Holly Gressley for The Chronicle Review
Some years ago, I found myself, to my surprise, the victim of a campaign of malicious e-mail stalking and online defamation by a former M.F.A. student.
Nasreen (all names here have been changed) was a talented writer, and she had an interesting story to tell about her family's experiences in Iran at the time of the revolution. During the term I taught her, I'd made it clear I thought highly of her work.
Two years after she graduated, she contacted me, asking me to help edit her novel. I was too busy at the time, but I put her in touch with my agent, who in turn introduced her to a freelance editor. Nasreen seemed grateful for the help, and an amicable correspondence began between us.
At a certain point her e-mails took an amorous turn. I told her I was happily married and not interested in having an affair. She seemed to take it well, and our friendly correspondence soon resumed. But gradually the volume of her e-mails increased to several a day, and after a while I realized I was becoming the object of an obsession. As tactfully as I could, I asked her to ease up, but to no avail. Eventually I stopped writing back, but that, too, had no effect.
A deluge of e-mails poured into my inbox over the next few months. I deleted most without reading them. Those that I did read seemed innocuous, though the sheer quantity was disturbing. And then, on a July evening in 2007, they turned abruptly from banter and gossip to venomous hate mail (much of it violently anti-Semitic), along with accusations that I had plagiarized her work and had affairs with her classmates (though not with her).
Soon after that first volley, Janice (my agent) called, sounding upset. For several days, she had been receiving strange e-mails about me from Nasreen, and she was concerned for her safety. The e-mails contained the same baseless accusations of plagiarism, accompanied by threats of "hell to pay" if Janice and I connived to "steal" any more of Nasreen's work. Later that day, Nasreen began threatening Paula, the editor to whom Janice had introduced Nasreen.
"You all play a part in unleashing the fury," Nasreen wrote. Soon after, with this "fury" now apparently reaching for terms strong enough to account for its own escalating intensity, Nasreen brought on one of those words that scorch everything they come near. The word was "rape," and even though she used it figuratively rather than literally, I felt immediately the potency of its touch, as if I'd been splashed with acid: "I say if I can't write my book and get emotionally and verbally raped by James Lasdun, a Jew disguising himself as an English-American, well then, the Holocaust Industry Books should all be banned as should the films."
It's one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.
Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen's former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: "I'm told he ..." "I hear he ..." "Everyone knows he ....")
Regardless of whether Janice believed a word of these e-mails (and she assured me she didn't), my impulse was to deny them indignantly. But even as I was forming the words, I felt the futility of doing so. Intrinsic to the very nature of Nasreen's denunciations and insinuations was, as I began to understand, an iron law whereby the more I denied them, the more substance they would acquire and the more plausible they would begin to seem. Their very wildness was a part of their peculiar power. On the basis of there being no smoke without fire (so I imagined Janice, and then Paula, and then, as things got worse, all sorts of other people, thinking), surely something as shocking as these e-mails must indicate that I was guilty of something.
"I think this is called verbal terrorism," Nasreen wrote at one point. I hadn't heard the phrase before. But as I came to appreciate Nasreen's grasp of the dynamics of asymmetric conflict, where she had apparently nothing to lose and I had everything, I realized that it was peculiarly apposite.
I, as an Anglo-American Jew, a family man, a published author, a middle-aged male in a position of power (at least from her perspective), was the axis of, shall we say, "virtue," while she, in her own mind at least, was the lone jihadi. It took a while for her to figure out the exact nature of her mission, but when it did finally clarify itself in her mind, she laid it out in her characteristically succinct way: "I will ruin him."
Over the previous year or so, several novels and memoirs had been published by youngish women of Iranian origin. Many of these books, I gathered (I hadn't read any of them), dealt with the period of the Shah's downfall and the rise of the fundamentalists, which was the period Nasreen had been attempting to cover in her own novel.
