Two writers discuss their cyber-stalker.
Image courtesy Mark Ovaska
In 2011, I wrote an email to James Lasdun, a writer I’d heard of but never met:
from: Porochista Khakpour
date: Sat, Aug 13, 2011 at 9:10 PM
subject: urgent request from a fellow writer who is being harassed [Porochista Khakpour]
Dear Mr. Lasdun,
My name is Porochista Khakpour, and I’m a writer myself. I wish I was reaching out to you about happier matters—I’m actually quite interested in your books!—but sadly, I’m writing because I’m at wit’s end about a sort of harasser/stalker we might have in common by the name of [Nasreen]. In 2008, when I lived in NYC, I was forwarded a bunch of emails from New School professors that referenced me (my novel had recently debuted), in which I was being accused by this presumably schizophrenic person (who I have never met) of stealing her work, causing her rape, etc. It was all very hard to understand. I ignored it, and it has started up again—she has begun contacting me on Facebook, vandalizing my Wikipedia and Amazon pages, and making horrific posts about me on her very public Facebook page (and your name seems to be coming up again, too). I don’t know if she’s having an episode or what, as I was happy to put this chapter behind me ages ago. But I think I may need to contact the FBI or police now. I was just wondering if you had done the same or if you had any other insight or advice on how to deal with this person? Is she indeed dangerous, if you have met her? Etc.
Just hours before I’d sent this email:
from: Porochista Khakpour
date: Mon, Aug 8, 2011 at 7:30 PM
subject: a Wikipedia edit you made
I’m hoping you are “Darkwind” who edits on Wikipedia.
Recently my Wikipedia page was vandalized yet again by someone who has been stalking me for years. (I know it’s her because she had also vandalized two other writers, James Lasdun and ______, whom she sees in cahoots with me, though we’ve all never met.) I am relaying her info to the police, but I realized her latest bit of vandalism I could not see on Wikipedia—it was “crossed out.” Apparently you made the edits and restored the page? (And for that, thanks!) But could you let me know what she had done to my page on August 1? This is the first time I can’t see an older version of a page on Wikipedia and am seeing a cross out on that date. This would be useful to our investigation—this woman is very schizophrenic and has taken to harassing us on Facebook and email as well.
Best, Porochista Khakpour
None of my emails were answered. In Lasdun’s case, the email had been sent to an outdated email address.
One day later I wrote:
from: Porochista Khakpour
date: Fri, Aug 12, 2011 at 2:09 PM
subject: a request from Porochista Khakpour
I don’t know you—I’ve never met you, and I’ve certainly done nothing to hurt you. So… I’m going to ask that you please stop sending me hateful messages like the one you sent twelve or so days ago via Facebook. It’s also come to my attention that you have been vandalizing my Wikipedia and Amazon pages. On top of all this, three years ago I was forwarded correspondence from you to others that linked me to very incendiary accusations and insults. I chose to ignore it all and not take action. I’d like to take the same route again, so kindly please stop.
I am also happy to answer any questions you have.
Best, Porochista Khakpour
She wrote back, just hours later:
to: Porochista Khakpour
date: Fri, Aug 12, 2011 at 4:08 PM
subject: Re: a request from Porochista Khakpour
Go away. You’ve done enough. Don’t write me anymore
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
I did not answer it. And then days later she wrote more:
to: Porochista Khakpour
date: Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 9:44 AM
subject: Re: a request from Porochista Khakpour
Fuck yourself and stop writing you me ugly bitch. I said cease and desist you scumwhore… Everyone knows.
And that’s one of the least sinister emails she’d sent me.
Eventually I went to an unmarked building in Santa Fe and met with the local FBI who, after many hours of going through the emails and Facebook posts, decided she was worthy of surveillance. I thought it might be over, but I continue to get messages from her.
