Diary

Helen DeWitt

I write this with a baseball bat by the bed. A weapon that will do more damage than you can bring yourself to inflict is useless; last time I made the wrong choice. (Could I hit someone with a baseball bat? Perhaps.)

This may be completely unnecessary. Or it might not. The Women’s Freedom Center of Brattleboro, Vermont has advised me to leave at once for my mother’s home in DC: ‘We don’t know what’s going on in his head.’ The director of victim services at the Vermont Department of Corrections says: ‘Oh, the Women’s Freedom Center … people imagine that someone getting out of jail has been ruminating all this time; most of the time the last thing they want is to see the victim again.’ My village takes a vigilantist line. One neighbour says if she saw him by the road at night she would run him down. Others tell me to get a gun and shoot on sight. Look at it this way: if there were a high risk of attack I wouldn’t be staying in a cottage in 11 acres of woods, scene of the ‘reckless endangerment’ which sent him to jail in the first place, half an hour from the state police. The problem isn’t really that we don’t know what’s going on in his head.

I’d stayed in the family cottage half a dozen times since I was a child. It wasn’t secure, but it didn’t need to be. There was one other house on the road, deserted for years. In 2010 my eldest uncle, sole surviving owner, rushed in where banks fear to tread: he offered me a mortgage to buy the place. The cottage had a wood stove, one insulated room, no running water once the ground froze, but also no phone, no internet access. With this glorious isolation I might finish the works-in-regress on my hard drive. I came in September 2011 before the launch of a new book to sign contracts, write cheques. Someone was mowing the lawn of the house up the road.

To the untutored eye E was a lackadaisical perfectionist with an amiable labrador and a taste for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He had a horror of shoddy workmanship; what he did, he did well – in his own good time. My caretaker told me to be on my guard. The house’s owner was letting him stay rent-free in return for work; she’d advised him not to. An acquaintance at the State’s Attorney’s Office said he was bad news. But he seemed harmless enough. One day he came drifting down the road with his dog and stopped to talk. A stream of inconsequential anecdotes threw light on his latest windfall.

He came from an old New England family, distantly related to the dukes of A––. He had been to an expensive prep school from which he made forays to Boston, where Chinese grocers sold alcohol and cigarettes to 12-year-olds. He had dropped out of college after a year, gone to Aspen for the snow. Loose-limbed, dark-haired, clean-shaven, grey-eyed, he had parlayed boyish good looks in their prime into jobs for which he was totally unqualified, picking up skills as he went along: he could learn to use any tool by watching what other people did. Now forty-odd, still boyish, less pretty, he had gone through most of his money but had an armoury of skills and the art of blagging his way into grey market deals. The aimless socialising was as much a stock-in-trade as the skills. E’s landlord was a highly paid geek at an electronics company; they bonded because he could come for weekends, sink beers, fell trees. E could live the outdoor life full-time, without the petty inconvenience of an office job.

The one-size-fits-all friendliness of the roadshow was already in place; I made friendly noises. I gave him a copy of my first book, because he asked; fine, fine, fine. I left for New York. I went back to Berlin. There were emails: his dog said hello from Vermont.

In late September 2012 I sublet my apartment in Berlin. I was making minimum payments on five credit cards, but my agent thought he could get a six-figure deal for a new book ‘bundled’ with the American reissue of my first book. If I could finish a book in two months, before winter set in, it wasn’t absolutely insane not to make a bolt for an office job. E came over the day I arrived. I said I had come to work. He said he understood. He would not come uninvited.

And immediately came drifting down the road looking for odd jobs, a loan, cigarettes, a hot shower. He brought a paraffin lamp before Hurricane Sandy. He showed me how to use my chainsaw, cut up a fallen tree, brought a splitter for the logs. He made a sawhorse for chainsaw work adapted to my height. He stayed to talk. And talk. And talk. It was the conversational equivalent of the labrador waving its good-natured tail. Words poured in at the ear, displacing the book in my head.

I explained that I faced financial disaster if I didn’t finish a book. He said he understood. And he came apologetically down the road. If I stayed up till two he came because the light was on. (‘If you want me to go I’ll go.’ ‘Could you go home?’ ‘Not just yet.’) If I got up at five to light the wood stove he came because his fire had gone out. The single insulated room had a window/wall ratio of 3:4; there was nowhere to hide.