Even the most well-balanced writers are prone to anxiety about their work's being pre-empted. I suffer from it myself. So it wasn't a huge surprise to learn that Nasreen was unhappy about these rival publications. What was surprising was to find out how she intended to deal with her unhappiness.
"You and Paula pandered my work" was the first clear indication. Over the next few weeks, murkily, but with steadily growing conviction, Nasreen began to elaborate a theory in which various Jewish cohorts and I were guilty of deliberately preventing her from finishing her book so that we could steal her ideas and sell them to these other writers, most of whom happened to be Jewish as well as Iranian.
Like all conspiracy theories, this one required constant adjustment to accommodate both Nasreen's own shifting grievances and the obstinate bits of reality that stood in its way. Sometimes I appear to be acting alone; sometimes the complexity of the charges requires me to have been in league with one or both of my "yentas" (Janice and Paula), and sometimes the scale of my operation is perceived to be so vast that Nasreen is forced to link me to entirely new networks of co-conspirators, including, at one time, most of the writing faculty at the college where I taught her.
You are what the Web says you are, and if it misrepresents you, the feeling of having been violated is crushing.
A kind of feedback effect occurs now, between the increasingly villainous scenarios Nasreen imagines and the pitch of her rage. Each intensifies the other, the e-mails seething with ever more florid antagonisms and growing increasingly menacing in their demands for compensation: "I want every cent," she writes, "of what James made in 'ghostwriting' from my e-mails for Z [one of our 'buyers'] the whore," she writes. "Or else I'm going to make him pay in other ways."
By now I was beginning to feel seriously harassed, though it was still the violent tone of the e-mails rather than the actual content that was getting to me. These latest accusations, in particular, seemed too self-evidently preposterous to worry about. Who could possibly believe that I was some kind of literary racketeer who had stolen her material to sell it off to other writers? It was too ridiculous to take seriously.
But I was forgetting the principles of asymmetric warfare. And I was forgetting the spirit of fair play that prevails among most people, whereby anyone claiming to have been victimized must be listened to with an open mind, however far-fetched the claim and however honorable-seeming the alleged victimizers.
James's Amazon Reviews, read em! runs the heading of an e-mail from this period. The message itself continues, in taunting parody of the tones of authentic victimhood: "I hope I'm not in trouble for speaking the truth. ..."
I logged, warily, onto Amazon.
The review, under the byline "a former student of lasdun," was posted on the page for my novel Seven Lies. Words seemed to undulate as I looked at the screen. Phrases came in and out of focus: "writers who teach at mfa programs like mr. lasdun ... ," "my work was stolen ... ," "after I told him I was raped while trying to finish my novel ... ," "he used my writing (e-mails to him) in that story."
Even with these reiterations of the familiar charges, I sensed that a new order of harm was being inflicted on me. First the private attacks had been extended to form that little intimate theater of mortification comprising my colleagues and acquaintances, and now a window had been opened up to the wider world.
As if conscious of her new audience, Nasreen adopts a more measured voice here. Laying aside the mask of naked rage, she poses instead as the scholar-victim who has taken it upon herself to deconstruct my work and expose the sociopathic attitudes encoded within it:
Having read Horned Man, think he may have a penchant for sadism. His short story "the Siege" is disturbing in romanticising surveillance. ... It's also racist in sexualizing a black woman from a "revolutionary" country, who loves her husband but is demeaned and made to have sex with "the english composer" to save her true love's life.
You don't have to be a writer to imagine how it feels to find yourself the object of a malicious attack on the Internet. An ordinary negative review is depressing, but it doesn't flood you with this sense of personal emergency, as if not only your book but your life, or at least that large aura of meaning that accumulates around your life and gives it value, is in imminent and dire peril.