So when I heard of James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, I read it eagerly. Lasdun, of course, is a real force in the literary world, one of those remarkably flexible little-bit-of-everything renaissance men of letters: he’s published four books of poetry, four collections of short stories, and two novels, The Horned Man: A Novel (a New York Times Notable Book) and Seven Lies: A Novel (longlisted for the Booker Man Prize). His story “The Siege” was adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci for his film Besieged. He co-wrote the screenplay for the films Signs and Wonders and Sunday (based on another of his stories) which won Best Feature and Best Screenplay awards at Sundance, 1997.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, which came out from FSG in February, is my favorite of his works, exploring Lasdun’s unraveling correspondence with a former student—an Iranian woman he calls “Nasreen”—whose writing displays promise and whom he meets with to review her manuscript. It’s a page-turner, playing on our obsession with stalkers and, of course, even juicier, the notion of a younger female stalker preying on an older man—and at the same time it contains travel essays (from Santa Fe to Israel), meditations on mysticism and cyberterrorism, much wisdom on writing and teaching, and finally a very personal portrait of a mid-career acclaimed male writer. Yet for me, it felt so personal—a book I often imagined writing myself. Although we’ve never met—the interview was conducted over email over the span of a week—we realized the last several years of our lives had more parallels than we’d even imagined. What follows is more of a conversation between me—Iranian-American journalist, essayist, and novelist, one of the “Writers X Y and Z” pegged by Lasdun as fellow-stalkees—and James—British-American poet, novelist, screenwriter, and now memoirist.
—Porochista Khakpour for Guernica
Guernica: We have never met or even corresponded, though I have emailed a bit with the other “Writers X Y and Z” that you mention. I’m also a bit concerned, as in some ways I feel like we are acting out just what Nasreen feared—that we are all a team, against her, coming out together as forces that believe in her wrongdoing. Did you have this sense writing the memoir that you were actualizing her fears and paranoias, almost validating them, as here she was in your work, outed?
Even though we’ve had no prior connection outside Nasreen’s imagination, we are in a bizarre way validating her paranoid conspiracy fantasies by being in touch now. I guess that’s the nature of paranoia—at least on the scale it afflicted Nasreen. It casts shadows over everything.
James Lasdun: I should say first that having been accused of selling Nasreen’s work to you and the other writers, I deliberately refrained from reading any of your books. It seemed important to me to be able to say truthfully that I’d never read a word any of you had written (which I think also reveals how crazily vexed and nervous I’d become!). So I haven’t read your novel. But I think I can safely do so now. And then, yes, I share your concern that even though we’ve had no prior connection outside Nasreen’s imagination, we are in a bizarre way validating her paranoid conspiracy fantasies by being in touch now. I guess that’s the nature of paranoia—at least on the scale it afflicted Nasreen. It casts shadows over everything. As far as my memoir goes, I did note the irony of using her emails, verbatim, in a book about being accused of plagiarism. I felt justified in using them because I felt justified in writing about someone who’d spent so many years trying to wreck my life with the emails as her weapons. On the other hand, I don’t see the book as an attack on her in any way, or even an “outing.” I actually feel it’s quite sympathetic to her, in the sense that I try hard to see the situation through her eyes and to understand the role I myself played in it. And even though her emails are pretty damning, I think she emerges, at the very least, as a force to be reckoned with…
Guernica: Has Nasreen been in touch with you since the book came out? Or did she seem aware of its existence just beforehand?
James Lasdun: I haven’t heard from Nasreen since August of 2012, when she left about twenty extremely violent and threatening messages on our answering machine (she seems to have moved from email to phone stalking). I had to listen to them because I had to digitally record them for the NYPD Hate Crimes Unit, which is currently handling the case. I don’t know if she knows anything about the book.
Guernica: I like that your book is about many things—we travel with you even. And I love the exploration of ethnicity and race that exists in there, too. In summer of 2011, I went to the FBI with my pile of emails and Facebook posts and messages to others about me, and for a moment I felt a horrible sense of guilt about turning in a Middle Eastern woman, a fellow Iranian. The FBI felt quite excited that Allah came up in her messages and at times she would take the stance of a radical Muslim—they seemed to be licking their chops at that. Like she was more than the “verbal terrorist” you write of in your book. How did you feel about that? The Jewish element comes into play here, of course. But do you think this could have played out the same if you were Muslim or even Christian? As far as I know, not all of us who were attacked were Jews.
