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April 01, 2013

Corrosive Anonymity and That Thing That Happened

Here's something that happened to me a long time ago. It was a little scary while it was going on, but in the long term it hardly affected me at all; I say this up front because I want to be clear that I know that the sort of fear I experienced then pales in comparison with what goes on today. Until recently I hadn't thought of the events I describe at all in quite some time.

It was 1990 and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania; I had chosen to live a second year in the Quadrangle, which is primarily a first-year dormitory. My room was on the top floor, and happened to be in a section of hallway that for reasons of modernization had been cut off a little bit -- there were only two rooms in the hallway. The other was occupied by a first-year woman, whom I met in the first week but with whom I had little interaction. For the sake of the story, we'll call her Marilyn¹.

A few months into the semester someone started leaving strange messages on my answering machine; first just a bunch of hanging up, which wasn't terribly unusual but then, it didn't seem to connect with any of my friends saying, "Oh hey, called you earlier, do you want to..." etc. Occasionally sort of a whispery noise, like a bad connection.

Before long, I started getting real messages, and they were a bit scary. Demonically raspy voices², saying the most vile of things, some sexual, some simply... bizarre. I had no idea where these were coming from. They varied in length, but the subject matter was always pretty disturbing. The first time, I can remember being puzzled, assumed it was a wrong number, a prank gone awry, and erased the message. But they kept coming and I started wondering what I had done to bring this on myself.

The messages got more particular; they identified me by name and by appearance, and then started involving physical descriptions of my girlfriend, always in this weird raspy voice that I can still only describe as demonic. This was where I really started to worry a bit, because it was clear my comings and goings and companionship were being noted. It seemed was being watched. I was pretty terrified, because I didn't know how to make it stop.

I started losing sleep; never a strong sleeper, I now found it even harder to fall asleep at night, and the whoops and hollers that are normal in the shared spaces of a dorm were wake me with a sense of anxiety until the wee hours. I'd lie there with my heart pounding, terrified in that way you can only be when you're awoken suddenly. My concentration and focus during the day suffered, too, and between courses, holding a job, and studying, I was exhausted a lot of the time.

I went first to my RA and then to the cops, bringing the tape along and they said they could put a trace on my phone, but I'd need to keep a log of when the calls were coming in. I put a notebook by the phone and waited for the next one.

One day I had just entered the hallway to my room when I heard the voice, and I ran straight for my door... and I realized I was hearing it not through my own door, but through the door across the hall. My phone stalker, for lack of a better word, was my hall neighbor Marilyn, a person with whom I had had almost no contact³ and about whom I knew almost nothing.

I went straight up to her door and banged on it, and when she opened it, I let her have it. I started with "This stops right now; I know that it's you, and I've already alerted the police to this situation." She tried to distract me, tried to dissuade me from what I knew, and had she been a guy I probably would have decked her. I went to my own room.

The phone messages stopped. I never spoke with her again. I called the cops and let them know that it had been addressed. I told my RA, who I admit wasn't terribly effective -- probably he should have gotten her moved to another dorm. I didn't ask him to, and he didn't push. I didn't want to rock the boat. Strangely, I didn't want to mess with someone else's life, even if that someone had messed with mine.

I spent several weeks still worried, with the paranoid thoughts that come in such situations, that she might be unhinged, that she might be standing outside my door some morning with a chef's knife. I looked through the keyhole every time I left my room for the rest of the year, and through the glass in the fire door when I entered the hall from the outside. I looked for opportunities to sleep elsewhere, such as at my girlfriend's, who was in her senior year and very busy with a heavy class load. It hurt my sophomore year experience, but I got past it. I even became an RA the next two years, but that's another set of stories altogether.

I'm telling this here and now because I see so much of this anonymous terrorizing in our culture right now -- the easy anonymity of the Internet and these social networks we have empower it. Friends of mine have experienced it, mostly through Twitter and email and comments on their articles, should they be bloggers and writers. It's worse now than anything I ever experienced, but I know something of the toll it takes.

The worst time for me wasn't when I knew that it was my neighbor -- the worst time was when I didn't know who it was at all. To feel that paranoia that it could be anyone at all, and that's magnified a thousand-fold by our current tools. Once I knew who it was I was in control again, I was able to sleep, the fear was gone and I could take steps to protect myself in case she was truly unhinged. Before that, it could have been anyone. Someone who at least some of the time tracked my comings and goings, someone who knew what I looked like, what my girlfriend looked like. All of these things are easy to find out in our hyper-connected online culture, and it makes this sort of behavior even easier. To a degree, this experience years ago is the reason why I present myself online only as myself -- my email addresses and handles are all some mix of my first and last name.

If you're one of those crushingly bilious people out there who hide behind anonymity to instill this sort of terror in people, I pity you. I pity what's missing in you that you think for even a moment that this sort of thing is okay. I pity that you allow these darker parts of your nature to come out, and that you don't stop yourself, that you lack the basic decency to stop yourself before you do this to someone.

There's worse out there than my experience with "Marilyn", I know. There are more horrible things in life, and I don't for a moment compare my experience with what women are experiencing every day. I also doubt talking about my own little experience would necessarily stop someone from pursuing such vile streams of hate as I see out there on the Internet every day. But I have to say something just in case it might give pause to somebody, somewhere, before another human being has to endure this sort of thing.

I just wish all that shit would stop. Please make it stop. If you have a friend who you know does this sort of thing, please ask them to stop. Our culture needs to move on from this.

¹Her name wasn't Marilyn, though it started with an M; that comes from the poster of Marilyn Monroe she had on her wall. I remember making conversation about it, when I introduced myself at her door, something along the lines of "nice poster" and her replying, "Oh, I know, I sometimes think that if I were as pretty as Marilyn my life would be perfect."

²Think Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

³I was a sophomore, had friends, girlfriend, etc, and didn't know her at all.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 1, 2013 08:03 AM