When a crush turns to obsession

A CRUSH on a singer or movie star is considered a normal part of growing up, a teenager’s practice run for adult relationships. Almost everyone experiences distress over unrequited love at some stage. But how do you tell when normal desire begins to verge on dangerous obsession? Potential stalkers can be picked by the intensity of their feelings, and the degree to which those feelings are removed from reality.

Forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen says stalkers tend to be socially isolated and often have no relationships outside their families, sometimes not even that. They are touchy and suspicious, generally attributing malevolence and ill intent to others, but making an exception of their “beloved”, whose every word and action is interpreted as good and affectionate.

Criminologist Dr Patricia Easteal warns that an early marker of trouble in a relationship is “emotional violence”, where one party’s intense possessiveness and jealousy leads to them monitoring or trying to control the other’s movements and social contacts. This can be mistaken for flattering attention at first. “It’s a fine line between feeling loved and feeling totally suffocated,” says Dr Easteal.

An article on stalking in the `American Journal of Criminal Law’ reports that those who work in the field take very seriously those who write hundreds of letters, especially ones containing “semen, urine, body parts, dead animals, locks of hair and blood”. They also warn that those who are love-obsessive, and who write or talk about having a shared destiny, can be more dangerous than those who hate their quarry. “A person who writes: `I am going to kill you on Tuesday’ is less likely to be harmful than one who writes: `You and I must be united on Tuesday’.”
Victims of harassment are advised to tell the police, take out intervention orders if possible, and get silent telephone numbers.

They should keep addresses and schedules private, take property out of their names and ensure that others know where they are at all times.

Acting Senior Sergeant Sharon Hunter, of the community policing squad, advises any victims who speak to their harassers to be clear and firm about how unwanted the attention is. “Unfortunately, females tend to be a bit passive, and might try to pacify the person, if they know them, by asking them in for a cup of coffee or something similar. The person can read that as a mixed message: `She’s being kind to me, so maybe it’s worth pursuing.”‘ The best solution is for the stalker to seek treatment, which Professor Mullen says, is usually successful. However, he says that this is unlikely because the offender does not perceive that there is a problem. “It’s a case of `Why treat me? I’m just in love. Why don’t you treat this woman who won’t respond to my passion?”

Also see: Fatal Attraction

First published in The Age.

Fatal attraction

The ardent attentions of a stranger or a former lover may be flattering at first. But KAREN KISSANE writes that sometimes one person’s dream of love can become another’s nightmare.

My love…was begotten by despair Upon impossibility. – Marvell, `The Definition of Love’.

IN ELIZABETHAN times, a suitor who wooed his ladylove at night with sonnets under her window was a fine fellow, a romantic hero. These days, a lovelorn figure lurking in the bushes outside the bedroom is more likely to be the cause of a maiden’s prayers than the answer to them, and be of more interest to the law than to her love life.

Delusions of love can lead to obsessions with people who not only don’t return the affection, but who may not even have met the deluded one. It used to be thought of as a madness peculiar to women: “Old maid’s insanity.” More recently, men have been seen as more likely to violently pursue the reluctant objects of their desire. But in fact, men and women contribute almost equally to the ranks of an increasingly common form of predator: the stalker.

Tess, who is in her 30s, lived under siege for two years until her former lover was convicted for the assaults he inflicted on her while he stalked her. “I would get up in the morning and walk to the front door, and he’d be there. I’d get to the tram stop, and he’d be there.

I might get home at one in the morning and he’d be there, hiding in the bushes. He knew my every movement. He knew who walked into my house and who didn’t. He wrote to me and rang me continually.

“(Being stalked) is the most terrifying experience you can imagine because you are the one who has to change your lifestyle while this person is allowed to run free and harass you at whim. For a person to do this means that he is obsessive and aggressive, that he has a personality disorder, basically, and you never quite know when he’s going to go over the edge and take you with him.”

