- Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun
Cape, 224 pp, £14.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 224 09662 1
In September 2011, the LRB published a Diary by James Lasdun about learning to fire a gun. A few weeks later we received an email from his stalker. It read: ‘His writing is boring and doesn’t sell. Stop publishing that hairy-nosed Jewish wanna-be-Protestant bore of a boar. His wife’s cunt smells of dead rabbits. His girlfriends are the most hideous.’ It goes without saying that its author hates Lasdun. But it’s pretty clear that she’s in love with him too: the abuse she levels at him seems tame, even cheeky – ‘bore of a boar’ – next to the insults she reserves for his wife and ‘girlfriends’. The jealousy is unmistakable. Stalking, a kind of crime passionnel, confuses our sympathies: how do you feel about someone who loves you but wants to ‘ruin’ you; who massages your ego as she damages your career; who has read your books more attentively than anyone else, but slates them on Amazon; who can be sickeningly offensive one day, and the next write: ‘James, you should marry me and I’ll support all of the Lasduns.’ Or: ‘I’m still in love, so much in love. Can we have coffee?’
The behaviour of Lasdun’s stalker, described in his memoir Give Me Everything You Have, is an example of what some criminal psychologists call ‘desired intimate stalking’. The pattern – infatuation, perceived betrayal and revenge – is well established. In the autumn of 2003, Lasdun began teaching a graduate creative writing course at a college in New York. By far his best student was a shy, well-dressed woman in her thirties – he calls her Nasreen – and he was ‘extremely impressed’ by her first book, a large-scale family drama set in Tehran in the last days of the shah. ‘There are seldom more than a couple of students in any workshop who seem natural writers … Nasreen was one of them. Her language was clear and vigorous, with a distinct fiery expressiveness in the more dramatic passages that made it a positive pleasure to read.’ He praised her work, in front of the class and in private advisory sessions, and the pair got along well, but he says he didn’t expect to see her again after she graduated – for one thing, she was due to be married.
Two years later, Lasdun received a message from Nasreen telling him she’d finished the first draft of her novel. He wrote back to congratulate her, told her he’d happily recommend her work to his agent, and they entered into an ‘amicable email correspondence’: she gossiped and recommended music to him, he gave her encouragement and advice. He was living a secluded life in the Catskills, and says he was glad to have made ‘a brand new friend’. But the tone of her emails, which had always been flirty (Lasdun confesses he felt flattered by it), became more and more overtly sexual. He told her he was going on an overnight train journey and she offered to smuggle herself into his ‘roomette’. When he said he was taking a trip with his wife she sent him an email containing a story that, she claimed, a former member of the creative writing class called Elaine had sent her about an American woman who seduces an Arab man. Nasreen believed, or said she believed, that the story was a veiled account of a real affair between Elaine and Lasdun: ‘In effect Nasreen appeared to be reproaching me for rejecting her as a lover and accusing me of favouritism by having bestowed my attentions on another student.’ Nasreen must have written the story herself, but seemed convinced of the truth of her own fabrication.
The attention Lasdun gave her work, Nasreen assumed, had had a sexual subcurrent. To the Elaine email, Lasdun replied: ‘I like your writing and want to help, but I don’t want to be a figment in anyone’s private fantasies.’ Nasreen remained ‘curiously insistent’. Lasdun wrote again: ‘on the rare occasions when I like someone’s writing I tend to feel an affinity with them, an openness to friendship. Forgive me if this has read differently to you.’ Nasreen, in a lucid moment, replied: ‘I’m not used to having men lend me support, help or friendship without any sort of amorous or sexual intentions.’ Lasdun doesn’t say so, but his novel The Horned Man, about an English professor at a New York college who believes he is being framed for sex crimes against his students, may also have encouraged her to get hold of the wrong end of the stick: Lasdun was known to be fascinated by the sex and power dynamics of pupil-teacher relationships, and Nasreen had read the book ‘closely’. But her moments of lucidity became less frequent, and the Lasdun she imagined grew in deviousness and lechery. By April 2008 she was writing to the head of a college that had given him a temporary teaching post: ‘James Lasdun was not interested in my work but was trying to sleep with me.’ When he wrote a piece for the Guardian she posted the following comment: ‘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.’
