Stalking in the United States

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Stalking is a crime with various definitions, variables, and implications. As such, the measurement of yearly occurrences can range anywhere from 3.3 million (Catalano, 2012), to 6.6 million (Mechanic, 2000) depending on case-by-case severity. The general definition of stalking is “harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person’s home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person’s property” (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). The legal definition of stalking varies from state to state. The differing “threat and fear requirements” particularly contribute to the statistical gap, as the higher claim of yearly stalking cases includes reports from victims who felt moderately threatened by their perpetrator (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). However, despite the crime’s wide margin of interpretation, there are several common factors across the board. Research demonstrates that there are both model victims, and model offenders (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen, Birmingham, Solberg, O'Regan, & Meloy, 1997). Additionally, stalkers tend to share similar—if not identical—methods and motivations for their behavior (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997). Their actions often reflect deep-seated longing, desire, loneliness, etc. making the act somewhat a crime of the human condition (Meloy, 1999).

Background

According to Meloy (1999), stalking is an “old behavior [but] a new crime.” In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a Supplemental Victimization Survey, for which they extracted seven typical behaviors traditionally demonstrated by stalkers: “making unwanted phone calls; sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or e-mails, following or spying on the victim; showing up at places without a legitimate reason; waiting at places for the victim; leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers; and posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth” (Catalano, 2012). Catalano (2012) notes that, separately and on singular isolated occasions, these behaviors could be viewed as mere annoyances as opposed to serious, fear-inducing crimes. Aside from the final item on the list, any of these actions in a non-repetitive context could almost be seen as sincere acts of devotion akin to Lloyd Dobler’s famous boombox declaration of love in Say Anything. Unfortunately, when combined and performed on a regular basis, these gestures cannot be taken as the innocent misadventures of some lovestruck troubadour; this is when it becomes stalking. So, while incidents such as this have occurred throughout history, the recognition of stalking as a threatening and dangerous crime is a fairly recent phenomenon of the past two or three decades.

Sensationalized reports of contemporary stalkers (i.e. Ray, Hoskins, Gary, etc.) paint all who engage in the act as incurably deranged fanatics attempting to make a connection with someone they could never reach otherwise. The most notorious of these cases is almost certainly that of Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 in hopes that it would gain him the celebrity status necessary to connect with the object of his affections, Jodie Foster. It is no wonder that these are the stories represented in the media, as they are wrought with cinema-grade drama and tragedy. However, the story embedded within the data is far less glamorous. Davis & Frieze (2000) state that, “The majority of stalkers are not mentally disturbed, but rather obsessionally focused on a specific person with whom they have had some previous relationship.” A cluster of data presented by the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Violence Against Women Survey shows that former intimate partners stalk the preponderance of female victims, as well as 41% of male victims, and account for over half of offenders in the United States (Davis & Frieze, 2000; Mechanic, 2000). There is also a history of domestic violence. Still, even if the victim and offender have had no prior relationship with each other, such as Foster and Hinckley Jr., the crime is often categorized by the offender’s fantastical delusion that they are “loved, desired by, or destined to be with” their victim (Meloy, 1999).

Stalkers share a number of similar character traits that, in most people, do not necessarily equate to this kind of behavior. The “modal” stalker is an older male, generally in or around his forties, with a superior intellect (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997). He has a spotty employment history and is usually unemployed through the duration of the crime (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997). He is likely to harbor a current or prior chemical dependency, and has either never been married or is divorced (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997). Like the majority of stalkers, he has a history of psychological illness possibly stemming from the loss of employment or a romantic partner, and has trouble initiating and sustaining “intimate relationships” (Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997).

