How do you reveal that you have a stalker? It’s not exactly appropriate dinner-party conversation, nor is it a worthy anecdote for a first Tinder date. It’s a total buzzkill and comes with a lengthy explanation that, for the past five years, I’ve preferred not to get into. But recently, I offhandedly mentioned “my stalker” in a conversation with a close friend whom I didn’t realize I had never told, and I began to question why I’ve kept this ordeal so close to my chest for so long. It’s not actually that hard to figure out the reason I’ve been quiet about this: It’s just plain upsetting to talk about. It reminds me of a time when I felt stupid, vulnerable, and scared. It reminds me of being tangled in a frustrating court system, missing work because he’d been spotted outside my workplace, waking up in the morning unable to unhinge my jaw from the protective clench I had slept with all night. And maybe even more so than the long explanation and the bad memories, telling people “I have a stalker” was embarrassing. In my experience, my admission was all too often met with disbelief, denial, or dismissal. That’s not to say I think anyone was intentionally dismissive, or even aware of what they were doing — I just think it was difficult for people to empathize with such a bizarre and isolating experience. After all, stalkers are vilified in horror movies and celebrated in romantic comedies, yet the real notion of a stalker remains out of the scope of most people’s imaginations. But the fact is that the harassment and fear that I faced under this circumstance, however unique, is part of the much larger system of abuse and oppression that women are subjected to every day. So after years of keeping quiet, laughing it off, and telling people it was no big deal, I’m ready to really talk about it. I want to add my story to the vital conversation that’s happening around violence against women and the culture of fear we often have to live under, and encourage other survivors of harassment to come forward. So here we go. When I was 26, I decided to take an acting class at a well-regarded Chicago studio. There were 10 of us, including a guy named Brandon*. Brandon looked innocuous, showing up to class after a 9-to-5 job in slacks, a rumpled shirt, and dirty white sneakers. But something about him rubbed me the wrong way almost immediately: He was quick to anger, uncooperative with the teachers, and often used sexual aggression as an acting approach in scenes with female classmates. I tried to avoid Brandon during our mid-class breaks, and he quickly picked up on my disinterest. On the last day of class, the teacher paired us together for the final exercise, and it was a terrible experience. I’ll spare you the details of a crappy acting-class scene, but suffice it to say that afterwards, I felt shaken, invaded, and exposed. That night, I skipped out on joining the rest of my classmates at the bar and went home, anxious to sleep it off and forget the whole 10 weeks. What I didn’t know at the time: That ugly scene was just the beginning. Brandon sent the first email the day after class, asking me out for coffee, then changing his mind mid-email and inviting me to his house, where he could cook me dinner. The invitation struck me as odd, since I’d shown absolutely no interest in him during class. I ignored the request. Later that day, I received another email asking if I would instead prefer to “break out the whips and chains” because he could tell I had a “bad girl streak.” (Nothing like a jump from suggesting coffee to suggesting S&M.) Three hours later, and still no response from me, he wrote again to say that he could tell I had been sexually abused and that’s why I ignored his first two emails, and that he’d really like to help me get over it.
That ugly scene was just the beginning.
Alarm bells began to go off. For the record, I am incredibly fortunate to never have had to deal with sexual abuse, but regardless, he had absolutely no right to invoke potential trauma as a means to get a date. I immediately emailed our acting teacher, and she contacted him with instructions to cease communication with me and barred him from returning to the program. He sent me a thinly veiled apology with some upsetting language, and after that email, almost a year went by without hearing from him. I assumed the ordeal was over, though I did worry about running into him on the street or at a play. I lived those months in a heightened state of awareness of men who came on too strong or seemed unstable. Nearly a year later, the emails began again. I’m not sure what prompted him, but he started emailing me every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. The content of his messages varied — sometimes he appeared in good spirits and would talk about his day or arguments he had had with his roommate, or give me lengthy “writing lessons” he felt I could benefit from. Other times, he would discuss the numerous mental illnesses he believed he had, his troubled childhood, inappropriate details of what he remembered about me and the assumptions he drew from our brief time in class together, professions of love, and eventually, threats to my safety under the guise of a “joke.” What stood out was the level of familiarity with which he addressed me — a person who had not once responded to his advances. He spoke to me like I was waiting to hear from him with bated breath, ready to take in anything he said, and encouraging him to continue. The familiarity was infuriating. My boyfriend at the time suggested that I stop opening the emails, as they only served to upset me, but some part of me needed to know what he was saying. I needed to know if he planned on taking this any further, and finding out where I lived or where I worked. Opening his emails became a dreaded daily ritual. I survived the barrage of unwelcome words by trying to find some humor in the absurdity of the situation. “Oh, look what he has to say today!” I would joke to my boyfriend in a halfhearted attempt to show that I was okay — to show that I wasn’t affected by this person. But it was all a flimsy cover for the fear that was creeping into my daily life. After two months of harassing me online, he showed up in the lobby of the hotel where I worked as a waitress. I hurriedly explained the situation to my manager, who ushered me out the back door and got me a cab home, and I realized I could no longer laugh off a few dozen emails. I began the long and drawn-out process of getting a civil no-contact order, also known as a restraining order. If any of you would like to hear about the bureaucratic nightmare that I undertook to get the restraining order, I am happy to detail it separately for you — but it is simply too lengthy and tedious