It seems gauche to put raw desperation on display, but failure to provide this sort of evidence seems to have alienated the prosecutor. Here’s an extract from a diary about six weeks into the saga:

13 Nov 2012

Desperate plans for escape. Solution probably found. Ideally wd get taxi for 7 a.m. & clear out but I think it’s too complicated. Best plan, ride bike to B’b, collect things later. Perhaps in disguise.

First thing, to get away.

I will get to a place of safety.

Not thinking of work, only of disguise & whether possible.

This may not be entirely sane.

15 Nov 2012

The boy who was to deliver wood didn’t come yesterday. I could not go through another of these days. I saw that I must leave very early on Thursday & reschedule the delivery.

I got up at 5. It was necessary to have a light. E had started to come over v early b/c he had seen a light, & there was a light on at his place. I remembered that he kept one light on at night. I put a few tools in the garage, E’s things on the porch, the chainsaw on the landing of the stairs. I put a sock over the rear reflector of my bike in case E came w/ a flashlight. I said to myself: you have only one chance to get away. It was too dangerous to go by E’s house. I put my gym bag w/ clothes on the back rack, & my backpack on my back. I looked toward E’s house & saw no sign of a flashlight approaching. I walked into the dark road, using the little flashlight & front bike light to light the way. When I got to Route 30 I turned left, heading for B’boro.

It was dark a long time, presently a little lighter.

9.41

Lying in bed in hotel room which I cleverly booked several days ago. Such a glorious glorious day – the unutterable pleasure of not talking to E.

It is now 1 a.m. All day I have done nothing that I did not want to do. Now I sit in my hotel room. It is quite silent. There is the absolute certainty that no one will come to the door. The luxury. The extraordinary luxury.

22 Nov 2012

If someone leaves you fantasising about buying a wig & living in your home pretending to be someone else that’s a bad sign. (It’s not too late.)

Be sane

Be sane

Be sane

wig – curly

diff glasses or contacts

bright colours

tight-fitting trousers

boots headscarf

new puffer vest

bright make-up

earrings

It’s so common these days to crawl away in exhaustion, to barricade oneself behind autoreply. ‘So-and-so can reach me in case of emergency’: there’s always someone deaf to polite requests, someone who doesn’t get that the well has run dry. One’s horror at appeals for interaction is clearly the consequence of the hundreds of preceding interactions rather than anything specific to the latecomer. And it’s not clear that the implacable deafness is pathological. William Gibson said the future is already with us, it’s just not very evenly distributed: someone who indefatigably comes to your house when you have crawled away in exhaustion is a social monstrosity but also, quite possibly, simply caught in a wrinkle in time.

So – was E a stalker? Was it possible to know, based on the evidence available? I didn’t then know that there are states where he could have been charged with stalking. There are states where obsessive behaviour causing severe emotional distress makes the grade; states where causing enforced relocation makes the grade; states where causing professional damage makes the grade; states where I could have called the police in November 2012. And there are states like Vermont, which confine stalking to a course of conduct representing a credible threat. (E made no threats until the very end.) The Colorado law on stalking states:

A stalker will often maintain strong, unshakeable and irrational emotional feelings for his or her victim, and may likewise believe that the victim either returns these feelings of affection or will do so if the stalker is persistent enough. Further, the stalker often maintains this belief, despite a trivial or nonexistent basis for it and despite rejection, lack of reciprocation, efforts to restrict or avoid the stalker, and other facts that conflict with this belief.

This captures E (and there was worse to come), but also rather a lot of people with whom I do business. (To what extent is the offender being penalised, demonised for being late to the parade?)

But wait. Wait. Putting down a deposit and taking out a mortgage is a familiar social ritual. It comes with the right of occupancy, and in Anglophone countries women can exercise this right without wearing a burka. Here I stood on solid ground.

E sent an email saying he would respect my privacy. I returned. It started again. I left for a local B&B and wrote to his landlord, who drove up from Boston. E, he said, was lonely, alcoholic, obsessed. We met. E: ‘You know I love her.’ Landlord: ‘It’s understandable. She’s attractive, you’re both intelligent. She needs to work on her book.’ E promised to stay away. His landlord left at 4 p.m. E came down the road at 4.05 p.m. (‘This is between you and me. You didn’t have to tell him. You almost got me evicted.’)

E turned up next morning at six because his fire had gone out. I said I had to go for my walk. He went home. When I got back I found a pane of glass on the dresser; there was a gap in its normal home in the side door. E: ‘I was cold and you weren’t there. But yeah, yeah, I know that was wrong. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.’

