In most love stories, a man pursuing a woman is depicted as gallant, noble, and deeply romantic. When a woman pursues a man, we call her “crazy,” “obsessed,” and “unstable.” Why one gender is gallant and the other nutso, I’m not sure, but one thing is clear: the female gone mad with love makes for one hell of an unconventional narrative — or as William Congreve put it in The Mourning Bride, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” And when that scorn can manifest in emails, comments, and digital subterfuge, the girlish chase becomes a sinister manhunt.
In James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, we get a story half crime procedural, half memoir of attack. Lasdun’s story focused on how his reputation was systematically destroyed by a former writing student called “Nasreen.” Lasdun sees her writing, exploring themes of Iranian and American love, as a sign of true talent, and he genuinely supports her work. Nasreen graduates, two years go by, and Lasdun receives her email asking for help in securing a literary agent — an initial overture that soon turns more personal and romantically suggestive. When Lasdun gently declines her advances, Nasreen’s emails accuse him of student favoritism, then sexual harassment and assault, then racism, then full-blown plagiarism and criminal activity. When Lasdun declines to answer her emails, Nasreen incorporates her threats into everything from Amazon reader comments to university review boards, spreading her anti-semitic, tawdry comments to all of Lasdun’s friends and colleagues. Soon she infiltrates every part of his life, spreading lies and gossip and threatening to expose “the truth” behind his web of lies.
As Lasdun noted in his recent interview with The Millions, this book was “written right from the thick of the experience,” and the immediacy of the tale’s telling imbues each detail with a palpable sense of dread. Lasdun builds plenty of suspense and momentum — not only as each blistering attack lands, but also as Nasreen’s motivation remains indecipherable. The glimpse of their real-life interaction is extremely brief — in person, she is demure, even appreciative of his time. It is only when the firsthand communication disappears, and they transfer their relationship to email, that lines become blurred and the power dynamic begins to shift. When Nasreen coyly insinuates that Lasdun had snapped at her in class (a lover’s quarrel, in her mind), Lasdun is equally coy in his response. “Are you sure I didn’t just push you to declare an opinion on something? (I remember you being rather reticent.)” He then adds, semi-prophetically, “As George Eliot said, the last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people.” Nasreen’s early impressions of him become Lasdun’s downfall, and he is sent reeling by how easily she insinuates herself into his life — at work, at home, and in his online likeness (impersonating him on various websites, sending racist and sexist articles using his email address). If, as noted in his Millions interview, this is the story of “two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters,” Nasreen’s greatest crime is becoming too powerful an author. “One has no control over the use other people make of one’s image or the sound of one’s voice or any other outward manifestation of oneself,” Lasdun writes, as he finds himself a character rather than the captain of his own story. She has hijacked his very sense of self. “Life, death, honor, reputation. Such, at this point, are the terms and stakes of the challenge.”
However, in order to paint Nasreen as a mad woman with a powerful grudge, Lasdun takes an unnecessarily dry and impersonal tone, using supplementary texts on the nature of obsession to further his case. (On his reading list: Tintin — the books with Arab villains, natch — Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, D.H. Lawrence’s personal biography, or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Perhaps we should give Lasdun credit for not citing Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard.) As he goes into his analysis, painting Nasreen as a stalker and himself as a heroic naïf, the more he starts to sound like Humbert Humbert, more complicit than innocent, more culpable than defensible. There are moments where his humility cannot help but sound like a humblebrag: “I want to know what she thinks she is doing. [ . . . ] What happened—between us, or to her alone — to make my unremarkable existence matter so much to her?” He does acknowledge that in trying to write this story, his motivation is as cloudy as Nasreen’s:
I have a strong vested interest, after all, in claiming that Nasreen was fundamentally sane. I want to hold her responsible for her behavior. [ . . . ] But I also have to admit that if I didn’t, I would probably feel uncomfortable writing about her. Uncomfortable not only from a personal point of view but also from a litery one.
Heaven forbid that Lasdun’s literary ethics be violated in depicting the actual truth — perhaps this is the problem when the author is also the main character. In trying to mount a self-defense, Lasdun’s case rests on giving Nasreen full agency — an impossibility, given that throughout her attacks, he never once confronts her directly. “I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering,” Lasdun noted in his interview, “[nor] the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you.” Incidental or not, Lasdun’s silence allows him to be the “bigger guy” in this scenario, and so his descriptions of Nasreen are anything but empowering: he compares her to a groundhog, “defiantly present in my garden every morning.” In the final section, set during a trip to Israel, Lasdun tries to provide a global context for Nasreen’s behavior, and in doing so overly simplifies her crimes to a simple clash of cultures. (Comparing Nasreen’s missives to the Wailing Wall is even more grating.) In the very act of writing down his “side of the story,” Lasdun denies us the chance to cross-examine him.
So what did really happen? Yes, Lasdun was pursued; yes, he was attacked; yes, he remains wary of Nasreen’s next move even today; and yes — he will continue to represent himself as victim even as he promotes this book. It’s a pity that while so many stories of female victimization (sexual and otherwise) are grouped into the “women and gender studies” category, Lasdun may sit front and center on the “New in Nonfiction” table . . . a categorization that only holds up as well as you can believe that a one-sided story can be taken as irrevocable truth. Lasdun himself does express doubts at the very writing of this story: “It is a recurrent anxiety of mine, this fear of irrelevance, and I have no argument against it other than [ . . . ] that sometimes the urge to write these very private things is stronger than the doubts about whether they are worth writing.” Only Lasdun can tell us whether the story was worth it — the bigger question, the one that snakes itself to the front of my mind at each line of flowery recrimination, is whether Lasdun should’ve taken his story public. “Was I am objective, impartial observer, a purely neutral participant in those early months of our exchange?” he asks, and then answers: “I was not. Nobody ever is.” And so I wonder, as the praise-laden reviews roll out, if a certain former student is clicking onto Amazon and Goodreads and slowly, methodically, conducting her own self-defense.