In my book “We need to talk about this“, I mention a phenomenon called “sadistic stalking”. (This comes from the stalking classification by forensics psychologist Lorraine Sheridan. You can find the description below.)
Imagine you’re a middle-aged woman and you’ve been stalked anonymously for years. One day, you open your front door to go to the supermarket and you find the remains of your dead husband on your doorstep. He passed away years ago, but your stalker has dug him up. Say it all out loud, as if you were talking to a friend or colleague, telling them about what is going on in your life. Then picture yourself explaining what is happening to a police officer. Now imagine that you are also feeling very upset while you are trying to convey this information.
How can other people tell whether you are mentally well or not? You will certainly sound as if you’ve lost your mind. You will very likely be assessed as the one with the mental health problem and if not, you may be told that you’ve mistaken the remains of the prey of a fox.
This example comes from a real case that happened in Britain. The woman in question had a heart attack when she found her deceased husband’s remains. She was later sectioned (declared a danger to herself or others) and spent months on a psychiatric ward as a result of the tremendous damage her sadistic stalker’s relentless targeting had done to her life. Consider this. Sadistic stalkers pick their targets because they perceive them as happy, content… and stable. Undoubtedly, many people in her surroundings did not believe the poor woman while all of that was going on and thought she was merely seeing ghosts, compounding her hardship. Living in a situation like that for years is immensely taxing.
Incidentally, that particular stalker was trying to convey the message “What’s he got that I don’t have?” when he left the remains of the deceased in front of the woman’s house.
- When you look at the victims (I prefer “targets”) of this phenomenon, you see how little we know about mental health and how hard it is to determine who is “crazy” and who isn’t.
- (Also, we need a very different approach to how society deals with stalking.)
Sadistic stalking can even be much more devious and much more “crazy-making”. If you describe someone else’s “crazy” and “crazy-making” behaviour, how can you avoid sounding “crazy” and being considered “crazy”?
People often assess other people’s mental health on the basis of what they think sounds crazy just like they assess other people’s beauty on the basis of what they they think is beautiful. Professional assessments are still subjective too, even though attempts continue to be made to standardize diagnoses.
There is also Boon and Sheridan, 2001 (among other things available as part of the book “Stalking and Psychosexual Obsession: Psychological Perspectives for Prevention, Policing and Treatment”).
Boon, J.C.W. and Sheridan, L. (2001). Stalker typologies: A law enforcement perspective. Journal of Threat Assessment, 1, 75-97. (Can also be found in book published in May 2008: Stalking and Psychosexual Obsession: Psychological Perspectives for Prevention, Policing and Treatment, pages 63 – 82.) Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227990165_Stalker_Typologies_Implications_for_Law_Enforcement
In Britain, police is currently literally failing everyone who reports stalking, according to the police’s own watchdog. In some cases, police officers even severely aggravate the situation.
I make a rough distinction between two groups of stalking behaviors.
- One group concerns (the reporting of) behaviors that are largely annoying, but not sinister. This contains a lot of “he said, she said” conflicts, for example often occurring after a breakup, when one partner keep trying to reconnect for a while. These are behaviors that will fizzle out and have no serious effect on the target.
- The second group concerns behaviors that do have a strong negative effect on the target and are usually related to some pathology on the side of the stalkers. This group can be subdivided into three or more subgroups:
- Potentially very dangerous;
- Low risk of physical danger but strong negative effects on target and possibly long-lasting consequences (psychological, financial, etc);
- Relatively harmless but upsetting and potentially responsive to mediation and support for the target.
You could also divide them as follows:
- Situations in which the stalker may be responsive;
- Situations in which the stalking behavior is unlikely to stop.
- Situations in which the person exhibiting the stalking behaviors requires support (not limited to the stalking behaviors) for example for how to live in greater harmony with certain structural brain differences and the related personality disorder.
This matrix would give professionals directions for how to approach each case that falls in the second category.
I feel strongly that dealing with cases of stalking should be the task of specialists – not police.
These specialists would need to have advanced IT knowledge, advanced forensic psychology and psychiatry knowledge and advanced research skills related to stalking cases. There also should be specialized support for targets of stalking behaviors.
