How an anti-Semitic cyber-stalker took aim at English author James Lasdun
The Jewish author from England breaks his silence with his first nonfiction book; writing was his escape from non-stop online abuse.
Victims of stalking are typically counseled to ignore their tormentors. Just as trying to banish an unwanted thought invariably lodges that thought in the mind, asking a stalker to stop often yields the counter effect — a fresh round of emails, phone calls, visits or letters.
To the stalker, the contact is proof that her provocations are having the desired effect. The victim cannot shake her.
After years of ignoring his stalker, or contacting her only through law enforcement, James Lasdun has broken his silence with the recent publication of his first nonfiction book, “Give Me Everything You Have.” The book tells Lasdun’s story of being harassed and, later, threatened, by an anti-Semitic former writing student of his.
If ever his stalker, whom he refers to by the pseudonym “Nasreen,” doubted her effect on him, this book should put her concerns to rest. Lasdun experiences the typical symptoms of being stalked: paranoia, sleepless nights, fear, self-doubt and the nagging feeling that he did something to bring on Nasreen’s unwanted affection and, later, hatred.
Over the course of the book, Nasreen becomes almost a mythic force, and Lasdun is compelled to deal with questions of his own reputation, honor and identity — themes that appear, not coincidentally, in his poetry and novels, such as 2003’s “The Horned Man.”
“Give me everything you have,” Nasreen demanded in an email that became the title of the book.
“I feel like at some kind of psychological level, she got it,” Lasdun told me.
Lasdun, a 54-year-old Jewish writer from England, wrote the book in less than a year, working on his computer in the small, furnished office at the back end of a cavernous barn on his Woodstock, N.Y., property where he lives in a 19th-century farmhouse with his wife, Pia Davis, and their two children.
When I interviewed Lasdun there in late January, the office walls were lined with books; they overflowed onto dusty Persian rugs on the floor. A three inch-thick stack of Nasreen’s printed emails — crumpled and clipped in bunches — lay next to the desk.
At the time that Lasdun was writing the book, the house was being moved from its original spot next to the road to its current position some distance up the adjacent hill. Lasdun and Davis wanted to get away from the traffic noise.
On the day that I visited, the house was nearly silent but for the crackling of a wood stove; in the late afternoon the power went out, likely the result of a downed line in the wind. Perhaps because some key scenes of the book take place in New York City, it’s difficult to imagine Nasreen penetrating Lasdun’s serene life on the outskirts of Woodstock.
Lasdun says he first met Nasreen in 2003 when she was a student in his writing class at a college in New York City. Thin, dark-haired and of Iranian descent, she was working on the early chapters of a book about a family in prerevolutionary Iran. Lasdun, her adviser, praised her writing in a class workshop. Two years later, she contacted him to inform him about her progress, and he agreed to review her manuscript so that he could recommend her to his agent.
The two met at a cafe in the West Village so that she could hand off the manuscript. According to Lasdun’s book, that uneventful coffee date was the last time that he saw her in person. Their email exchange, however, continued. Meanwhile, Nasreen met with Lasdun’s agent, who steered her to a freelance editor who she thought could help elevate her book to publishable quality.
Over time, Nasreen’s emails to Lasdun increased in frequency and flirtatiousness. She accused him of having an affair with another student; he denied it and told her he was happily married.
Then, after a long period of silence on Lasdun’s part, she wrote her first overtly hostile message: “…f—k you… you’re unethical, an ‘irresponsible hippy’…. You had no integrity with me….”
Then began the anti-Semitic tirade in which Lasdun became a stand-in for all Jews, Zionists, Israelis, even for the Bush administration, and Nasreen became the Arab people, a self-described “verbal terrorist”: “Look, Muslims are not like their Jewish counterparts, who quietly got gassed and then cashed in on it… my people are crazy motherf—kers, and there will be hell to pay for what your people have done to them….”
Nasreen claimed that Lasdun and his agent, who is also Jewish, were part of a Zionist cabal that stole her manuscript and sold it to a few Jewish Iranian authors who were publishing on similar topics at the time, such as the novelist Gina Nahai. Nasreen accused the non-Jewish freelance editor of co-conspiracy.
Nasreen’s anti-Semitism makes the stalking case atypical. And in fact, Lasdun is an atypical victim. Most people who are stalked are women, and in many cases, the people who do the stalking are their jilted male lovers. Anti-Semitism, or the notion of “Jew versus Arab,” may have been a “ready-made” narrative for Nasreen to plug into, said Brian Spitzberg, a San Diego State University professor who studies stalking.
“If she has been traumatized and victimized, she needs someone to view as guilty,” he said. “She has figured it out, and she has to exact the kind of trauma on him that was exacted on her.”
“I thought she must be having some very strange sort of breakdown and she is going to be deeply embarrassed, but she just kept doubling down,” Lasdun said during our interview. “This is pure conjecture, but I felt she put [the anti-Semitism] out there as a sort of shock thing, and then somehow, possibly out of shame or guilt, she kind of cornered herself. ‘Did I say that? Okay, well that is what I am going to be from now on, and I am going to say it louder and louder.’”
