Out in the Open

In the age of #MeToo, advocate says we need to start talking about stalking

When Julie Lalonde broke up with her abusive boyfriend at the age of 20, she hoped it would be the end of a difficult chapter in her life. Instead, it was the beginning of a decade of stalking and harassment — and she's not the only one.

Almost 2 million Canadians — 1 in 20 — have reported being stalked, according to StatsCan

Julie Lalonde was a 20-year-old student in Ottawa when she broke up with her boyfriend. Over the next 10 years, she says she feared for her life as he stalked and harassed her. (Taylor Hermiston)

This story was originally published on Sept. 6, 2019.

When Julie Lalonde broke up with her abusive boyfriend at the age of 20, she hoped it would be the end of a difficult chapter in her life. Instead, it was the beginning of a decade of stalking and harassment that included visits to her home and workplace, notes on her car and sexual assault.

"I was filled with dread every single day of my 20s," she said, in an interview with Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay. 

"I didn't make long-term plans because I didn't think I would be around to fulfil them.… It crushed my life and made my world very small."

In the age of #MeToo, Lalonde, who is a women's rights advocate, wants to bring the issue of stalking to the forefront. 

Lalonde started dating a good friend in high school. When she moved to Ottawa for university, she says he became deeply controlling. (Submitted by Julie Lalonde)

Statistics Canada calls intimate partner stalking "the most dangerous kind of stalking experienced by Canadians." According to the most recent data from 2014, a third of victims who were stalked by their current or former partners had also been physically attacked or grabbed. Forty-two per cent said they had been threatened with violence.

Almost two million Canadians — one in 20 — reported being stalked in the last five years, according to the 2014 data. The majority of victims — 62 per cent — were female, and close to three-quarters of stalkers were male.

Defined as "repeated and unwanted attention that causes an individual to fear for their personal safety or for the safety of someone they know," stalking is a form of criminal harassment, which falls under the Criminal Code. 

After the stalking started in Ottawa for Lalonde, she went to the police. But she said they dismissed her.

"[The officer] was like, 'Oh, well, you know, he's just heartbroken.… Give him a couple of days, like, he'll get over it,'" Lalonde said.

Other times she went to police, they told her his calls and notes weren't enough to be considered threatening. Within the first year, she gave up going to the authorities altogether.

Lalonde, her then-boyfriend and her father in happier times, working on her car in 2002, when she was 17 years old. Three years later, the stalking would begin. (Submitted by Julie Lalonde)

"Every time I contacted the police, things got worse, and so I thought, 'OK, they're not taking this seriously, and it's making my situation worse,'" Lalonde said. "So I had this mentality that many, many women have … this idea that [the victim] can fix it."

Lalonde was stalked on and off for 10 years. It only ended when her stalker died in a car accident, leaving Lalonde to deal with years of post-traumatic stress. 

'She pushed me to it'

According to criminologist Jane Monckton Smith, among the hundreds of cases she has studied where someone was killed by their current or former partner, nearly all of them began with stalking.

The United Kingdom-based researcher has interviewed convicted murderers as part of her work. She said that many don't see their behaviour as stalking. 

"Sometimes when there are behaviours that are absolutely unreasonable, like putting a camera in the house or a tracker on the car … they would say, 'She pushed me to it.… If she hadn't behaved how she did, I wouldn't have had to put a tracker on the car,'" Monckton Smith said.

Jane Monckton Smith is a criminologist who focuses on domestic violence and homicides. And she says nearly every murder case she's worked on started with stalking. Jane tells Piya what she's learned about this behaviour by meeting with criminals, what she's doing to better equip police to handle stalking cases... and how her work resulted in being stalked herself. 12:07

U.S. journalist Lisa Phillips knows what it feels like to justify obsessive behaviour. At the age of 30, she found herself becoming fixated on a man she knew from graduate school that she had reconnected with. The two shared some intimate encounters, though the man had a girlfriend at the time, which left Phillips confused. 

Journalist Lisa Phillips, who is the author of Unrequited: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Romantic Obsession, found herself having obsessive thoughts about a man she knew from graduate school. (Submitted by Lisa Phillips)

"I was obsessed, depressed, yearning," Phillips said. "That led to this kind of escalating pattern of taking my internal obsession and then using it to aggressively enter the life of somebody else."

She would leave him pleading voicemail messages and go to his place uninvited. One time when she showed up at his door, he had a baseball bat in hand and threatened to call the police.

Her therapist at the time told her she was crossing a line, so she stopped seeing the therapist. 

"I think that that was part of the confusion, that I wasn't listening to the voices that were telling me what I was doing was wrong," Phillips said.

It wasn't until years later, when Phillips started writing about her experiences for her book Unrequited: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Romantic Obsession, that she realized how wrong her actions were. She eventually apologized.

'A spectrum' of stalking

Phillips calls what she did "soft stalking," because while it didn't necessarily rise to the level of criminal harassment, it was still invasive and aggressive. She says it's important for people to understand that there is "absolutely a spectrum" of stalking behaviours.

After a breakup in her 30s, Lisa Phillips was in a bad place. But she found renewed hope in a chance reunion with a former school colleague, whom she quickly grew attracted to. But that soon manifested into obsessive behaviour, which she now acknowledges was invasive, inappropriate, and fell on a spectrum of stalking. Lisa tells Piya why is can be hard to recognize when you've gone too far. 14:07

"There is a real need to face the implications of this behaviour, because what the research shows is it has real impact on people," she said. "It freaks them out, it changes their sense of self, it changes their sense of safety in the world, and it's wrong."

Criminologist Jane Monckton Smith says that while the majority of stalking cases don't lead to a homicide, the experience is damaging and traumatic to victims. (Submitted by Jane Monckton-Smith)

Criminologist Monckton Smith, who was formerly a police officer, says that authorities have only recently started taking these patterns of behaviour seriously. In her work with police in the U.K., she emphasizes the importance of understanding how these patterns escalate, and when to intervene. 

"Instead of saying, 'Oh for goodness sake, it'll probably end. Just let him get over it,' you have to get round there, and you have to do a risk assessment straight away," she said.

During the years that she was being stalked, Lalonde stayed quiet about her experience, despite being an outspoken advocate for women's safety from violence. She said that when stalking victims speak out, it only makes them and the people close to them more of a target — so victims suffer in silence.

"We're never going to have a #MeToo moment around stalking like we do with sexual assault, because by definition, talking about stalking makes it worse," she said. 

After her stalker died in a car accident, Lalonde experienced both grief and post-traumatic stress. She tried to deal with her complicated feelings by travelling. (Submitted by Julie Lalonde)

Lalonde says that as a society, we need to have frank conversations with both young men and women about romance, obsession and respecting boundaries.  

"There is no such thing as a healthy obsession with another human being," Lalonde said.

"The grand gesture — whether it's John Cusack with a boombox outside your house or a guy who drives across the country to prove his undying love to you — those are major red flags that that person is not respecting your boundaries."

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