Academic stalking

This post is by Dr Anna McFarlane. Anna is a postdoctoral researcher on the Wellcome Trust-funded Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project at the University of Glasgow. She is the co-editor of Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association and Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2016).

In this post Anna tackles a little discussed issue in academia – cyber stalking.

Reading it sent a chill down my spine and I can only commend Anna on her bravery in raising it on the Thesis Whisperer, which has an estimated readership of around 50,000 people. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 4.55.47 PMI passed my viva in December 2014 and I’ve done my best to make a name for myself. I’ve read all the advice, I’ve written as many articles as possible, and I’ve publicised everything that I’ve done. I’ve done public talks for university outreach programmes, I’ve guested on the academic podcast Viva Survivors, and I have an up-to-date profile. I’ve blogged about events I’ve organised and I’ve maintained my Twitter account under my real name, tweeting about every academic event I attend.

All of this information is publically available online and in my email signatures. It doesn’t take much to find me.

This is all the kind of thing that I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve read all the career advice and even at a recent academic event for postdocs we were coached on ‘Shameless Self-Promotion’ to build our online reputations and give us the edge in the job market. For me, every new link, publication, or even tweet represented a welcome addition to my profile, one that spoke of my credentials to potential employers, or fellow academics looking for peer reviewers, or speakers to invite to their events.

I have to remind myself of the many benefits this kind of online presence can have, because a few weeks ago it went sour for me.

I’m currently working as a postdoc on a project at the University of Glasgow, the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project. Like many early career researchers nowadays I have another job, working part time in my local library. One day I was answering university emails and I came across one from a name I didn’t recognise.

I looked at the content of the message, but it seemed to be part of a conversation. There was no salutation, and the text itself wasn’t referring to anything as far as I could tell. I received another that day, and a third. I’ve seen comments on blogs before that were clearly generated by a bot; text copied and pasted from elsewhere on the net, spliced together to achieve the illusion of human written speech, but gibberish on a closer look. I assumed these emails were being generated by a similar bot so I sent them to my junk box and thought nothing more of it.

It was seven weeks later on a Sunday evening that I signed into my email to do some admin and my partner happened to look over my shoulder. ‘How can you have over 500 emails in your junk? Don’t you ever check it?’

I have to admit, I almost never check my junk box, and even as the numbers had risen ever higher it never occurred to me that there could be something threatening about this. We looked through a message or two and I vaguely remembered seeing those first messages. ‘It has to be a bot’, I said, ‘Look at this, it doesn’t even make sense’. Rambling messages, always seemingly taken from the middle of an ongoing conversation, began to take on a sinister aspect. There were repeated references to feminism (something I always support, and the topic of a conference I organised a couple of years ago), conspiracy theories, and repeated references to stalking.

We began to accept that this was a real person, someone who had emailed me every night, again and again, for weeks.

The experience was akin to a horror movie, ramping up the tension and the fear with every new revelation. That first moment, understanding that we were dealing with a real person, filled me with dread.

When I began to see descriptions of my physical characteristics I knew that these emails were specifically meant for me, not sent out randomly by some weird phishing bot. When I saw my name, and the name of my workplace a cold fear gripped my heart and adrenaline coursed through me. It was only then, given the context, that I recognised the name on the emails as someone who used the library where I worked, and I reached another level of terror, shaking and almost in tears. As we read on, the content of the messages became increasingly intense and often sexual.

Before this experience I’m not sure that I would have understood the anxious and horrified state that simply reading some words on a screen would induce in me.

Part of it was the rambling nature of the messages, their delusional content, the failed attempts at logic or rationale. It made me think about the nature of reading itself. When we read someone else’s writing our brain temporarily adopts the patterns of another person’s mind, which is part of the pleasure of a well-argued sentence, or a beautiful metaphor.

Reading the outpourings of this diseased mind was like biting into a fresh apple, only to find it a mass of sticky brown rot on the inside. The more I read these ramblings, the more insane I felt I became myself.

After discovering the messages I spent an almost sleepless night listening to podcasts in the dark because I was too afraid to leave my partner, but found that closing my eyes in the silence brought the words and the fear back to me. Adrenaline spiked over and over again and I couldn’t sleep. That night the You Must Remember This podcast and the Kermode and Mayo Film Review took me through the long hours to daylight.

