Some years ago, I found myself, to my surprise, the victim of a campaign of malicious e-mail stalking and online defamation by a former M.F.A. student.
Nasreen (all names here have been changed) was a talented writer, and she had an interesting story to tell about her family’s experiences in Iran at the time of the revolution. During the term I taught her, I’d made it clear I thought highly of her work.
Two years after she graduated, she contacted me, asking me to help edit her novel. I was too busy at the time, but I put her in touch with my agent, who in turn introduced her to a freelance editor. Nasreen seemed grateful for the help, and an amicable correspondence began between us.
At a certain point her e-mails took an amorous turn. I told her I was happily married and not interested in having an affair. She seemed to take it well, and our friendly correspondence soon resumed. But gradually the volume of her e-mails increased to several a day, and after a while I realized I was becoming the object of an obsession. As tactfully as I could, I asked her to ease up, but to no avail. Eventually I stopped writing back, but that, too, had no effect.
A deluge of e-mails poured into my inbox over the next few months. I deleted most without reading them. Those that I did read seemed innocuous, though the sheer quantity was disturbing. And then, on a July evening in 2007, they turned abruptly from banter and gossip to venomous hate mail (much of it violently anti-Semitic), along with accusations that I had plagiarized her work and had affairs with her classmates (though not with her).
Soon after that first volley, Janice (my agent) called, sounding upset. For several days, she had been receiving strange e-mails about me from Nasreen, and she was concerned for her safety. The e-mails contained the same baseless accusations of plagiarism, accompanied by threats of “hell to pay” if Janice and I connived to “steal” any more of Nasreen’s work. Later that day, Nasreen began threatening Paula, the editor to whom Janice had introduced Nasreen.
“You all play a part in unleashing the fury,” Nasreen wrote. Soon after, with this “fury” now apparently reaching for terms strong enough to account for its own escalating intensity, Nasreen brought on one of those words that scorch everything they come near. The word was “rape,” and even though she used it figuratively rather than literally, I felt immediately the potency of its touch, as if I’d been splashed with acid: “I say if I can’t write my book and get emotionally and verbally raped by James Lasdun, a Jew disguising himself as an English-American, well then, the Holocaust Industry Books should all be banned as should the films.”
It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.
Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen’s former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: “I’m told he …” “I hear he …” “Everyone knows he ….”)
Regardless of whether Janice believed a word of these e-mails (and she assured me she didn’t), my impulse was to deny them indignantly. But even as I was forming the words, I felt the futility of doing so. Intrinsic to the very nature of Nasreen’s denunciations and insinuations was, as I began to understand, an iron law whereby the more I denied them, the more substance they would acquire and the more plausible they would begin to seem. Their very wildness was a part of their peculiar power. On the basis of there being no smoke without fire (so I imagined Janice, and then Paula, and then, as things got worse, all sorts of other people, thinking), surely something as shocking as these e-mails must indicate that I was guilty of something.