As a psychiatrist I have had my share of experiences with stalkers. Recently I had a reminder of my own experiences with this awful process, that is not really germane here and now. I have had several persons haunt my house, scare members of my family by looming outside dark windows on rainy nights, paint weird threats on one or another of my little “station cars,” my jalopies that just get me to the hospital and back and which none of my children would ever ride in…
But I too had a long experience with a determined stalker. I am not sure when stalkers made it into the national media and our shared national conscious awareness but for me it was when one of the prominent young comedienne stars of the popular late 1980’s tv sitcom My Sister Sam, Rebecca Schaeffer, was stalked, shot and killed by her assailant and lunatic ‘admirer’ as stalkers were euphemistically termed in those rather innocent days, Robert Bardo. Ms. Schaeffer was at that time a very affectionately regarded young comedy starlet, only 21 years old and likely had a potentially promising career ahead of her. Old clips of the show, reminded me of tv when it had a much more open, fresh and enjoyable ring to the humor which may well be in shorter supply these days.
Miss Schaeffer was actually shot to death literally on the doorstep of her own home/apartment in Los Angeles on July 19, 1989, by this fanatically obsessed fan Robert Bardo. He showed many of the horrifying and frightening characteristics of the modern day stalker, who actually lived some distance from Miss Schaeffer, in Arizona! He had written her apparently crackpot letters “out of nowhere” as the saying goes and of course these were not taken seriously or responded to. A New York Post article, “The celebrity murder that changed how stalkers are treated.”. affords us a peek back in time as it documented this then senseless event. The article was written over a year after the murder, and documented how a new form of legislation arose out this tragedy, also a phenomenon that was to become sadly almost a standard reaction to terrifying events that seemed beyond our control. Amber Alerts, James Walsh’s tv show highlighting finding missing children, children’s faces on milk cartons, all of which became commonplace and part of our everyday emotional landscape.
The incident also shocked us into realizing we had to take these goofy, weird letters seriously and not dismiss them as random, rare events that did not represent anything sinister or of danger to anyone. We all had to start realizing that we had no choice about whether bizarre goofballs could enter into our lives. We had to start taking their existence “out there somewhere,” seriously by locking our car and house doors, not being careless or alone habitually at night or oblivious to the anonymous danger that was beginning to grow in the modern, urban, impersonal world. We had to pay attention to those bizarre, intense letters from total strangers who always profess incomprehensible affection toward the stunned and puzzled recipient of these kinds of often psychotic communiques. I remember a case shortly after my training years in psychiatry at Duke. A rejected loner strange, marginal young man with no social skills and a totally unfounded conviction that the head cheerleader of the high school where my oldest daughter attended was his one true love. He approached her one day after she was getting into her little car in the seniors’ parking lot and blurted out his love for her. She unwittingly brushed him off, did not requite his love somehow and he took out his secreted big pistol from home and shot her to death in front of dozens of then instantly traumatized students. He drove his truck around for three days hiding in abandoned garages, leaving the city in a state of panic until he was chased down by the police. He of course, in spite of his mental condition, got life in prison and that was that. As an aside his case was hotly debated, illustrating that we, us shrinks and expert pontificators, still do not exactly know where to place these kinds of bizarrely obsessed offenders, whether they are truly psychotic and therefore under some states’ laws, NOT responsible for their heinous acts, or not.
But nowadays with our deeper awareness that these persons and phenomena exist, we have to treat and regard them differently. We actually owe much of our present day knowledge about such persons to the Secret Service who truly made a science of monitoring and evaluating these kinds puzzling letters and threats, because of their mission to protect the Presidents.
Our nation was truly shocked by the murder of Miss Schaeffer, as it was new on the national scene though the jaded in us all, now very likely would realize that this kind of tragedy had already occurred many times, in many locales previously but we just did not recognize that reality back then as those events seemed isolated in those days, and were not seen as a dangerous and growing social trend.