James Lasdun: I had no idea you’d gone to the FBI. It sounds like they took you more seriously than they took me. Did they ever actually do anything? I’d naively thought the anti-semitic stuff, along with her description of herself as a “verbal terrorist,” would get their attention enough for them to at least call her up with a warning, which might have brought matters to a swift end. But they basically gave me the brush-off.
The whole race/anti-semitic aspect of the emails was actually less disturbing to me personally than the accusations of plagiarism and sexual misconduct. As a Jew living in the Catskills and New York, I can’t exactly claim to be a member of a vulnerable minority, so all that business was more bizarre than threatening. Bizarre because she’d never given any indication of being anti-semitic. I have a feeling that she came out with it initially just to shock and offend (rather than out of actual conviction) and then just sort of decided to double down instead of backing off. And then, as with the “madness” in general, which I also felt to be something of a performance at first, the mask steadily became the reality. I’m sure that’s not how a psychiatrist would see it, but that’s how it seemed to me. This is, after all, someone who functioned well enough to get through graduate school and hold down a job at a major national magazine. Likewise, I think her self-identification as a sort of representatively oppressed Muslim began purely as a self-aggrandizing extension of her own private sense of injury. She never seemed interested in any of those things before she embarked on this campaign (and I believe she comes from a family that was close to the Shah in the seventies—i.e. there’s nothing remotely “Islamist” in her background). So the political/ethnic mantle she wraps herself in is hard to take altogether seriously.
That said, yes, it’s uncomfortable thinking one might be in any way instrumental in encouraging or benefiting from current phobias and prejudices in law enforcement. And yes, even though the anti-semitism didn’t seem personally threatening, being at the receiving end of that sort of thing does concentrate your mind in a strange way, especially if you’re already somewhat interested in (and mystified by) what it means for a completely non-religious person to be a Jew, as I was. So I ran with it.
This doesn’t answer your question about what if I’d been Christian or Muslim. Probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but there’s a special relationship between a certain kind of denunciatory madness and anti-semitism that perhaps allowed things to get more out of hand than they might have otherwise…
Guernica: At what point did it become apparent to you that you’d need to make this a memoir? Did you consider fiction as well? When and why did you know this story should be public? What’s funny is that I also considered writing it, though as a long essay (I also had less interaction with her) and I kept envisioning this essay called “On Stalking the Stalker,” as I’d become increasingly obsessed with her Facebook page (she had actually blocked me but I’d use my friends’ accounts to watch her posts once in a while). I was often fascinated by how similar we seemed: visually (though she went out of the way to both make fun of my looks and to say I’d stolen her look), and even our interests (yoga, which I also taught, hip hop, which provided the soundtrack to my adolescence—even our love of PJ Harvey, Cat Power, and Will Oldham, which I consider rather particular). I wondered if she’d picked up bits from my interviews but then I felt like by just thinking that I was playing her game. Anyway, I too had to read the stuff she would send and post to build my case against her (and she defaced my Amazon and Wikipedia pages as well), but I did feel disturbed by watching her so closely and that unease steered me away from writing it. Also, I was not so brave! I do think she’s dangerous. You managed to do it rather elegantly, so I’m interested in that moment you knew you’d have to resort to writing.
At a certain point I realized I was becoming as obsessed with Nasreen as she was with me—no doubt just what she wanted.
James Lasdun: The book didn’t begin as a memoir but as an attempt to write a purely forensic account of what had been going on for the past few years. Things had come to the point where I felt I needed something that laid out the whole progression of events, complete with the full spectrum of Nasreen’s emails—the crazy ones as well as the more dangerously lucid-seeming ones—so that the next time some employer got an email denouncing me I’d have a coherent document to show them rather than having to splutter out the bizarre story while simultaneously writhing with embarrassment. But it’s basically impossible to write a document in your own defense without sounding defensive, guilty, and a bit crazy, too. Or at least I found it so. But in the process of trying, I realized that the story actually connected with all sorts of things I’d wanted to write about for years—bits of family history, some journeys I’d made, certain texts and certain subjects I’d always been interested in, such as reputation and honor, and of course all the subliminal communications that go on between men and women.
