I became aware that I was being stalked when I woke up one morning last January at a friend’s house, my cell-phone ringing with a number that I recognized and dreaded seeing. My ex, whom I had asked repeatedly not to call me anymore, was calling again. It was becoming a regular occurrence. My stomach clenched – heart racing, I looked at my friend and said, “Why does he keep calling me?! I’ve asked him to stop over and over and he keeps saying he won’t call anymore – I hate this!”
My friend considered for a moment, then said, “Is there a pattern to the calls? Does he call at certain times?” I thought about it.
“Well, not really. He called while I was at the mall last week, and he called while I was working late the week before. But the times and days were different.” The phone stopped ringing and I sighed in relief. After just a few seconds of silence, the text-message alert started going off. Same number. Feeling sick, I read through the message.
Sorry to bother you, it said. I don't blame you for not answering my calls. I’m having a computer problem and it’s snowy and I don’t want to drive anywhere today. Nothing’s open anyway because it’s Saturday. I thought you might be able to tell me how to fix it. I won’t bother you anymore.
“So he’s calling and texting you when you aren’t home,” my friend said. “How does he know you aren’t home?”
At that point, I lived only a block or so away from my ex, but he would have had to drive out of his way to pass my place. During most of that summer and part of the fall, we had often stayed together at his house, though I’d always kept my apartment. The relationship had become horribly abusive, beginning with emotional and mental abuse and ending with physical and sexual assaults and death threats. I had finally gathered up the courage to leave him after he had held a knife to my throat and tried to wreck the car and kill both of us while driving during a snowstorm. That had been a month before, and though he continually assured me that this would be "the last time", he was still calling me.
“Oh my God,” I said, sitting down. My head was spinning and I felt dizzy and cold. “He’s driving by my house…checking to see when I’m there.”
My friend, who is a former police officer with a degree in criminal justice, nodded. “And anytime you aren’t home, he’s calling to see what you’re doing. He may be checking up on you two or three times a day. Or more. Does he know where you work?”
Yes, he knew where I worked. He had visited me there many times when we were still together. My place of employment was an hour away from where we both lived, though, and the realization that my abuser was driving by my house gave me the impetus I needed to make a decision I’d been tossing around. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m moving.”
That was January 30th, 2010. I went home and blocked him from being able to call my phone again. Over the course of the next week, I had blocked him from contacting me by email and on Facebook and MySpace. I got some hang-up calls from a number I didn’t recognize, so I blocked it, too. Finally, the calls stopped. By the end of February, I had relocated to a townhouse apartment very near my job. I moved in on a Friday, working through the entire weekend to vacate my other place. By Sunday night, I was exhausted but relieved to be so far away from my ex. The tension of living near the man who had hit me and threatened to kill me had been greater than I had realized, even before I knew he was keeping tabs on me. I had numbed myself to the fear for so long that I still couldn’t really feel it – instead, I just felt glad to be starting over in a new place. That Monday morning I woke to a light covering of snow. I looked out my front door at 7 in the morning and noticed footprints on the stairs leading up to my apartment. Mine was the only door reached by those steps. The prints came to the top of the stairs and halted there, under my bedroom window. I recognized the treads – they were his shoes. But that was ridiculous...wasn't it? How could he have found me so fast? I pushed it out of my mind and as the days went by with no further sightings or foot-marks, I began to relax.
A month went by. It was peaceful and I felt as if I was settling into my new house. It was so close to work that I could go home over lunch. On April 5th, I was pulling out of my parking lot when I saw a familiar car sitting at the bank across the street. Small. Black. Out of town dealer’s plate on the front. I knew it was him even before I saw his face -- one look at the driver confirmed it. It was my abuser.
He pulled out behind me and I hurried into the parking lot at work. I was relieved when he drove past instead of continuing to follow me. For the rest of the week, I kept looking over my shoulder, but didn’t see him. Then, on April 20th, I left the building for lunch and his car was in the parking lot. Looking around, I saw him standing at the door of the book-store located in the same building where I worked. He was looking at me.
I left work but didn’t go home. Instead, I drove and I cried. Why was he doing this? What did he want? Back at work, later on, I talked to a friend and she advised me to call the police and report it. I was reluctant, but by the next morning I felt so disturbed by his behavior that I did call the local police department. They assigned an officer to give me more information, and promised that he would call me soon. Sure enough, after about fifteen minutes had passed, my cell phone rang. I explained what was going on and the police officer shocked me when he said, “So you’re being stalked.”
