Monday, March 18, 2013 |
Poet and creative writing instructor James Lasdun is probably best known for his novels exploring the world of paranoia and inner torment. He mines similar territory in his latest book, but unfortunately for the British-born writer, now based in upper New York State, the harrowing story it tells is not fiction. Give Me Everything You Have is a memoir of Lasdun's experience of being the target of an online stalker who vowed to destroy his career.
The ordeal began in 2005, when one of Lasdun's former students, a woman he calls Nasreen, contacted him for help with her first novel. What started out as a friendly email exchange turns into a nightmare, as she ultimately launches a campaign of harassment and character assassination using the internet.
In a recent interview on Q, Lasdun acknowledged that "it hasn't been a comfortable book to write or to publish. And it came very much originally out of sheer necessity." Lasdun felt he needed a document to defend himself against the accusations of plagiarism and sexual misconduct that the woman was making against him, and he started writing with the idea that he'd post it on a website. Now he's glad he published it as a book, but acknowledges that "it's not like talking about a new collection of poetry or a new collection of short stories. It's a very personal thing."
Lasdun had taught Nasreen in 2003, and thought she was talented. When she got in touch with him by email a couple of years later, asking for help with the novel she had been writing while in his class, Lasdun recommended her to his agent, who then passed her along to a freelance editor. In the process, Lasdun and Nasreen began a friendly correspondence. "I thought she was a really interesting person, a good writer, an intelligent person and very charming, and I enjoyed being in a correspondence with her."
Things turned sour after Nasreen's emails became increasingly flirtatious. Lasdun made it clear that he was happily married, and the flirting stopped. But the number of emails she sent increased dramatically, and he began to realize he was becoming "the object of something obsessive. It's a disturbing position to find yourself in, and I didn't really know what to do about it."
Lasdun stopped answering her emails, but she continued to send them -- and suddenly the obsessive love turned to hate. "She "sent a volley of emails" accusing him of stealing from her work, and went on to accuse him, his agent and the editor she'd been sent to of being "part of a Jewish cabal that had stolen her work and sold it to other Iranian writers."
The accusations escalated into claims that Lasdun, sometimes in cahoots with other people, had orchestrated a rape that she had experienced. She also accused him of having slept with his students. None of the allegations have ever been proven, and although Lasdun believes that no one who knows him ever took them seriously, he said that "those sorts of things do get to you."
Nasreen's smear campaign included accusing Lasdun of plagiarism for using the text of her emails in a book. Ironically, in Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun does just that. But he said he felt justified in doing so, adding that "in order to write the book, I had to use the emails. They were her weapons."
Lasdun pointed out that the book is not "an attack on her" and that he set out "to try to understand the situation from her point of view." He also believes that "she comes through as a force," even though she uses her energy and inventiveness "in the service of something so destructive."
Lasdun rejects the notion that the book presents only his side of the story. "A lot of the book is her side of the story," he said. "I reproduce the emails partly for that reason, because it's her emails that are telling her side of the story."
When the ordeal first started, he believed "this was a very rare, unusual, bizarre thing that was happening to me." He now realizes that it's commonplace. "I think it's a different kind of mentality from the sort of person who would physically stalk and show up on someone's doorstep," he said. "What the internet offers is this completely unfiltered transmission of thought to thought, of psyche to psyche, and whatever you're feeling you can just sort of put it down and send it out there, and you can do it all in the confines of your room, without any actual contact."
For Lasdun, the experience is a reminder of how important -- and vulnerable -- a person's reputation is. "Anybody who has any kind of interaction with the public world now has this new layer of their self, which is their internet self, their internet presence," he explained. But no one person has control over it. "And yet it has enormous significance, especially if you're a writer or anyone involved in the media."