James, a manager in his 40s, has had to take out an intervention order against a former lover who has pursued him relentlessly, enraged over the breakup of their relationship. She has told him and others that she has a gun and will kill him with it; he believes her. “I’m shit- scared of what’s going on. I have to do all these weird things now; I don’t take the same route to work every day, I’ve taken the house and car and phone out of my own name. But she’s still ringing me on my mobile phone, making death threats to me, my family and friends.”
Many stalkers, often the most dangerous ones, are spurned lovers or spouses who cannot accept rejection. Others have met their victims only fleetingly – as patients in their medical surgeries, for example, or as students in their lecture halls. These obsessives, attracted to authority figures such as doctors, teachers and priests, are more likely to be women; those who stalk people they have never met, whether it be an ordinary person they see on the tram or a celebrity, tend to be men.

In the first Australian research into stalking, forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen, of Monash University, has studied the “pathologies of love” exhibited by 16 stalkers referred to him in recent years. Many, he says, were “eroto-manics”, certain that they were loved by the person they were pursuing, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Eroto-manics are convinced that their persistence will succeed, and interpret whatever their target says or does as affirmation of their love.

One of the women he studied said that her object of affection conclusively revealed his love through his complaints about traffic problems on his way to work. One of the men “saw undying affection expressed by the way a young lady patted her handbag while sitting in a bus”. Others recognised that they were unloved at present, but had grandiose hopes that if only the person got to know them/gave them another chance, they would live happily ever after together.

Professor Mullen says some stalkers are simply people who are bad at courting; lacking intelligence and social skills, they have no idea how to establish a relationship. Others are “just angry at the world” and focus that rage on the persecution of one person. Still others are mentally ill. The rejected lovers tend not to be mentally ill, he says but, in the case of men particularly, were narcissistic personalities who could not believe or accept their rejection.

Genius, they say, teeters on the brink of madness; stalkers walk the knife edge between love and loathing, worship and venom. The mix of longing and loneliness that fuels their passion can be harmless, if unnerving; or it can be fatal. A recent Melbourne case, in which a man repeatedly followed a woman on her way to work, was dismissed by the courts for lack of evidence. It was found that the man, who was mildly intellectually disabled, worked next door to the woman he had so frightened. This time last year, though, stalking hit the national headlines when an estranged husband stabbed to death a woman who had appeared in court begging for protection only two days earlier.

Professor Mullen says most stalkers are not violent, but some become dangerous when repeatedly rejected. The frightening thing for victims is that it is impossible for them to predict if this might happen in their case: “Many stalkers are disturbed and need urgent treatment.”
PERHAPS nowhere is this better known than in Hollywood, where obsessed fans who stalk celebrities have claimed some famous names. Best known would be John Hinckley junior, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to win the attention of actress Jodie Foster, whom he had been writing to and following. In 1982, Theresa Saldana, of the television show `The Commish’, was stabbed by a stalker so violently and so often that the knife bent. She was saved by a stranger who wrested the knife away.

Actress Rebecca Schaeffer, of an American show called `My Sister Sam’, died after being shot on her doorstep by a man who had followed her for two years. Talk-show host David Letterman has been stalked for four years by a woman who has, at times, been discovered living in his house and calling herself “Mrs Letterman”.

Less dramatic obsessions are more common but no less persistent.

Singer Olivia Newton-John has twice been trailed from Los Angeles to Australia by her stalker; three years ago Commonwealth gold medallist Jane Flemming was stalked by someone who sent her flowers and bizarre notes; and a well-known Australian fashion designer is being pursued by a stranger who claims they have been in love for years.