‘Stalking is an old behaviour but a new crime,’ the American psychologist J. Reid Meloy wrote in The Psychology of Stalking. There’s nothing new about obsessive love, but celebrity culture has produced a new class of high-profile targets and normalised obsession with them, while technology has made victims more accessible. Nasreen’s campaign is so modern it almost doesn’t qualify as stalking. There’s no searching through bins in this story, no kidnapping or murder, no physical pursuit: she is a wholly digital menace. Lasdun has been attacked in the comments sections of any number of websites, as well as in the constant emails Nasreen sends him, and he describes the review she posted on Amazon of his novel Seven Lies as the beginning of a ‘new order of harm’. (She wrote, again with that mix of venom and eroticism: ‘I think he may have a penchant for sadism. His short story “The Siege” is disturbing in romanticising surveillance … It’s also racist in sexualising 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.’) But he has met Nasreen in person just once since the end of the MFA programme, and she has never intruded on his property. Nasreen is an internet-enabled armchair-stalker, and is therefore able to operate with impunity. She is based in California, Lasdun in New York, and the New York cops can’t extradite her for what, in the absence of explicit death threats, counts only as aggravated harassment – a misdemeanour, not a felony.
Her attacks have been coloured by political currents in the Middle East and buoyed by the mood of the Arab Spring. In her eyes Lasdun, as ‘an Anglo-American Jew, a family man, a published author, a middle-aged man in a position of power’, represents the affluent elite, while she’s the gumptious revolutionary set to take him and his kind down. Her emails express solidarity with the disenfranchised majority – ‘after you kill all of “us” what will you do?’ – and a desire to possess and redistribute his property. (The book’s title, taken from one of Nasreen’s emails, is strikingly similar to the message dropped through the letterboxes of Pepys Road in John Lanchester’s novel Capital – ‘We Want What You Have’.) Lasdun’s parents were Jews who converted to the C of E, and Nasreen’s communications quickly became virulently anti-semitic: ‘Do you have to be the stereotype of a Jew, James?’; ‘I think the holocaust was fucking funny and about as hilarious as the holocaust industry’; ‘Look, muslims are not like their Jewish counterparts, who quietly got gassed and then cashed in on it.’ She has often accused Lasdun of being involved in a Zog-like conspiracy to steal her ideas and sell them to other Jewish authors. He is not an observant Jew, nor is Nasreen a practising Muslim, and neither of them has family in Israel-Palestine, but it’s clear that in her mind the Arab-Israeli conflict dignifies her aggression, and that she sees herself as a political activist, not a criminal. A ‘lone jihadi’, as Lasdun puts it. No wonder he took shooting lessons.
Lasdun became ‘fixated’ by Nasreen’s anti-semitism. He says he wanted ‘to find the line where Nasreen’s attacks on me, personally, crossed from legitimate grievance … to deliberate, malicious smear’. This forbearance – most people would have seen Nasreen’s anti-semitism as a straightforward attempt to be as offensive as possible – seems to grow out of his bewilderment at the fact that both he and his father, the architect Denys Lasdun, received anti-semitic hate mail: how could two ‘unbelieving, not entirely kosher’ Jews from the same family provoke such an extreme reaction? For Lasdun, whose predicament brought out a superstitious side, the ‘curious recurrence’ became a ‘sign’ that he hoped would allow him to ‘penetrate the mystery’.
