Sticks and Stones

March 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

on being the target of cyberstalkers

Back in the third grade, I had a real problem. Her name was Lavonda. I may have had three inches on her, but she had a good fifteen pounds, and a whole lot of rage, on me. Everyday when I was walking home from school, she would jump me. I would arrive home with blouse torn, hair pulled, nose bloodied. My parents complained.  They were sent away with all kinds of reassurances and the next day Lavonda pounded me again.

It didn’t matter if I walked home with friends or walked home alone. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I fought back or if I just lay there in the dirt praying for it to be over. It didn’t matter if I tried to be nice to her in the sun-dappled classroom. I remember the day I gave her a cookie she seemed extra vicious as she kicked and slapped at me. My father started picking me up at school. Lavonda got her licks in at recess.

Then one day she wasn’t there. She wasn’t there the next day either. At the end of the week, Miss Fischer rearranged the desks. I never saw Lavonda again. Looking at her in the class picture, I am struck at how unkempt she looked. This was 1971, when little girls and little boys were turned out in their next-best clothes for school pictures, their hair carefully combed. Not Lavonda, her hair stood straight up, a wild shock. Her dress, a little too small, had a stain on the front of it. Her socks didn’t quite match.

It was a baffling time, I never could quite figure it out. I never had a problem making friends. In high school I was editor of the newspaper, and floated easily between groups of kids. Mind you, it was a Canadian school, maybe we didn’t have bullies.

Has it been a charmed life? Maybe. Sure I’ve had disagreements with people. There are people who I used to consider friends whom I wouldn’t consider friends anymore. They’ll probably spit on my grave, and fine, have at it.  There are times I’ve behaved in a way that I later regretted.  But when you come right down to it, I have many close friends for whom I am deeply grateful and a wonderful family that cherishes me and now that I’m no longer publishing a newspaper, not too much trouble in my life.

So imagine my surprise when I became the target of a bully.

It started in a chat room, a forum for fanciers of a particular dog breed, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

We are hound people. We like hounds, their easy going, bucolic personalities. But we also have Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and they while they are sometimes bucolic, they are unusually intense dogs, one might even say driven. They are protective, loyal, possessive, and occasionally quarrelsome.  There is no breed quite like them, and I hope that we will always have one in the family.

When I began to participate at the Chesapeake forum, cbrs4me, in 2003, it was rocky at first. It seemed like I was failing to communicate, that people couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Since I’d been writing professionally for nearly 15 years by then, this was perplexing to me. In time, though, I realized that you write differently on a forum, couching your messages in little emoticons to further underline the tenor of your post. Still, I made friends there, real friendships that exist in the real world, not just in cyberspace.

One woman, though, was intent to make trouble. I couldn’t post anything on any subject without fomenting a caustic response from Julie R., a realtor in central Virginia. In another universe, one might have thought that we could have friends, sharing an abiding interest in this unusual dog breed, in horses, in foxhunting, in photography. On the other hand, she described her place as “Redneck Riviera” and her sentiments are stolidly Republican, so maybe not. Not to say that I don’t have Republican redneck friends, because I guess I have a few of those too.

Julie was a persistent as a horsefly and often as stinging. She had really ramped up into overdrive with her insinuations and insults at about the time that we learned that my father was not going to win his long battle with laryngeal cancer. I sent her a civil email and asked her to back off given the circumstances and she made fun of me for “dragging out my dead and dying relatives.”  My next email was not so civil, and Julie tried to twist that to have my membership in the American Chesapeake Club revoked. (It didn’t work.) 

The National Crime Prevention Council’s definition of cyber-bullying is “when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.” We generally think of cyber bullying as it applies to children and teenagers: it came sharply into focus last May when jurors convicted Lori Drew, a suburban housewife who used MySpace to torment one of her daughter’s friends, Megan Meier, 13, to the point that the girl killed herself. 

But the problem is not limited to teens. Referred to as cyberstalking when involving adults, it is estimated that one in four American adults has been a victim of cyberstalkers who employ a variety of online means, particularly forums and chatrooms, to present their victim in a false and unflattering light. 

When it got to the point that I could no longer participate on cbrs4me without being harassed, I simply stopped. I’d been reading another board, the Retriever Training Forum. Most of the people who participate are interested in hunting or participating in field events with their dogs.

