna’s garden wall or breaks into Brad Pitt’s house, it’s unpleasant but not unexpected: the price of fame, if also prosecutable. Imagine, though, if in the course of your everyday, nonfamous life someone emerged with a similar obsession. First they seemed affectionate, then convinced of a deep connection, then became furious and set upon destroying your life.
This is what happened to James Lasdun, a writer who has won a Guggenheim and taught at Princeton. Lasdun, a novelist and poet who has published two travelogues with his wife, has a solid if not high-profile career; he can put together a very fine sentence. Elegant writers are not often the subject of an obsessive and destructive campaign, but he was.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Feb 2013)
As he explains in Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, one of his graduate students became a kind of a friend, and then things turned. She — he calls her Nasreen — eventually began sending dozens of emails a day, sometimes that many in a single hour, often full of anti-Semitic invectives.
She waged an Internet campaign of untruths, including accusations of plagiarism left as Amazon book reviews and on his Wikipedia page. She repeated those accusations in letters sent to work colleagues and employers.
If this were a movie, next a family pet would be boiling on the stove — but Lasdun’s stalking was specifically Internet-bound. Nevertheless, it was nerve-racking, and he recounts his experiences with the still-fresh wounds of paranoia and fear it induced.
Had Lasdun’s memoir stopped there, it might have been a powerful document of victimization in the Internet age. But the last quarter of the book takes an awkward turn — to Israel.
Lasdun tells us about his relationship with his father, Sir Denys Lasdun, a British modernist architect. One design he’d been commissioned to do but was never built was for a significant temple in Israel. Contemplating his father’s unseen legacy, Lasdun travels to the Western Wall, where someone else’s version of the temple now serves as a centerpiece of the Jewish settlement there.
He writes, “the implications of this building seemed more incendiary than ever… once again the thought of my (albeit tenuous) connection to it offered a certain gloomy satisfaction. This had to do with Nasreen, who was a constant presence in my mind during this trip. It seemed to confer a more dignified solemnity on our conflict, turning me into a larger, grander adversary… Better to be found complicit in the original sins of Israeli history than in some act of petty plagiarism.”
Nasreen is from an immigrant Iranian family, which leads Lasdun to see Arab-Israeli overtones in her anti-Semitism. Yet when he uses the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to define and ennoble his feelings of persecution, it’s a stretch, verging on the vainglorious. People die in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he gets assaulted by emails.
This lack of perspective crops up earlier in the book. Amid Lasdun’s well-articulated feelings of bafflement and dismay at being stalked, there are stretches of obliviousness: to power relationships, to nuance in language, even to how he tells the story.
Early on, he describes Nasreen’s appearance in flattering specificity. Her face is “fine-boned, with delicately interlocking features” and she wears “a brown, waist-length jacket, at once military and feminine in its cut, that emphasized her aura of self-containment.” The younger female is objectified, while the physicality of the man telling the story is not detailed; he remains invisible while holding all the narrative power.
As their relationship evolves from student-teacher to friends, Lasdun reveals actions that may have contributed to his problems without seeing the connection. He likes their flirtatious emails but at one point realizes they’ve become too much and suggests breaking off contact. Nasreen replies that their relationship is “benign”, explaining, “in a sense I do love you and am in love with you — but mainly because you’ve given me hope that there are some ‘normal’ men out there. ...” Lasdun, who finds this “lucid” and “gracious”, decides all is well.
Although it’s easy for the reader to intuit that Nasreen was unwell, it’s impossible to understand what she was thinking. Did she believe the lies she spread about Lasdun? Did she convince herself that their friendship had been a romance? Could Lasdun have managed her growing affections differently — or is this a nightmare that could happen to anyone?
No one wants to be stalked — but we do want to know more about why or how something like this unravels. Lasdun seemed poised to explore his stalking more deeply when instead he turned his attention to Israel — and all his writerly skills can’t make the connection hold.