Stalking out of the mind's shadows

Stalking is a crime which can be terrifying and can destroy a victim's life. So why would anyone make it up?
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The Independent Culture
For four years, one woman claimed she was being terrorised by a stalker called "The Poet", who bombarded her with threatening letters in rhyme. A butcher's knife arrived from him at Christmas; he cut her telephone line; he threw concrete blocks at her home; he even abducted her, stabbing her in the back.

When she was found mailing letters from "The Poet" to herself, the middle- aged American woman confessed that he had never existed.

This case, reported in 1984, was the first claim of false stalking to be made. But now new research from Australia suggests that as many as 10 per cent of stalking claims may be fictitious.

"False Victimisation Syndrome" is just one of a new set of psychiatric disorders that has joined illnesses such as cancer, which are favourites among those who set out to dupe doctors. The motivation of the "pseudovictims" can seem mysterious, but most psychologists believe the behaviour is attention-seeking, the only way an isolated individual has of obtaining sympathy.

In their paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Australian psychiatrists Dr Michele Pathe and colleagues, examined 12 individuals who had falsely claimed to be victims of stalking. Significantly, none was in a stable relationship, a stark contrast with the true victims that the Australian doctors saw in their specialist clinic. This strongly suggests that it is the enlistment of help and support from others that drives the need to claim you are in danger.

According to psychologists, true victims of stalking are usually embarrassed by their situation and would rather not draw attention to themselves, in contrast to pseudovictims, who try as hard as possible to get assistance from others. Genuine sufferers are often reluctant to notify the authorities of their problem, fearing that this may even exacerbate their predicament, while false victims happily, even gleefully, come forward.

Another clue as to what is really going on lies in the rhythm with which incidents are reported. Pseudovictims tend to generate more complaints if it seems as though others may be losing interest in the case. But in three of the 12 cases reported from Australia the victims had suffered genuine stalking in the past, and had as a result become hypersensitive to a possible recurrence, seeing stalking in the blameless actions of others.

In six of the 12 cases Dr Pathe describes, the cause of the false claims was in fact a paranoid delusion about being followed, which the psychotic had incorporated into their fantasy life, perhaps because paranoia about stalking, fuelled by media reports, is currently so widespread. Yet the public fear of stalking is often based on a false picture generated by the media, which focuses on celebrity stalking, where disturbed fans are usually involved.

In cases involving ordinary members of the public, it is much more common for any stalking to be done by someone already fairly well known to the victim. Ironically, in one case reported by Dr Pathe the false victim of stalking was in fact a stalker - the false claim seemed to be an attempt to pre-empt the victim's complaint. This echoes another bizarre case from the US where a stalker took out an injunction against a victim, to stop the person following the stalker.

This begins to make psychological sense if you see stalkers as people so obsessed with their victims that they are unable to get thoughts of their quarry out of their minds, even when they may want to. In a sense, they themselves feel trapped by their targets.

However complex the problem of telling the genuine from the false in the weird world of stalking, one salient fact is incontestable: the time and energy devoted to investigating false claims takes away precious and increasingly meagre resources from genuine crimes and victims. But even when the authorities suspect they have a pseudovictim on their hands, the problem of how to confront the issue with the perpetrator can be a difficult one.

In another famous US case, a woman filed 60 complaints over six months, claiming that she had found underwear in her house with red hearts drawn on in lipstick, and that she had suffered break-ins and had found blood- soaked teddy bears left above her garage entrance so they would fall on those closing the door. One was found in her baby's cot. After several press conferences held by the victim, where she complained about the lack of interest of the local police, she was caught on videotape placing a teddy bear in her garage. It transpired that the motivation was an attempt to make living in her house so uncomfortable that it would force her reluctant husband to agree to move.

In 1995, Cyndy Garvey, the ex-wife of a famous baseball player, reported a number of stalking events to the Los Angeles police. After numerous phone calls pleading for help, she went to them with a black eye and damaged nose. It later emerged that she had in fact been harassing her ex-husband and an ex-boyfriend. She confessed that she manufactured the stalking incidents to exact revenge against her ex-boyfriend.

This is a common motivation - to inflict vengeance against a loved one who has ended a relationship. Alternatively an ex-partner may be galvanised into protecting the "victim" from a mysterious anonymous threat, and so fictitious claims of being stalked can connect you with someone who was not otherwise likely to return.

Dr Pathe and her colleagues suggest a sympathetic approach which acknowledges that false victims in most cases are distressed and disturbed individuals. Dr Kris Mohandie, a police psychologist at the Los Angeles Police Department who specialises in False Victimisation Syndrome, explains that their approach is to state to the pseudovictim that "events did not occur as you told us", but then to allow a face-saving exit for the perpetrators by portraying the falsehood as a "cry for help". After all, seeking a victim's role as the only way of achieving a sense of personal identity suggests something fundamentally wrong with their psychological development.

But perhaps the cause also partly lies in a society so obsessed by the cult of celebrity that anyone who is anyone must have their own stalker - the ultimate status accessory; the same society where assuming the role of a victim is increasingly the only way to get any attention.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London