As a first step, they should screen all reports and triage them into “potentially problematic” (requiring some kind of intervention) and “not likely to be problematic”.
Some stalking behaviors are related to someone’s communication skills. At Portsmouth’s Central Police Station, I saw a poster once about how helpful an organization that educates on “learning difficulties” can be in some situations that are reported as stalking to the police, but that the police does not know what to do with either. Talking with the target of the attention – reassuring the person – can go a long way toward resolving the problem.
The murders of Shana Grice, Lauren McCluskey, Bijan Ebrahimi and Molly McLaren have illustrated, highly regretfully, that there is also a group of stalking behaviors that should be taken very seriously but that police officers almost always dismiss the men and women who ask the police for help in these situations.
18 September 2019
I will follow this up soon with an article that I’ve been working on for some time. I need data for how much British police currently spends on dealing with reports of stalking, but I still haven’t received a response to e-mail(s). Time to take some more action.
Characteristics of sadistic stalking
victim is an obsessive target of the offender, and who’s life is seen as quarry and prey (incremental orientation)
victim selection criteria is primarily rooted in the victim being:
(i) someone worthy of spoiling, i.e. someone who is perceived by the stalker at the commencement as being:
and (ii) lacking in the victim’s perception any just rationale as to why she was targeted
initial low level acquaintance
apparently benign initially but unlike infatuation harassment the means of intervention tend to have negative orientation designed to disconcert, unnerve, and ergo take power away from the victim
– notes left in victim’s locked car in order to unsettle target (cf. billet-doux of infatuated harassment)
– subtle evidence being left of having been in contact with the victim’s personal items e.g. rifled underwear drawer, re-ordering/removal of private papers, cigarette ends left in ash trays, toilet having been used etc.
– ‘helping’ mend victims car that stalker had previously disabled
thereafter progressive escalation of control over all aspects (i.e. social, historical, professional, financial, physical) of the victim’s life
offender gratification is rooted in the desire to extract evidence of the victim’s powerlessness with inverse implications for his power => sadism
additional implication => self-perpetuating in desire to hone down relentlessly on individual victim(s)
emotional coldness, deliberateness and psychopathy (cf. the heated nature of ex-partner harassment)
tended to have a history of stalking behaviour and the controlling of others
stalker tended to broaden out targets to family and friends in a bid to isolate the victim and further enhance his control
communications tended to be a blend of loving and threatening (not hate) designed to de-stabilise and confuse the victim
threats were either overt (“We’re going to die together”) or subtle (delivery of dead roses)
stalker could be highly dangerous – in particular with psychological violence geared to the controlling of the victim with fear, loss of privacy and the curtailment of her social world
physical violence was also entirely possible – especially by means which undermine the victim’s confidence in matters normally taken for granted e.g. disabling brake cables, disarming safety equipment, cutting power off
sexual content of communications was aimed primarily to intimidate through the victim’s humiliation, disgust and general undermining of self-esteem
the older the offender, the more likely he would have enacted sadistic stalking before and would not be likely to offend after 40 years of age if not engaged in such stalking before
victim was likely to be re-visited after a seeming hiatus
Case management implications
should be taken very seriously
acknowledge from outset that the stalker activity will be very difficult to eradicate
acknowledge that there is no point whatsoever in appealing to the offender – indeed will exacerbate the problem
never believe any assurances, alternative versions of events etc. which are given by the offender
however, record them for use in legal action later
the victim should be given as much understanding and support as can be made available
the victim should not be given false or unrealistic assurance or guarantees that s/he will be protected
the victim should carefully consider relocation. Geographical emphasis being less on distance per se, and more on where the offender is least able to find the victim
the police should have in mind that the sadistic stalker will be likely to:
(i) carefully construct and calculate their activity to simultaneously minimise the risk of intervention by authorities while retaining maximum impact on victim,
(ii) be almost impervious to intervention since the overcoming of obstacles provides new (iii) and potent means of demonstrating the victim’s powerlessness (ergo self-perpetuating) and,
(iii) if jailed will continue both personally and vicariously with the use of a network.