I had a stalker during my sophomore year in college. He was a wild-eyed, stringy-haired, shabbily dressed guy who was probably in his mid-twenties. He used to stand outside the small library at my college and stare at me through the window while I studied. At least once, he showed up at my dorm room. And he sent me several “love notes.” The one I remember (because it freaked me out) read, “What happens when a flower is cut off from its source? It dies.”
To this day, I have no idea what I did to inspire this young man’s obsession with me. He was clearly suffering from some sort of mental health issue, and I genuinely did not hate him or wish him any ill will. What I did wish was that he would leave me the hell alone. Yet my repeated attempts to convey the fact that I was not interested in a relationship with him (I had a boyfriend at the time) were for naught. He didn’t stop until the university took steps to ban him from campus.
But even if I’d done something to inspire him, his behavior would have been just as creepy and frightening. Although he never did anything overtly violent, the very fact that he was always watching and following me carried an implicit threat of violence. I never felt safe during the few weeks he stalked me. There were times when I genuinely feared for my life.
And this is why any claim that a person can engage in behavior in the online space that justifies real-life stalking troubles me so intensely. Unfortunately, I am seeing those claims being made in the Hale case. (If you’re not aware of what happened, please see this links post at Love in the Margins for a good round-up.)
It’s clear to me from Hale’s initial post that she knows her behavior crossed the line of normative behavior, but that she has no grasp of why. That’s because, like my stalker in college, she sees her behavior as innocently motivated (in her case, by curiosity and hurt feelings; in mine, by “love”). But seeing your stalking as innocently motivated doesn’t make it any less threatening. Because frankly, all stalkers think their motives are pure.
The minute you start justifying bad behavior by telling yourself you don’t mean any harm, you need to stop. Your bad behavior IS harm, whether you mean it or not.