Friday, October 5, 2007

Don't Feed The Stalker

image courtesy Natalie

Since Jesse's telling stories, let me tell one, too. Yes, I know it's long. And we've all just been fucking rays of sunshine around here this week. We promise we'll work on that -- next week.

But hey -- it's late Friday night, and weirdness abounds.

I still remember it as a gorgeous October day -- peaceful and warm, not unlike today, in fact. We were still living in our little country place in California. The kids were small -- and still in school, this being before I started homeschooling them. Mr R, as usual, had left at the crack of dawn for work in the City. I got up later to get the kids off to school. When I got back to the house, the phone was ringing.

The gravity was in Mr R's breath before he even spoke a word. No "hi, honey." No chit-chat. He had his most serious listen-up-I'm-taking-care-of-business command voice on, and he went straight to the point.

"We've had a situation here at work. We can talk about it later: right now, I want you out of the house as fast as you can manage it. Pack what you and the kids need for the next day or two; and a change of clothes for me, too, please. The police are on their way over, and they'll stick around until you lock up.

"Then, go get the kids out of school. I have a phone number for you to give the principal, and she's to call it as soon as you're off the grounds. I want you to take the kids out of town -- do not bring them into San Francisco -- and plan to spend the rest of the day away from the house. It doesn't really matter where you go, as long as you're nowhere within 50 miles of home. I'll catch up to you when I get things settled here, and we'll discuss the whole thing then."

OK. So much for any plans I might have had for the day. It took me under 15 minutes to throw the overnight basics together for the four of us and lock up the house. The sheriff was coming up the driveway just as I was pulling out.

I stopped by the school and collected the kids (then in kindergarten and second grade), had a brief word with the principal, and then pointed the car down the coast toward Santa Cruz. The kids were a little confused by the whole business, but I took shameless advantage of their capacity for magical thinking and their general excitement over the get-out-of-school-free windfall, and got them looking forward to a pleasant day at the beach. On the way, my cell phone rang again; and this time, I got the whole story.

My husband was, at the time, setting into his new job as the chief engineer for a midding-sized computer game company. One of the programmers he'd inherited was, well, odd. No, wait, let me qualify that. During the dozen years I'd already been in Silicon Valley, I'd seen geeks wear sheepskin slippers to high-level business meetings; become friends with an esteemed Stanford computer scientist who believed in UFOs and a CalTech grad who believed in the Rapture; and sat across dinner tables from people who flossed their teeth with their own hair. So understand that I don't apply the word "odd" until we're about three standard deviations out from anything you'd probably regard as minimally rational. Even by that measure, though: This guy was odd.

Since he'd managed computer game developers for about 15 years at this point, Mr. R also knew from odd, and was willing to roll with quite a few of the punches -- the indifferent hygiene, the paranoid rants, the grossly anti-social behavior. Until, that is, the guy started missing required team meetings and not showing up for work for days on end. It's one thing if your preferred work hours are 2 pm to 11 pm -- that's "normal" by Valley standards -- but you do have to show up. And the work needs to get done. When this guy kept vanishing for days at a time, he received formal warnings, got "put on a plan" (the dreaded plan!), and was finally fast-tracked for dismissal.

The day before I got that phone call, Mr. R had finally pulled the trigger and fired him. That morning, he arrived at work to discover that Mr. Odd Employee had fired back, leaving explicit (and identical) death threats on the phone machines of the company's CEO, product development VP, company attorney, and Mr. R himself. All four messages included specific threats against their homes and families; and, just for fun, detailed his plan to hijack a gas truck and drive it through the company's front door.

So that's how I found myself in Santa Cruz that afternoon, aimlessly wandering the beaches and streets with my kids, unable to go home. The guy was still at large. He was calling my husband's pager constantly (and would continue to for days). We had no idea where he'd go or what he'd do. All we had was the solemn, repeated promise that he was stalking four former co-workers and their families, with malice in his heart and a stated intent to do us harm.

