Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalkedby James Lasdun
A TRUE STORY OF OBSESSIVE LOVE TURNING TO OBSESSIVE HATE IN THE CRUCIBLE OF THE DIGITAL AGE
Give Me Everything You Have chronicles author James Lasdun's strange and harrowing ordeal at the hands of a former student, a self-styled "verbal terrorist," who began trying, in her words, to "ruin him." Hate mail, online postings, and public accusations of/i>
A TRUE STORY OF OBSESSIVE LOVE TURNING TO OBSESSIVE HATE IN THE CRUCIBLE OF THE DIGITAL AGE
Give Me Everything You Have chronicles author James Lasdun's strange and harrowing ordeal at the hands of a former student, a self-styled "verbal terrorist," who began trying, in her words, to "ruin him." Hate mail, online postings, and public accusations of plagiarism and sexual misconduct were her weapons of choice and, as with more conventional terrorist weapons, proved remarkably difficult to combat. James Lasdun's account, while terrifying, is told with compassion and humor, and brilliantly succeeds in turning a highly personal story into a profound meditation on subjects as varied as madness, race, Middle East politics, and the meaning of honor and reputation in the Internet age.
“Smart, rigorous, and beautifully written.” The New York Times
“A fierce and compelling memoir.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
“This must be the most informative, the most insightful, and the most beautifully written of any account from the victim's perspective of what has come to be called cyberbullying.” Joyce Carol Oates
“One of those books that made me grateful for subway delays, so much did I want the excuse to keep reading it....A rigorous and moving and very elegantly wrought examination of obsession, relentlessness, power, envy, and ambition.” Rebecca Mead, NewYorker.com's Page-Turner
“Fascinating and eminently readable...An astute meditation on anti-Semitism, online harassment, the nature of obsession, and the power of the written word....[Lasdun's] measured narrative has the suspense of a psychological thriller.” The Economist
This must be the most informative, the most insightful, and the most beautifully written of any account from the victim's perspective of what has come to be called cyberbullying.
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Read an Excerpt
Give Me Everything You Have
On Being Stalked
By James Lasdun
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 James Lasdun
All rights reserved.
A young man on a journey comes across a corpse at the edge of a village. On inquiring why the corpse has not been buried, he is told that the dead man was in debt and that his creditors are refusing permission for the burial to take place until the debts have been paid. The young man, though not rich, immediately pays the debts and the burial goes forward.
That night the dead man comes to thank him. As a token of his gratitude he offers to accompany the young man on his travels and give him the benefit of the supernatural powers death has conferred on him. His only condition is that everything they gain on their adventures be divided equally between them. The young man agrees and the two set off together. All goes well for a year, with treasure after treasure falling into their hands and each of them taking an equal share.
Then one day they meet a woman, young and attractive. And now all of a sudden the men are confronted by an apparently insurmountable problem: how to divide the woman in two.
* * *
I read this folktale at university, where it made a strong impression on me. For many years I kept it in mind as a possible basis for a story, but I could never think of a way to use it and after a while it began to fade from me. I forgot which book I'd read it in, I forgot the details of the adventures the two men have together before they meet the woman, and then I even forgot how they solved the problem of dividing the woman between them.
It was after the attacks on the World Trade Center that I came across the story again. I was trying to track down an aside on Islam in my old Penguin edition of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques when I saw a passage I must have marked when I first read the book, thirty years ago. It was the story I had forgotten: a version of what is apparently a universal folktale motif, known as "The Grateful Corpse." It didn't, as it turned out, contain any details of the two men's adventures before they meet the woman, so on that score my memory hadn't, after all, failed me. But it did resolve the question of how to divide the woman in two. It turns out she is bewitched: half woman, half demon. The dead man is interested only in her diabolic aspect and accepts this for his share, leaving a sane and companionable human being for the hero to marry.
* * *
In the fall of 2003 I taught a fiction workshop in the graduate writing program at a place I'll call Morgan College, in New York City. I live upstate, but my wife and I once lived in Greenwich Village, and we'd held on to our rent- stabilized one-bedroom apartment, sharing it with a subtenant from Baltimore who used it only on weekends. The arrangement made it possible for me to take jobs like this in the city.
Among the students in my class was a woman I'll call Nasreen. She was in her thirties, quiet and reserved. Her work didn't come up for discussion until a few weeks into the semester and I didn't notice much about her before then, except that she sat at the back of the room rather than at the large table that I and most of the students sat around—shy perhaps, or aloof, or a bit of both.