While the myth of common psychosis and delusion among stalkers is thought to be dispelled (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998; Davis & Frieze 2000), the generally dour living conditions observed in most subjects put the validity of this belief into question. In fact, when Kienlen et al. (1997) conducted a study to analyze and compare the difference between psychotic and nonpsychotic stalkers from a sample in which 35% were deemed to have been “psychotic” while committing the crime, and 65% not, they found that 78% of the overall sample (combining both categories) was diagnosed with an Axis-I psychiatric disorder. Another 73% of the nonpsychotic group was attributed an Axis-II personality disorder, indicating comorbidity of disorders from Axis-I and Axis-II in nonpsychotic subjects (Kienlen et al. 1997). Granted, the most common conditions shared by nonpsychotic subjects were depression, substance abuse, antisocial and other personality disorders (Kienlen et al. 1997). Evidence also suggests that while psychotic stalkers are often acting out of delusion, nonpsychotic offenders act out of a range of emotions from anger, to denial, to obsession, and are generally more violent (Kienlen et al. 1997).

Still, it is possible that when Davis & Frieze (2000) state, “the majority of stalkers are not mentally disturbed,” they are simply avoiding using the term lightly. The mental disturbance that is commonly at the forefront of public perceptions regarding stalkers is erotomania (Davis & Frieze, 2000; Meloy, 1999; Kienlen et al., 1997). This is when the offender is acting out of “a firm delusion of having a real relationship with a high status [individual] whom they know but with whom there is no such relationship,” (Davis & Frieze, 2000). The aforementioned offenders whose crimes have been sensationalized in the media, Hinckley Jr. being another well-known example, were all operating through erotomanic episodes (Meloy, 1999). The media attention given to erotomanic stalkers creates the illusion that most of the offending population posses this disorder. However, this kind of delusion is most common among females, who comprise only 12% of identified stalkers.

Theory

Meloy suggests that, at the center of all of the obsessive and dangerous behaviors observed in stalkers, is “a narcissistic character pathology that is organized at a borderline level of personality.” Studies have suggested that the majority of all criminals, not just those accused or convicted of stalking, are pathologically narcissistic (Meloy, 1997). This disorder can be related directly to stalkers via a theory called “narcissistic linking fantasy.” Narcissistic linking fantasy is characterized by fanciful notions of mutual love between oneself and an object of desire. In this way it is normal and descriptive of most everyone; for one to fantasize about being loved and adored by someone in whom they have a romantic interest is perfectly normal. However, in a pathological context, narcissistic linking fantasy can have destructive outcomes (Meloy, 1997, 1999).

When viewed as the cyclical pathology of a stalker, narcissistic linking fantasy is the first of six steps commonly enacted by individuals guilty of stalking (Meloy, 1997, 1999). For explanatory purposes, the hypothetical offender will be male and the victim female. Narcissistic personality disorder implies an inflated sense of grandeur, superiority, and self-worth. In this context, this feeling of inflated supremacy is reflected in the individual’s object of desire (Meloy, 1997, 1999). He believes that he is, “special, loved, idealized, admired by, superior to, [and] destined to be with the object,” (Meloy, 1997, 1999). This results in romantic pursuit, which doesn’t necessarily begin in any sort of offensive nature and, as many stalkers have been reported as past lovers of their victims, may even result in the culmination of an intimate relationship (Meloy, 1997, 1999). It isn’t until the second step, when the male is rejected in some way—be it a break-up, divorce, or refusal to initiate a relationship altogether—that he begins to act on pathological narcissism (Meloy, 1997, 1999).

Rejection is humiliating; it is not unreasonable to have an adverse reaction to it. The disappointment and shame experienced by all persons who have encountered rejection are perfectly normal, and so it is for the hypothetical offender in this scenario. However, this is where the power of reasoning is shirked, and he feels the necessity to defend himself in some way against this shame and humiliation (Meloy, 1997, 1999). According to Meloy, these feelings are “defended against with rage…[fueling the] behavioral pursuit to hurt…control…damage…or destroy.” If he succeeds in denigrating her, she then loses her value—the offender thinks to himself, ‘she’s not that great,’ (Meloy, 1997, 1999). Unfortunately, what this does is re-inflate the offender’s ego, and he is returned to his original narcissistic state (Meloy, 1997, 1999).

