Hello, friends. Here is a photo of a calming manatee and a wee child. Here are baby bunnies sleeping. Here is a female film director holding her Oscars. This is Bates from Downton Abbey wearing a flannel shirt and holding a baby. This is two female Navy officers kissing and telling. This and this are network TV shows with complicated, three-dimensional protagonists played by brilliant black actors.
Find some image that makes you feel okay and hopeful about the world, because we’re talking about stalking again.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I started seeing my current boyfriend in fall semester of this year, although the fact that we had both had bad experiences with long-term relationships led to us taking our relationship slowly and not becoming “official” until the beginning of spring semester. His ex-girlfriend was abroad when we first started dating and came back for spring semester. Through a friend she shared with my boyfriend, she discovered our relationship and has been harassing me ever since. At first it just involved her blocking me from an on-campus organization I wished to join, which, while unpleasant, is hardly unheard of. However, it quickly escalated to her actively damaging my reputation, verbally abusing my friends, physically knocking into me when we happened to cross paths, and even pouring a drink on me at a party we both happened to attend.
While doing this, she was also sending messages to my boyfriend trying to resume their relationship. When he would respond by telling her he would not speak to her until she apologized to me, she denied knowing who I was. Now it’s six months later and, despite the fact that my boyfriend and I have blocked her on every available venue, she continues to harass us through insisting our mutual friends cut us off and insulting/verbally attacking me to my roommate (who is a member of her organization). I’ve reported each event to the leaders of her organization and considered doing the same to my school, but the lack of proof (she’s never directly messaged me, I was alone when she spilled the drink on me and during the physical altercations) means that they can’t bring her up on any solid disciplinary action. It got to the point last semester where I would avoid leaving my dorm unless I was sure she wasn’t on campus or unless I had my boyfriend or a close friend with me. However, this upcoming semester my boyfriend is going abroad himself and all of my close friends are doing the same or have graduated. I had hoped that her animosity would blow over by the time this became an issue, but it is still ongoing and I’m beginning to dread next semester. I looked at transferring last semester but it was too late to submit applications. I know this might not sound like such a big deal, but it’s extremely detrimental to my emotional and mental well-being. Is there any advice you can give me on how to get through this situation?
Thank you so much,
Dear In Hiding:
She is not only harassing you, she is gaslighting you by deliberately doing things when no one was around or claiming that you’re making it up.
Gaslighting is fucking insidious and hard to combat.
Good job reporting her behavior to her student organization. You say you considered reporting her to the school but worry that there is no concrete proof. I say, consider gathering as much documentation as you can (eyewitness accounts from friends, printouts/screencaps of messages she sent your boyfriend) and take the whole problem to the school’s counseling center. You need to go there anyway to manage the stress that this is causing you. Tell the counselor that part of the stress is the way she denies the behavior or deliberately does it when no one is looking. Tell the counselor you are terrified and considering leaving school over this. Ask the counselor to support you in approaching campus safety, Dean of Students, etc. Stalking & harassment are a dirty secret on many campuses – the schools don’t like to publicize it, or else you might stop taking out giant student loans to pay your very expensive tuition – but it sure as fuck happens and they will very likely have policies and ways to enforce those polices. Even in a she said/she said situation where she claims you are making everything up, they will take steps to separate you and instruct you not to contact each other for any reason. Document every conversation you have with the school. Write down names and job titles and make a record of what promises they made when.
Script: “Ever since she found out I was dating her ex-boyfriend, she has been acting out in a number of small ways that are hard to prove or pinpoint, but combine to make me very unsafe. She has physically invaded my space and assaulted me more than once – pouring a drink on me, deliberately knocking into me – but she is always careful to do it when no one is around in a way that is plausibly deniable. This is not a normal way to handle a breakup and an ex moving on and makes me fear what else she may be capable of. I am frightened of her and it is affecting my ability to complete my degree and participate in the life of this school. It’s okay with me if you think I am overreacting as long as you help me put an end to this hostile behavior and create a safe learning environment. What can you do to help ensure that I can safely focus on my studies?“
Gaslighting cannot survive an audience for very long. It thrives on shame, secrecy, and you second-guessing yourself – “Did that really just happen?” – and messes with your sense of reality. She wins when you start feeling like you don’t even deserve to bring in the authorities because they probably won’t believe you anyway.
