Monday, September 22, 2008

The oddities of the Internet

I’ve never talked openly about the horrible episode a few years ago where I had a stalker. I’m going to share this story with you all today in the hopes that it’ll help someone understand how dangerous the internet can be.

Let’s go back a few years. Before I was published. Before I had a pen name. I had discovered the wonderful world of romance books. I didn’t always read romance. I read thrillers and suspense mostly, sometimes mysteries. Romance never interested me. Until I picked up a book by Madeline Baker. She turned me onto a world of love, desire, and even adventure. I hadn’t realized what I’d been missing. I frequented the used bookstores in an attempt to get caught up. There were so many great authors! It wasn’t long before I was checking out their websites and joining their yahoo loops in an effort to hear about the latest releases and maybe get a sneak peak into the author’s life. It was on one such group that I met Jan (renaming her here, just in case). Her and I hit it off right away. I felt like I’d found my long lost sister or something. We had a lot of the same interests, the same favorite authors, the same insecurities, etc. Our relationship moved from the groups and boards, to private emails and instant messaging. Soon, we were exchanging phone numbers. She sent me pictures of herself and her boyfriend. She’d tell me about her life. How she grew up. I’d talk to her about my kids and husband. It was really neat meeting someone I could so easily relate to.

Then things changed. She started to get possessive. If I talked to another girl on one of the groups, she’d email asking why. As if I were somehow stepping out on her. At first I chalked it up to her need for friendship. We all have our issues, after all. But pretty soon she was joining all the groups I was on. Going to the writerspace chat room when I was there to monopolize my time. It started to feel very suffocating to me. I liked this girl, we were friends, but it got to be too much. When I brought it up to her she sort of apologized and backed off some. I thought that would be the end of it. I was SO wrong. Things got even more bizarre. I found out that she’d been going to writerspace and logging in as me, chatting with people there as if she were me. She’d post to the boards as me. Don’t ask me how she got my password info. but she did. I IM’d her and asked her to stop, ‘I know what you’re doing’, I said. She called me, screaming and crying. She went on and on about how I never have time for her, that all I do is spend time with my husband and kids. I tried to sooth her, but that only made things worse. I explained that we needed to call it quits for awhile. She disagreed. Big time. I got more phone calls from her. Threatening my kids. Telling me she would cut them into pieces if I didn’t answer her emails. She’d call and taunt me about how close she lived to me and how easy it be for her to show up in the middle of the night and kill us in our sleep.

My husband and I were freaked. As you can imagine. For one, I never dreamed I’d end up with a female stalker. Two, I never thought Jan capable of the things she talked about doing to me and my girls. We discussed going to the police, but we realized pretty quick that it could possibly make her even more angry with me and I wasn’t really sure she’d given me her real name anyway. Still, we knew we needed to do something. We changed our phone number right away. I deleted all my online accounts. Took myself off all the yahoo loops and message boards. Got rid of IM and went off the internet entirely. And I do mean entirely. Doors stayed locked during the day and if I went anywhere with the girls I let my husband know where I was going and how long I'd be gone. I didn’t sleep comfortably for probably a good year. Every single time a car went by our house I worried it was her following through on her threat. Should we have gone to the police? Probably, but to be honest we'd never had to deal with somethingl like this. We didn't know what, if anything, the police could do. After all, she hadn't done anything, other than make threats. Nevertheless, when we finally decided it was safe to go back online, I just happened to come across a woman who also knew Jan. She told me that Jan got fired from her job as a nanny. A nanny? This was the first I’d heard of her being a nanny. I was shocked to learn that while Jan was IM’ing me and chatting on the phone and using the internet, it was at her employer’s house. When she was supposed to be babysitting, she was playing around on their computer. This mutual friend also told me that Jan had since moved out of town and no one had heard from her.

I never heard from Jan again after that. Thank God.

I tend to be very careful while online these days and I value my privacy very much. If I share personal info. with someone I expect it to stay private. I publish under a pseudonym in part because of Jan. I only give out my phone number to people I’ve onlined with for a very long time. I’m careful who sees my kids pictures and I’m extra cautious not to visit the places she used to hang out. My passwords are ultra complicated and I’m constantly changing them.

I think the biggest lesson I learned in all this is that stalkers aren’t just men and they don’t come with a label attached. Jan was a sweet, easygoing gal who loved to tell jokes and read romance novels. Who knew she led such a phony life? There was no way I could have predicted how crazy she would get. I’ve often wondered if I somehow caused her to go over the edge. And not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself, why me? What made Jan so possessive and needy with me? I don’t think she was like this all the time. So, why me? I’ll never know the answers to those questions. All I can do is look forward and hope it never happens again.

So, have you ever had a similar episode, whether online or in ‘real’ life? If so, what did you do?


Katie Reus said...

Thankfully I've never had that happen, but wow! I was expecting a story about a male stalker. It seems more typical I guess...So glad that's all behind you! (No, you didn't cause her to go over the edge...she was already unhinged!)

Anne Rainey said...

You know, I think that's why I felt so safe sharing my phone number with her. I didn't expect her to turn so possessive and violent. I guess you never can tell, huh? :-/

Rhian said...

You can never predict when someone is going to go off the deepend. I lived with mine, almost married it until things just got a little too sufficating, that's when things got really scary. At one point I remember standing in the driveway wishing he'd just run me over and be done with it, and thatwas six months after I left him.
I'm sorry you went through it, it's not something I'd wish on anyone.

Holly Greenfield said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Too often, and too easily we can forget that we really don't 'know' the people we talked to online everyday. It never hurts to be cautious.

Judith Rochelle said...