to go into here. Just know that it took months, many repeat visits to 555 West Harrison Street (the Cook County Circuit Court Domestic Violence Courthouse), hours on the phone with various sheriffs’ offices, hours arguing with police officers who refused to acknowledge “harassment by electronic means” as a valid claim (and one particular detective who told me it was my fault for opening the emails), and hours of my doing my own legal research in case I would need to represent myself in court, if I ever got there. Brandon was finally served a temporary restraining order on March 2, 2011, which he reacted to by emailing me a copy of the play he was “writing for me” with a promise to cast me as the lead once it went to production, should I agree to drop the charges. I am not even kidding. This seemingly innocent bargain was, in fact, an official violation and turned my civil no-contact order into a criminal one. Moreover, it indicated to me that Brandon had no idea what was actually going on, no intention to respect legality, and — as I had most feared — a too-loose grip on reality. I’d never presume to diagnose someone else with a mental illness, but it was hard not to speculate that Brandon suffered from one. And as angry as I felt, I also had moments of empathy, realizing that he might be struggling with something that was out of his control. At one point, I even asked the domestic violence liaison for my case about the possibility of psychiatric screening and treatment. But these moments were interspersed among moments of thinking, No: He knew exactly what he was doing. He was a functioning member of society and was using these pleas of illness and helplessness to manipulate me into giving in. I may never know the truth about what was behind all of this, but what I do know is that it sent me into a tailspin. The nightmare image of the angry and emotionally disturbed man who shoots up a movie theater to get back at his ex-girlfriend started invading my dreams. I lost sleep. I missed work. I took my frustration and blame out on my boyfriend, and we broke up. I would wake up in the morning and have to massage my jaw for 15 minutes before I could open it wide enough to speak. It was an awful time that I look back on now with sadness and anger.
So I was silent. And this silence about the case trickled into other parts of my life.
Now, what follows is about as close to a fairytale ending that a story about a stalker can get. My court date was nearing, and Brandon’s refusal to obey the temporary order was not a good sign that he would accept the two-year restraining order being presented to him at trial. I was anything but optimistic. But then, one night, I received a phone call from a Detective Casey* in the homicide division of the Cook County Police Department. That’s right — the homicide division. My case didn’t involve murder, thank god, but Detective Casey explained to me that, for some reason, my case had ended up on his desk, and he promised to see it through. I immediately burst into tears. He asked me to tell him everything, from beginning to end, and I launched into a detailed account of Brandon’s behavior in class, the uninvited emails, the threats, the appearances at my place of employment, the violation of the temporary order, everything. He listened intently and when I was finished, he told me, “As I see it, you can do one of three things.” The first, he said, was that he could file this as a criminal case and I would have to hire a lawyer and set a new court date. The second was that I could choose to keep the case civil, show up to my upcoming court date, and hope for the best. Or number three, he said, and I am not making this up, was that he could “go over to Brandon’s house tonight and make him wish he had never been born.” Obviously, I chose door number three.
At 11 p.m. that night, Detective Casey called me and said, in a very tough-guy voice, “Ms. Stulik? Brandon won’t be botherin’ you no more.” My first thought was “Oh my God, he killed him.” In reality, Detective Casey explained, he had shown up at Brandon’s apartment at 10:30 p.m. with a warrant and two other members of the CPD, banged down his door, searched the house for firearms and drugs, and interrogated him until he was “shitting his pants.” The detective told me he genuinely believed that Brandon didn’t know where I lived, and was confident that he would cooperate at the upcoming court date. Lastly, he asked Brandon why he kept trying to contact me when I had clearly shown no interest. Brandon’s reply: “She just never told me ‘No.’” Hearing this made my blood boil. Of course I never explicitly said “No” to him: I never said anything to him. I didn’t reply to a single email, even when I wanted to write down every obscenity I was screaming into the computer screen. I wanted to reply with hurtful, debasing language that made him feel as small as his words made me feel. I wanted to write intelligent, biting attacks that made him realize the futility and stupidity of his endeavor. I wanted to confront him to his face as he sulked around the lobby of my work. I wanted to tell him STOP and NO and FUCK OFF — but I couldn’t allow myself to. Because he had the power, and I couldn’t give him any more of it. In fact, the advice I was given by the domestic violence liaison during one of my many visits to the courthouse was to not reply to anything, because any sign from me would only give him reason to continue contact. He was not to be encouraged. So I was silent. And this silence about the case trickled into other parts of my life. I was silent about Brandon when people asked why my boyfriend and I broke up. I was silent among some of my closest friends because I was too angry and ashamed to go into detail. And I’ve been largely silent about the whole experience until now. Whether it’s the combination of physical and temporal distance, or a shift in the landscape thanks to the brave and outspoken survivors who have confronted their rapists, their harassers, and those who have tried to take away their voices, I now feel more ashamed of my silence than anything else. But shame has no place in my life these days, so I’ve shared the story with you today. As Detective Casey predicted, Brandon immediately accepted the charges at our court date, and I was granted a two-year restraining order, which expired in 2013. Brandon has contacted me since the order lifted, just once. I told myself that if he starts up again, I will not hesitate to file for a second. For now, I am living with the knowledge that he’s still out there, likely still with the same thoughts. But I refuse to be scared and silenced by him, and if he’s reading this, I’d like him to know that.
*Name has been changed.
*Name has been changed.