Let’s take this beyond campus administrators, policies, and informal solutions. They might not help you. They may have relationships with her that make it hard for them to think her capable of this kind of thing.They might pressure you to keep things quiet and not make waves – “Let’s try to handle this internally with a minimum of fuss, shall we?” They may try to handle everything verbally and coerce you to not file a formal complaint (that might taint the other student’s record or be something they have to report in campus safety statistics, for example), in which case you say “I’m definitely interested in the solution with the tedious paperwork and maximum accountability. Let’s get this all in writing.” It’s worth pursuing help from them just to see what’s out there, and you will probably be pleasantly surprised by what they do. But this is why you write down their names and what they told you: “Hello, Kind Journalist Doing A Report on Worst Campuses For Harassment! Hello, Attorney! On date, Firstname Lastname, Job Title of Very Important Things told me quote I should just try to be less sensitive and that it was not his job to intervene in petty girlfights endquote. He refused to let me move into more secure campus housing and discouraged me from calling the cops to report her numerous assaults. He is partly to blame for creating a hostile learning environment.“
That’s right, ASSAULTS. You have to realize that knocking into you & pouring a drink on you is assault. She has assaulted you repeatedly. You do not have to just take it.If she comes too close to you, threatens you (after a history of assault, coming too close IS a threat), or touches you, you get to treat it like the assault that it is. Scream for help. Ask bystanders to call the cops. If she throws a drink on you, stay wet until after you’ve called the cops. Make a big giant scene. Dial 911. Not campus security – you want THE COPS. If campus security comes, insist that you also want the real police and to fill out a formal police report. If they stonewall you, add the security officer to your List of
Future Defendants Unhelpful People Who Chose Not To Help You.
You don’t have to scream or be “powerful” or react in any correct way to be in the right and deserve to be free of this bullshit. I don’t want to give you more pressure that you have to be some idealized woman warrior. Screaming at someone and making a spectacle doesn’t come easily to we laid-back, well-behaved people. To do it means overcoming a ton of socialization, fear, and shame in a crisis situation where you’re not your best and have to think on your feet. The tendency is to freeze like a deer in headlights. But if you want, the skill can be learned. Self-defense classes can help you with this. Role-playing with friends can help you with this. Your therapist or school counselor can help you do this. The way little kids have “stranger danger” drills, practice what you’ll do before you need to do it. What I want to give you is not pressure but permission. You CAN scream at her if you want. You are allowed to be really angry and ask for help. Your rich and brilliant imagination is currently absorbed with ways it could go wrong. You are allowed to start turning it towards things that could go right.
For example, a friend of mine lives in fear of a violent ex showing up at events where she will be. She has talked through scenarios with trusted friends, and I believe there is a plan where if he comes anywhere near her all of us will surround her facing outward like Roman soldiers and shout “YOU RAPED MY FRIEND! YOU RAPED MY FRIEND! YOU ARE A RAPIST! GO AWAY GO AWAY!” at the top of our lungs. We will then march him backwards out the nearest exit while one of us spirits her to a safe location. Be it a symphony, a graduation, a wedding, or a funeral. Be it a moment of silent prayer led by the Dalai Lama on national TV at UN headquarters. Be it in the first class cabin of the Concorde or the grand ballroom of the QE2 while QE2 is in that ballroom. Be it during the National Spelling Bee while some kid is in the middle of trying to spell “guetapens.” I could be on stage accepting an Academy Award and if that dude comes into the auditorium I will have to tell the audience “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now. I have to go kick the ass of the guy who raped my friend. Does anyone have an iPhone? :All five nominated cinematographers raise their hands: Ellen, you’re so nice. Meet me after and we’ll throw something up on the YouTube.“ We do not give one single fuck. We will not be embarrassed. She is our friend and he is a filthy rapist who has been told not to come near her.
I believe that fantasizing about this scenario has helped her go from dreading him showing up to dreading him showing up but secretly giggling at the prospect of seeing him flee before the Friend Phalanx when we chase him with the giant scissors we stole from the ribbon-cutting at the new office park or snatch the passing Olympic torch out of the runner’s hand and use it to set him on fire.
Back to your problem. Yes, if you make a scene you risk looking like the crazy one who started it all, and she will claim she did nothing and that it’s all in your head. This is a common move for stalkers. But she’s kind of doing that anyway no matter what you do. Right now there are no consequences to her. She is counting on you to just take it. Start making there be consequences. Start the paper trail.
If bystanders see you screaming and her being quiet they might in fact think you are the instigator. Compose yourself. Say “I know it looks like I am the one out of line, but she has been stalking and harassing me, and she came too close to my personal space for me to feel safe. I am frightened of her. Please stay with me until help comes.”