Over time, strange things started to happen. People I didn’t know started asking me pointed questions about my dogs. Soon it was clear that Julie was behind these posts. Not that she’d stopped posting of her own accord when she found me at RTF. She’d come after me hammer and tongs, and when I complained to the moderators, well she made fun of that too.

Once upon a time I thought I’d like to participate in field games with my dogs. I’m not enthusiastic about killing things. (Though frankly, I don’t mind that others are, you could never pin me as “anti-hunting”) That turned out to be my cardinal sin. It didn’t matter that I’d been on hunts. If I couldn’t point to my pile of mallards then clearly I was a poseur.

Julie started posting montages consisting of a photograph of me with my dog (pilfered from a dog show website) with the Clintons, Barack Obama and Kim-Jong-Il in a duck boat. In every sentence where I was mentioned she called me a liar.  She began using that photo as her “avatar” so that it appeared every time she posted. Then her friends started using the photo as their avatar as well. 

I posted a photograph of our dogs in the field (but no dead birds) to a thread of Chesapeake Bay Retriever photos. One of Julie’s friends took me to task. When I pointed out that more than sixty percent of the other photos didn’t have dead waterfowl in them either,  “Copiah Creek” went ballistic.  I wouldn’t have known this man if he’d turned up on my doorstep, but he’d challenged me on other occasions and I’d tried to have  a civil answer for him in every instance. (One time, he objected vigorously to me referring to a dog show in Louisiana as “dog games,” as he felt that phrase must be reserved for field events.)

Now he was saying he was going to quit the forum because he couldn’t stand all the trouble I was always making. I sat back and took a long hard look at how unpleasant this had become for me, and how little I was getting out of it. I realized that these people had killed any interest I’d ever have in field sports with the dogs. I could live without the drama. So I wrote the administrator and asked him to delete my profile, that I would no longer post there. I swear they probably all got up and sang “Ding Dong the witch is dead.”

Now I wasn’t posting anywhere. But still the cyber stalking continued. Julie took posts I’d made out of context and posted them on other dog forums. She attributed posts written by other people as being written by me. The whole group claimed they had emails from me. None of it was true. They started posting on a third forum, Team Chesapeake.

More “doctored” photographs of me appeared on Team Chesapeake. (Interestingly, the only photograph of Julie to be found on the internet is a very old and very tiny one on her website with a real estate firm. In it, her face is about the size of a pencil eraser.) I went to the website she’d taken my photos from and deleted each and every photograph of there and felt utterly defeated as I did it.

Lamber Royakkers, a professor of Ethics in Technology at the Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology has described cyberstalking as “a continuous process, consisting of a series of actions, each of which may be entirely legal in itself.” He defines the stalking as “a form of mental assault, in which the perpetrator repeatedly, unwantedly, and disruptively breaks into the life-world of the victim, with whom he has no relationship (or no longer has), with motives that are directly or indirectly traceable to the affective sphere. Moreover, the separated acts that make up the intrusion cannot by themselves cause the mental abuse, but do taken together (have a cumulative effect.)

On this third, unmonitored forum, one I read but had never contributed to, the nasty comments appreared daily.

“Why do you even look,” my husband asked.  But it’s like a car accident, you can’t look away. It wasn’t just Julie, but her friend Copiah Creek, some guy who called himself Drakeslayer, and one poor soul, “Dr. Charles A. Bortell, Ph.D.” I’ve never met any of these people, not even Julie. I did see her once, from a distance at a dog show in Philadelphia in 2004. As one woman pointed out, they wouldn’t know me if they fell on me.

This time the comments included sexual references, along with remarks alluding to my size, “thunder thighs” and “thick chick.” Ironically, someone told me a few weeks ago that they when they saw Julie at a dog show recently that she had gained so much weight that they didn’t even recognize her. One charming person said he didn’t mind having sex with fat girls but have you seen Larkin’s face? I guess this is sophomoric humor, people didn’t make cracks like that at my high school. But let me tell you, it wasn’t so funny when my14 year old son read it.

The following features or combination of features can be considered to characterize a true stalking situation: malice, premeditation, repetition, distress, obsession, vendetta, no legitimate purpose, personally directed, disregarded warnings to stop, harassment, and threats.