It seems from personal experience (and this study has found the same) that women often feel (or are made to feel) responsible for crimes against them, particularly if those crimes have a sexual dimension.

There was no possible way that I could be held accountable for my experience, but the feeling plagued me nonetheless. If I hadn’t put so much information online (defying all the careers advice I’ve picked up over the last six years), if my university email address was private (defying the expectations of my institution and anyone who wanted to contact me about my research) then maybe I wouldn’t have this Dossier of Disturbance in my email account.

These niggles were only exacerbated when the police officer taking my statement asked me if I had ever done anything to encourage the perpetrator.

Luckily, I suppose, I was able to categorically deny this; I had always had a bad feeling about this person, even during our brief interactions (‘Here’s your book’), but if I had smiled, as my customer service training repeatedly insisted, would I be more to blame? Or if I had stopped to chat about the weather? Or would a lack of online visibility simply have forced the perpetrator to approach me in real life? Would he have simply moved onto someone else, maybe someone less equipped to deal with the situation?

It’s this feeling that urged me to write about the experience, first on my Facebook page and now here.

Treating this as a private matter is anathema to me, it seems to imply that the relationship constructed in this person’s mind is real in some way. To hide it away would be to make it ‘intimate’ *shudders*.

I went to the police the morning after I discovered the emails, and the perpetrator has now been arrested. Hopefully this will keep me safe, and might even end up giving him the help with his mental health that he so clearly needs.

I was also well supported by both my workplaces. The University of Glasgow IT department kindly printed off every single one of those emails and had them couriered to the police so that the case could move quickly with as much evidence as possible.

My manager at the library immediately signed me off work for a week (something I’m so grateful for, at the time I was too anxious to realise how unfit for work I was). She also moved me to a ‘secret’ location (making me feel like an undercover spy) and changed my shifts so that I won’t be working in the evenings for a while.

All of these measures made the transition back into everyday life relatively quick and easy and my anxiety has now dissipated, though I’m still rebuilding my trust in people, particularly men that I don’t know very well.

Cyberstalking (like stalking of any kind) is not a private matter, it’s a public health issue, and one that needs to be dealt with head-on, especially in academic communities where our visibility can make us more at risk.

I’m very glad that I have never posted anything publically that specified my neighbourhood, it gave me some comfort through the worst of my fear. I’m also lucky to live in Scotland where the stalking legislation (although not without its problems) has been updated to take account of online modes of abuse.

Others may not be so lucky, but there could be other things that we can do to keep ourselves safe, and the first thing I had to offer was my story.

If you have tips for safe online academic living then please share them in the comments.

Thanks Anna! Let’s hope that you are free of harrassment in the future and thanks for sharing your story with us.

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25 thoughts on “Academic stalking

  1. Sharonnz says:

    This is horrific. I am so sorry you had to go through this after following all the good advice around how to advance your academic career. Certainly gives pause for thought.

  2. kimusabe says:

    Horrible experience.

    Not the first story of academic stalking I’ve heard – all terrifying. And like you say, as a public figure, you are exposed to some extent.

    Can’t believe the police asked if you’d done anything to encourage this (like, if you’d smiled a few times, this would be understandable??) – never missing a chance to victim blame.

  3. Meg says:

    Horrible story and courageous of the author to share it. So glad that the person was held accountable. Cyber and physical stalking happened to someone I once knew too, a male academic (and his female partner, also an academic) by one of his female students. They had a long struggle with the stalker as every time she was out of hospital she would start up again. Nor did moving interstate solve the problem due to inconsistencies in stalking laws. Fortunately the new university they worked for waived the requirement for them to have on-line profiles.

  4. jesskilby says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. And good for you on spotting the victim-blaming aspects of this and calling them for what they are, both from external sources and from our own internalized beliefs. We need to fill the public space with voices that dispel this toxix myth.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, but sorry you had to go through it. This has happened to my husband too (he’s an academic) but in his case it wasn’t cyber stalking but real-life stalking. I don’t think you should question posting academic work on-line as, athough it might make finding informations slightly easier, not all stalkers use “new” methods. My husband doesn’t have much of an online presence but the stalker actually just used the telephone directory to get our address.