Your point about stalking becoming a two-way business is something I was struck by, too. I think you should definitely write your essay on it, by the way, as it’s an interesting phenomenon that clearly manifests itself in all sorts of very different ways. At a certain point, I realized I was becoming as obsessed with Nasreen as she was with me—no doubt just what she wanted. At one level that’s presumably just what happens naturally when someone attacks you relentlessly over a long period of time. But I did feel there was something more than just that. Complicity is very much something I wanted to explore in my book—my own complicity in this situation and the idea of complicity in general. It’s risky territory and I certainly didn’t want it to turn into some kind of blame-the-victim nonsense, but I think the subject is worth exploring. To adapt D.H. Lawrence’s words about murder (“It takes two to make a murder: a murderer and a murderee”) it may be that it takes two to make a stalking: a stalker and a stalkee… at least in certain circumstances. Though ultimately, as I say in the book, nothing (and in my view not even mental illness or “personality disorder”) fully explains five years—and counting—of deliberate, calculated, fully conscious malice.
I’ve heard from five other people whom she has either stalked or otherwise harassed over the years. All of them are people who at least at one time admired her greatly for her charm and intelligence… It seems incredibly sad and wasteful that someone with so much potential can be this destructive.
Guernica: I just noticed today there is a small but alive-and-kicking Facebook page now called “Help identify James Lasdun’s cyberstalker on FB.” I’m surprised no one has. A lot of commenters at the bottoms of articles and interviews by you have mentioned being harassed by her, but no names are named. And the fact that there are all these people surprised me—I thought there was just a half dozen of us, all writers. But there are perhaps more.
James Lasdun: I did hear about that Facebook page, though I have no idea who set it up. My own feeling is that if Nasreen wants to identify herself that’s up to her. She hasn’t been shy about it in the past, but I personally have no interest in revealing her identity. As I mentioned, the case is in the hands of the police and I’m hopeful that either they will be able to enforce some kind of resolution or that Nasreen will simply decide on her own to stop harassing me and the other people she has been pursuing. As you say, there turn out to be quite a number of these. I knew about you and the other writers, as well as my agent and the editor I call “Paula,” but since publishing the book I’ve heard from five other people whom she has either stalked or otherwise harassed over the years. All of them are people who at least at one time admired her greatly for her charm and intelligence, and were stunned at the way things developed. It seems incredibly sad and wasteful that someone with so much potential can be this destructive. Clearly, she’s very troubled. The question, though, is where does it leave you to acknowledge that?
Guernica: I’ve had to take action a number of times—one reading in Orange County, when she started it all, had to have extra security (at one point, since another Iranian writer was also getting the emails, the conference was in danger of being cancelled). Then years later, when people began forwarding me things they’d see about me on the internet that began taking the shape of the death threats, I wrote her to stop and told her I’d take action and she wrote, “Ewwww don’t contact me,” though she’d written me several times by then. Then years later, when there were death threats, I had to go to the FBI. It didn’t add up to much, though I know she’s being surveilled—again, her paranoia is validated by her actions. She fascinates me because she is someone whose worst fears constantly come true—like this interview—through the power of dark will and imagination. I don’t know how to put it better. It’s a terrifying power, a power I’d never want, but a power that fascinates me nonetheless.
A few samples from her emails:
“probably the paranoid poetess thinking James wrote miss khakpour’s book out of spite (i’m unsure why; how did i incur his wrath? due to my instability and false idolization of him during my meltdown post-rape?)”
“all of the backstory of porochista dickbreath’s work is a mockery of my family and many other exiled families. it’s a rip-off. you and your little neo-con friends are dinosaurs.”
“One word: God. You’ll see…”
“DIE. ALL OF YOU.”
You want to pass it all off and forget it, but it’s chilling. I’ve had my share of hate mail, but nothing like this. And even though I don’t think of her daily, or to the extent you’ve had to, certainly, every once in a while the thought of her bubbles up and it’s just very upsetting. She accuses me of stealing her work, being an accomplice in her rape, causing her mental breakdown—these issues all hit home in a terrible way. And it seems like this person was a real writing student, a journalist, a professor, a yoga teacher—all things that she shared with me. In another life, we’d have been friends.