The toxic missive sent to Denys Lasdun in the late 1970s came in an envelope with a swastika scrawled on it. Inside were his designs for the new Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, which had been published in the Architectural Review, defaced with threats in knucklehead capitals (‘IF YOU DESIGN THIS YOU WILL DIE PREMATURE DEATH’) and punning insults (‘HOMOSEXUALS USE SINAGOG’). The reconstruction of the Hurva was a controversial issue. The original had been built by Polish Jews with Arab money in 1700, and was burned down by their creditors when they defaulted on their debt; the second Hurva was built by Lithuanian followers of the charismatic rabbi known as ‘the genius of Vilnius’ but destroyed by the Jordanian army during the 1948 war. Thirty years later, Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, asked Denys Lasdun to come up with designs for a third temple. Lasdun, who, though not religious, was ‘responsive to the “numinous”’, did so without knowing that the genius of Vilnius had prophesied that the completion of a third Hurva would herald the rebuilding of the Great Temple on the Mount: the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. When the third Hurva, rebuilt in a 19th-century style that Denys Lasdun would have despised, finally opened in 2010, Arab Knesset members predicted a third intifada and Hamas called for a ‘day of rage’: had Lasdun’s designs been used, his son speculates, he would have been complicit in a chain of events that might have triggered ‘a third world war’. There are a fair few conditionals in that sentence; Denys Lasdun’s involvement with the Hurva hardly justifies Nasreen’s assault, but it does seem to have made James Lasdun realise that Jewish identity isn’t something you can shake off by not being religious.
Lasdun took a trip to Israel at the end of 2010, just after the new Hurva opened. On a walk through old Jerusalem, he tells us, he quoted for his companion’s benefit Saul Bellow’s line that Israel had become ‘a moral resort area’, and assented to his friend’s criticism of the ‘oversimplifications’ of anti-Israel protests; he also remembered a story about an academic at Ben-Gurion University who was told by an editor that his article would be accepted only if he compared Israel to apartheid South Africa; and he bought a copy of The Penitent by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Lasdun found himself identifying with the novel’s protagonist, Joseph Shapiro, a ‘regular flawed and fallen human being’ like him until he bought a ticket to Israel and returned to the faith of his fathers. Lasdun summarises one of the key scenes in which Shapiro shares a few kisses and a grope with a woman he met on the plane, then cringes with self-loathing as a Hasid walks past him: ‘I realised … that without earlocks and a ritual garment one cannot be a real Jew … Had I worn such an outfit that night I wouldn’t have been exposed to those temptations.’ Lasdun didn’t return to the faith of his fathers, but he sounds at times as though he is inches away from doing so. As for the line between anti-semitism and legitimate grievance, this depends, he discovers, on where you start the story: ‘The army bulldozed the Palestinian’s home. But his son tried to blow up a supermarket. But it was a supermarket on land illegally occupied by settlers. But the land was part of ancient Judea. But the Jews have been absent from Judea for over two thousand years. But the Holocaust.’ Lasdun tells us that one of the reasons he wrote this book was to show what happens when ‘a writer of impeccable (by his own reckoning) liberal convictions … finds himself subjected to a firestorm of unrelenting anti-semitism’. What happens are stirrings of a cultural identity that could quite easily take the shine off his principles.
Jenny Turner has criticised Lasdun for not making enough of an effort to understand Nasreen’s condition: ‘“borderline personality” is mentioned, as are “chemical imbalances”, but Lasdun isn’t interested in a diagnosis, preferring to see her behaviour as motivated by “a malice that … simply is”.’ In fact, he makes more effort to empathise than most authors of stalker-lit. He begins the second part of the book by admitting that he ought to have been more alert to the effect his early encouragement had on her hopes for the future: ‘When you have as much at stake as these students do in these expensive, highly competitive programmes, you are not going to be unflustered by your teacher’s enthusiasm … the experience had transformed me from a teacher respected merely out of convention into a figure of heightened power, similarly implicated in her fate.’ He goes on to reproach himself for not having been sympathetic enough when she told him she had broken up with her fiancé: ‘What I didn’t consider, and no doubt should have … was that she might have been traumatised.’ Nasreen is treated more compassionately than the stalker in Kate Brennan’s memoir Stalked, for example, a ‘monster’ who plays a ‘sick game’ and is ‘too sick and too arrogant to be afraid’; or those in Polly Clarkson’s collection Stalkers, who are, variously, ‘monsters’, ‘lunatics’, ‘bullies’. The gradual disappearance from Lasdun’s book of attempts to diagnose Nasreen – he’s conscientious at first, but by the end she has become an entirely impersonal, disembodied blizzard – is essential to his story. Her physical invisibility combined with her ubiquitous online presence have destroyed his ability to empathise with her; again, his principles have been unseated. Lasdun’s stalker is unusual in that she is female – 90 per cent of stalking is by men of women – which may be one reason why Turner felt more explanation was required. Besides, Lasdun got a book out of Nasreen, while she remains alone, her novel unpublished, clearly very ill. She’s not exactly wrong about him recycling her writing either, at least in one sense: around a quarter of the words in Give Me Everything You Have are hers.