Call that aura your "character," call it your "good name," your "reputation," your "honor." Whatever it was, as I read the review on my screen, I seemed to be seeing the first stages of some irreversible damage spreading into this nebulous yet indispensable entity. However crudely Nasreen may have been deploying the gestures of critical theory and gender studies in her attempt to brand me as a monster, it seemed to me that she had mounted a successful attack. Needless to say, her description of "The Siege," like all her other accounts of my work, bears little resemblance to the story itself, but who was going to check? The semblance of an annihilating critique had been created, and for people browsing the Web, that is all that matters.
The multiplying effect of the Internet—the knowledge that anything on it can be infinitely reproduced—further increases one's alarm at this kind of attack. So too does its odd nature as a mass phenomenon in which, paradoxically, one participates in the blindest, most solitary manner. Who else has seen what you have seen? Who believes it? Who finds it entertaining? Who has posted it elsewhere, e-mailed it to a friend? One never knows, but where malice is involved, one quickly succumbs to the worst suspicions.
But perhaps I was exaggerating the effect of this particular attempt at character assassination. Unless you are a celebrity, nobody is ever as interested in your reputation as you yourself are. Certainly no one who saw the review would have paid it as much attention as I did. As soon as I finished reading it, I hit the "report" button and fired off complaints to Amazon, and after a few weeks, the review was taken down. So I suppose I can't, after all, claim it did me serious harm.
But having raised the game to this freshly injurious level, Nasreen was hardly likely to give up exploring its possibilities. Her campaign, it appeared, was no longer aimed simply at expressing her anger or at embarrassing me, but at something much more concrete and practical. It was at this time that she conceived that crystalline formulation of the true nature of her mission: "I will ruin him."
The question of "reputation," to the extent that it had ever interested me before this episode, had done so for purely literary, or antiquarian, reasons. It belonged, I assumed, to a bygone world where communications were imperfect and social arrangements consequently more dependent on trust and hearsay than they are now. In the past your "name"—what other people could report about you—was crucial to your survival, whether you were a medieval knight, an Elizabethan merchant, or a Victorian governess. A stain on your honor was potentially catastrophic, and so you guarded it jealously and defended it, if necessary, with your life.
In our own time, with more efficient information systems at our disposal, we were no longer (I'd always assumed) so much at the mercy of other people's perceptions or opinions. Facts could be checked; rumors and falsehoods refuted. A phone or a plane could bring you into direct contact with a potential business partner or employer. Reputation still meant something, but it no longer meant everything.
And yet it seems that sometime near the end of the 20th century, by a curious quirk of scientific progress, history reversed course. The Internet emerged, and with it the arbitration of reality began to pass back from the realm of verifiable fact to that of rumor and report; from the actual to the virtual.
The latter, an indiscriminate tumult of truth and lies, was the zone in which our public identities, our outer selves, once again began to assume their definitive form. There was still the private self, but for anyone who interacted with the world, there was this strange new emanation—your Internet presence—and it was by this, increasingly, that others knew and judged you.
It was quickly discovered that you could manipulate it: glamorize your image, finesse your biography. You could also manipulate other people's presence: boost an ally's standing or launch a corrosive lie against an enemy. One would think that the ease of performing such manipulations, and the large scale on which they began occurring, would have discredited the Web as a source of information about anything. But although we all acknowledge the need to be cautious, our first instinct, being creatures of the word, is to trust it. Even on deeper consideration, we tend to feel that it is basically more right than wrong, and that we can accept its approximations as the truth. You are what the Web says you are, and if it misrepresents you, the feeling of outrage, of having been violated in some elemental layer of your existence, is peculiarly crushing. Reputation ("the gentleman's second soul," as someone put it) is once again asserting its power to make or break us.
The Amazon postings came down, but others went up, portraying me as a racist, a thief, an all-round creep. Here I was, a standard-issue liberal with unimpeachably correct views on everything, casting the shadow of some leering, reactionary bigot. "It's worrisome that he teaches at colleges ... ."