It seemed a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, but after five years of fairly unremitting private and public attacks I felt I had to defend myself, and it seemed at least better to be damned with a book than just continuing to cower in silence.
James Lasdun: Really interesting to hear how closely your experience resembles mine—the same threats, the same incredibly upsetting accusations, even the same absurd business of having to do a reading under guard. And that fascination, too—the sense of confronting someone possessed of formidable powers. One wants to ignore it all, but the relentlessness of the attack makes it impossible, and at a certain point the nature of the threats and accusations make it a matter of necessity to do something about it.
Guernica: I want to ask you—without being too self-indulgent as this interview is about you, but this is also the first time we’ve spoken about this—where she first got wind of me, and how her interest in me began?
James Lasdun: She first mentioned you to me in—I think—early 2008, as one of four writers of Iranian descent to whom I and my supposed gang of Jewish literary thieves had sold her work. It’s such a ridiculous notion, and yet, like all her wild accusations, the sheer relentlessness of it ultimately forces you to feel you have to defend yourself against it—or it did me. Did she ever spell out what it was we were supposed to have sold you? She certainly never did to me. I always felt she at best only half-believed any of the accusations she was making, and I don’t think she cared that much whether or not other people believed them. I think she just wanted to smear—throw a lot of mud in the hope that some of it would stick.
Guernica: Last month, out of nowhere, Paula wrote me a very long email—I had no idea how she even got my personal email, as I’ve never corresponded with her—and it was a very panicked email, claiming “I felt it was unwise of him to write this book and that in doing so, he might motivate her to carry out her threats not only to him, but to others.” Did the other characters in the book try to chime in or stop you? Did you feel responsible to them? I personally don’t think you are at all, and don’t think this book will cause more problems, but I’ll bet the idea occurred to you.
James Lasdun: After Nasreen began making threats of actual harm against me and my family, I felt that there was no longer anything to be lost by going public and that it might even help matters. Basically, it seemed a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, but after five years of fairly unremitting private and public attacks I felt I had to defend myself, and it seemed at least better to be damned with a book than just continuing to cower in silence. Paula certainly had misgivings, but we discussed them and when she came to the reading that launched the book she seemed okay with it. She actually spoke very eloquently about cyberstalking in general—she’d recently outed another stalker who’d been harassing her—and so I think her feelings are evolving, or anyway mixed, though of course you’d have to ask her.
The extraordinary difficulty of doing anything about the problem was always mind-boggling to me. I’d naively thought that if someone sent threats like Nasreen’s they’d immediately be arrested, but it turns out to be much more complicated. After I completed the book, her threats to me did actually escalate to a level where the detective on the case felt he might be able to have her extradited [across states] to face charges. But neither Paula nor the woman I call “Janice” (both of whom had also received violent threats) were comfortable with her being brought to New York, where she’d be able to come and go as she pleased between arraignment and trial. And since I don’t actually live in the city, I felt I couldn’t argue with that, so we’re still at an impasse. That said, I haven’t heard from her for several months, so I’m hoping she’s either getting the help she needs or has simply managed, on her own, to move on.
Guernica: So how do you imagine the story will end? The ending of the book is of course not the end of your story with Nasreen, though as you say one can hope it might end now. But what are some of the scenarios you’ve considered—from the most rational to irrational?
James Lasdun: The last I heard from Nasreen (a few months before my book came out) was a spate of phone messages in which she said, among other things, “This is never going to end.” So I have to assume there’s a possibility of unending, ever-evolving harassment. Against that there’s the more appealing possibility that some kind of intervention—police, health services, family, or just her own decision to stop—will resolve matters. One thing I found myself compelled to explore while writing the book was the effect of my silence on Nasreen. I don’t think it explains everything, but I suspect it had a larger role than I realized at the time. To the extent that the book is a breaking of that silence, I can’t help hoping that it might have some positive effect. One never knows.
To contact Guernica or James Lasdun, please write here.