When her turn came, she handed in the opening chapter of a novel. It was set in Tehran in the seventies, during the last days of the Shah, and followed the lives of several members of a well-off family close to the Shah's inner circle. The ambition—to tell a story with history and politics in it as well as a large-scale family drama—was quickly apparent. Even more so was the quality of the writing. There are seldom more than a couple of students in any workshop who seem natural writers, and they aren't hard to spot. It was evident to me, after a few paragraphs, that Nasreen was one of them. Her language was clear and vigorous, with a distinct fiery expressiveness in the more dramatic passages that made it a positive pleasure to read. I was extremely impressed.
Although I have taught on and off for twenty years, I've never actually taken a creative-writing class myself, never had my material "workshopped," as the term goes. When I try to imagine what it might be like, it seems to me that it must be a powerful and unsettling experience: a miniature version of the whole process of bringing out a book, with the editing, publishing, reviewing, and sales all jumbled up and compressed into a single tumultuous half hour. There you sit, listening to a roomful of people appraising something born in the innermost regions of your psyche and brought forth by efforts that probably stretched you to the limits of your abilities. These ten or fifteen pages are who you are as a writer, for now—fully exposed—and the discussion is going to have a highly charged impact on you. Whatever the general verdict, the chances are you're going to come out feeling overwhelmed, whether by euphoria or by despair.
The class's response to Nasreen's chapter was favorable, though perhaps not as warmly so as I'd expected. I spoke last, as I usually do, and it's possible that this slight lack of warmth made me more emphatically enthusiastic than I might have been otherwise. I don't remember what I said, but I do remember a shift in the atmosphere as I spoke: an air of faintly sardonic attentiveness settling on the students as they sat listening to my words of praise. I didn't interpret this as envy so much as the reluctant registering of the thought that the class, which had seemed to be of fairly uniform ability till now, was after all going to have a star, and that this was going to be Nasreen. Not necessarily a calamitous thought, but one that had to be adjusted to in some way.
Nasreen herself appeared pleased with the way things went, though contrary to my general hypothesis, she didn't seem overwhelmed, and she certainly didn't effuse in the way some students do after a positive response. I suspected she was confident in her abilities, no doubt glad to have had them recognized, but too much her own critic to be all that affected by other people's views. And this too, this unflustered reaction of hers, seemed to me the mark of a real writer.
She turned in two more chapters that semester. Both reaffirmed my sense of her talent, though they also made it apparent that she had set herself a difficult challenge with her large cast of characters and her decision to accompany the action with dense historical analysis. The shifts in point of view were coming a little too thick and fast for comfort, and she hadn't found a way of incorporating the history into the story, so that lumps of it sat here and there like undigested portions of an encyclopedia.
As her thesis advisor, I met with her a few times during office hours toward the end of that term, and we talked about these and other matters. Though she still gave the impression of keeping a part of herself averted, she was a little more forthcoming in private than she was in the classroom. She revealed a self- deprecating sense of humor, laughing at her folly—as she claimed to see it—in embarking on this large enterprise. And in her quiet way she also seemed curious about me: asking how I'd become a writer, what I was working on now, who my favorite novelists were.
As I'd assumed, the family in her novel was based on her own family, who had fled Iran for the States at the time of the 1979 revolution, when she was a child. I remembered following those events myself: the Ayatollah's thunderous speeches from exile, the toppling of the Shah and his SAVAK security apparatus, the massive street demonstrations, the first intimations of what a radical Islamic regime was going to look like as the decrees went out concerning books, alcohol, dress. I was twenty, and this was the first revolution I had been old enough to pay serious attention to. London, where I was living, was full of Iranian exiles and refugees, among them some family friends who had taken my parents around the monuments of Isfahan and Persepolis a few years earlier. The trip had made a strong impression on my father, an architect, and, as always happened when something caught his imagination, a vibrant link had established itself between the subject and our entire household. Photos appeared on the shelves: stone lions, blue domes, latticed archways standing against desert skies. Books on Mughal architecture lay open on the side tables. A small fragment of a column that my father had pillaged and smuggled home was set up in a lit niche in our living room. Since then, even though I hadn't been on the trip, I have felt an interest—or, more accurately, a kind of latent, hereditary entitlement to be interested—in Persian culture.
