As the media contorts itself into pretzels to avoid connecting the Nova Scotia mass murders to their root cause — misogynistic terrorism — along comes a must-read book that relates the first-hand ordeal of a form of abuse often celebrated in popular song and movies, but dismissed by the authorities as romantic longing taken too far: stalking.
It’s written by Julie Lalonde, an internationally renowned women’s rights advocate and educator who has confronted misogyny within and with the highest profile and most powerful institutions and individuals in the country — the Canadian Armed Forces, the Liberal Party of Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Carleton University, even Margaret Atwood! – and who, like so many women, cannot tweet about violence against women without facing an avalanche of death threats.
The day I picked up Resilience is Futile: The Life and Death and Life of Julie S. Lalonde, the author was in the process of locking down her Twitter account because of thousands of threats of violence she was receiving for reminding people of the rape case of recently killed basketball star Kobe Bryant. As her book reveals, such online trolling, stalking and threatening has been an all too frequent response to her high-profile work to end male violence against women.
I read Lalonde’s book alongside two other excellent accounts of stalking culture that focused on the likes of the now-jailed Harvey Weinstein, the current U.S. president, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill and She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
All three books feature the voices of women speaking at great risk in a society that has taken too few steps toward creating the safe spaces needed for survivors to come forward. All identify what Lalonde calls a “double bind” for the few women who report to police. “They had to look bad enough for their trauma to be taken seriously, but not be too much of a mess or else risk being seen as crazy or unstable. It wasn’t enough that women were subjected to discrimination, violence, and neglect, I realized. We also had to perform our trauma in a very precise way in order to get any semblance of justice.”
Trauma and the successful woman
The futility of resilience is a phenomenon Lalonde describes in light of the misperception that “successful” women cannot also be traumatized. As someone who earned a graduate degree, won a Governor General’s Award, developed and implemented a hugely successful bystander intervention training program, and has a list of high-profile media interviews a mile long, Lalonde describes her frustration with the thinking that “Traumatized people don’t win awards, get graduate degrees, and build a life in the public sphere.” When she spoke about her years of trauma, “the pain was dismissed by people who refused to accept how someone who was traumatized could be in pain and still get shit done. My resilience was used to erase my pain.”
Indeed, there was a sickening current of commentary at the revival of the #MeToo movement (originally begun by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006) when some pondered why we should care about well known Hollywood personalities like Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow (thereby erasing their pain) when so many unknown women experienced similar violence. She Said and Catch and Kill are critical rejoinders to that hierarchical “pain grading” that becomes one more barrier to women seeking accountability.
Lalonde is an engaging writer who mixes humour and horror, irony and moments of acute, brutally honest self-awareness to open the door to a world that receives too little attention and which poses unique challenges. Indeed, she writes that the difficulty of dealing with stalking is that victims are often isolated, and “talking about stalking only makes it worse. Stalkers want their victims to acknowledge them. Stalkers want to know they’re getting under their victims’ skin, occupying their minds, being kept in their thoughts. So to stand up and talk about it I to draw more attention. This attention can be lethal.”
In this instance, Lalonde shares in intimate detail a journey of terror that begins one lovely summer before “Xavier became abusive. Xavier became a rapist.” Her recollection of growing up through the awkward years of teenagerhood contains constant reminders of sick social norms. “We teach girls from a young age to take cruelty from boys as a compliment,” she writes. “We teach boys from a young age to shroud their affection in brutality.” Indeed, Lalonde writes that she “believed the line [about] men being awful to women because it’s how they flirt.”
Lalonde says her stalker insisted on reading her journals because “we shouldn’t have secrets from each other.” And hence begins the long, exhausting “chipping away” process by which he not only constantly criticized her, but also monitored her, from constant phone and text messages (when such things were expensive) to finding her a mall job where he was also working and would incessantly check up on her. “He eroded me. I was so tired,” she recalls.