Yesterday afternoon I had the first truly nasty comments on this blog. They were outrageously vulgar, racist remarks. (I have the option to approve comments and of course, I deleted those.) I can also see from what websites people access this page. There, among the usual sites that direct traffic to A Thousand Days was a surprise: Retriever Training Forum.

Why is this woman so obsessed with me? It’s hard to just stumble upon A Thousand Days, she had to look for it. She’s like that little black kid lying in wait for me everyday. Why has she invested so much time and energy in trying to make my life miserable? Why is she so intent on turning others, complete strangers, against me? (Surely at some point, they’ll start to wonder why.) 

Yes, there are times when I was furious. There were times when I felt sad. It was truly terrible trying to help my son make sense of the rage he felt at seeing his mother portrayed like that.

But in the end, I am a happy person, and I have a happy life. My husband adores me. We’ve been enjoying puttering in the yard on these glorious spring days. The daffodils are up, the dogs frolic around us. We’ve got a great kid. Lots of friends, a wonderful extended family. There’s plenty to eat. We sleep well at night.

Then I remember Lavonda and her mismatched socks, and with that memory, a realization.  

It’s all right, Julie, I forgive you.

(And you Alan, and you Dr. CAB and you Kathy Miller and all the rest of you goobers, you’re all forgiven.)

And you too, Lavonda, wherever you are. I hope each of you finds someone to make you feel loved.  I hope that in time you find peace in your heart, the kind that frees you from wanting to hurt other people. It doesn’t matter that your socks don’t match. 

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§ 3 Responses to Sticks and Stones

  • Heidi says:

    I’m not commenting on the broader theme of this post. All I can think about is Lavonda.

    I remember her too, though I’d forgotten her name. She and a friend would get in my face in the bathroom and say things like “don’t you ever swear girl?” I replied with my perfect grammar and pronunciation “of course I do! Shit!” She also scratched me on my face in the playground leaving a scar by the side of my nose for years. Oddly enough, her aggression pushed me towards wanting more understanding in my 8 year old mind. I remember thinking “I want to be an archeologist so I can understand how the past got us here” …to this place of violence and injustice. (Granted the connection is a bit distant, but I also wanted the drama of digging for treasure. History, what I eventually studied, wasn’t as sexy.) I knew I was privileged and she wasn’t. I knew school came easily to me and that Miss Fisher really liked me. I often won the weekly spelling bee. I knew that my clothes were clean and cared for and hers weren’t. Somehow I cut her a lot of slack, probably because of the time, because I lived next door to the Malcolm X House, the black student house on campus, because it was unfair.

    Stillman School in 1970 was a crucible – the Wesleyan kids coming down the hill, the kids from the projects walking across the playing field, all meeting in the little red brick school house for free breakfast (white bread and peanut butter, orange juice) provided by the Black Panthers. I remember Sicilian kids coming to school for the first time without a word of English. Do you remember the Sicilian girl who had a nose bleed her first day, staining the front of her white Orlon sweater? Did the principal really prohibit us from wearing the silk-screened arm bands with STRIKE and a raised fist that we got from the college students? How did I forget that you were being beaten up so regularly after school?

  • larkinvonalt says:

    Heidi, how great to hear from you on this. I’m not absolutely certain her name was Lavonda, but it was something very close to that. For a little while I couldn’t get on with the essay because I wasn’t sure of the name — then I decided to plow forward– I guess it doesn’t matter because we remember her so well if not her name. Yes, I remember the girl with the nosebleed and the white sweater. You’ve provided details that I’d forgotten and made this all the more vivid. I am grateful. I went to extraordinary lengths to not get beaten up. She wouldn’t mess with Michele Romano (do you remember her?) so I would try to walk home with Michele (who lived on Brainerd Ave between me and the Connors) when I could. Again, many thanks.

  • Hope Jahren says:

    Hi Larkin, It made me sad to read this. I truly regret any of the times I’ve gotten involved in anything negative on the board. I am so fortunate to have been left out of all the email traffic, it sounds really awful, especially images and everything else. That’s awful. Ya gotta wonder about people. Sometimes the internet brings out the worst in all of us. I have friends who just never talk to anyone who believes anything different than them, they just shut their lives in like that. My little nephew (15) was crying the other day because some stranger said something awful about one of the youtube videos that he spent days making. I vowed then and there that I am going to try to be a better person on the internet. Anyway just a “hi” from HI

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