Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The day I met Harry, he was drunk and desperate. We were in a bar with a group of work colleagues, and he was ranting about how a woman had mistreated him. There was something about fumbled sex on a beach, and a long train ride, and a wound to the heart. His tone was dramatic, misogynistic, and self-pitying. I thought he was the most obnoxious man I had ever met.
It turned out that he was also one of the funniest, brightest, and most politically astute. After I helped get him into Alcoholics Anonymous and he got sober, he came to say that I was the only woman he trusted — which I foolishly accepted as a compliment. We were lovers for seven years.
After a few of those years, I grew to know Harry pretty well: I knew his moods, his needs, his compulsions, and his careful pleasures. I rarely saw any joy in him, however, except once, when we were in New Orleans, watching a Mardi Gras parade. Throngs of cheering people in costume surged around us, shouting to revelers on floats to throw them coins, candy, and loops of colored beads. A pirate on a passing float dug deep into a sack, then tossed out a flock of plastic necklaces, blue and green and orange against the sky. When Harry leapt to grab one from the air, his face was open and laughing. It was the only time I ever saw him look completely happy.
To say, “I am being stalked,” sounds self-aggrandizing. And it’s not exactly correct, either. The fact is that Harry, now my ex-boyfriend, is harassing me via e-mail and the Internet. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to subvert the goodwill of my friends, to find out information about my life, to lie about and threaten me.
If I sound paranoid, it’s because I am. Harry’s online harassment has made me fear many messages that were harmless and has cut me off from friends and correspondents. For some people, hateful electronic messages would be a minor inconvenience, but as a freelance journalist I use e-mail every day. Since I moved to New Zealand, online connections have become even more important.
Harry sends coded messages that only I can understand. For example, he sends cryptic e-mails about shoes because, the last time I saw him in person (other than in a courtroom), he was kneeling on top of me and pounding my face with his shoe. He damaged my teeth and left bruises on my face and arms. I did not hit back or defend myself (but in the nightmares that came later, it was I who was beating him, and it was every bit as terrible).
On that last, dreadful night, Harry and I were arguing because I had asked him to leave our home. His violence marked the end of our strained but compelling relationship. In the previous year, we had gotten engaged, but I had returned his ring because I had fallen in love with a woman. Although I wasn’t calling myself a lesbian yet, I realized that it would be wrong for me to marry any man, even Harry.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the warning signs of violence. Before that last night — when he appeared to go out of his mind — he’d been slightly abusive a few times. During a fight, he’d thumped me over the head with a hard cushion. He’d blown up once and roared at me at the top of his voice. He’d thrown things (not at me), broken phones, and frightened our cats. Each time I’d let him know that his behavior was unacceptable. After each outburst he’d seemed humble and contrite, and I’d stayed with him, sure that he would never hurt me physically.
I stayed for bad reasons: I was afraid of being alone. I was afraid of hurting him (as if it didn’t hurt him to stay when I was no longer in love). And I stayed because of his appreciation of me. Although he was a bizarre person, I liked his eccentricity, his independence, his powerful mind. As a recovering alcoholic, he spoke sometimes of noble intentions or spiritual beliefs that sounded uplifting and hopeful. Later, when he’d more or less stopped going to twelve-step meetings, his anger toward other people — often strangers — became more common.
Self-obsessed, arrogant, and articulate, Harry was stimulating to be around, a match for my own substantial ego, and I felt special because he seemed to love me, whereas he despised so many other people. The world of an eccentric can be a cozy place; I was honored that he shared his deepest thoughts with me, even if they were slightly deranged. And I was never on the receiving end of his vitriolic wit. Although in the last several years of our relationship I wanted to end it, I stayed because of his need for me. At night, if I moved from his embrace, he’d whimper, “Don’t leave me!”
The night he beat me, he used his fists and then a black leather dress shoe. I later learned that, on the anniversary of the night we broke up, Harry hosted a party during which he nailed the shoe to a doorway and walked into it, pretending to be hurt.
In a recent e-mail, Harry sent me a link to an Internet site selling black-and-white shoes, which he labeled “ass-ault and pepper shoes.” It took me a while to get the pun: “Salt and pepper” because the shoes were black-and-white. “Ass-ault” because he assaulted me with a shoe, and because his preferred insult for me was “fat ass.” His messages are reminders of a painful time when my closest friend turned against me.
I’d always held that the first instance of physical abuse should mean the end of a relationship. But despite the fact that I pressed charges for domestic violence and had a restraining order against Harry, I wanted to talk to him. I saw the restraining order, which was required by the state, as a formality, a legal necessity. I wanted us to make up for our terrible fight and eventually be friends again. We’d been close before we were partners, and he knew me better than anyone else. I didn’t want romantic reconciliation; I just missed our conversations.