What a horrible experince to go through. this woman must have serious mental problems and was living your life vicariously. I know a husband and wife who are Internet cops for the FBI and the stories they tell would curl your hair-or straighten it, as the case may be. People who seem perfectly normal who actually have twisted eprsonalitied. I can immagine the experience stil haunts you. I'm with you about cuation in giving out too much eprsonal information, and epecially phone numbers or IMs.I choosed my friends carefully and I hope wisely. Even on My Space, I always checkl the Other Friends first before approving someone. It's terrible that we havwe to be so careeful about something that is supposed to be a pleasure.

Anne Rainey said...

Rhian, I'm so sorry that happened. Thank God you got out when you did!

Holly, I think that episode has helped me teach my girls about internet safety. So, one good thing did come out of it! :)

Judith, it still amazes me that it happened at all. When I think about it it's like it happened to someone else. Truthfully, I am MUCH more cautious, but I'm also determined not to let her dictate how I live my life.

Barb said...

Anne, what an awful thing to have to endure. But glad you've been able to overcome. It's always best to be leery of people even though you think you may know them. Thanks for sharing your story.

Kelley Nyrae said...

Wow, Anne that is a very scary story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I think we ALL need a reminded from time to time. It's so easy to forget that the internet is so annoymous. You can be talking to ANYONE and not know it. Or, even if you DO know the person your chatting with on the yahoo loop there are how many other members who have access to those messages? Very scary. I'm so sorry that happened to you but it was nothing you did wrong. It was just bad luck that it happened to be you. You didn't push her over the edge she'd already been there.

Anny Cook said...

I suspect your very openness was attractive to her. Most of us have known girls like that when we were younger, but generally that possessiveness fades as we all grow up. A stalker can be anyone, male or female.

I'm very cautious about who has access to my information for a host of reasons. And have always cautioned my family that they could be talking to ANYONE behind the veil of the internet.

Desirée Lee said...

Thankfully I have never been in that situation. How scary that was for you and your family! Glad it is all behind you now.

Carpe Noctem,

Desirée Lee
Putting the Romance Back in Necromancy

BrennaLyons said...

I had a stalker offline, when I was 14.

Background... My biological (Bio-B) thought the obvious answer to not being allowed to leave the kids home alone while she bar-hopped was to take us to the bars with her. This started when I was about 8 or 9, long nights shooting pool in a smoky barroom, while she tried to pick up the lay of the evening, often guys who played pool with us, trying to prove they were "good with kids." Snort. Good with kids would have been calling the police on her, but I digress.

My brother was lucky enough to move in with our father, eventually, but I continued going to the bar with her. By the time I was 9, I was my full height, wore a ladies' 11, and had a 36C bra size. I also didn't act like a kid. Bio-B stopped taking me to the bar, when I became serious competition, and she was having problems convincing guys I was only 14. Not that I was flirting, mind you. Drunk guys are drunk guys. Enough said.

That's when Joe started calling and making lewd promises and offers, showing up on the street, even knocking on the door and calling to me through it... It's probably a miracle that he never broke a window to get in. Basically, he knew when Mommie Dearest was out without me. He terrorized me for about a month, and then I finally got my father involved, and it ended. I don't care what Dad did. I don't care if there's a shallow grave somewhere. It would be a relief.

I've had internet harassment aimed at me many times, but thankfully I've never gained a full-blown, threatening stalker online. If I did, I would report the person to the police and WHOA, because the new internet stalking laws are there for a reason.


Tonya said...

Wow. I know these things happen and can only imagine how scary that was for you Anne and everyone else.

You are all stronger women now because of these incidents! Anne your right, your daughters have learned how to be safer online thanks to you!!

Sophia Danu said...

Fortunately, I've never dealt with this kind of thing and I hope I never do. I'm sorry you had to put up with such a troubled person. It would be hard to trust people online after such an experience. Luckily it all worked out okay. :)

Susan Macatee said...

Yikes! What a story! And this happened before you were an author!
Fortunately, I've never had anything like that happen to me. I try to keep my private life private except of course, among my writer friends. But that's very scary. I don't blame you for using a pen name.
Glad she's out of your life.

Anne Rainey said...

It's true things changed for me when I did finally go back online. I didn't trust anyone. I'm a bit less freaked now, but still it's a lesson learned.

Brenna, I can relate to the bar thing. My grandmother used to take me to the bar, she was an alcoholic. My mother never knew she did that because it only happened when I spent the night with her. She'd sit me at the bar and get me a coke, then she'd go off and do her thing. If my mom had known about that she would have gone psycho-mom on her, I'm sure. I'm sorry about the terror you faced. Thank God you told your dad. A lot of kids are just too afraid to say anything at all.

Connie Northrop said...

Saying that what happened to you and your family sucks is an understatement. I'm very glad you made it through ok.

I've seen this happen a few times, once at work to a friend and once to someone I just knew a little. The cops will tell you it's not the internet (and it wasn't for these) it's the disturbed people. You run the same danger making friends anywhere. The internet does make it easier for them.

I try to be careful without being paranoid and it's a tough balance. I've seen the worst result of this kind of obsession and that makes it more difficult. I'm very open and I have to stop myself often.

You were NOT to blame, neither was my co-worker. You were being yourself. She was the one with the problems. Don't accept blame for her behavior. No guilt trips.

If you ever want to talk, you know how to contact me.


Regina Carlysle said...

OMG!!! THat is soooo scary. We were in a similar situation years ago when a woman became fixated on my husband. He's a lawyer and we involved in a case that also involved HER. He only knew her casually but she started showing up at all his trials and then started driving to neighboring communities to watch him there. Then she started driving by out house and other crazy things. When he started talking about me learning to use a gun, I got scared. Isn't it crazy when this kind of stuff happens? Stalkers are soooo freakin' scary. Maybe that's why I seldom write stalker stories. Just too creepy.