Nasreen also claimed that Lasdun orchestrated her rape by a co-worker, that he repurposed ideas she shared with him in a short story and that he used her emails in his work. (This last point, of course, became true with the publication of Lasdun’s book, which contains dozens of Nasreen’s email messages. Lasdun, however, sees it only as a “superficial irony or paradox”: “I feel because I am justified in telling the story, I am justified in using the emails.”)
Nasreen went public with these and other complaints in the comments section of his book pages on Amazon.com and Goodreads. She also wrote a lengthy email to his boss at a college near Woodstock, enumerating her many grievances.
Meanwhile, Lasdun’s creative output diminished. Between 2007 and 2010, he and his wife wrote a travel guide together, and he published a single book of stories, “It’s Beginning To Hurt,” made up mostly of previously written material. “He couldn’t move forward. He was blocked,” was how his agent of 27 years described his condition in an interview. (Lasdun asked that the agent, who is identified by a pseudonym in the book, remain nameless, out of concern that publicizing her identity could put others in the book at risk.) Lasdun’s apprehension grew. The fact that Nasreen had moved to California was cold comfort; he wondered whom she would contact next.
In an effort to wrest control of his own narrative, he tried to document the stalking on a personal website, complete with samples of Nasreen’s emails that he could show to future employers or professional contacts in case she reached them. But he realized how paranoid it made him seem. “To say, ‘Someone is accusing me of being in a Jewish conspiracy to steal her work and sell it to Jewish Iranian writers,’ I mean, right off the bat you can tell that whoever is listening thinks they are entering into a world of total lunacy,” he said. Instead, Lasdun decided to write a book. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice about writing it,” he said. “It was all I could think about.”
In fact, writing the book is the only activity that has offered him psychological relief. “The most unpleasant part of it was not being able to think about other things,” he said. “Writing about it has made me less captive to it.”
He says the project also made him probe his own ideas about anti-Semitism, and it led him to revisit an incident in the life of his father, the renowned British architect Sir Denys Louis Lasdun. His father received a hate letter not unlike Nasreen’s when he was drawing up a proposal for the Hurva Synagogue, a historic building in Jerusalem. Lasdun is now researching a project on a distant relative named Baron Maurice de Hirsch who seeded Jewish farming settlements in the 1800s.
But the situation with Nasreen is far from resolved. Last summer, she began calling Lasdun at home. One time, Pia Davis answered the phone. She can’t remember what they spoke about — “She didn’t say anything totally crazy” — but she does remember Nasreen accusing her of having the call traced by the police. Nasreen left several ferocious messages on the home answering machine. (After getting the approval of lawyers from his publisher, Lasdun played one of the messages for me. She sounded measured at first, then veered into a shriek: “The more trouble you get me into, the more deep you’re in, you piece of f—king dirt!” The publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux said that it relied on Lasdun’s account of the stalking, which corresponded with his agent’s story, to vet the book.)
Today, the situation is being investigated by Thomas Fisch, a detective in the New York City Police Department’s hate crimes unit. (Fisch said that he is unable to comment on the case, because it is an “active investigation.”) On May 22, 2012, Nasreen wrote the freelance editor an email: “I just filed a police report against [my brother] and James. If James lies, I will find a way to NY to murder him I’m serious…. Your bloodcult is s—t.” According to Lasdun, this was the first time Nasreen threatened him with murder (her other violent emails he describes in the book as “death wishes,” but not quite death threats), and, he said, it tipped the case into more serious legal territory. According to Lasdun, Fisch now felt that he could extradite Nasreen to New York from California to stand trial.
Lasdun was eager to take this step, thinking that it would finally bring the case on track to a resolution. But his agent said that she and the freelance editor, both of Manhattan, trembled at the idea of Nasreen roaming the city before her potential trial. The extradition was put on hold.
Lasdun says he hasn’t received a phone call from Nasreen since August, and he has blocked her various email addresses so that any messages go straight to delete. Though he is under no illusion that the stalking is over for good, he says that writing has freed him. According to Spitzberg, this is often the case for stalking victims who go public with their stories. Sometimes, taking out a temporary restraining order against a stalker can make the stalking intensify. But for the victim, there is a “high satisfaction rate,” a feeling of being legitimized. Writing a book can have the same effect. “It’s probably a tactical error in terms of the stalking, but it’s part of the healing process for the victim.”
“I thought it was very brave of him to write this book,” said Ellen Ullman, a computer programmer and novelist who deals with issues of technology and obsession in her books. “I wondered what would happen to him after this and if it would make it worse, if it would make her feel pleased at what a huge reaction she had produced in him,” Ullman said.
I asked Lasdun if he is worried that Nasreen will rear her head again if she learns about the book. “What is the point of keeping quiet about it?” he said. “How much worse can it get?”