She also contrasts the way many are brought up with “stranger danger” — the worst threats lurk in dark alleyways — “so I never thought to mistrust people who loved me.” She also finds that the message transitioned growing up from “Avoid strangers” to “avoid abusive men,” noting the message seemed to imply “they wore bright neon signs around their necks announcing their presence. Society warns women about the dangers of domestic violence, but it’s all thinly veiled victim blaming — bad men exist, but only stupid women love them and even dumber women stay.”
For Lalonde, she had no idea that when she left Xavier, the years afterward “would be far worse than any of the darkest times we’d spent together.”
Police downplay stalking
Particularly painful (but not unexpected) is her recounting of how the police downplay stalking. Lalonde remembers dealing with an officer who clearly tried to dismiss the threat, with one exclaiming, after receiving the stalker’s date of birth: “He’s ninetneen? Oh my God. He’s such a baby!” Being told that her stalker was eligible for Legal Aid but that she wasn’t was also an eye opener.
“I will always love you, you have no choice,” was part of his incessant writing to her, coupled with threats that if he was going down, she would go down with him. She learned to live “with death’s shadow hanging over me.” If that isn’t a form of terrorism, what is? He moved into the building behind her apartment. When she moved, he discovered where she lived and sat parked in the alleyway for hours on end beneath her window. And these are only a few of far more examples.
The long-term effects were devastating. As Lalonde continued with her university education, she began to realize that just as Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish about how prisoners self-policed under the assumption they were being watched all the time, “Everything I said, I assumed he would overhear. Everything I wrote, I assumed he would read. I censored my speech and limited my movements without even being conscious of it. I was just always ‘on,’ and no assurance from others that he was nowhere to be found could change how I felt.”
Lalonde’s frustration also extends to broader social movements. When she created a public service campaign (Out of the Shadows) to tackle criminal harassment, she declared: “I broke my silence and took the social justice movement to task for ignoring criminal harassment. We talk about sexual violence. We talk about intimate partner violence. Why don’t we talk about stalking? I was tired of waiting for people to do it. I was tired of screaming into the void. So, I created this project.”
A stalking-soaked culture
In addition to that groundbreaking project, Lalonde’s book is a gift inasmuch as it not only shines an incisive light on a form of violence experienced by so many women. It also serves as a challenge to her male readers who, hopefully, will recognize something of ourselves in the stalking behaviours that many of us have actually put into practice or continue to excuse as apparent expressions of love, longing and loyalty.
For myself, it as a reminder that I grew up in a stalking-soaked culture. When we stop to actually listen to the lyrics of the rock era (where a great beat forms the backdrop to remarkable displays of misogyny from our favourite bands, like the Beatles and Rolling Stones), stalking is everywhere. When the Temptations sang Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (“I know you wanna leave me, But I refuse to let you go”), it was a catalogue of stalking techniques. Indeed, what else can we say about someone who croons: “If I have to sleep on your doorstep all night and day, just to keep you from walking way, Let your friends laugh, even this I can stand, ’cause I wanna keep you any way I can.” We are told that is romance, and never give a thought to the woman on the receiving end of this unwanted presence.
When John Lennon sings with The Beatles that “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” or the Police eerily incant that with every breath you take, “I’ll be watching you,” some of the left’s favourite male cultural icons are contributing to the terror that Lalonde experienced. Jerry Butler’s smash hit, Never Give You Up, is similar: “Never gonna give you up, So don’t you think of leavin’.”
When, in the landmark 1967 film The Graduate, Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) tells Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) to stay away from her, he travels 600 miles to Berkeley, and follows her around mercilessly. He even tells his parents he is going to marry her, though he hasn’t mentioned it to the woman he’s been told to stay away from. We are trained to sympathize with Hoffman’s character as he angsts along to the groovy soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel. This is romance, this is love, apparently. But no. This is sick, a celebration (and reward) of stalking wrapped up in ribbons and bows by the great movie stars of the golden age of Hollywood, repeated endlessly throughout the history of film and TV. Keep pushing, keep trying, and in the end she will recognize your devotion and reward you with her acquiescence.
