Escape from a baleful gaze

September 12, 1997

Sociology lecturer Robert Fine tells Harriet Swain what it is like to be stalked by a student and how writing about it has helped him cope

Robert Fine has not seen Mrs M for over a month. "Maybe she's been on holiday," he quips, without laughing. Maybe she is no longer interested in him. Maybe she is planning a new campaign. The fact is, he does not know and the temptation must be to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

After more than three years of finding her staring in through the window as he opens his curtains, or sitting in a car outside his house or following him into the local swimming pool, or telling his students he has sexually harassed her, he says he is slowly learning to get on with his life.

It has not been an easy ride. Nor is it over. Last November, Dr Fine, a 51-year-old sociology lecturer at Warwick University, was awarded Pounds 5,000 damages against Eileen McLardy, who was also ordered not to go within 200 yards of his home. Mrs McLardy, 50, a mother of three and a former mature student at Warwick, had started following him around the campus at the end of 1993, saying he had sexually harassed her. In court, she accused him of assaulting both her and her husband Angus - claims which the judge rejected.

The 1996 judgment was, for Fine, the successful end to a long legal battle. But three legal cases are still pending. One is to recover the damages awarded to him, one to recover costs and a third (which started last week) to warn McLardy that if she does not abide by the restraining order of the court she will be liable for a committal proceeding.

Then there is the book, written after a publisher approached him. Stalking, after all, is a good seller and has become the latest "in" media crime with court cases involving victims from Pamela Anderson lookalikes to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Fine's case offered a rare twist - a woman stalking a man. While he told the court she had never threatened to chop his legs off, she had warned that she would destroy him and he feared for his physical safety.

Writing, says Fine, was a way of "trying to get something positive out of what was a pretty negative experience". He had already kept a diary of the stalking incidents in an attempt to gain some kind of perspective. As a sociologist, he was also curious. "Here was this thing - stalking - which had become a bit of a phenomenon of the 1990s and here it was happening to me," he says. "What was it? What did it signify? Why was it emerging now as a publicly perceived problem and what was so disturbing about it? After all, it is just someone standing there."

He fell victim to the campaign by Mrs M, as he calls her, soon after breaking up with a long-term partner, by whom he had a seven-year-old daughter. "The way I experienced what was happening was as a sign of how appalling human relationships can become," he says. Without feeling he had provoked the situation, he began to wonder whether there was something about him which had made him attract a stalker. "It certainly makes you reflective about your own life, that if somehow you had led your life more normally, or better, this might not have happened," he says.

His immediate reaction, which he now thinks misguided, was to push his problems to the back of his mind and pretend they were not happening. He tried to continue with his life and work, while only half-concentrating. But his anxiety surfaced physically. He began to suffer from palpitations and mysterious pains. He became wary of the most normal encounters and angry at the constant intrusion to the point of wanting to strike out, although he never did. "I hit rock bottom," he says. "But now I'm bracing up. There is a sense that things aren't totally dire after all."

One crucial source of support was his friends. While he resisted telling the university as long as possible - which he now regrets - he did confide in his friends. Other colleagues soon learned about it too. All were supportive. "Because it went on for so long I didn't want to bore them to tears and it's all such a dirty business there is a tendency to hide it," he says. "But I did the opposite and made it public and they were great. They took the mickey, offered me support, all the good things."

This was in spite of attempts by Mrs M to construct the kind of feminist and class-based arguments likely to strike a chord with members of a sociology department. Fine, she claimed, treated her as a sexual object, had affairs with other students and abused his position as a man senior to her. She said she pursued her complaint for the sake of all women and was being punished for refusing to take on the traditional female passive role. She was a "very lowly working-class person" struggling against the male-dominated, middle-class, legal and educational systems.

They were explanations which clearly troubled Fine himself. His book devotes several pages to wrestling with them, concluding eventually: "She did stalk and I don't think it helps to see this as a misplaced class or feminist struggle." More likely, he thinks, is that he personified everything she disliked: "The trendy sociologist, the political radical, the unattached academic, the divorcee, the philanderer, perhaps even the Jew."

He suggests she may also have been confused by the informal/formal relationships which exist between staff and students at university. While everyone is on first-name terms, goes to the pub together, argues their point, it is still the case that the lecturer is in a position to help them pass or fail a degree. Fine has found it difficult to resume this "open-textured" relationship with students since his stalking experience, although he has tried.

Determined not to let it blight his life, he has discovered a kind of strength from the nightmare of the past four years in realising he could handle an almost unbearable situation and, in a way, resolve it. "The good news is, time heals and quite quickly if things are going right," he says. "But occasionally, when she was outside my house again, it brought back all the old palpitations. Sometimes, I can imagine it could start all over again."

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