All of which is to say that as Nasreen talked about her family, memories stirred in me, and in a minor way I felt a connection to her as a person.
Her appearance conveyed, over time, the same undemonstrative confidence as her manner in class. She wore jeans that looked expensively soft and faded, and a brown, waist-length jacket, at once military and feminine in its cut, that emphasized her aura of self-containment. Her dark hair was usually pinned up—neatly, but with a few strands falling loose. Her face, fine-boned, with delicately interlocking features, had the same sallow olive complexion as my own. The line of her brown eyes had the slight upward curve at the outer corners that puts one—or anyway me—in mind of the scimitar-like flourishes of Arabic script.
During one of our conversations she mentioned a fiancé. I was struck by this: not the fact itself so much as the word. Though not exactly old-fashioned, it suggested a very different order of relationship from the casual hookup that I assumed (based on their writing) to be the norm among the students. It also accorded with my sense of her as a writer. There was something novelistic in the attitude to life it evoked: a suggestion of build, coherence, strong emotion maximized by strong formal design. In short, I approved.
She was graduating that summer, and since I wasn't going to be teaching then, I didn't expect to see or hear from her again. To the extent that I thought of her after our final meeting, it was as someone gone into a sunlit future of artistic and personal fulfillment.
* * *
Two years passed, during which I heard nothing from Nasreen. And then, in December 2005, she emailed to say she had completed a draft of her novel and to ask if I would read it.
I'd just finished teaching at Morgan College for the year and had arranged things so that I wouldn't have to teach again until the following fall. Much as I'd admired Nasreen's work, I didn't want to spend time reading or thinking about any student's or former student's writing during this period, and, as politely as I could, I declined her request. I did, however, feel confident enough to offer to recommend her to my agent—I'll call her Janice Schwartz—who was looking for clients and who I thought might be interested in Nasreen's work.
Nasreen thanked me politely for the offer, saying that she already had some tentative interest from other agents, as well as one or two editors, and asking my advice on how to proceed, in terms of showing the book around.
An amicable email correspondence developed over the next few weeks. At that time I wasn't yet keeping copies of every email Nasreen sent, but I did save some of them. For quite a while they remain unremarkable. She asks how I think she should handle this or that nibble of interest from this or that agent or editor. She mentions a boring administrative job she has taken at a college in the city. She recommends a CD by a Persian-American musician friend of hers. She debates whether or not to take me up on my offer to put her in touch with my agent. The emails are chatty and, given Nasreen's quietness in class, surprisingly exuberant in style. The ones I sent back are a little terser, though friendly, with plenty of encouragement about the book and some minor attempts at humor: "my commiserations about having to get an office job. With luck you'll soon be able to buy the office."
On January 13, 2006, she grumbles about an agent who has passed on the book and forwards me the rejection letter, saying she has now decided that she would like to send the book to my own agent, Janice, and concluding: "sorry to bother you with my neuroses and personal literary troubles. I hope you are well and that we can share a cup of coffee after all this works out (or doesn't work out) or something." I commiserate further, suggest one or two things to say in her letter to Janice, and agree that it would be nice to meet for coffee sometime. On January 20 she asks why I am no longer teaching and offers me "exorbitant sums of money to be my advisor again." Joking, I assume, or maybe only half joking, since she adds: "would you be interested?" I thank her but explain that I simply don't have the time.
As winter progresses, her notes become steadily warmer, more gossipy and inquisitive; full of questions about me, my past, my writing habits, and my family, along with ruefully amused gripes about prevaricating agents, the tedium of her job, and so on. She asks what I'm writing and I tell her I'm doing a screen adaptation of my wife's uncompleted novel. Again she asks me to work with her on the book; again I decline. Sometimes she drops in a more personal disclosure, alluding, for instance, to the fact that she has broken off her engagement. All she offers by way of explanation is "I can't marry A—," the effect of which is to add a note of stoical sacrifice to the cluster of other sentiments she had prompted in me by her use of the word "fiancé."
My own emails back, while still brief, grew more friendly and unguarded as the weeks passed. Not being her "professor," or anyone else's, at that period, I had been happily discarding the rather formal, aloof persona in which I tend to armor myself for my forays into the academic world. Consequently I had begun to experience a shift in my feelings about Nasreen, from the slightly harassed sense of obligation I'd started off with to a more human, straightforward feeling of affection.