Along with these Web attacks, Nasreen had now started e-mailing organizations that I was professionally associated with. My literary agency in London received an e-mail accusing me of the familiar crimes. The Personals department of the London Review of Books, bizarrely, was sent an enraged e-mail heaping curses on me (Nasreen obligingly copied me on this). More recently, in the comments section under a review I published in The Guardian, she wrote: "Mr. Lasdun, your own personal life is a bad porn film and I'm sorry I didn't sleep with you and so you had me raped and gave my work to Aipac babies for $. ... "
As a freelance writer, I depend for my living on easy relations with magazines, creative-writing departments, and so on. Nowadays any involvement you might have with such places leaves some kind of record on the Web. All Nasreen had to do was work her way through my Google pages, and she could systematically denounce me to every one of them. She seemed to be carrying out her threat to "ruin" me.
Very rapidly my relations with all of the publications and colleges I've worked with became tinged with anxiety. Had she contacted them? If so, were they concerned? I could have asked them, of course, but doing so seemed fraught with difficulties. If they hadn't heard from her, what would they make of my strange tale of a former student's denouncing me as a plagiarizing sexual predator? Somehow it seemed a mistake to introduce such a concept of myself into the minds of other people, even friends. And if they had heard from her, well, what good would it do for me to ask them to please take no notice of what she said?
I quickly succumbed to a kind of paralyzing dread: fearing the worst on every front, nervously examining my correspondence for signs of distrust, attributing longer-than-usual silences to decisions to cut me off, but unable to bring myself to find out if the worst had actually occurred.
The culminating act in this particular line of attack came in April of 2008. I had taken a teaching job near where I live. One morning there was a knock on my office door. It was my department head, Frank, looking uncharacteristically ill at ease.
"We've been sent a very weird e-mail," he said. "Maybe you should read it."
The subject heading ran: James Lasdun, important information about your "writer-in-residence"
I began reading warily. "To Whom It May Concern," it began. "I am a former female student of James Lasdun and find it truly disturbing that he is allowed to teach on any level. During my time as his student he did no work on my writing nor on any other female writer's work."
What followed was the familiar litany of plagiarism, theft, racism, and sexual misconduct, although set out at much greater length than ever before, and with a new lavishness of detail. "I wish you'd keep Mr. Lasdun away from young women over which he has power," it concluded. "It is the only way this twisted, sadistic man can get his kicks."
As I began trying to explain to Frank that every one of Nasreen's assertions was a lie, I sensed that, although he personally believed me, in his professional capacity he needed something stronger than just my word against Nasreen's. As it happened, I had recently managed to get a detective from the New York Police Department to take an official interest in the case. If nothing else, that gave me standing as a bona fide victim. As soon as I told Frank about that, he looked immensely relieved, and by the end of our conversation, he was offering his full support
In practical terms then, I was unharmed by this latest strike. But by this stage, I was in more danger from the psychological effects of Nasreen's campaign than any practical damage she may have inflicted.
She had been sending me hate mail now for almost a year. On the advice of the police, lawyers, and friends, I'd refrained from blocking it—not that this would have been easy to do, since she continually set up new e-mail addresses.
If her aim as a "verbal terrorist" was to replicate the conditions of the nation at large inside my head, with its panics and dreads, its droning monomania, she succeeded triumphantly. Possibly the monomania was the worst of these effects: the increasing difficulty of thinking about anything other than Nasreen. In this respect her obsession with me achieved perfect symmetry: I became just as obsessed with her. I couldn't write, read, play with my kids, do almost anything without drifting off into morbid speculation about what new mischief she might be getting up to.
Then there was the paranoia. This manifested itself in a number of ways, but the source of them all lay in Nasreen's uncanny ability to orchestrate other people, or at least the illusion of other people, into her attacks. Paranoia requires a social context, and Nasreen's incorporation of my personal and professional associates into her campaign supplied that very efficiently. It also requires a constantly shifting boundary between what one knows for a fact and what one can only imagine, and this too Nasreen supplied. All she had to do was introduce the concept of smearing my name and furnish a few concrete examples of having done so, and my anxious self-interest could be relied on to expand the process indefinitely.
