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Obsession: inside the mind of the stalker

A Limerick pensioner recently became the first person to be sentenced to prison under new anti-stalking laws. He was more a nuisance than a menace, but some stalkers can be a very real danger to their quarry

James Harden, a 66-year-old non-paying tenant on the Dunraven estate in Limerick, harassed Lady Dunraven with telephone calls, letters and unsolicited gifts of chocolate and biscuits over a period of years. He told a third party he intended to marry the Dunraven's daughter, Ana, writing that while he had no idea how this might come about he was ``confident that fate and destiny are on my side.''

It may not be on a par with the case of Jonathan Norman, convicted earlier this month of stalking Steven Spielberg with the intention of raping him; of the well-publicised cases involving personalities like Princess Diana and Madonna, or the more deadly instances of stalking like the man who shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, the killing of John Lennon, or US soap star Rebecca Schaffer murdered by a fan whose advances she spurned, but it's on the same continuum.

While many women, and not a few men, may have experienced unwanted attention at some time, what distinguishes stalking is the sheer persistence of that attention and the fear, or even terror, it eventually induces in the victim.

Stalking has always existed but was not recognised as a separate phenomenon requiring separate measures until relatively recently. The difficulty for the law, as with the lower reaches of sexual harassment, has been in defining the point at which reasonable attention passes over into threatening behaviour.

California led the way. Following a succession of high-profile murders of women, who had reported their fears to police only to be told there was not a thing that could be done until the stalker carried out his threat, it passed an anti-stalking law in 1990 and was quickly followed by the other states.

Stalking was finally outlawed here just last year in a section of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act which criminalises harassment.

The National Victim Center in the US estimates that 200,000 women are currently being stalked there, and that one in 20 women will become victims of a stalker in the course of their lifetimes.

Though 75pc of stalkers are men, there is no single profile, which makes it extremely difficult to devise anti-stalking strategies.

Obsession is obviously the key characteristic and forensic psychologists there now divide stalkers into two categories: those who are suffering from ``love obsession'' and those who are ``simple obsessives.''

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The former, who constitute some 20 to 25 pc of stalkers, may fall in ``love'' with co-workers or casual acquaintances with whom they have no relationship as such; with complete strangers they pass in the street, or, of course, with celebrities.

According to Dr Art O'Connor, consultant forensic psychiatrist at the Central Mental Hospital, ``It's usually a man versus a woman. It can be in the context of a broken relationship or it can be a person just picking out a woman, say a beautiful woman like Helen Bonham Carter (who) was in the news about a year ago.

``The person may not know her at all, but for whatever reason in his own head he can stalk her, follow her in the car, wait outside her house, or whatever it is, and that can go on forever, or for a very long time.

``(He) sometimes feels that he has a special relationship with the victim and if she walks in a certain way or moves her head that confirms it.'' The stalker may imagine he's being sent `secret messages', and may think that ``if the person waves or smiles at someone else, that confirms his idea that there's a special relationship.''

Are stalkers ill? ``Some of these people are mentally ill ... some might be suffering from schizophrenia and actually have delusions. They have false, fixed ideas about the person, while others don't seem to be deluded or mentally ill at all.

``There was a guy I had in recent years. She had a very small supervising role at work and he felt that she slighted him in the work area. He was eventually let go, but it was all appropriate he'd been caught stealing or something like that.

``He followed this woman, he made her life hell and as time went on he did almost violent things like damaging her car, letting the air out of her tyres and so on.

``He was taken to court eventually, to the criminal courts. He was eventually given a very small sentence and he promised everybody that was the end of it, but in a week or two the whole thing was back to normal, if you like. The unfortunate other person had to leave her workplace. Now that doesn't happen very often but it is part of the scenario.''

Before the recent legislation this was the sort of point that had to be reached before the gardai could intervene at all, and indeed Cork Detective Garda, James O'Sullivan, a classic obsessive, who was so enraged when a woman colleague in the Garda Choir refused to leave it with him that he embarked on a campaign which terrorised his victim, received his six-year jail term earlier this month for criminal damage offences, not harassment.

``Stalking,'' says Dr O'Connor, ``sometimes is combined with other types of pseudo-contact like sending messages, love messages or erotic stuff, or abusive stuff like threats through the post ... and phone calls, abusive phone calls, or love ones or silent ones, all of these are part of the thing.

``It's a very difficult problem ... If the person is mentally ill, that is, suffering from schizophrenia, hearing voices or having delusions, such a person can be signed into hospital by his local doctor and so on. Something can be done. But the more usual stalker is just a strange person (who) can't be committed to a hospital because he's not suffering from a mental illness and can't be charged with anything until he commits an offence of some kind.''

As for spotting that `strange personality', it's not so easy. ``There's a whole range of people obviously, but the kind of stereotype, withdrawn strange kind of guy who gets obsessive about various things (is typical).

``But others can be happily married people who, for whatever reason, have got a fixation on the other person. Sometimes the stalking just goes on and on. At other times it can go from a quiet, passive stalking situation to the more threatening one where the person becomes aggressive in his attitude to the victim. It's hard to know why that changes.

``Sometimes the future stalker may `love' his victim for a long period, ``then realise that he person doesn't love them. And they can react to this. But there's no easy answer, and no simple way of knowing.''

According to O'Connor fewer than 10pc of stalkers would be mentally ill. ``The majority of the others are unusual personalities, loners, or people who don't get on with other people, who have very little social contact. But a proportion are normal, or apparently normal, and live a normal life in terms of work, and marriage and so on.

``So we've two different realities. In one you've a very odd kind of person who's victimising, or traumatising somebody, and on the other you've a normal person.''

A series of movies from Klute to Play Misty for Me, to Fatal Attraction and Cape Fear, testify to the hold of the stalker on the Hollywood psyche, but of course the vast majority of stalkers are well known to their victims who will be ex-girlfriends and close work colleagues.

As for just how dangerous stalkers can be. ``I'd say something like 10 to 20 pc (but) you don't know which is which. When you have the individual guy in front of you, you don't know whether he's going to progress to a more violent way of acting or whether he's one of the more numerous passive ones.''

``It doesn't mean that because they're passive they're any less traumatising to the victim, but they don't actually do something violent. You can't tell which is which.''

What the law says

``Any person who ... by any means including by use of the telephone, harasses another by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or comunicating with him or her, shall be guilty of an offence.

``A person harasses another where he or she intentionally or recklessly seriously interferes with the other's peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm (and) his or her acts are such that a reasonable person would realise that the acts would seriously interfere with the other's peace and privacy ...''

Sentences range from 12 months' imprisonment and a £1,500 fine, up to seven years if convicted on indictment. In addition a judge may order a stalker to keep a specified distance from his victim for a specified time.

James Harden was jailed for breaching a previous undertaking given to the court. He has been banned from entering the Dunraven estate for the rest of his life.

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