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Living in the shadow of a stalker

Ever since William Congreve wrote that hell's fury was a mere trifle next to the anger of a scorned woman, the furious female pursuing vengeance has been a recurring cultural motif.

While a latent misogyny is evident in much literature and many screen works, there's no doubting the terrifying potency of the bunny-boiling publisher in Fatal Attraction and the needle-wielding ballerina in Audition.

In those stories, there's a distinct motivation for the escalating terror that is unleashed. But in this real-life drama of writer James Lasdun at the hands of his stalker 'Nasreen', the precise trigger for years of cyber-bullying is, to this victim at least, rather less obvious.

In 2003, British-born poet, journalist and author Lasdun was enjoying an "uneventful life" that included a stint running a fiction-writing workshop. Having lavished praise on a young Iranian student for her insightful and highly promising work, the pair embarked on a casual email correspondence as he offered career advice while politely batting away her more flirtatious missives.

But with her literary ambitions apparently stalling, Nasreen's communications began to take on a more aggressive tone and before long, he was being implicated in a plot to steal her work, in cahoots with the agent he recommended, various editors and other Iranian authors who all benefited from this theft. The overtly anti-Semitic nature of the attacks begin to set off alarm bells.

All of which was bad enough, but when Lasdun was accused of sexually harassing Nasreen and even of planning her alleged rape some years previously, he was helpless in the face of an emailed torrent of direct threats and coded messages, veering from the surreal to the sinister.

With the law seemingly incapable of moving quickly or effectively enough (his hiring of an NYPD cop he calls 'Detective Bauer' gives the saga an inappropriately 24-like tone), Lasdun's isolation seemed complete. Little wonder, then, that he took refuge in literature and there are long passages where he draws comparisons to his predicament with characters such as Guy Haines in Strangers On A Train, Sir Gawain from Arthurian legend and the true tale of DH Lawrence fending off the attentions of his American benefactor. He even found a metaphorical resonance in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spillage, the massive slick symbolic of Nasreen's pervasive effect on his life and work while Lasdun's "efforts to stanch it [are] as ineffective as BP's with their feeble funnels and top kills."

And Lasdun delves further for connections as he seeks solace. When his late father Denys, the renowned and controversial architect who designed the National Theatre in London and the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, accepted the poisoned chalice of rebuilding the Hurva synagogue in Jersualem (a contentious building on a much-contested piece of land), the anti-Semitic hate mail he received was as visceral as it was predictable. From that unexpected source, Lasdun Jnr was able to console himself that if a pair of "[not] exactly representative Jews" could be targets, anyone could.

Sometimes, the connections don't work quite so well. After a lengthy meditation on Moses, Kristallnacht and Freud, Lasdun takes on the persona of a stand-up comic jokily forcing a link for their next bit of material: "but speaking of psychoanalysis..." Ultimately though, this is far from a laughing matter.

While there was much talk about his family being harmed, Lasdun concludes that the real menace from Nasreen does not take the form of physical threats, rather it lies with the intended damage to his reputation. For a freelance writer and literature professor, a career relies on the goodwill of current and prospective employers. Even the wildest accusations leave an indelible mark when emailed to interested parties or posted online where they can potentially lurk until the day the internet dies.

As any tarnished public figure knows, an unproven scurrilous rumour can have as catastrophic an effect on its target as a guilty verdict in a court of law. For Lasdun, the very fact of Nasreen smearing him with seismically powerful words such as "rapist", "racist" and "thief" (she proves to be a close reader of his bibliography, reeling off detailed accusations via references within his work) are an endgame in itself.

The somewhat depressing reality for Lasdun is that there seems to be no end in sight to a life of persecution and paranoia. A recent interview suggests that Nasreen hasn't plagued his inbox for several months, but given her occasional stalking sabbatical, there's no absolute certainty that her oppressive campaign is over.

Perhaps the publication of this fascinating and creepy book is James Lasdun's last roll of the dice in this very one-sided game of cat and mouse. For his sake, let's hope he throws a six.

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