The calculus was simple: If a person is prepared to falsely assert X about you, then why would they not also falsely assert Y? Why, in fact, would they not assert every terrible thing under the sun? And if that person has already demonstrably reported those terrible things to your agent, your boss, your colleagues, then why might they not also be in the process of reporting them to your neighbors, your friends, or indeed (as in due course she did) your local police station?
I fell prey to the worst imaginings—suspecting increasingly that everyone I spoke to on the phone or ran into in town had heard Nasreen's allegations about me, either directly from her or in the form of rumors set off by some Web posting of hers, and that they were secretly harboring the thought that the soft-spoken Englishman in their midst might be some kind of monster.
The fact that I had written a novel several years earlier, The Horned Man, in which a college instructor believes he is being framed for a series of sex crimes, gave the situation a piquancy that didn't escape me, although I was in no condition to enjoy it. ("How I had managed to lay myself open to an act of such preposterously elaborate vindictiveness," my hero reflects with a pertinence I struggle to find purely coincidental, "how or why such an intricate engine of destruction could have docked at my life, was still unfathomable.")
On rare occasions when I was able to persuade myself that this really was all a case of my own worst imaginings, Nasreen would invariably deliver some dismaying new evidence to the contrary. I remember at one point wondering if my sudden interest in honor, name, and reputation was all a bit fanciful. But in February of 2008, a volley of e-mails arrived in which Nasreen explicitly singled out those entities, plucking the words, it seemed, straight out of my own mind.
Your reputation is ass runs the inimitably phrased heading of the first e-mail in this volley. "You think you're clever but your name is tarnished" goes a line in the next. Never mind that my real self was innocent of everything had she accused me of; out there in cyberspace a larger, more vivid version of myself—Nasreen's version: the thief, the racist, the sexual predator—had been engendered and was rapidly (so I felt) supplanting me in the minds of other people.
The sexual slander was of course the most dangerous. For some time, Nasreen had been very obviously trying to find a way to use this kind of verbal napalm against me. In particular she seemed to have been looking for a formula that would square her frank acknowledgment that she and I had never come close to any kind of sexual contact with a paradoxical eagerness to call me a rapist. Already she had found ways of associating me with the idea of rape without actually accusing me of it, but I had sensed that she was moving toward something more direct.
The rape she refers to, so far as I can piece the story together from the fragmentary accounts in her e-mails, occurred at the offices of a magazine where she was working. She had passed out or been drugged at an office event and woken up certain that she'd been assaulted. She had reported it to the police, but they had declined to investigate.
Her e-mail to my boss had linked me—rhetorically if not factually—with this rape. ("It turned out that James Lasdun was not interested in my work but was trying to sleep with me. This, after I'd been raped while trying to finish my work. ...") But even before this, she had begun to connect me to the alleged rape itself, writing in January, "It's clear James has been using me ... he may have even initiated the rape so as to steal my work ...," and in February floating the suspicion that I might have been the actual assailant: "I hope to God James is not my rapist."
I don't think Nasreen particularly cared about convincing people of the actual truth of her allegations. The point, as she had candidly stated, was simply to tarnish and smear, to render me unfit for public consumption. Given the energy she was putting into this, it seemed to me that she was bound to succeed, if not by reason or subtlety then by sheer force of attrition.
One morning in 2008, I received an e-mail purporting to be from the program director at the college where I had taught Nasreen. He appeared to be forwarding me an article about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he had accompanied the article with a personal message, though it wasn't written in his usual style: It suggested, in much cruder terms, that we perform oral sex on each other and ended with "eat your ugly bittersweet and die!" ("Bittersweet" was the title of a poem I'd published in The Atlantic, which Nasreen had decided was about her, though in fact it was—fairly obviously—about my father.)
