How it feels to be stalked.
… In practical terms then, I was unharmed by this latest strike. But by this stage, I was in more danger from the psychological effects of Nasreen’s campaign than any practical damage she may have inflicted.
She had been sending me hate mail now for almost a year. On the advice of the police, lawyers, and friends, I’d refrained from blocking it—not that this would have been easy to do, since she continually set up new e-mail addresses.
If her aim as a “verbal terrorist” was to replicate the conditions of the nation at large inside my head, with its panics and dreads, its droning monomania, she succeeded triumphantly. Possibly the monomania was the worst of these effects: the increasing difficulty of thinking about anything other than Nasreen. In this respect her obsession with me achieved perfect symmetry: I became just as obsessed with her. I couldn’t write, read, play with my kids, do almost anything without drifting off into morbid speculation about what new mischief she might be getting up to.
Then there was the paranoia. This manifested itself in a number of ways, but the source of them all lay in Nasreen’s uncanny ability to orchestrate other people, or at least the illusion of other people, into her attacks. Paranoia requires a social context, and Nasreen’s incorporation of my personal and professional associates into her campaign supplied that very efficiently. It also requires a constantly shifting boundary between what one knows for a fact and what one can only imagine, and this too Nasreen supplied. All she had to do was introduce the concept of smearing my name and furnish a few concrete examples of having done so, and my anxious self-interest could be relied on to expand the process indefinitely.
The calculus was simple: If a person is prepared to falsely assert X about you, then why would they not also falsely assert Y? Why, in fact, would they not assert every terrible thing under the sun? And if that person has already demonstrably reported those terrible things to your agent, your boss, your colleagues, then why might they not also be in the process of reporting them to your neighbors, your friends, or indeed (as in due course she did) your local police station?
I fell prey to the worst imaginings—suspecting increasingly that everyone I spoke to on the phone or ran into in town had heard Nasreen’s allegations about me, either directly from her or in the form of rumors set off by some Web posting of hers, and that they were secretly harboring the thought that the soft-spoken Englishman in their midst might be some kind of monster.
The fact that I had written a novel several years earlier, The Horned Man, in which a college instructor believes he is being framed for a series of sex crimes, gave the situation a piquancy that didn’t escape me, although I was in no condition to enjoy it. (“How I had managed to lay myself open to an act of such preposterously elaborate vindictiveness,” my hero reflects with a pertinence I struggle to find purely coincidental, “how or why such an intricate engine of destruction could have docked at my life, was still unfathomable.”)
On rare occasions when I was able to persuade myself that this really was all a case of my own worst imaginings, Nasreen would invariably deliver some dismaying new evidence to the contrary. I remember at one point wondering if my sudden interest in honor, name, and reputation was all a bit fanciful. But in February of 2008, a volley of e-mails arrived in which Nasreen explicitly singled out those entities, plucking the words, it seemed, straight out of my own mind.
Your reputation is ass runs the inimitably phrased heading of the first e-mail in this volley. “You think you’re clever but your name is tarnished” goes a line in the next. Never mind that my real self was innocent of everything had she accused me of; out there in cyberspace a larger, more vivid version of myself—Nasreen’s version: the thief, the racist, the sexual predator—had been engendered and was rapidly (so I felt) supplanting me in the minds of other people.