Silent Screams: How Abuse and Stalking are Distorted, Suppressed, and Misunderstood

It was a mild September afternoon and I’d finally convinced a local theatre colleague, who I’d been seeing off and on, to talk with me. Things had been strained since our last dating phase ended, when I learned he had been seeing one of my coworkers without telling me. He’d been suffering from poor health and depression over the past few months, and I had tried to be helpful and understanding, while being clear that we could not date under these circumstances. All the same, I not-so-secretly hoped that things would improve so that we could try a real relationship. So this was basically a scene from a 90s teen TV show. I decided to set forth with honesty and patience, and I gave him the usual spiel about my conflicted feelings, but that I sought peace and compassion between us.

He responded by telling me he could not be around me because I had stalked him. I was floored by the sheer bluntness of this lie. Stalking? Wasn’t that someone crazy people did, hiding in bushes and watching their prey, collecting information to use against them? What did he mean? He said that he knew I had been driving by his house, parking by the bushes along the side, and sitting there for hours at a time. I was stunned. Not only had I not done this, the thought of pathetically waiting outside some guy’s house for hours, rather than trying to have an honest conversation, struck me as one of the stupider things I would never do. And I also had little time…I was a full-time graduate student and worked several jobs on the side. I insisted to him that he was wrong. I hadn’t done that. I had hardly ever been to his house, and only when he and I had gone there together.

No, he had photos, he said. He refused to show them to me, but he had them, of me sitting in my car outside his house, and he had told some of our mutual friends what I had done. That’s disgusting behavior, he told me. You are not well, and I can’t be around you. He went on to tell me that he had told his mother and sister what I had done, and because of that, they did not want to be around me and therefore would not come to any of the theatre’s shows, which was further damaging to him, he said. I was so angry and shocked by this point, I kicked over my makeup kit, which had been sitting next to me on the ground. See, he said, you’re so destructive and violent. This is not healthy.

I insisted again that he was mistaken. I recall my head spinning. All I understood was that he believed me to be bad, intrusive, obsessive, and…crazy. That label given to women around the world who boiled bunnies, cut off penises, and poisoned children. This wasn’t me, my body screamed. I really just didn’t want any more animosity, any more pain. I began to sob.

Stop that, he said. It will get better if you just stop all that. All our friends know what you did, but I’m willing to look past it. Still crying, I asked him what he meant…how many of our friends had he told this lie to? I’m not telling you, he said. It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I loved you, and you did this to me. I wanted to be with you and be happy, he said, and you ruined it.

Something about that seemed wrong to me, and I finally excused myself. I couldn’t make him see the truth; I couldn’t win this conversation. And this feeling felt quite familiar.

It was another three months before I “woke up,” as we call it in IPV (intimate partner violence) recovery circles. It was another such conversation, another set of lies, accusations, and inversions, and suddenly all the incidents that I had repressed came rushing to the front of my mind. A series of nights in which he had called me a slut for talking to another guy at a bar, cornered another woman against her car in front of me and told her he was going to have sex with her, tried to make me run my car off the road, and then showed up at my birthday party seeking forgiveness — all in one week. A morning he had cornered me on my bed after waking from dreams that I had cheated on him, and called me a selfish little girl, then sent me strange Facebook messages threatening suicide. And countless days that he had threatened physical violence, called me horrible names, shamed me to my family and friends, or shown up drunk and crying at my door. I realized, reluctantly, that I was in an abusive relationship. And with that realization, I could never look back. It shook me to my core…I was a smart woman, who had never been in any sort of trouble, who had lots of friends and a loving family. How could I be in an abusive relationship?

Abuse is a tricky matter to assess, legally, medically, and socially. When it occurs between intimate partners, it’s suggested in the popular discourse that it’s usually the man who’s the aggressor, and that it involves hitting, shoving, etc. Moreover, if it ends in violence, it was a crime of passion, nothing malicious or intentional. Otherwise, it’s a woman who’s stalking and emotionally harassing the man. And of course, it only occurs in long-term, static relationships. (See Spitzberg and Cadiz.)

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Women and men are equally likely to harass each other, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and there is no reason to believe that both physical and emotional abuse aren’t done by both sexes, although men might be less likely to report. A UF study found that more women reported such behaviors, but even self-reports can be dubious sources of data, especially decontextualized yes-no reports such as in this study (the discrepancies of which were excused away by suggesting that college women did not date college men..hmm). And a key component of the definition of abuse is repetitive, intentionally harmful behaviors. Unfortunately, even a very short relationship is enough time to have repeated behaviors. In fact, many abusers push their victims into a fast relationship, to avoid any cooling-off period in which the victim could clearly assess the problems and pull away.

The man in the story above had pursued me relentlessly, insisting that he’d had dreams he would marry someone with my name, encouraging me to move in with him, and attempting to restrict my social life to just him.