She is counting on some stuff from you and your boyfriend. She is counting on you to tell your boyfriend, and for your boyfriend to respond with stuff like “I am not going to talk to you until you apologize.” Negative attention is still attention. She is also counting on ruining your next romantic evening because instead of having wild sex and making your grandmother’s 87-step lasagna recipe for each other you’re having another bitch/strategy session on how to deal with her. You need your boyfriend on your side 100%, and that means he does not interact with her at all ever again for any reason. I’m sure he feels guilty, powerless, and responsible for what’s happening to you and the temptation to act like a big damn hero will be strong. Big damn heroes in this case keep their cool and bide their time.
You said “she continues to harass us through insisting our mutual friends cut us off and insulting/verbally attacking me to my roommate (who is a member of her organization).” Here’s the good news: You don’t have any mutual friends anymore. Here’s the bad news: You don’t have any mutual friends anymore. Any people you know in common are split into Safe People and Unsafe People aka, people you don’t care to know anymore. They don’t necessarily have to be informed of this split in some kind of ceremony – it can be a secret designation.
Safe People: Don’t have to necessarily “cut her off,” especially if they work in the same organization, but they do have to answer her threats, insults, and smear campaigns with “Wow, obsessed much? You don’t have to like LW, but have you listened to yourself lately?” and changing the subject. Safe people will believe you if you say “She makes me feel unsafe and I have to leave this party right now, will you walk me home?” They will not pressure you to “just work something out” so they don’t have to feel shitty about being acquainted with a stalker.
Unsafe People: Are close to her. Will pass every slight and insult she says onto you and watch for your reaction because they like drama and gossip. Will tell you you are overreacting. Will badger you to “just lighten up” and try to push you to make peace – not for YOUR safety or comfort, but for their own. Will treat “conflict” or “drama” as some kind of generalized problem that’s in the ether and not something that she’s deliberately causing. If they see something shady go down, they will try to talk you (and themselves) into deciding that it wasn’t that bad.
She’s a clever one, but no one is so clever that they can hide their true colors from everyone all the time, and the way she is fixated on you and this guy HAS to be bleeding into some other aspects of her life. From the Safe People, little by little, your Future Friend Phalanx will be formed.
I have one more kind of crazy suggestion. Feel free to disregard it – it is truly ridiculous and unfair and you shouldn’t have to do it, but somewhere back there when I was writing about unlikely Friend Phalanx it jumped into my head. What would happen if you and your boyfriend fake-broke up for a little while he studies abroad? Hide/change Facebook relationship statuses, put it out that you’re “taking a break” while he goes abroad but still remaining close friends, etc.?
The reason I suggest this is that she is currently suffering from the fallacy that it’s your fault they’re not together anymore. If she thought he was free, she might turn the energy she spends on you (local, on campus, accessible) to him (in another country, far away, inaccessible). “I can’t, I have a girlfriend” becomes “I don’t want to, I don’t love you.” What do you think, you guys? Maybe explore it as a fantasy scenario with a counselor and see?
The good news is that with him out of the country and inaccessible, the whole thing might become less real to her and she might back off of her own accord.
Most of all, I want to say to you:
- This isn’t your fault.
- You have nothing to be ashamed of. You deserve to pursue your education free of harassment.
- You don’t have to be stoic and handle this alone. Seek every possible resource and support system. Two good mantras to keep in mind if you get disbelief or reluctance to intervene from people: 1)”I’d rather seek help and find out I don’t need it than need help and not get it because I was afraid of feeling or looking stupid.” 2) “I know you are having a hard time believing me, but say for a second you did believe me. What would you do or advise me to do about this if you believed me?“
- You’re the best expert on your own safety – go with your gut. If you feel danger, believe the danger.
- Read The Gift of Fear if you haven’t already.
- Seek out and obtain: Counseling, self-defense training, excellent self-care and stress-relief.
- If mutual friends, even potentially Safe People, balk at “drama” because they don’t want to believe anyone really acts like this, stand your ground. “I know how it sounds, but she is making me feel unsafe. That’s not us having ‘drama,’ that’s her trying to ruin my life because she’s jealous. I know it sounds like some soap opera, but it is real and I am scared. Please don’t downplay that.”
- Be really nice to yourself.
Fortunately the commenters here are the best people on the Internet. Someone is going to have a relevant experience and more fully baked solutions.
Much love to you.