Stranger stalking is frightening from the outset because it is clear to the victim that the adoration cannot possibly be true affection – the two parties don’t even know each other. Professor Mullen says: “It might sound redolent of romance to have someone standing silent outside your house all night, but people recognise that it’s got nothing to do with them. There’s a madness about it, a sense of craziness that increases their fear.” Says Tess of the stalker: “He doesn’t care about your feelings in any form; all he cares about is his own feelings and himself. He’s totally motivated by ego and selfishness.”
Tess was astounded when her former partner became obsessive after their breakup because the relationship had seemed normal. Looking back, James, can see that there were warning signs about his girlfriend. She had first noticed him in a professional encounter and began the pursuit with months of flattering anonymous phone calls, in which she called herself his secret admirer and concocted a glamorous, but false, picture of herself. “At the time it didn’t seem sinister,” he says. “I just assumed it was somebody who was particularly keen on getting serious.” Eventually, he agreed to meet and they began dating. The girlfriend was obsessive from the start: “She was extremely jealous of any other female…We could have dinner or go to the movies together, but couldn’t do anything with anybody else.” He began to recognise cracks in her stories about herself at about the same time that his household began receiving crank calls; someone was phoning at all hours to check up on him. When his tyres were slashed two weeks running, he kept his suspicions to himself and didn’t mention the incidents to her. But she couldn’t bear the suspense and finally told him she had done it.

From then on, James kept trying to end the relationship, but she wouldn’t let go. James says: “I felt a bit sick. I didn’t know how to deal with it, what to do. It was the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me.” Eventually, the woman’s psychiatrist advised him to write the woman a formal letter announcing the end of the relationship. Not long after, the death threats began. A deluded person who has been rejected can become as preoccupied by jealousy as by the “love” that preceded it.

How concerned should James be? Dr Patricia Easteal, a senior criminologist with the Australian Institute of Criminology, has analysed 110 murders of sexual partners in Victoria and New South Wales in her book, `Killing the Beloved’. She found that 80 per cent of the victims were female. Although women are less likely to kill than men, it does happen. Nor can James be completely reassured by the intervention order forbidding his former girlfriend to come near him; in 20 of the cases Easteal studied, an order was in place at the time of the murder.

Traditionally, stalkers have been beyond the law unless they have physically injured people or property, protected by the principle that people should not be arrested for offences they might commit.

But, today, lawmakers worldwide are moving towards making stalking a crime. In 1990, California became the first US state to enact anti- stalking laws, and 47 other US states have followed. No figures are available on the incidence of the problem in Australia; because stalking has not been a criminal offence, it has not been officially monitored. However, overseas reports show that it is on the increase.

A recent article in the `American Journal of Criminal Law’ said that as many stalkings had been reported since 1968 as in the previous 175 years. The writer speculated that the increase could “be tied to the inability of government to deal with the mentally ill and to the growing access to celebrity lives through the media (via) shows like `Entertainment Tonight’.”
Here, the Australian Police Ministers’ Council has asked all states to review the adequacy of existing laws. New South Wales has already passed anti-stalking laws and the Victorian Parliament is expected to do so in the spring session. Victoria’s legislation will cover stranger and celebrity stalking; at present, intervention orders are available only if the stalker is a former spouse, de facto or other member of the victim’s household. Tess, who eventually had to rent out her own house and move to another to escape her stalker, is glad to hear of better legal protection, but she is not hopeful about its effectiveness: “No law can prevent this kind of thing happening.”
A stalker’s obsession can leave lives in ruin. Several victims in Professor Mullen’s study needed psychiatric treatment while others had to move house, change state or emigrate to escape. The stalkers themselves often end with their outer world as devastated as their inner one. Says Professor Mullen: “Their lives come to be dominated by this person; they dedicate all their energies to pursuing them.

Many lose their jobs, and often what little connection they have with the world is disrupted. They, too, suffer a great deal.”
For them, he says, love has become an isolating and autistic mode of being; it destroys any chance of the unity with another that they seek so desperately. In his study he wrote of the theory that we do not love someone because they give us pleasure but because we experience joy through loving: “The act of love, even if unrequited, is itself still accompanied by a feeling of great happiness, regardless
of whether it occasions pain and sorrow. For those whose life is empty of intimacy, the rewards of even a pathological love may be considerable.”

First published in The Age.