Miss Schaeffer’s murderer-stalker tracked her down some 25 years ago after the letters he wrote to her at the filming studio where she worked were not reciprocated. This unknown slight, apparently was enough to trigger this man’s murderous intent, resulting in her death as he took the trouble to use 25 year old technology to track her down to her home and kill her. Nowadays we can all collectively shudder since we now live in the age of Google Maps, and the loss of privacy. Any of us now could be much more vulnerable and open to a random attack of unforeseen life threatening dimensions.
My stalker was unknown to me for over a year. It all started…., as cheap novels start any cheesy story, when I had had to take psychiatric legal action against a deranged man who was bent on murdering, it seemed to me at the time in my “clinical judgment,” his ex wife and force him to be hospitalized. She was in hiding from him as he had been assaultive, physically abusive and truly terrorizing to her for some years. When he left her, that separation-rejection, as is so often the case, causes in those unimaginably entrapping situations, sets off the murderous rage. This man apparently cruised their home town-city for days and nights on end to find her. A few times he spotted her car at friends’ homes where she was seeking refuge to hide from him. He openly voiced his threats to kill her to their past mutual married friends terrorizing them too with the open implication that if they helped her, they could suffer the same fate as she. After two legal-psychiatric interventions, the law enforcement community swung into action once the authorities truly had enough tangible proof and evidence, and confirmatory witness statements of his threats, and he was taken out of the public byways so to speak.
Years passed and I of course forgot all about him as I had to deal with dozens of controlling, ‘paranoid-ly” jealous, similar abusive husbands like him, just like many psychiatrists. My lot was not unusual, most of us shrinks have to deal with potentially dangerous persons frequently. Others in my profession have had to quietly “step up to the” taks and as Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion‘s radio show would say, “do what needs to be done.” My actions were routine, part of the job and the profession, what I trained for, NOT in any fashion heroic at all.
But this man was a bitter man who never forgot and could hold a grudge far longer than it takes color blind me, what shirts, pants and ties go together well for some sort of special occasion where my primary role is to not embarrass my mostly female immediate family.. He blamed the resultant penalties and losses in his social station on good ol’ me. I of course had any inkling that all this was festering and growing in this man’s revenge addicted mindset.
This man tracked me through three changes in my practice sites in this part of my fair state where I work. I moved out of private office based and half time hospital combined practice, and slowed down trimming my customary 70-80 hour work as pledged to my wife as we hit our fifties. I moved to a salaried work situation that furnished many solutions to us, be closer to my wife’s family, take of her mother, get out of the big city and many other long desired “lifestyle” changes.
But ominously, my past three practice sites began calling me to inform me, that in effect, ‘some weird guy showed up here asking around about you.’ He was tracking through my required address listings on my state’s medical board’s website. Each of the places he serially contacted was smart enough to immediately sense something was amiss and would not give him the time of day and referred him back to the state medical board through which to contact me. He of course would not do that as it meant coming into contact “with the authorities,” as I and the law enforcement types who helped me later surmised. Finally he located where I was working at my beloved massive hospital institution with its gorgeous Old South architecturally beautiful buildings, near forests of many 100 year old trees, flower beds, and separated mini-campuses for our different inpatient programs. He started calling me on the hopital phone system and demanding to talk to me, but refusing to give a phone number or name. Thank god, again my savvy mental health work setting and its staff sniffed out instantly that something wrong was afoot. By this time I was getting nasty threatening letters from a nearby state and had to alert our local law enforcement of our city and treating institution.
I wrestled for weeks whether to tell my family. I started watching my back so to speak, park in different places all over the hospital grounds randomly. I had no pattern of doing anything outside. The hospital police started quietly and surreptitiously escorting me around campus at night from afar out of sight and sometimes in sight to make a point, when I was on call at night and had to traipse between buildings. Nasty notes kept coming periodically and erraticially. About the time I would conclude that whoever was doing all this had stopped when the letters seemed to have stopped, and I received no further missals (not the Holy kind for sure) from him in some time, and the phone calls had stopped long ago, another note would come.