“Stalking” has become a catchall term for “unwanted sexual attention” in any dating scenario. This clear misunderstanding of the severity of the crime may be related to gender inequity and socialization in the United States: it does seem that females are accused of stalking more than males, or, more mildly, that females who seek uninterested males are deviant, while males who seek uninterested females are following their normal instincts. It’s sexist on both sides, but that’s another matter. What’s intriguing is that while men are only slightly less likely to report stalking (37% of male victims versus 41% for women), women are more likely to report being stalked by a current or former intimate partner (66% versus 41% for men). But estimates of stalking incident rates throw the gender disparity into high relief: 75.7% of stalking victims are female, leaving 24.3% male victims. It’s also notable that while most female victims are stalked by men (83%), men are stalked almost equally by men and women (44 and 47 %, respectively), perhaps due to a cultural basis for competition among males. All statistics from the DoJ’s Stalking Resource Center and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

I spoke to several close friends, and sure enough, they had all been called, texted, or emailed about me “warning” them about me. They asked me how often I had called him. I reluctantly admitted that a couple of occasions, I had called several times a day, each time because his last communication with me had been something like, “I can’t take living any more,” or, “I just want to end it all.” I didn’t think calling a few times, spread out over a day, was excessive when I had a reason to be concerned. Why didn’t you call someone to help? they asked. Because, I told one friend, he had told me once that if I ever gave out his address or sent law enforcement to his house, that I would not be safe. She was silent. Another friend told me not to worry, that it was impossible to stalk someone who showed up to your house and other places you were. Still, I reviewed several stalking guides, and saw several items, such as monitoring or following, that he had accused me of. I realized that he could very easily pursue legal action against me, and that a lack of evidence on his part would not protect me. According to a review of anti-harassment statutes I had done for class, the burden of proof of harassment rests on the victim; if they can demonstrate that they feel threatened or harmed, their claim will be handled favorably. That meant that all he had to do was convince them. I recalled a message I’d gotten from him after I attempted to call him out for hitting on a friend of mine: “I am beginning to feel as if I’m in some sort of danger here.” And yet I felt more and more unsafe, as though the slightest misstep on my part was going to mark me as crazy and put me in legal trouble, or lead him to bring his gun to my house and finally “end this shit.”

The greatest irony and harm of this whole matter was that after reviewing the stalking guides, I recognized some of his behavior in all of the items. He’d known my new address before I’d even memorized it; he told me the helicopters he used to monitor our city had shown him. He’d spread those lies about me to a number of people, all strategically selected…a woman he was interested in dating, a man who was interested in dating me (who is, now), several friends who were developing projects with me, and the gossipy friends we had in common. He’d sent messages to my parents, he’d visited several houses looking for me when I spent the night at a friend’s house, and he admitted to me he’d searched my Facebook friends to contact an old boyfriend to “find out about me.” He’d left boxes of jewelry, letters, drawings, and a dogtag with his name and information stuck to my door or under my doormat.

I had been stalked. And I could never seek help, because if I attempted to gather enough information about him to file a report, or told anyone beyond trusted friends and family what had been going on, then I would be checking off some of those items on the stalking checklist. I did register with Spokeo and looked him up…the name I had for him matched the records of someone twice his age. Beyond knowing that he’d stolen an identity, I did not learn much. I tried to tell a few people what had been going on, but most assumed it wasn’t their business, and attempted to be friends with both of us. Several others took his side, and eventually I noticed I was being avoided by some people who I had counted as good friends. Still others, who had witnessed violent incidents, happily ignored it all.

Barbara Coloroso’s work on bullying claims that the bystander is often as culpable as the bully. Legally, a similar approach is taken to those who do nothing to prevent fatal harm (involuntary manslaughter), fail to report abuse of minors, or who aid theft in any way. While I won’t hold my friends responsible for not helping, I do wonder how it is that intimate partner violence continues to be such a silent crime. Moreover, the explosion of activity upon #YesAllWomen’s launch suggests that it was a suppressed crime, from which people were anxious to finally have a voice. It may be because so many are afraid to report, for the same reasons I was. The abusers are careful to shut off any avenues of escape. Moreover — and this is the most critical and most tragic element of it — a victim of abuse may not feel the need to report, because they don’t perceive there to be a problem. A couple who fights a lot, or loudly, or physically, draws attention, and if violence is perpetuated from both sides, the “incident rates” shown above might be more a measure of who reports first. A study from Western Washington University that compared PTSD symptoms with experience of psychological control versus physical violence in intimate relationships points to a clear distinction between the tormented couples immortalized in songs like “Love the Way you Lie,” and couples in which the violence is carefully concealed, or just so subtle that it’s invisible to an outside eye. While both types of situations are psychologically damaging, high levels of psychological control numbs the effect of more overt violence, while predicting higher levels of depression, impaired stress response, and erratic behaviors…which of course can make the victim look more like the perpetrator.

After cutting off my abuser, I started experiencing even more stalking and harassment from him. I desperately wanted to undo it, to take him back. And then I remembered that I had made the mistake several times before, and there was no turning back. Although I didn’t have the evidence or funds to get a protective injunction or to sue for emotional distress, and my social life and health had suffered enough damage already, I realized my greatest power, and his greatest mistake: he had targeted an anthropologist whose thesis was on bullying and harassment. Now, I am more of an expert on these topics. With this post, I’m hoping to reach at least one person and give him or her the information they need to break free.

Originally published in 2014 on The Whole World Blind.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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