I was surprised -- I hadn’t thought of what was happening to me as stalking. The officer told me that the best thing I could do was to file for an order of protection. After he had some more information about how abusive the relationship had been, he urged me not to wait, but to file for the protective order right away. I didn’t take his advice until another two months had passed, mostly because I could hardly believe that I was being stalked. I mean, what if I was wrong? What if my ex’s intentions were entirely innocent? It took seeing him at my workplace a couple more times, seeing him driving up and down the road in front of my home, and him turning up at my work on a Saturday to convince me that I needed to do something. I filed for the order of protection on May 28th – on my way to the courthouse to fill out the paperwork, I saw him less than a block from my work-place again, for the second time that week.
I got my order of protection after punctured tires, destroyed property, a private investigator hired by my ex, and two-hour hearing that was indescribably awful. Since then, my ex appealed the protective order and then dropped the appeal the day before we were to go to court. That was in August 2010. There has been no further destruction of my property, and I have only seen him once since that time; he did not try to make contact. I worry about what will happen when the order expires this July, but I will have to deal with that as it comes.
Because I didn’t recognize my ex’s behavior as stalking, I was reluctant to file for the protective order. I put up with being followed, being watched, and feeling unsafe and fearful because I didn’t know what constituted stalking. I want others to be able to recognize their danger before things get out of control – here is some information about stalking, including the legal definition in the state of Tennessee.
Stalking is a pattern of conduct composed of a series of two or more noncontinuous acts which show a continuity of purpose, which cause significant emotional or mental suffering or distress, and which may include but is not limited to repeated unwanted contact. Stalking is the repeated or continuing harassment of another that would cause a reasonable person to feel frightened, intimidated, threatened, or terrorized. This behavior includes following or appearing within the sight of that person, approaching or confronting that person, whether on private or public property, appearing at that person’s workplace or residence, contacting that person by phone, mail, or electronic means, or appearing or placing an object upon property leased, owned, or occupied by that person (Stalking Resource Center, 2011).
Stalking is a Class A misdemeanor in the State of Tennessee. Aggravated Stalking is a Class E Felony in Tennessee and is distinguished from Stalking by the presence of a weapon, the age of the victim (under 18) related to the age of the stalker, if the stalker has a previous conviction of stalking within seven years of the current offense, if the stalker makes a credible threat to the victim or the victim’s family, or if the stalker was prohibited from coming near the victim by any legal means. There are other levels of offense, and the punishment is different depending on the severity of the crime. Yes! Stalking is a crime, and is punishable by law (Stalking Resource Center, 2011).
Over three million people over the age of 18 are stalked in the US each year. Three out of four of those are stalked by someone they know. Thirty percent of stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner – this is what happened to me. And while men do stalk men, and women also stalk women and men, more often, it is men who stalk women. Seventy six percent of intimate partner femicide* victims have been stalked by their partner, and of these, 67% have been physically abused by their partner. Eighty nine percent of femicide victims who were physically assaulted were also stalked in the twelve months before their murder, and 54% of these victims reported the stalking to police before they were killed by their stalkers (McFarlane et al., 1999).
Stalking is a crime in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia and all US Territories. In only 1/3 of states is it a felony as a first offense, but as discussed above, there are aggravating circumstances that make the crime more severe.
So – what do you do if you’re being stalked? You call the police. Odds are you’ll be advised to file for an order of protection, like I was. Of course, this is going to depend on whether your stalker has contacted or threatened you, and there will be other factors that also have impact. You can also visit your local Legal Aid Agency. Legal Aid will usually consult with you for free before you file for a protective or restraining order. They can tell you what the process is like and can provide you with free legal representation if you need to appear in court. Also document every incidence as it occurs. Take pictures if you can; tell people right away if you see your stalker. Point him or her out to friends so they can witness for you in court. Report each incidence of contact or stalking to the police and ask them to keep records and file reports – also ask them for copies; you’ll have to pick these up and there’s usually a very small document origination fee that you’ll have to pay. Know that the law is on your side and that there are protective measures you can take. Also be aware that no piece of paper will stop someone who is determined to hurt you. Prepare accordingly – be vigilant. Remember that ultimately, you are your best protection.
*Femicide: The murder of a woman; distinguished here because these statistics apply only to women murdered by intimate partners.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (2011) Stalking Resource Center. Retrieved January 26, 2011 from http://www.ncvc.org/src/main.aspx?dbID=dash_Home
McFarlane, Judith, et al. (1999). Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide. Homicide Studies 3, no. 4. Retrieved January 26, 2011 from http://www.ncvc.org/src/main.aspx?dbID=dash_Home.
The author’s own experiences.