This was clearly something I could report to the police. It seemed harsh to lock someone up for social cluelessness, but I was spooked. I packed my bags and left for a motel within the hour. Then I found a room on Craigslist that was available until the end of January. I was desperate to finish a book.

E’s landlord: ‘You’re a very attractive woman. He can’t help himself. I’m sorry you can’t live on your property.’

It’s a big leap from ‘you know I love her’ to baseball bat by the bed. I read the Vermont law on trespass on 28 December 2012 and it appeared to confirm my sense of the social norm. Entering a property when forbidden to do so, or remaining on a property after being asked to leave, carries a maximum sentence of three months and/or a $500 fine. It’s not a heavy sentence, but the law is beautifully genderblind: I have the same right to occupy my property undisturbed as my uncle the ex-marine. I believed I could exercise this right and attempted to do so. This was the first step on the slippery slope to the baseball bat.

I sent an email issuing a formal notice against trespass and returned to the snowbound cottage on 31 December. (Its wood stove made it warmer than my rented room.) The next morning I passed E on the road. He said: ‘I took the liberty of leaving two pails of water on your porch.’ He came that afternoon to explain that he would stay away. He came the next day to leave another pail of water on the porch. He came bleeding, covered in snow, wearing slippers, a sweater with no shirt underneath, no coat.

Escalating neediness may or may not be stalking; it’s a professional catastrophe for a writer who needs Woolf’s room of one’s own. I asked the Sheriff’s Department to explain the process for invoking the law. Five weeks later E was still gaming both his landlord and the police. I left for a residency on 6 February. On 1 May I went back to Vermont.

E turned up at night when the lights were out on my first day back, knocking softly at the door, calling ‘Helen! Helen!’ I waited for him to leave then called 911. (I had had the phone connected for the sole purpose of calling 911.) A state trooper came forty minutes later and asked if I had seen him. I pointed out that I would have had to turn on a light to do so and was trying to avoid confrontation. He said voice recognition was poor ID. He talked to E, who denied everything, and came back. ‘I think you’d feel more secure if you had motion-sensitive lights and pepper spray.’

E turned up in broad daylight two days later, asking to use the phone. I walked him back down the road. I talked to a second state trooper. E wasn’t the harmless drunk dismissed by the Sheriff’s Department: he had a 27-page criminal record with incidents of domestic and other violence. State Trooper B said I must see the thing through or he would be back. He advised me to leave, again, at once. ‘He’s evil. I’ve seen what he can do’: he had once been called to the scene by a battered victim. The legal process for trespass (citation, arraignment, pretrial conference, maybe trial) took months, perhaps a year; the defendant remained at large throughout. If I stayed there was risk of reprisals.

If I can be driven out by any man in the grip of unrequited attachment, if I can be driven out again for seeking legal redress, equality under the law is a fiction: I may need to pay twice for housing and lose a year’s income, maybe more, at any time. At eight stone, I can even the odds only if I can come to the door with a gun and say, ‘Make my day.’ The crippling cost could have been managed if I’d set the legal machinery in motion before I spent three months out of the state, but the police had seen no need to tell me what I needed to know.

I left for a motel, then an artists’ colony. I found a sublet for four months.

E was arraigned in July and released on conditions which included no contact, no proximity, no entry to property: my victim advocate said it was ‘probably safe to return’ but if I had problems I should call the police. I ventured back cautiously, creeping in through the woods behind the house to avoid the road. Six weeks later I had a meeting with a new victim advocate and the prosecutor. I was told if there were violations ‘on a daily basis’ it would give leverage to the prosecution; even minor violations must be reported because they would strengthen the case. E might violate his conditions repeatedly and be released (it was up to the judge).

In other words, while the ostensible purpose of the conditions was to protect the victim’s safety, their real purpose was to make life easy for the prosecutor. I didn’t play this game well.

At the end of August 2013 E came down the road in the middle of the night. I heard glass smashing downstairs and knew who it was. I picked up the weed slasher I kept by the bed and went to the head of the stairs. The door at the foot of the stairs opened. E headed up the stairs, saying: ‘I’m going to shoot you.’ He was carrying something with a long narrow barrel. Obviously I had to do something. But I could not bring a heavy serrated iron blade down on a man’s head.

Being at the head of the stairs gave me a tactical advantage – this was why I was sleeping upstairs. I stood in batting position, weed slasher above my right shoulder, poised to strike.

I couldn’t do it.

So I stood there laughing. He might be about to blow my head off. And there was nothing I could do. Hysterical.

