Stalked by fear

March 12, 1999

More and more academics are being harrassed at work. One victim, David Canter, describes his 18 months of hell and tells others how to protect themselves

When does determination to see justice done become harassment, requiring judicial protection? A student may ask four or five times to have an essay marked and returned. This may be dismissed as over-enthusiasm. But if there are ten such requests in a day, is that harassment? Most would agree that an increase to 100 requests would certainly be offensive. But where is the border to be drawn? These are not subtle academic questions, but important ones that an increasing number of academics have to answer.

More and more examples are coming to light in universities of people being hounded by a colleague, a student or, as in my case, a secretary. The targets of these campaigns suffer abusive letters, challenging confrontations, unwanted presents, surreptitious or overt surveillance, spreading of malicious gossip and intrusion into private property.

Often, the targets receive many telephone calls or emails from their tormentor. I got more than 50 telephone calls to my house of an evening, on and off over 18 months. They may stop only when the victim secretly moves.

The first sign my secretary, Gillian Hartshorne, might be about to cause me trouble was when she informed me that if I did not extend her one-year, fixed-term contract, she would commit suicide. This rang alarm bells, but the only course of action available to me was to reassure her that I was sympathetic and would review her situation if the financial circumstances allowed.

It is the quotidian quality of stalking that makes its initial stages so difficult to identify. Any one of the actions of a stalker is, on its own, not unusual and not illegal. Telephoning, sending notes or presents, or calling at a home address are not against any law. Within the informal style of university life, the mixture of contacts between all ranks of staff and students confuses the distinction between personal and official communications.

The change in the legal situation that gave victims the possibility of redress began to emerge in the US in the late 1980s after the real dangers inherent in stalking were recognised. Five unrelated murders occurred of women who had been stalked. In 1989, a television actress was shot dead by a fan who had stalked her for two years. In the outcry that followed, the California legislature enacted an "anti-stalking law" in 1990. Seven years later, Britain's Protection from Harassment Act became law.

Most anti-stalking laws recognise two levels of seriousness in the offence. The lesser is any repeated, wilful or malicious following or harassment. The more serious is to make credible threats with the intention of placing the victims or their families in reasonable fear of violence: in Britain, this crime's maximum sentence is three years' imprisonment.

This type of legislation reveals how difficult it is for the courts to handle those activities that lie on the border of mental disturbance and criminality. The secretary who left messages on my answerphone - running from sobbing accounts of her daily life and the welfare of her cats to ranting tirades about how she would destroy me - would still ask, even a year after leaving the university, "Why do you not answer my calls?" Clearly, such a person cannot be regarded as "normal". But although in this case the court has wisely asked for a psychiatric assessment before sentence is passed, it is difficult to see what diagnosis can be offered in cases of this type other than that of the rather ambiguous "personality disorder". Throughout her years of harassment, she refused to seek or accept medical or psychological help.

I happened to be a victim who was able to take her to court as a way of getting her to stop. The legal process was the last resort in a long line of actions that had failed. Yet it is obviously a blunt instrument for treating such a complex psychological problem.

The reason I was able to get redress was, in part, because the legislation was enacted more or less at the time she started to harass me. My experiences as an expert witness, and in studies of criminal activity and investigation, had made me aware of the need to document the activities of my tormentor if the legal process were to work. But the attention to detail needed had personal costs.

No matter how much I sought to minimise my experiences as just another interesting project, the bombardment with abuse from a person I had briefly trusted with an important role in my professional life did make me anxious and edgy, eventually surfacing in nightmares. I therefore tried to limit the notes I kept, and recorded the seemingly endless messages left on my answerphone by turning my tape recorder on and then leaving the room. I felt anything more thorough would suck me into my stalker's bizarre world.

The legal process, however, is insensitive to these psychological niceties. The defence counsel tried to imply that my casual notes and haphazard recordings indicated a lack of concern with the events I was suffering.

The prosecution counsel required me to stand in the witness box for a day and a half listening to one of the tapes I had recorded and then to his rendition of the transcripts of a further six tapes recording calls. He even introduced the dramatic ploy of getting me to read out the sections of early transcripts that recorded what I said to the perpetrator in an attempt to convince her to stop harassing me.

The legal process required me to stand in the publicity of the court listening to the insults and calumnies that I had avoided focusing on over a 12-month period, and avoided reporting in detail to anyone but the police and university authorities. I had to stand there knowing that national newspaper journalistswere writing everything down. Yet I was given hardly any chance to challenge what was being read out. I had to rely on the good sense of the judge and jury, and hope the reporters would see how illusory the claims being made by my tormentor were.

The guilty verdict was a relief, but the experience has left me feeling more vulnerable to colleagues. It has made me realise how difficult it is for any organisation to support its members in such cases. Universities are constrained by the need to show that they are seeking fair play all round and to operate within the protections provided by employee law. Victims must protect themselves. I believe the strongest protection is to be alert to the earliest signs that a relationship may drift into one of tormentor and victim, and thereafter to keep activities well documented against the possibility that the only respite may be gained through the rule of law.

David Canter is professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool.

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