Featured on Tonic. Author: Crystal Ponti
He seemed like a nice guy. The few times that we met in person, on work-related trips, he wore either a button-up shirt or a Polo with dress pants. His social skills were lacking, but he spoke in a soft, professional manner. He appeared to be someone who followed the rules—a straight-laced type. His online persona gave a similar impression. In most photos, he wore the same business-casual attire and, based on our interactions, lived a seemingly quiet, drama-free life. Despite these first impressions, my former coworker turned out to be a nightmare: a stalker who has harassed me for almost a decade.
In many ways, my coworker’s behavior resembled that of Joe Goldberg, the tech-savvy bookstore manager turned stalker-murderer, from Netflix’s series You. He was friendly, reserved, and helpful. Aside from our amicable working relationship, there was nothing between us.
I was not interested. I made this clear after he traveled across the country and showed up on my doorstep, uninvited, with the intent of hanging out. But rather than listen, rather than move on and find someone who was interested in him, he seemed to become obsessed with an idea of us becoming “us.”
I reported his strange visit to our employer, but since it didn’t happen during work hours and he didn’t harm me in any way, there was nothing they legally could do. I felt relieved when he finally left the company. But the nightmare was just beginning. Within days of his departure, he sent me an email containing a photo of my chest, which he had cropped from a larger image, and wrote that he used it during masturbation. From there, it has been an onslaught of torment.
At one point, he was in the habit of sending me several emails a day. Some were explicit. In others, he begged me to give him a chance as a romantic partner. When I blocked one of his email addresses, he’d create another. He left comments on my blog posts and YouTube videos. He posted disgusting “fantasies” on Facebook describing the things he wanted to do to me. He even emailed my grown children and their girlfriends, asking them to convince me that he was the one. As these tactics backfired, he then tried to become the man he thought I needed—both physically and psychologically.
In You, Joe first stalks the object of his obsession, emerging writer Guinevere Beck, online. He studies her social media posts and images, and pieces together a snapshot of her life—complete with vulnerabilities that he thinks he can capitalize on. My coworker, according to his roommate who later filled me in, did the exact same thing. He learned about my crumbling marriage and subsequent divorce that I alluded to on social media, that I had children, and that I very much wanted to succeed as an entrepreneur. And he preyed upon these aspects of my life.
“[Stalkers] look for forms of leverage, whether trying to push your buttons or simply intimidate you into complying with their desired objectives,” says Brian Spitzberg, author of The Dark Side of Relationship Pursuit: From Attraction to Obsession and Stalking and a professor of communications at San Diego State University, whose areas of research include intimate violence and stalking.
Stalkers often attempt to appear as caretakers, offering their help in various ways, from their willingness to take over domestic household duties like cooking and cleaning to providing financial support. My stalker made these offers, but I never took him up on it. It’s all an illusion, though. “Their behavior is almost always pathologically narcissistic due to their indifference to the fear or anxiety they are inducing in the target of their affection,” explains Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Preying on a target's vulnerabilities is a common M.O. of stalkers, says Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist and professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, and that can take a dark turn. “Some [stalkers] will go so far as to try to sabotage everything about the target's life, including their work, finances, and personal relationships, in order to render the target as helpless and isolated as possible. Often, this will escalate over time,” Miller warns.
My co-worker was convinced that we would rent a house together, because he assumed I needed financial help after my divorce, and that he would manage businesses of mine that didn’t even exist—the ones he thought were best for me. He stated repeatedly that he wanted to be my children’s stepfather and that together, we would raise them to “take over the world.” He seemed to want to box me in to this idealistic fantasy in which I became codependent on him.
Out of anger, I initially responded to my stalker’s calls, texts, and emails. I later learned that any kind of interaction, regardless of how negative or dismissive, emboldened him. He continues to refer to me on social media as his “soon-to-be wife,” a tactic that’s he’s been using for the last several years, but I do not respond anymore.
This person also made not-so-subtle attempts to change himself to fit the mold of men he assumed are my type. Through viewing my social media posts, he assumed that I was attracted to guys who were a little rough around the edges. So he started getting tattoos and ditched his preppy attire for T-shirts, ripped jeans, and sunglasses. He even changed the way he spoke. There were more “dudes” and “yo”s and fewer formalities. He sent me unsolicited photos and videos whenever he got new ink or made some other physical change, as if he thought he was dangling cheese in front of a mouse.
This chameleon-like behavior, I’m told, is less common among stalkers, although Meloy does point out it’s reflective of the borderline personality characteristics that some of them have. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, borderline personality disorder (BPD) is defined as “a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotion, as well as marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”
In addition, both Meloy and Miller mention identification, the behavior of taking on certain aspects of another as a part of the self; it’s one of eight warning behaviors identified in threat assessment for targeted or intended violence.
“Your co-worker’s pattern sounds like what is sometimes called the identification stalker,” Miller says. “These are usually people who target celebrities, dress like them, act like them, under the quasi-delusional belief that they are actually more of the embodiment of the true person than the person himself.” In my case, my “Joe” sounded like he was trying to show that me that he could be exactly what I most desired.
When I went public by first writing for Harpers Bazaar earlier this month, I expected to hear similar stories from other stalking victims. What I didn’t expect was for people to contact me to say that there truly was nothing the law could have done to help me. Although there are criminal laws to address stalking, the legal definition of stalking varies among states. This makes it incredibly difficult to report this as a crime and prosecute offenders, especially, as with my case, when most or all of the harassment has occurred online. I’ve exhausted countless avenues—from executing a cease and desist to filing a report with the FBI—without any resolution.
To protect myself and limit his accessibility to me, I’ve changed my phone number and email address and blocked him across social media. Since he lives in another part of the country, I don’t think I have to worry about him showing up in person or hiding somewhere around the corner. But I stay vigilant.
He does post about me on Facebook, which is now his chosen platform. Making reference to me freely makes him feel like he has control, which is really what it's all about, Miller tells me.
Despite the distance between us, I constantly monitor his activity on Facebook from a dummy account, to keep tabs on if he might be traveling or posting any direct threats. It’s nearly impossible to know what will happen next. As he has proven, and as depicted in You, there’s no such thing as a typical stalker. At least with Joe, we can hear his thoughts and anticipate his next move. For real-life victims, stalking doesn’t come with a pre-written script. For me, it’s only marked by my constant sense of fear and never knowing.
If you are being stalked, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime at 855-484-2846.