U.S. Anti-Stalking Legislation

The cycle detailed above was carried out by a male offender against Jane McAllister, starting in 1990 (National Institute of Justice 1996). This is an important case in the history of anti-stalking legislation, as it was one among many that demonstrated the initial need for laws against aggravated stalking. McAllister was followed and repeatedly called at her home by a “minor acquaintance,” who claimed to be in love with her (National Institute of Justice, 1996). He invaded her privacy on numerous occasions by showing up at her house, and gradually became hostile as she continued to reject his offers of money, notes, and declarations of love (National Institute of Justice, 1996). She felt unsafe and unable to gain control of the situation, as the local authorities were unable to charge the man of any specific crime (National Institute of Justice, 1996). It wasn’t until after McAllister formed a support group for herself and others in similar situations to cope with the distress of being stalked, that her state passed anti-stalking laws.

Currently, under anti-stalking laws, before the police can take any action in a situation such as this, the stalker must “exhibit a pattern of conduct and possess an intent to instill fear in the victim,” (National Institute of Justice, 1996). In most states, the authorities are obligated to get involved once a threat has been posed, even if a physical threatening action has not been carried out (National Institute of Justice, 1996). A list of potentially threatening acts and the number of states that prohibit them shows that some state statutes have outlawed actions as seemingly minute as approaching, intimidating, or even just being present (National Institute of Justice, 1996). It is perhaps because of this that defendants often attempt to avoid prosecution on the grounds of vagueness, but according to the National Institute of Justice, courts rarely comply. Luckily for this, in the case of Pallas v. the state of Florida, Edie Pallas was able to charge her physically and verbally abusive ex-husband with aggravated stalking. Despite his attempts to appeal the charge due to “overly broad” laws, he was ultimately convicted. The penalty for violating anti-stalking laws can result in up to 10 years jail depending on the severity of the situation.

The effectiveness of these laws is still unclear. As of 2012, there were still an estimated 5.2 million individuals over the age of 18 who encountered compromising situations involving stalking or harassment in a 12-month period (Catalano, 2012). Tjaden & Thoennes (1998) point out several potential problems with current anti-stalking legislation and the public approach to the crime in general. Some states still require the victim to provide some form of proof that they are being stalked or threatened (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998; National Institute of Justice, 1996). The research focus should be diverted from erotomanic celebrity stalking to intimate partner stalking (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Finally, the mental community needs to develop more effective counseling strategies for stalking victims, who often continue to be fearful and distressed long after the incident (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998).

Conclusion

While stalking victims certainly need access to effective therapies and support, the research investigated in this paper also presents a disturbing subplot for those accused and incarcerated. It’s true, not all who commit this crime are “mentally disturbed,” at least not on a clinical level. To engage in activities such as these indicates a depth of despair that should not be ignored. Simply because an offender is not experiencing erotomania, or schizophrenia, or any other disorder that is easily recognized as severe and uncontrollable, it does not mean that he or she is not mentally disturbed. Perhaps another solution that needs to be proposed, is researching appropriate ways to address the crushing loneliness and social outcast of those at risk for committing this crime. This is not necessarily to express sympathy for the offender; many cases of stalking have heinous and tragic endings. However, it seems safe to say that all parties involved are acting out of fear that should be addressed—the victim is afraid of the stalker, the stalker is afraid of dying alone, just like the rest of us.

References

Catalano, S. (2012). Stalking Victims in the United States-Revised. Age, 18(19), 8-047.

Davis, K. E., & Frieze, I. H. (2000). Research on stalking: What do we know and where do we go?. Violence and victims, 15(4), 473-487.

Hall, A., & Stacey, R. (2003). Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Kienlen, K. K., Birmingham, D. L., Solberg, K. B., & O'Regan, J. T., Meloy, J.R. (1997). A comparative study of psychotic and nonpsychotic stalking. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 25(3), 317-334.

Mechanic, M. (2000). Fact sheet on stalking. National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, University of Missouri at St. Louis. Retrieved January, 19, 2007.

Meloy, J. (1997). The clinical risk management of stalking. Someone is Watching Over Me…”, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 51(2), 174-84.

Meloy, J. R. (1999). Stalking: An old behavior, a new crime. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 22(1), 85-99.

National Institute of Justice (1996). Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Anti-Stalking Legislation. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.

Tjaden, P. G., & Thoennes, N. (1998). Stalking in America: Findings from the national violence against women survey. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.