  6. wanderwolf says:

    Thank you for sharing. I don’t know how one could avoid this kind of thing, but I would definitely have reported it and had the police track down an IP number. I also can see myself being incredibly frustrated by the possible victim-blaming (internal and external). I’m sorry you had this experience, but that you for sharing.

  7. Carolyn Hastie says:

    You and your partner handled this illegal and threatening behaviour very well. Congratulations for doing so. These situations are awful – good on you for writing about it and bringing the issue out into the open in such a helpful way. I don’t think there is anything you could do differently – except maybe monitor your junk mail more regularly – but, had you done so, you wouldn’t have had that accumulation of evidence and maybe you would have dealt with it on your own at first – which would have perhaps been more challenging. I think it was great that your partner noticed the number of junk emails and that you looked together and found out what was happening. Your IT and the library did an excellent job too. Thank you for sharing your experience – it helps all of us to see the crime of stalking – cyber or IRL – for what it is … a crime …

  8. Sean says:

    Never having had this kind of experience, I obviously can’t begin to imagine how horrible it must be. And I certainly wouldn’t presume to be able to offer any useful advice. But by way of comment, I’m wondering whether it could be useful to focus on how best to deny perpetrators the satisfaction they derive from their victims’ discomfort? This, after all, is their ultimate motivation, and unfortunately it’s a motivation which is occurs all too often as well in those who have no mental disturbance or overtly criminal intentions whatsoever. Would it be going too far to assert that hospitalising perpetrators or subjecting them to legal sanctions might in fact simply serve to validate their behaviour in their own minds as a successful strategy for achieving their ultimate objective, which would appear to be the disintegration of society into anarchy? I don’t know what the alternative might be, but as with other comparable antisocial behaviour such as terrorism or war atrocities, some sort of “truth and reconciliation,” deradicalisation or cognitive modification process might prove more effective.

  9. starkinsanity says:

    This is awful! If anyone else is dealing with this, the National Stalking Helpline will be super interested and help you out. I’ve emailed them over a stalker and they were incredibly helpful. As much as possible, save the emails, keep copies, and hand it to the police as Anna did. Stay safe everyone!

  10. SSG says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you! A fantastic, powerfully-written article, though. And I’m so glad your partner and others around you were able to help – and you were so able to help yourself too.

    I had an online stalker a while back. Not an academic stalker, though – by the end of it, she believed I wasn’t an academic but secretly the mother of the man she was real-life stalking. That was a pretty scary experience, and that was without any sexual aspect to it (for me; there may have been that for the man, as the stalker believed she was in a relationship with him), and with us being on different continents.

    Last I heard, the stalker is in inpatient therapy, and AFAIK has been for years. I think she’s doing much better now. She doesn’t ever seem to use the Internet any more – I look at her profile once in a while to check she’s doing okay, but there’s nothing there. A good ending I think, but I hope this never happens to me again.

  11. thegrailquest says:

    I am really sorry for the author. What a creepy experience!
    Public exposure may be a good or a bad thing – but stalking can take place in any context, so building an online presence should not be any riskier for that.
    No safety advice to offer, I am afraid. Never occurred to me, luckily

  12. gmarnech says:

    that is extremely unsettling, to say the least. however, it seems everyone involved took the situation very seriously right from the start, which is not always the case with these sorts of issues, unfortunately.

  13. Irene Fenswick says:

    Anna, thank you so much for sharing your story! I have to admit that there was a very unexpected twist with that scary emails in the middle of the article! Unfortunately, I read and hear about cyberstalking more and more frequently there days, and it frightens me that it is no longer a movie plot, but a real life. We all have to be more careful sharing our personal data online.

  14. Kim Dunphy says:

    I’m sorry to hear this story but thankyou for this very helpful warning. I went straight away and took my home address and phone number off my CV on and am being much more cautious in future about sharing those

  15. TheChattyIntrovert says:

    weird how it can start off innocuously, and then escalate…it seems to be the pattern. I mean, it’s the frog in boiling water scenario every time, by the time you’re feeling the heat, so much has happened and the pieces were put together a bit late. but having all that thrown into your junk mail (and not deleting it yet), while awful to see, did give a chronology the police could use effectively…and I am happy that others were so supportive of you and willing to help. Kudos to you not being in denial and doing something about it before things got worse or could be misconstrued. Hugs to you and have a great career.

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