It isn’t often that a book keeps me awake at night. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, the new memoir by James Lasdun, did just that.
In 2003, Lasdun, author of several books of poetry and ficiton, taught a creative writing workshop at Morgan College in New York City. One of his students, a quiet, reserved young woman whom Lasdun refers to in the book as Nasreen, turns in a story which he praises in front of the other students. Nasreen seems unflustered, if vaguely pleased, by the praise, and she visits Lasdun a few times during office hours to discuss her work. When the class is over, they lose touch.
Two years later, Lasdun receives an email from Nasreen, wanting to know if he will read her novel. An email correspondence ensues, one which becomes increasingly personal, and eventually flirtatious–primarily from Nasreen’s end. While attempting to subtly discourage the flirtation, Lasdun encourages Nasreen as a writer and offers to introduce her to his agent. When Nasreen becomes more direct, inserting herself in his life in a way that makes Lasdun, who is married, uncomfortable, his own emails become more businesslike and less frequent.
Nasreen doesn’t react well to this cooling effect. She begins sending him dozens of emails each day, many filled with inappropriate fantasies or requests. Eventually, her emails become hateful and anti-semitic. She then begins involving other people as well, attacking Lasdun’s agent by email, absurdly accusing Lasdun and the agent of stealing her work and selling it to other writers. She begins contacting Lasdun’s potential employers and accusing Lasdun of having affairs with students and plagiarizing her work. She leaves nasty reviews on Amazon alleging the same things, and posts rants on goodreads and various blogs. In short, she sets out to ruin him, referring repeatedly to her own tactics as “verbal terrorism.”
Nasreen’s aim is nothing less than to destroy her former professor. While her claims are so outlandish, her tactics so reprehensible, as to discredit her among critics, Lasdun’s colleagues, and the publishing world, the sheer volume and vitriol of her attacks on Lasdun have what was perhaps the desired effect: she infects every part of his day. He cannot stop thinking about her, feeling overwhelmed and attacked by her. All he wants is to be rid of her, but it is impossible. The police and FBI are unable to help, because she has never threatened his life, but they insist that he keep the emails rather than discard them, in case she does actually make a threat on which they can act. Lasdun, a self-proclaimed liberal and non-practicing Jew, is suddenly cast in the light of the oppressor/racist/sexual predator.
Give Me Everything You Have is not merely a recounting of the sordid details of the years-long attack. It is a deeply meditative book, in which Lasdun turns the microscope on himself, examining both his own role in the disaster–his willingness to fall into the friendship in part because the attentions of this young, attractive, talented woman were flattering–and the problem of his inaction. While he is never quite able to muster compassion for the woman who has taken on the aura of a demon in his daily life, he does attempt to understand how their seemingly innocuous online relationship escalated to this horror:
People are always in various stages of various different dramas when you encounter them: freshly embarked on some, halfway or more through others. One is always approaching the denouement of this or that subplot of one’s life. And you, the stranger, entering the picture in all your blundering innocence, may well be the catalyst for some long-awaited climax, or the last in a series of minor but incessantly accumulating, and finally backbreaking, straws.
The fact that Lasdun has always lived in the shadow of his father, an accomplished architect whose well-known buildings tower over London, and has always felt that his own contributions to the world pale in comparison, adds another dimension to the book.
Lasdun’s thoughts on the re-emergence of an old-fashioned culture of reputation–in which one can be ruined by someone else’s words, posted and spread anonymously and exponentially through the relatively new tool of the Internet–are fascinating. Whereas reputation once meant to him the currency of literary fame and fortune, it takes on a far more sinister face: reputation is something which can be built over a lifetime and destroyed rather quickly by one single, determined, off-kilter person.
As a writer and sometime teacher, I find the book particularly nightmarish. But it serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who cares one whit what others think–which is to say, all of us.
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Feb. 2013