MARCH 9, 2013
THE KIND OF STALKING described in James Lasdun’s meditative new memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, is new in history. Lasdun isn’t concerned with the apartment stakeouts of a starstruck fan or being shadowed by a jilted lover. His stalker never presents herself in person (she and he were acquainted at one time, but the stalking began only after their last encounter), which lends a sinister twist to the story. An embodied stalker can be in only one place at a time. An internet stalker — what “Nasreen” (a pseudonym) proved to be — can attack copiously and seemingly inexhaustibly, all day long and even in the guise of other people.
Lasdun is a versatile and prolific writer who has published two novels, four story collections, and three poetry collections. He also teaches in graduate writing programs. Give Me Everything You Have is, on the most straightforward level, the story of his victimization by a crazed former student who accused him of everything from stealing parts of her novel to being a philanderer and a rapist. Had it been merely (merely!) that, the book would still stand out from the usual round of victim memoirs by virtue of the author’s empathy for, and curiosity about, his tormentor. But Lasdun has more to offer than this. His associative and literary cast of mind leads him to digressions on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, a cross-country journey to D.H. Lawrence’s ranch in New Mexico, his architect father’s various municipal projects in London and Jerusalem, and the psychology of anti-Semitism. The relevance of these asides, absorbing in themselves, becomes clear as this graceful, circularly constructed book unwinds.
The origin of the stalking dates back to 2003. Lasdun is teaching at a New York City institution that he calls Morgan College but that is likely NYU. A thirtysomething Iranian-born woman in his class strikes him as having unusual talent, and he encourages her warmly. Two years later, when Nasreen, having finished her novel, gets back in touch with him, he offers to recommend her to his agent. Over the following weeks and months, the two keep up an email correspondence that Lasdun describes as increasingly flirtatious on Nasreen’s part. Lasdun admits that in general he “quite likes” being flirted with, and he finds himself charmed by Nasreen’s nimble intelligence and her interest in the details of his work and home life. When his agent is slow in getting to the novel, Lasdun offers to read a portion of it himself. He and Nasreen meet in a café in the West Village so that she can give him the manuscript. They have a short conversation, during which he mentions a worry that happens to be on his mind: he and his wife are losing the longtime subtenant of their New York City apartment. Sharing this apartment with the tenant has, for years, allowed Lasdun to take on teaching jobs in the city even though his primary residence is upstate.
Lasdun is impressed by the manuscript. His agent does not take it on. And now, by Lasdun’s report, Nasreen’s emails cross the line from flirtatious, and a bit too frequent, to overtly off-kilter. She proposes that he smuggle her into his train sleeper, and she makes it clear that she believes he has had an affair with another student in their MFA class.
Lasdun, startled, replies that he is “really […] extremely happily married” and suggests breaking off their correspondence. Nasreen offers an apology. But, before long, her emails again become amorous and importuning. Eventually Lasdun decides silence is the best response. For months he ignores a barrage of eccentric messages — and then Nasreen cracks, her amorousness morphing into aggression. Her attacks contain a theme that will continue for years to come: the evil character of Jews and their nefarious role in global affairs. (Nasreen is Muslim and Lasdun is Jewish.)
Fuck you […] you had no integrity with me […] I think the holocaust was fucking funny […] Do you have to be the stereotype of a Jew, James […] I’m NOT in love with you, I want your apartment […] give me your fucking keys.
From here on (we have arrived at the summer of 2006), the story escalates diabolically. First Nasreen begins emailing Lasdun’s professional associates (including the agent who rejected her), heaping abuse and accusations on both him and them. She contacts Lasdun’s employers, claiming that he had affairs with students and that he has sold material from her manuscript to other writers. (One employer, faced with such an email, assures Lasdun that he doesn’t care about the affairs; Lasdun barely convinces the man that they never happened.)
By the end of 2007, mysterious reviews on Amazon and other literary websites savage Lasdun’s character and his writing, and his Wikipedia entry is tampered with. Nasreen accuses Lasdun of having engineered her rape by a former employer — before she ever became Lasdun’s student. By mid-2008, she has discovered how to send emails from Lasdun’s own address; his colleagues are inundated with pornographic and paranoid rants that seem to come from him. She also manages to persuade scores of companies that “James Lasdun” has inquired about their products, and he has to fend off sales reps for Hummer and other merchants at one of the colleges where he works (sounds slightly humorous, surely wasn’t). When Lasdun contacts the FBI, they have more urgent things to do than restrain an unbalanced emailer who hasn’t even issued a death threat.