In the secluded life I lead—near Woodstock, New York, but out in the country—I don't often meet new people, much less anyone I'm likely to have enough in common with for a real friendship to develop. On the rare occasions when such a person does appear in my life, I tend to be eagerly friendly. Jim Morrison's line I need a brand-new friend is often in my mind, and as my correspondence with Nasreen continued, I began to think of her as something like that: a brand-new friend. That she was younger than me, a woman, and Iranian were all things that gave the prospect of this friendship a certain appealing novelty (most of my friends are middle-aged Western men like myself), but the main thing (given that any relationship between us was likely to be of a purely epistolary nature) was that she was a fellow writer whose work I genuinely admired and who seemed to enjoy being in communication with me. I assumed she felt something similar about me.
Still, at a certain point I realized I was being flirted with. Not, I felt, with any serious underlying intent: more in deference to some sort of vague convention she seemed to adhere to, concerning the correct tone for a correspondence between a youngish woman and an older man whose support she considers worth securing. ("Older man" ... the first time I've used that phrase about myself. Among the other effects of my encounter with Nasreen is the fact that I no longer think of myself as young.) That this convention, as I perceived it, should be somewhat old-fashioned seemed in keeping with the rest of her character. There was something of another era in the way she presented herself in this first phase of emails; even of another culture. And in fact when, much later, I came across an account of all the precise gradations of flirtatiousness and coquettishness once recognized in Persian society, each with its own word—eshveh, kereshmeh, naz—I wondered if I hadn't been at the receiving end of some late, anachronistic flowering of that ancient tradition.
In one email, for instance, she wrote that a classmate of hers in the workshop I'd taught—I'll call him Glen—had told her that he and some of the other students had thought that she and I were having an affair. This didn't seem plausible, and I assumed she was either making it up or else massively exaggerating some remark made by Glen as a joke. Either way, the intent seemed to be to introduce, under cover of mildly salacious gossip, a notion that I might (so I imagine her thinking) find amusing, perhaps titillating, perhaps even tempting.
Excerpted from Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun. Copyright © 2013 James Lasdun. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in upstate New York. He has published novels, including It's Beginning to Hurt, as well as several collections of short stories and poetry. He has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times, T. S. Eliot, and Forward prizes in poetry, and he was the winner of the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. His nonfiction has been published in Harper's Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books.
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pretty sure the one star "anonymous" review here on this site is none other than lasdun's stalker. two of my best friends have been tortured by a psychotic cyber-stalker. it has been a nightmare and they haven't been able to do a thing about it. hope this book sheds some light on this troubling problem....
This is the worst book I have ever read. I can't believe I got suckered in for $13. What was this writer thinking. The ending was even worse. It seems that the stalking was only secondary to the story. He goes off on other stories that make no sense. I also think he brought this Nasreen character on himself. I think he was flattered by her attention. When a professor starts E-mailing text that has nothing to do with the class to a female student it usually spells trouble, only he was too dumb to realize it. I have no sympathy for him. Save your money for a better written book. Wish I had.
I am inclined to agree with the reader who only gave this book one star. I found the book, which I am not likely to finish, boring reading. The author goes off on tangents in which I am not interested on race, ethnicity, his stereotyped perceptions of middle eastern women, upbringing, etc. He starts off with concrete data on his relationship with his student, including increasingly bizarre emails from her, then wanders off into tangents. As someone who got stuck with a workplace stalker, I am most interested in how he dealt with and finally offloaded his stalker--not in his opinions of Bush/Blair or his travels. While someone who gets stalked can't be blamed for the phenomena, Mr. Lasdun should have realized this was a woman who didn't recognize normal boundaries when she started accusations of improprieties with his other students and making passes at him online, yet continued correspondences with her. The one thing about which I'm happy about the book is I will soon be returning it to the public library.
A quick and provacative read. Chilling to say the least. I reccomend Ludsen's memoir to true crime and biography followers.
This book makes me wonder if something is missing that made Nasreen come unglued. Why don't we see how the author responded to her messages? The moment this old guy knew she was flirting is when communication should've stopped. This book also needs editing. He is all over the place. .... and, Borderline Personality? It makes me ill when this diagnosis is thrown around as it applies to criminal behavior. Assuming his story is true, I feel some compassion for Nasreen. Something caused this desperate behavior. I sincerely ponder what he may left out of this story.