Instead of insisting on a full trial, I agreed to let him plea-bargain because I did not want to testify against him. He pled guilty to aggravated assault in exchange for a lenient sentence.
Some six months after we broke up, my mother had to have a serious operation. I was going to stay with her for a few days and couldn’t find anyone to take care of my cats — the cats that Harry and I had adopted and cared for together. In desperation, I called Harry and left a message. When he didn’t respond, I finally realized that he was gone, and that I could not rely on him ever again.
His coldness and distance were more shocking, in some ways, than his violence had been. I’d known that Harry had a mean streak. He had alienated a number of his former friends by playing “jokes” that took advantage of their weaknesses, by setting up false identities to communicate with them, by telling cruel stories behind their backs. He plotted and carried out complicated vendettas. Many of his former friends wouldn’t speak to him. I’d been witness to some of his pranks, usually done through the mail, and I’d told him, over and over, “People have feelings.” He never had any comeback for that; he’d just stare at me.
Not long after the trial, I moved to another state. About a year later, Harry found my new phone number and called me repeatedly, leaving desperate, straining-to-be-funny messages. One day he said with sad exasperation, “I just want to talk to you!” and I relented. We spoke for eight hours. I hung up on him once, but he called right back. We argued, laughed, and reminisced. He apologized, and we argued some more. Although I enjoyed talking with him, at the end of it I was exhausted. “Don’t call me,” I said. We had no further contact for several years.
In the late 1990s, Harry e-mailed to say that he’d had some sort of psychic vision about me, and we corresponded for several months. He told me he had found a new spiritual path and was perceiving all the world as benign and joyous. I suggested that he might then be ready to repay the $350 he had owed me since our breakup. He offered to give the funds to a battered-women’s shelter, which was fine with me, but to my knowledge he never did so.
We talked about our past relationship and our present lives. He asked for my address so he could write me a letter, and I sent it, but he didn’t write. We talked about meeting for coffee when I traveled for business to Las Vegas, where he lived, but we never did. I admitted that he was one of the most intelligent people I had ever known and that I missed talking to him. He reminded me that at one time we had “loved each other intensely.” To our amusement, we discussed writing a book together, a novel based on our disastrous relationship; we even began outlining chapters. The idea tapered off, though, as did the e-mails.
Before I moved to New Zealand in 2001, I was grocery shopping and heard Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” over the store’s loudspeaker. The song, a nostalgic ode to lost love, had come out during a time in our relationship when I was living in France, and Harry in Florida. Separately, without telling each other, we had both bought the album and related the song to our separation.
That day, standing in the pet-food aisle and singing along — loud enough for other people to hear! — I decided to send Harry one last message. Wanting, I suppose, some resolution with him, I sent an e-mail telling him about my move to New Zealand and saying goodbye.
In response I received a conceited tirade. Harry had apparently abandoned his spiritual tack and resumed the path of self-promotion. He trumpeted his latest achievements, both professional and amorous, and belittled me, insisting that I was a failure.
My friendly feeling toward him — which, admittedly, had emerged only as I was leaving the country — evaporated. I slammed him back. We exchanged increasingly unkind missives until I decided I was done. Thinking I was ending our relationship forever, I told him I did not want to hear from him again. Though he continued to e-mail me, I let him know that I would no longer respond. “You win,” I wrote. “You can have the last, hateful word.”
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, before the infamous events of that day, I got another e-mail from Harry: a hysterical diatribe against the two Bush administrations, past and present. Apparently he’d sent it to everyone on his address list, but still I was stunned that he would e-mail me after our exchange. I sent him a two-line reminder that I wanted no contact.
In retrospect, I see that doing so set up the opportunity for another power struggle. If I did not want to hear from him, he would make sure that I did.
I ignored all future e-mails, including a vitriolic one that attacked me and my family members — none of whom Harry had met more than briefly. That long message was so creepy, hateful, and distorted that I could not read it in full. Amazingly, he ended by saying that I should be grateful he would talk to me!
Next he sent a long account of how he had attacked and maimed a would-be burglar, and he drew parallels to my “intrusion” on his life when I broke up with him. It was threatening without saying directly that he intended to do violence to me. I felt as if I no longer knew this person who was bragging to me about having crushed an unarmed man’s skull with a hammer. Harry claimed to have chased this man and hit him while he was trying to escape — which, in a way, was the same thing he was doing to me.
I was tempted to write again to insist that he not contact me, but friends counseled me to ignore him completely.