Finally some employee of the hospital reportedly found two unspent pistol rounds, bullets on the grounds of part of the hospital. By this time, this affair had been going on for more than six months. I was a mess, a bundle of Mel Brooks-Woody Allen-Don Knotts nerves. I was losing sleep. I was involuntarily looking at people differently, even in our familiar harmless, small, peaceful downtown often thinking to myself as I would look at an ordinary person, “I wonder if that is him….” Some of my closest friends knew something was going on with me and being “good” and sensitive “mental health bloodhounds” with their noses “a-quivering” as I jokingly described their reactions to myself, would ask me if there was anything wrong, why was I so stressed looking, etc. I mostly had to stay “shut up” as the head of the gendarme put it succinctly as we did not want to ‘scare the guy off.”
Finally everything stopped happening. Nothing further surfaced, no phone calls, no letters, no voo doo dolls, nothing. He had never been able to find my car, and evidently my long ago previous ER interactions with him, by then over 12 years or so old, had erased his memory and recollection of my “partzuff” or my facial appearance as Hebrew so eloquently puts it.He had not been able to figure out who I was when he was supposedly cruising around the grounds of the hospital in those months of his “visitations.”
I began to start to slowly and hesitantly decompress, go out more, go to the stores, the mall and realize how much I had pulled in for months, minimizing my outings and “watching my back” automatically all the time, no longer watching for cars reappearing in my immediate surroundings for no reason.
Then one weekday evening, I received a visit from a trio of very official looking law enforcement types with scary badges like on tv, I thought they were Secret Service and was so unnerved by their professional, stern and no nonsense introductions and ‘request to come in’ to my house that I found myself babbling like a total dufus that not only had I voted for President Obama but my Obama sticker was still on my car! It was an awkward moment as my deodorant decidedly stopped working altogether. They were so good about it that they subtly made me feel at ease [in my own living room!] and calmly began to piece everything together for and with me. They confirmed who I was, that I had been having stalking problems a few months back and seemed all very reassuringly informed about it all. If they had known my shoe size I could not have been more grateful. They informed me that a man had been apprehended in another state for some ‘very bad’ things as my grandchildren would so directly say. They helped me through the chain of links to me as they explained how they had learned of my existence as it were in his life. It turned out this man had a sort of a ‘shrine’ to me, pictures and blips about me from innocuous sources, professional listings etc. When they apprehended him and saw this collage in his residence, it was not clear if I was a partner in crime of his or a target. They apologetically explained they realized early on I was clearly that latter but they still had to thoroughly check me out anyway. They then verbally “reproduced” their summary of my records of contacts with this man for 12 years before. The light of dim memory began to glow slight in my memory and all of a sudden it got very unreal. I was whooshed back into a past site of practice, over a decade ago and finally sort of remembered the man and how I had been absolutely sure that he was out to murder his wife if he were permitted to leave the hospital’s ER where I was then practicing. I recalled with chills the first and then second encounters with him in which I had to take legal action that “ruined” his life and made me the object of his vengeful wrath. But I did not recall the murderous threats he had made then to me as he got hauled away by the “guys in the white coats” as an old song from the 1950’s used to describe it. My law enforcement explainers made it clear that of course for his confidentiality they could not reveal anything else about him, the legal details, his name, his circumstances, but that if I had been in his area of living when he was ‘legally processed,’ I would have likely figured it all out. By that time I was in a numb, slowed up, unreal state and I did not want to know anything or anything more. I barely remember stammering out a thank you as they left and assured me I would not be bothered by this man for years and years to come.
After they were gone, I sat down and had a true monumental shake loose dental fillings, bone jarring and rattling, sweating every ounce of fluid out of me, nauseating, near regressing to the diaper stage panic attack as I realized how close I had been to danger for months without knowing it. I also had as they say in the South, a “true Word of Prayer with the Man Upstairs” as I gave thanks, made amends, realized how lucky I was I was flooded with thoughts that I would smooch the sap out of my son and wife when they returned as they were out of town at that time.
But I must be honest and state what many readers of this missal will already be thinking or wondering about, this has not left me yet and I know it never will. I have a deeper appreciation for what terrorized, abused persons must go through at a far more riveting level than I ever thought possible. And I hope I am better for it.
And if you have not guessed by then, this has been “therapeutic” for me too.