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The Stalker's World

Against her will, she's come to know his voice. Sometimes weeks or months pass before the call comes, but he always finds her. She's moved four times in the past five years, but that hasn't stopped him from leaving sexually sadistic death threats on her answering machine. His persistence has irrevocably altered the life of this young professional woman. Her stalker is both omnipresent and invisible. She has no idea who he is.

Hers is one of approximately three dozen stalking cases that instructor in psychology Robert Kinscherff, J.D. '92, has followed. "The work is disturbing," Kinscherff admits, "but the more we understand the behavior of stalkers, the more we can intervene effectively."

Kinscherff works with Quincy District Court, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the state Department of Mental Health. He conducts evaluations for the court, attorneys, and stalking victims. He gathers clues from law enforcers and victims, as well as from taped telephone messages, notes, e-mail, and other forms of repeated contact. These data help define degrees of rage expressed by stalkers, and the extent of threatened physical or sexual violence.

Stalkers may be male or female. They can form strong attachments during very brief transactions--for example, in the time it took one convenience-store clerk to make change. Some rapists stalk, but their behavior resembles hunting; although they observe patterns of behavior to establish the best times to attack, the stalking is actually preparation for the sexual assault. In many stalking cases, physical confrontation never occurs.

Nonetheless, Kinscherff says, "The impact on a victim's life can be devastating." Victims must tell employers about the situation, tighten security at home, alert family and friends. Evasive tactics can be annoying and time-consuming, and the pervasive encroachment--especially if you don't know who it is--can be exhausting. To help understand what often seems a baffling phenomenon, Kinscherff has proposed a provisional typology of stalkers.

"Non-delusional" stalkers profess their love for victims, knowing the feelings aren't reciprocated. Kinscherff's example is "Bill," a 37-year-old whose wife filed for divorce a year ago. After repeatedly phoning her and showing up at her home uninvited--pleading with her to reunite, and accusing her of involvements with other men--Bill kicked in the front door and tried to assault her. Like many non-delusional stalkers, Bill's goal was retribution and reinstatement; stalking was his refusal to be rejected.

Celebrities make easy targets for "delusional" stalkers, who believe their targets do reciprocate their affectionate or lustful feelings. These stalkers crave human connections, but enjoy few. "Merry," a 36-year-old woman, delusionally believes that she and her 43-year-old male victim have been in a long-term romantic relationship. She has followed him to work and tried to get a job in the same building. Merry has threatened his wife and even appeared outside the preschool where the couple's children are enrolled--once, she introduced herself as their mother. In fact, no romantic relationship has ever occurred; until the school incident, the man had never met his stalker.

"Psychopathic" stalkers often target strangers; their goal is not to start or keep intimate relationships, but rather to terrorize victims in order to wield control. "Craig," a 27-year-old sexual offender who has already served five years in prison, happened to see a woman who physically resembled a girlfriend who had rejected him. His thoughts and fantasies began to involve this woman, and grew increasingly violent and sexual. After following her to determine her workplace, home address, and identity, he began calling her, leaving brief but very threatening messages. He'd describe his own sexual arousal at the thought of her increasing anxiety, and his ability to induce terror and to control her. After several weeks, he entered her apartment one evening and raped her.

"Paranoid" stalkers sometimes track political figures. They may feel that the CIA is after them, Kinscherff says, or seek out the president "to urge him to call off the governmental forces." Kinscherff mentions "Pete," a 52-year-old software engineer described as an easily irritated "loner" who felt humiliated by what he saw as a new manager's attempt to demean his work. Pete suspected coworkers of giving the manager incriminating information, so they'd be promoted if he were fired. He began following coworkers and his manager, trying to observe when and where they were exchanging information about him. He surreptitiously entered personal and business computers, looking for evidence of the conspiracy against him and leaving threatening messages. The manager eventually called the police.

Kinscherff's typology may eventually prove useful in the prevention and treatment of stalking. A stalker's ability to accept responsibility for his or her behavior can affect probation assessments. Some may respond well to community-based intervention, like a domestic-violence perpetrators group; others should be incarcerated. "Most stalkers I've run across in court"--like Craig--"don't have major mental illnesses or delusional disorders," says Kinscherff. "These are people making conscious decisions."

Does our society encourage the decision to stalk? "Overly aggressive fans are nothing new," says Kinscherff, but the pervasiveness of mass media may facilitate fantasized one-sided relationships--after all, David Letterman, Jodie Foster, even the late John Lennon "appear" in our own homes. If you're a celebrity, with no relationship to the stalker, "there's very little you can do but live," Kinscherff says. "In relationships, however, you need to notice people who are controlling--psychologically, economically, socially--who are obsessive, and willing to violate boundaries of privacy." Yet he adds, "I don't think people have to organize their lives not to be stalked. We can't live our lives in wait."

~Katrina Roberts