And so began the hardest battle of wills in which we had ever engaged, a struggle that hurt more than all of the fighting — “fair” and otherwise — that we had done in seven years together.
Harry knew how to get to me emotionally. Though I can’t prove it, I am sure that he lurked in a women’s Internet list-serve to which I belonged. I got an e-card from a name that I did not recognize, sent to an address that I used only for that list. I opened it to find a hateful message, including my name and an insult about my being “fat,” but the strangers on the list-serve had no way of knowing my real name or that I was overweight. A few months after I got the card, I became embroiled in a strange discussion with a woman on the list-serve. She seemed willfully to misunderstand everything I said, yet she prolonged our contact and kept asking questions. It was only when she mentioned her “friend” Harry that I understood.
Though I stopped all contact with that group, Harry continued to harass me by e-mail. He attacked my vulnerable points, real or imagined. He sent me accounts of gatherings at which friends or business acquaintances had, he claimed, gossiped and laughed about me. Some e-mails came from unfamiliar addresses, but had an all-too-familiar sneering, snide tone: the sound of one person’s illness and anguish, of a man baring his teeth.
Remembering that Harry had been molested as a child by his father, I felt pity as well as anger and fear. When we’d been together, Harry would have terrible nightmares. He often woke with an ungodly scream, his face twisted and distorted.
I asked a mutual friend, the only one with whom I was still in touch, to find out how Harry had gotten my new e-mail address. Harry lied to her, saying I had given it to him the previous fall — but I hadn’t even had the address then. Regretfully, I gave up contact with the friend, believing that Harry was using her to glean information about me.
I joined another Internet list-serve, a hip, lively forum for women writers. I participated in the discussions daily, developing friendships and professional contacts. Many people from the list-serve wrote to me privately. That group was my support network in my new country, and I enjoyed it for nine months.
Then, on my birthday, a “new member” posted a long message to the group, supposedly requesting advice on an essay. The “essay” was Harry’s account of our breakup, and referred to an “overweight” and “insane” woman whose name was a variant of my own. The “new member” posted under the name of a woman Harry and I knew, except it was misspelled, and the message contained ideas that Harry had nursed and repeated over the years. Although such things are virtually impossible to prove, I felt certain it was Harry lurking under the assumed name. His post received almost no response from other members, and the list-serve moderator was sympathetic to my concerns, but still I decided to leave the group. Knowing that Harry might be reading my posts and writing some of his own took away all the pleasure and even made me afraid to participate.
© Toby Maloy
By that time, I had become paranoid about all Internet activity, including my hundred or more e-mails each week. I examined all incoming addresses, weeding out any that I did not recognize, but some still got through because Harry would disguise them. In an e-mail designed to look like eBay auction results, the anonymous sender revealed that he had my street address and knew that I had recently been in a wheelchair due to a broken leg. My Internet service provider said it was likely that my ex had purchased special hacking software and gained access to all the e-mail in one of my accounts.
E-mails from Harry’s address, which I was saving for evidence in case I ever went to court, evaporated from my inbox. Twice in two years, all the e-mails in my account were wiped off the server. My Internet service provider was of little help, though I learned some appalling things about electronic security and hacking.
Off-line, the effects were equally distressing. Frequently I couldn’t sleep. Many nights I woke up from nightmares and was unable to calm down for hours. The stress and sleep deprivation affected my work and my health. I approached the task of opening e-mail with fear. No matter how often I changed my e-mail address or how private I kept it, Harry would find it out and send another message detailing what a “failure” I was and why.
I thought there might be some lesson I needed to learn from this ordeal. For a time I entertained the idea that the lesson was that there was no lesson, that not everything had meaning, that maybe it was just a rotten experience, and I needed to get over it. I also considered that the purpose might be to humble me, to make me more kind, more aware of how people can hurt each other. I seemed to have more sympathy for other people when I was most wretched myself, because I realized they might have similar awful secrets tormenting them.
Another blessing was how close I felt to my partner when I was confiding my fears about Harry. She would wrap me in her arms, murmur encouragements, and make vague threats about what he had coming. I felt protected by her, if only for the moment.
Legal protection was trickier to come by. Though I wasn’t sure that what Harry was doing qualified as stalking, I looked into getting an antistalking order. The problem was that to get one, I had to be in the state where the stalker lived, in order to arrange a hearing. There are virtually no international anti-stalking organizations.
Instead, I had a lawyer send Harry a letter threatening legal action if he contacted me again. I assume that Harry read it, because communications slowed and became harder to trace to him. He no longer used his own name or e-mail address when writing to me.