When you forward an article from a newspaper or magazine Web site, you generally fill out a form that asks for your own e-mail address as well as that of the recipient and offers you a space to write a personal message. It turns out that in the space for your own e-mail address, you can type in the address of anyone you want, and the article and message will be sent as if from that person. (Recently I've noticed that some forwarded articles warn the recipient that the sender's identity hasn't been verified, but such messages didn't appear in 2008, and even now, they seem to be the exception.)
Basically, as Nasreen had discovered, you can pretend to be anyone you want when you forward an article, and she had decided to pretend to be my old program director.
It didn't take me long to surmise that if Nasreen was masquerading as other people to me, then she was probably masquerading as me to other people. Visions of articles being forwarded in my name with obscene personal messages attached filled my imagination. Nasreen had in fact begun doing just that.
The one consoling thought arising from this development was that it constituted some kind of identity theft, which I hoped might be a serious enough crime to trigger extradition. (Nasreen had moved to California, and would have had to be extradited to New York, where I live, to face trial. That was unlikely to occur unless her actions crossed the line from misdemeanor to felony.)
I faxed the e-mails to my contact at the NYPD, Detective Bauer. He agreed that they amounted to identity theft but warned me that the district attorney's office had recently lost a large case of electronic-identity theft and so wasn't currently prosecuting the crime very enthusiastically. Still, he seemed to think these e-mails put him in a stronger position for dealing with Nasreen (he hadn't yet managed to contact her).
Meanwhile, Nasreen had progressed from forwarding articles to online postings in my name. I found the following under a review of a first novel on Nextbook.com: "I'd like to steal that book to feed my family. I do that with the help of my agent and heavily connected old bag friend Paula. Don't you know that art is dead and Israel is great?" Posted by James Lasdun on 06.21.08
I complained to the site, and after a while the posting was taken down, but at this point, I began to wonder if the game wasn't as good as over. This other version of me, so much more vital and substantial than I felt myself to be by this time, had completed its usurpation of my identity and was running amok. I will not let you go, went the heading of one of Nasreen's e-mails from this period, and it confirmed my increasingly ominous sense that what was happening could no longer be regarded as a passing unpleasantness but a permanent condition.
Early in the summer, I arrived home one afternoon to find a message from Detective Bauer. He had finally spoken to Nasreen.
"She certainly seems to believe you stole her work."
I didn't think I needed to remind the detective how crazy Nasreen's conspiracy theories were.
"I guess she convinced herself," I said.
There was a pause.
"Is it true you used to teach at Princeton?"
"But not any longer?"
"Well, not at the moment."
"She says you were fired for doing the same thing there. Taking students' work and selling it to other writers. She told me this is a well-known fact."
I had expected some kind of counterattack, but as always, the sheer brazen outrageousness of Nasreen's malice caught me off-guard. I explained to the detective that I had taught on a casual basis at Princeton for 20 years, usually just for a term or two at a time, and often with several years between appointments. I assured him that my relations with the university were good, that I certainly hadn't stolen or been accused of stealing students' work, that there was no particular reason why I wasn't teaching there at the moment, and that I would be more than happy for him to call the writing department to verify all this.
But even as I spoke, I felt again the strange feebleness of my words in the face of Nasreen's. It wasn't that the detective was telling me he believed her, necessarily, but he had apparently felt unable to dismiss out of hand the possibility that a black market in students' stories was a part of the fabric of the creative-writing industry, with desperate authors buying up workshop submissions from unscrupulous instructors, and that I was a known dealer. He listened in silence while I spoke, and his response, when I had finished, was dismayingly noncommittal.
"Anyway," he concluded, "I warned her if she contacted you or any of your colleagues ever again, we'd have her arrested for aggravated harassment."
I thanked him and hung up, telling myself that on balance, this was good news. There was silence for a few days. I allowed myself to feel fractionally optimistic.
And then she began again.