The company's attorney, to her credit, made her first call to the SFPD -- and the next one to an LA firm well-known for doing celebrity and corporate security. That was the number I'd left with the school principal. They were the ones who explained to her that my kids were in danger, and had been removed from campus for both their own safety and that of her other students. They also told her what to do if the Odd Employee dropped by; and also explained the situation to the local cops on her behalf. It was, of course, their idea to call the sheriff to my door, and to insist that we get out of Dodge. If the guy showed up at our house, the cops would know he wasn't supposed to be there. And we'd be nowhere he could hurt us.

Mr. R caught up with us later that afternoon. We briefly went back to the house, packed for a week, drove to the airport, and got on the next plane out. Where didn't matter -- the company was picking up the tab for at least a week's vacation for everyone who'd gotten a death threat, and let it be known they'd extend that time if it turned out to be necessary. The main thing was to get us all clear of the city, and (preferably) the entire state until the police were able to catch the guy and do a proper investigation.

The next morning, comfortably sheltered in our Undisclosed Location far, far from the City by the Bay, Mr. R and I settled in for a two-hour phone appointment with the firm's criminal profiler. His job was to explain the protection strategies they'd be using in our case, and teach us the things we'd need to know to keep ourselves safe in the aftermath. A background check had confirmed their suspicion that the Odd Employee was a classic stalker -- with, as it turned out, quite a police history to prove it. We weren't the first ones to get the treatment from him. We probably won't be the last. Because stalking is simply a part of who this man is. So the bulk of this long conversation was the short course in Stalker Management 101.

The consultant explained that the psychology of stalkers follows very predictable patterns. Most people unwittingly respond in ways that only feed the patterns and escalate the stalking behavior. If you understand how the pattern works, you can act in ways that can disrupt the pattern and stop the behavior. For our own good, we needed to understand.

The most important thing to remember, he said, is that stalkers are totally motivated by -- and obsessed with -- the promise of contact. They want contact with the stalkee -- any kind of contact, no matter how slight -- more than anything else in the world. Every time they reach out to touch you and succeed in getting you to touch back -- no matter how minimal that touch may be -- they experience that as a huge reward. Which, in turn, reinforces the stalking behavior. All they want is more.

It's absolutely, predictably Skinnerian. Picture a rat having to push a bar 20 times to get rewarded with a food pellet. It takes him a long time to figure it out the first time or two; but once he understands what's required, he'll get right up on that bar and rip out the full 20 pushes in a flash every time he wants his payout. And he'll stay at it all day, as long as the rewards keep coming.

Stalkers are just like that rat. So the name of the game is to stop the reward payouts by cutting off all possible avenues of contact. No matter how often he pushes the bar, nothing happens. That, in a nutshell, is why we'd been packed up and sent Far Yonder -- out of all possible reach of OE. The consultant was making sure that this rat would never get his reward.

The non-stop pager messages (which Mr. R was still getting) were absolutely typical of a stalker lost in the cycle, frantically pushing that bar. The profiler predicted that there would be an avalanche of messages on Mr. R's work phone machine and e-mail, too. (There were.) Our home number was in my maiden name and unlisted (ironically, because of another stalker I'd encountered in college) so he never got that. But Mr. R's other three co-workers weren't so lucky; and their home phones got barraged until they got new, unlisted numbers. And he called them all at work several times over the next few days, each time reiterating his threat to blow the place up, and expressing his growing frustration that no one was around to talk to him. It was clear that the total lack of response to his threats was making him mad. The SFPD collected it all, of course, as evidence.

It was critically important, the profiler said, that he never be allowed to connect with any of us. In fact, the longer it had been since the last contact, the more important it would become for us to make sure that he never got rewarded with a new one. This, he said, is the most common mistake victims of romantic stalkers make. If a woman ignores 40 phone calls over the period of several days, but picks up on the 41st, her stalker has just learned -- like that rat -- that the price of contact with her is 41 phone calls. So, the next time, he accelerates his behavior, running through those 40 phone calls in just a few hours so he can get to the payoff that he's been trained to believe awaits on the 41st.

If the woman gets more determined, and is able to avoid him for, say, 80 phone calls....well, then, now he knows that 80 calls is the price of contact, and now she's gonna get 80 calls all in one night. And so it escalates -- the longer the interval between contacts and the more effort he puts in before getting the next contact, the higher the cost-of-contact bar gets raised -- and the faster and more energetically he'll step up and pay that new, higher price the next time. If she redoubles her avoidance efforts, and it takes him 100 calls plus a visit to her office before he reaches her again, then after that her phone will ring off the hook -- and he'll set up camp in the office parking lot. It's a perverse cycle in which the more successfully she can widen the time interval and make him increase his total effort between contacts, the more and faster his contact attempts escalate.