For a while I thought he was a monster, a psychopath. Why would anyone spend so much time and energy trying to hurt someone else? But a Buddhist friend counseled compassion for Harry. She suggested that I should be grateful to my enemy, because of the effort it took to treat him with kindness. It is easy to love our friends, she said, but when people treat us badly, we have to stretch to love them.
And I stretched. I stretched back to a time when I’d loved this man and forward to a time when I could imagine feeling something besides fear and disgust toward him.
My Buddhist friend said that everything everyone does — even beating someone up or threatening to do so again — is an attempt to find happiness. My father told me that the more wrong we do to someone, the more we will hate that person. I could imagine that Harry was in a vicious cycle of treating me badly in an attempt to make himself feel better, and then hating me more.
Looking for more advice, I called a friend, but instead I got her husband, a Christian counselor who stands on the opposite side of most political issues from me. He suggested that I ignore Harry’s e-mails, that my fear did not have to dictate my actions, and that Harry’s hatred could not hurt me. Also, he said, since words on a screen were nothing to fear, and I was already protected from harm, it must be my own thoughts that caused my distress. It did seem true that my fear was the worst thing I had to bear. That insight — along with my Buddhist friend’s advice about practicing compassion — was the beginning of the answer.
I began to accept that Harry’s attacks stemmed from his own unhappiness. Further, it occurred to me that if Harry’s suffering were diminished, maybe he’d leave me alone. Through gritted teeth, I petitioned God to help Harry achieve peace and happiness. And I began to feel more compassion for him, though I was still anxious.
And then came the crisis. Not a crisis caused by Harry, but a crisis created by my own fear.
Last fall I led some workshops at an artists’ retreat in the U.S., and I had nightmares about Harry showing up. Before the event, I got to know some of the participants by e-mail. With most of them I made friendly connections, but one person alarmed me. Her street address was in the same neighborhood as Harry’s, and they moved in similar social circles. Worst of all, she wrote about the unfair persecution of men who are accused of assaulting women and the preferential treatment given to women who falsely claim to have been assaulted. It sounded like one of Harry’s tirades. Could she be a friend of his, sent to the retreat in order to attack and belittle me in public?
When the woman identified herself at the retreat, I discovered she was more than six feet tall, with black spiky hair and chain jewelry. She seemed too young to have thought up the complex, misogynistic arguments in her writing. My fear grew.
Reluctantly, I shared my worries with a small group of people at the retreat, keeping the story down to a few breathless sentences. To my relief, they responded with kindness and offers of protection. One woman offered me a type of bodywork that I had never experienced, which, she explained, could address mental, emotional, and physical problems: I just had to ask for the healing I wanted.
I said, “I would like to have this fear removed. I would like to be free of the fear of my ex.” I didn’t ask her to make the e-mails stop coming, as I had begged God to do. I asked her to fix the problem in me. She assured me I could release the fears, with her help. She and I found a quiet garden, where I lay down, and she began touching my feet.
Afterward I felt airy and warm, confident that I could gracefully handle anything that happened. A few hours later, going in to teach a workshop, I saw the woman I feared sitting in the front row. I considered rearranging the seating so that she’d be out of my line of sight. Instead I decided to act as if I were not afraid, to go on with my workshop as if everyone in the room wished me well.
To my surprise, she did not hinder or interrupt. Instead she approached me during a break, nervous but composed, and asked why I’d withdrawn from communications before the retreat. She wanted to explain her situation. “I have been living in hell,” she said. As I looked into her eyes, I knew that she was sincere, and I felt great regret that I had misjudged her.
We traded stories. Her long-term boyfriend had been falsely accused of rape. His license to practice law had been revoked, and they were losing their farm in a court case. She had been harassed by a journalist, and, like me, she had feared that her harasser might show up at the retreat.
When I related my own drama and how I had thought she was a part of it, she was shocked. I offered advice with her writing, and she told me about a book that had helped her handle fear. Seeing my own fear reflected in her, I felt less alone. And I was.
Now it is nearly two years since the last time I definitely heard from Harry. Although I’d like to believe that love and my efforts toward developing compassion have conquered my fear, that’s not consistently true. I still worry. Maybe this experience has helped me overcome some fearful tendencies, but I’d be just as happy not to have had it, thanks.
These days, I usually approach my e-mail without trepidation, although I still screen it. I recently visited friends who live near Harry, and I didn’t once look over my shoulder. I don’t have nightmares very often. In fact, on the few occasions when I dream of my ex, he appears benign. Often in my dreams I see Harry as he used to be, his facial expression soft and his eyes full of curiosity. In my dreams, he is walking through the garden where the woman performed her healing on me, and it’s clear why he’s trying to find me: he just wants to talk.