‘Are you?’ I said. ‘Really? Are you really going to shoot me with that?’

He laughed.

He said something. I thought he said, ‘It’s just a .22’ and ‘It’s just a BB gun,’ but someone told me later these were different things. (I was out of my depth.)

My social repertoire didn’t include a response to this sort of situation. That is, hitting him over the head would have been a socially appropriate response, but there didn’t seem to be any other obviously suitable response.

I asked if he would like a cigarette.

He said he would like a cigarette.

E had now done something that uncontrovertibly warranted arrest. He knew it. I knew it. ‘If you call 911 they will send a squad car and take me to jail.’ (Yes. At last.) ‘There’s broken glass, there’s evidence.’ (Exactly.) We talked for five hours, smoking, drinking coffee, while E tried to persuade me not to call the police. ‘Just give me two months to get away and I’ll leave. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Just give me a month. Two weeks. A week.’ ‘Look, Helen, there’s no reason you can’t feel safe in your home. You know I wouldn’t hurt you, don’t you?’ (Erm.)

Around 5 a.m. I got my hands on a flashlight, slipped out the door, and ran down the road through the woods.

I got up the hill to a neighbour’s house: she called 911.

The state police caught him a few days later.

If someone profoundly unstable is incandescent with rage, you can’t count on him to aim at the knees. You can’t count on him not to wrest your weed slasher from your hands and slash away. But if you can get him to talk, he is likely to be only too happy to talk. So the pattern of escalation has not come to an end, and there are scarier things than this stage of the pattern of behaviour. The source of terror was different. Each attempt to claim what I thought was a basic right had met muddle, misinformation and wildly haphazard enforcement. Money melted away, debt mounted, work was disrupted – and there was always some new game to be played that provoked someone profoundly unstable.

Breaking in and threatening to shoot showed that E was more unstable than I had realised, but it did at least promise an end to second-guessing the law. If I could get to a phone, the police, clearly, would take him into custody if they found him, and the prosecutor, clearly, would take measures to put a stop to the pattern.

On 3 September E was charged with reckless endangerment, unlawful restraint, stalking, obstruction of justice and felonious trespass. The prosecutor asked for a sentence of ‘from two to four or five years’. I suggested a brief stint in jail followed by extended probation, excluding access to my private road: what mattered was the long-term ability to use the place for work. I was told E was adamant in rejecting probation as part of the sentence. (Probation seems to be like the conditions of release game: it sets the offender up to fail, criminalising behaviour that is normally legal. E had told me alcohol would be off-limits, so there was no way he could get through it. That is, one could not place a restriction on his entering the road, because this would entail also criminalising his having a beer. This sort of offence seems to have contributed to the length of his criminal record.)

On 16 October I got a call from my victim advocate. The prosecutor thought my deposition had weakened the case, showing ‘absence of fear’. She’d reached a plea bargain slashing the sentence to 14 months, with no restrictions after release, and dropped a slew of charges leaving obstruction of justice and reckless endangerment.

I did not understand: the months of disruption counted for nothing. The only crime which merited a penalty was that of breaking in on a single occasion; the penalty offered no long-term control of the behaviour from which relief had been sought. Evidence counted for nothing. State of mind was not relevant to trespass: there was physical evidence for that. State of mind was relevant to stalking; evidence in the form of diaries, receipts, correspondence, testimony of neighbours was available in abundance – but had not been asked for.

My victim advocate insisted that financial and professional catastrophe were obviously not devastating because trespass was not a serious crime. A man breaking in and waving a weapon is the kind of thing that should be devastating; I had failed to convince as damsel in distress.

Winter was coming. I left for North Carolina. In February I was told E had been moved to a work camp. In early May I was told he was up for parole. I returned to Vermont to request a restriction on access to my road, and to organise notices against trespass and a stalking order. I went into the Sheriff’s Department on 20 May and was told it was too late to serve the papers: he was being released the next day – five months early.

The director of victim services explained: each day in work camp automatically earned an extra day off the sentence; he had also served ‘good time’ in state prison. The system was not set up to give victims these details. In short: official misinformation had actually brought me back at the time of greatest risk. Wonderful. I might think I’d have been better off in a state with a broader stalking law, or fiercer law on trespass. But if the police, prosecutor and department of corrections can all subvert the law at will, comparing legislation doesn’t help; the required reading is Rory Miller’s Scaling Force: Dynamic Decision-Making under Threat of Violence.

So here I am with a baseball bat. A gun might be a better bet. Who knows?