While these examples are mere tips of the iceberg, one can see them mirrored in the notes and emails and phone messages that Xavier was constantly sending Lalonde. As noted above, their language is chilling: “I will always love you, you have no choice.” That lack of her choice, that power and control that a stalker wields over his target, is symptomatic of the roots of male violence against women. It also reflects itself in a broader cultural landscape, where men with power set up whole systems to stalk and claim women (think of the role played by Jian Ghomeshi during his rise at CBC or Harvey Weinstein’s elaborate network to hound, harass and cajole women into being sexual partners.) On top of these systems are additional stalking mechanisms that are used to protect the abusers from accountability. In Catch and Kill, Ronan Farrow uncovers the role of an Israeli intelligence firm, Black Cube, that was employed by Weinstein to track not only his victims (to ensure silence) but also the reporters like Farrow who were trying to uncover and confirm acts of criminal harassment.
At a global level, the lethality of video stalking reveals itself in drone warfare. “Pilots” who sit in the relative comfort of their bunkers in Nevada or New York follow their intended targets for days, weeks, even months, learning every intimate detail of the lives of their target and their family before eventually pushing the button that launches a Hellfire missile to obliterate them. “You see [enemy combatants] kiss their kids goodbye, and kiss their wives goodbye, and then they walk down the street,” said a squadron chief master sergeant working in Kansas. “As soon as they get over that hill, the missile is released.”
Numerous studies have revealed the toll that this stalking/murder-by-drone regime takes on the pilots who push those buttons. “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” Heather Linebaugh, a former drone imagery analyst, wrote in The Guardian. “When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.”
Applause is not enough
While some stalkers have been held to a certain account — Weinstein was convicted and jailed — the damage they have done does not suddenly get erased with some Hollywood happy ending. But there are opportunities for those who have survived — or are in the middle of these horrors — to come together, share experiences and build bonds and communities of support. In She Said, the New York Times reporters describe a remarkable gathering they arranged for all those whose lives they had reported on. They gathered at Gwyneth Paltrow’s house: among them were movie stars and lesser-known entertainment industry employees who’d been targeted by Weinstein, sexual harassment lawyers, a young woman (Kimberly Lawson) who organized a remarkable nationwide strike against sexual harassment at McDonald’s, Christine Blasey Ford (whose testimony about being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh inspired millions more women to speak out), a young woman who was sexually assaulted by Donald Trump, and another woman who had not wanted to go public about her abuse at the hands of Weinstein.
The reporters beautifully describe this disparate gathering as women from all walks of life start to ask questions of one another’s shared experience around male violence. “Almost every member of the group who had spoken publicly had been transformed by it, and was stunned by the impact that sharing her own intimate story had on others.” And, in a spoiler alert, the woman who had been reluctant to go on the record decides, with the support of this new sisterhood, to add her voice to theirs.
Wonderful as that story is, not everyone is prepared to, or can, go public. The risks remain too great, and the promise of a happy ending is illusory at best. As Lalonde concludes, she continues doing the work she has always done. “I still deny audiences a clean ending to my story,” she says. “I still get death threats. My mom still wants me to find another job. I’m still jumpy. I still hate crowds. I sleep with the curtains drawn and don’t advertise where I live.”
Importantly, Lalonde addresses that painful resilience theme in referencing those who did not survive. “I’m not interested in feeding the narrative that I’m a superwoman who can handle anything. I am not more resilient than Rehtaeh Parsons or Nathalie Warmerdam or Carol Culleton or Anastasia Kuzyk or any of the other women and girls whose lives were stolen by misogynists. I just got lucky. I’m not interested in individual stories of survival. I want to see us kick down the systems that force us to fight in the first place. I want us all to make it. I want to make it.”
While we can express gratitude for Resilience is Futile and these other accounts, applause is not enough, nor is hoping that the next target is lucky enough to survive. As the beneficiaries of a system that constantly produces these horror stories, we as men need to do far more to confront the always growing, increasingly weaponized misogyny that is reflected in male violence against female partners, in the stalking culture that thrives through our silence, in the economic system that continues to devalue women’s labour, in those governmental institutions from the war department to the courts to the border officials and economists and media personalities who make the world unsafe for women.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.