Lasdun takes pains to put distance between his book and the world of true crime writing. Give Me Everything You Have is not just a stalker memoir, it’s a book about Israel and a book about books. It’s full of literary allusions and digressions, of which the most substantial is a long gloss on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lasdun retells the tale, explains how the medieval atmosphere and camaraderie of his all boys prep school conditioned him to love it, and offers valuable insights into its meaning: Sir Bertilak’s practical joke leaves Gawain unable ‘to ignore the gap between his impossibly pure image of himself and the flawed reality’, and unready to re-enter society as ‘a man forgiven everything by everyone but himself, indeed assured that there is nothing to forgive’. But though the similarities between Gawain’s problems and Lasdun’s are made plain – both risk being made to look foolish, or iniquitous, in front of their peers, and both become adversaries of women ‘with powers verging on the occult’ – the correspondences d0n’t seem to justify the interruption of the Nasreen story. Is Nasreen the Green Knight, who challenges Gawain, or Sir Bertilak’s wife, who tries to seduce him, or Bertilak who finally humiliates him? And wouldn’t she see herself as Gawain, the courageous outsider standing up for justice in a world in which morality has turned into affectation? Books, Lasdun says, ‘seem to throw an uncanny light on my existence’, but in the case of Gawain the light is dim and flickering. It isn’t acts of violence that Lasdun is afraid of, it’s the damage Nasreen may do to his reputation – the Amazon review gave him a ‘sense of personal emergency’ by putting his reputation in ‘imminent and dire peril’. ‘You are what the web says you are, and if it misrepresents you the feeling of outrage, anguish, of having been violated in some elemental layer of your existence is … peculiarly crushing.’ His literary asides come across as damage limitation: a wish to make sure we still recognise him as a man of letters, rather than the fiend of Nasreen’s imagination, and certainly not the author of a grotty true-crime bo0k. As he himself implies at one point, his erudite detours complicate the picture without helping the reader to understand Nasreen, who bears ‘no more resemblance to Diana or Ceres or Proserpina (or for that matter Lady Lazarus or Emily Dickinson or the Three Witches) than I myself do to Actaeon or Sir Gawain or Joseph Shapiro.’
Most stalkers, according to Reid Meloy, suffer from what he calls a ‘narcissistic linking fantasy’: intense admiration becomes an imaginary relationship, their life and that of their obsession irrevocably intertwined. Because they’re already ‘together’, they are ‘extraordinarily sensitive to rejection and the feelings of shame or humiliation that accompany it’. This certainly seems to be true of Nasreen, who has been rejected twice over: by Lasdun, sexually, and by the literary world to which he seemed to offer the key. But the book doesn’t disabuse her of the narcissistic fantasy, quite the opposite. To future publishers, editors, pupils, Lasdun will always be the guy that got stalked and she will always be his stalker. Stalking cases usually end in conclusive rejection: a restraining order, or some other legally backed reminder to the stalker of their victim’s autonomy. But in Lasdun’s case the outcome is a book that, for all his fears of being ‘tainted’, and he uses the word often, binds him to Nasreen for ever. If he hasn’t said he’s in love with her, he’s at least made it impossible for himself to live without her. The woman who has loved him so painfully may take this as a small consolation.