The only way to break this cycle is to increase the cost of contact to the point where he's finally simply unable to pay it. And that means cutting him off entirely until he either finds something else to obsess about; or he simply hears the "no" at last, and gives up. This is why the best thing a stalkee can do is move to a new town, delist her number, change her online ID, and takes all the other steps necessary to put herself completely and totally beyond his reach -- for at least several years, or (better) forever. (For celebrity stalkers, they recommend other tactics, but the strategy is the same.) Scarce or intermittent contact is, in many ways, the worst of all worlds: it drives the price of contact up so insanely high that the stalker may decide to pay it up all at once in a burst of violence.

This is why, as Jesse said below, that women are at such great risk in the year or so after they leave relationships with controlling men. Getting some distance increases the man's reckoning of the average cost-of-contact -- and with it, his frustration level, his obsessive behavior, and the potential for violence if he ever does catch up to her.

It also explains why the risk goes down after that. Once the guy realizes that she means it, and it's over, he may finally let go and move on. (Real psychos, of course, never get there; but saner men eventually do.) But, until he reaches this point, any contact at all -- even just seeing her on the street or overhearing her voice -- can kick the whole cycle right back to the beginning again. That's why that handful of women who are attacked after that first year has ended are the same ones who've continued to have contact with their exes. Every time they let the guy re-establish contact, they're re-setting the clock on the whole process to zero.

It's also important to note that the when and where of any given contact directly determines the shape his future stalking will take. As noted above, if going to her office one time results in a contact, then he's going to spend a lot more time hanging around her office after that. If he sends her a note, or flowers, and gets a call out of it -- then there will be a veritable blizzard of notes, and bowers of flowers. If he runs into her on the jogging path, she'll never jog alone after that. If harassing her children makes her bust into his house and get all up in his face, then her kids may never be safe again, because he's learned that threatening them really, really gets her attention! Whatever you reward with a response, you're going to see more of.

This is a dance that goes both ways. A stalker can close in your life to the point where you're afraid to leave your house open the drapes, pick up the mail, answer your phone. But, on the other hand, stalkers obsessively return to the strategies that have been most successful at delivering that longed-for contact in the past (either with this woman, or other victims before them). When you narrow those circumstances, you limit the likely range of his future behavior. When you eliminate them entirely, you leave him no handles to grab you with at all.

The Odd Employee was arrested about five days later. When the cops searched his apartment, they found the handwritten script he'd followed when making his threatening phone calls amid the piles of clothes and the empty Rx bottles and the general mess of his life. He pleaded not guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence, and spent the next three years in jail.

The week before he got out, the county called to warn us. We raised the household threat level to yellow for a while; but, as the consultant predicted, he didn't try to contact us. He'd moved on.

Well, that, is....mostly. A couple months later, Mr. R (who had changed jobs the year before) was sitting at his desk and got a phone call from someone who was evaluating a job application from OE. Preposterously, he'd had the gall to list Mr. R as a reference -- and even provided the right number and internal extension for the would-be employer to call. (Yes. Creepy.)

"I can confirm that the Odd Employee worked for that company in that job, between those dates," my husband told the caller. "But it's against the policy of my current company for me to discuss the details of his performance, or why he left."

That much was the truth. And so was the casual by-the-way comment he dropped in there as part of his sign-off to the call:

"Apropos of nothing, I'm just curious...Does your company do routine background checks on new hires?"

"No, we don't."

"Hmpf. We introduced that policy shortly after OE left. It turned out to be a really good thing. We wondered why we hadn't done it sooner."

The hint was subtle as a Barry Bonds fly ball -- and the guy on the other end was on it like Derek Jeter. "Oh. OH! Gee. Well. Maybe we should consider it. It sounds like a smart idea."

Yes. Maybe you should. Just sayin'.

We haven't heard a word from OE since. He's moved on. And so have we.