Lasdun, whose fiction is notable for its psychological subtlety (and, uncannily, themes of obsession and victimization), sees himself as a case study for the precise psychic impact of internet aggression. He notes, in himself, the depression, anxiety, and rage one might expect a stalking victim to suffer, but he goes further. “Her obsession with me achieved perfect symmetry,” he writes. “I became just as obsessed with her. I couldn’t think about anything except her, and pretty soon I couldn’t talk about anything except her.” He cautions himself not to assume that every person with whom he comes in contact has already been poisoned against him by Nasreen — but every time he does so, “Nasreen would invariably deliver some dismaying new evidence to the contrary.” Lasdun begins to be tormented by the vertiginous sense that he possesses a second self, constructed entirely by others, that operates in a realm beyond his control. As he notes, the internet has a “multiplying effect […] anything on it can be infinitely reproduced.” Which means he must constantly wonder: “Who else has seen what you have seen? Who believes it? Who finds it entertaining? Who has copied it, posted it elsewhere, emailed it to a friend? One never knows.” Lasdun becomes newly appreciative of what used to seem to him the archaic concepts of “reputation” and “honor” (his discussion of Gawain touches strongly on these). At times he has a powerful desire to hide his face in public, as if he is guilty of the acts Nasreen says he is. There is no real remedy: to track down and try to rectify all of Nasreen’s digitized distortions would take more hours than there are in the day.
Ultimately Lasdun comes to believe that sanity is fundamentally helpless against insanity. A crazed person is simply more motivated, persistent, and focused on her task than a sane person can ever be in self-defense. While his colleagues assure him that they don’t believe Nasreen’s wild assertions, Lasdun knows that nonetheless those assertions have changed the way he is perceived. Just as hostile campaign ads have been shown to make viewers feel more negatively toward candidates even when those viewers reject the ads’ content, being connected repeatedly with words like “rape,” “sadist,” and “racist” is bound to leave a taint. Lasdun is highly preoccupied in this volume with metaphors of dirt and excrement; being “slimed” feels nearly literal to him.
Lasdun does not fail to ask himself in what ways he may have contributed to Nasreen’s pathological obsession. Mostly this inquiry comes off as the excessive self-questioning of an individual prone to overthinking and guilt. Nasreen was, in lay terms, crackers. But Lasdun tries to see his voluble teacherly praise and his talk of his empty apartment through her eyes. He admits that he had her in mind when he wrote a story he’d been struggling to complete for some 20 years: Her character (or his perceptions of it) unlocked the key. Nasreen read the story when it was published, and it may, Lasdun thinks, have fed her delusions of being robbed by him. Lasdun comments:
People are always in various stages of different dramas when you encounter them: freshly embarked on some, halfway or more through others. One is always approaching the denouement of this or that subplot of one’s life. And you, the stranger, entering the picture in all your blundering innocence, may well be the catalyst for some long-awaited climax.
Eventually, the FBI does order Nasreen to lay off, which, after five long years, inhibits the abuse but does not end it completely. So novelistic is Lasdun’s telling, so literary his style, that I was surprised at this non-ending; I had been waiting for the wrap-up, the satisfying resolution. But it’s real life that Lasdun is writing about. Nasreen has most recently taken to phoning the Lasduns’ home, “demanding money, promising to go on harassing me until I pay, telling my wife I slept with all my female students (except for Nasreen herself), all in a bizarre, unrecognizable singsong voice, full of wearily sarcastic allusions to the things Jews do (`I know it’s in the Torah, I know it’s in the Talmud, that you’re supposed to rape gentiles, steal from them’).” Horrifyingly, she tries to “friend” Lasdun’s daughter on Facebook and informs Lasdun that “your daughter is fucked […] Your family’s going to get it.” (On this note, I was surprised that Lasdun never expresses a fear that Nasreen might do him or his loved ones physical harm. Perhaps this is the difference between being a man and a woman. Physical violence would have been my own top worry.)
What has changed, of course, despite Nasreen’s continued presence, is that Lasdun has written this book. He has been put through a great deal of unnecessary suffering, but now he has taken charge of the story; he is no longer letting Nasreen fully set its terms. Does this mean he has “won”? There were times while reading Give Me Everything You Have that I thought so, and I felt exhilarated, as if my team had come from behind to take the lead on the soccer field. But when I examined this feeling, it deflated rather abruptly. As a lifelong bookworm, a person in love with print, I would feel as if something between two covers has a solidity and an authority that supersede the ricocheting delusions of the internet. But how many other people think the way I do? And how many people are going to read, or even read about, Give Me Everything You Have? If I were ever to meet Lasdun in person, wouldn’t my first thought be, “There’s the writer that happened to?” Even though I surely wouldn’t perceive him as “slimed” in the way he fears, my encounter with him would still have been manipulated by a malevolent third party. And Nasreen is still out there, still able to create up-to-the-minute online lies while Lasdun’s book collects dust on the bookshelves. If Nasreen’s aim, as seems likely, was to make her former teacher pay attention to her, then she has been utterly victorious. This very book, a weapon against her, is also a tribute to her power.
Perhaps there is nevertheless a different, more spiritual victory for Lasdun in his successful struggle to avoid dehumanizing the woman who has made his life so hellish. Given all that he has lost, the passages that conclude this elegant book are striking in their generosity. In them Lasdun, who describes himself as altogether secular, identifies Nasreen’s gaping and unstoppable need to engage with a transhistorical religious and artistic impulse. I won’t reproduce the sentences here; they are too beautiful to take out of context. Suffice it to say that even though Nasreen is emotionally ill, Lasdun recognizes that she has merely amplified and acted out an agony that stirs in the bowels of every one of us. We want love. We want affirmation. We want the universe to notice us and answer our heartfelt pleas. And the universe is almost always silent, as Lasdun has finally learned to be silent toward his pleading, love- and hate-sick former student.