Misplaced love that makes women's lives a misery

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The Independent Online
For six months she tolerated his presence in her life, at first more irritated than anxious as he began following her home from work, and standing close up behind her on the station platform and in the train.

Then he took to standing outside her house all night. Whatever the hour, whatever the weather, if she looked out of the window she would see him across the street. She wanted it to stop but the police seemed powerless against the man who stalked her.

The woman, a client of Dr Paul Mullen - a British forensic psychiatrist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and a world authority on stalking behaviour - was very strong mentally. She thought she could cope, Dr Mullen said - until the evening when she scored her first small victory over the man.

He was following her home from work when she darted into a shop. She went out of the back door and ran to the station, convinced she had given him the slip. Then she saw him; the top of his head appeared over the embankment, and she watched mesmerised as he scaled a wall, slithered down the steep slope to the railway line and braved the live rails and trains to reach the platform. He climbed up and took his usual position behind her. That was when she "freaked out", Dr Mullen said.

Today the Government is to launch its consultation document on anti- stalking legislation, and Dr Mullen has added his voice to calls for Britain to follow the United States and Australia with laws to protect victims and improve access to psychiatric help for perpetrators who, he said, can be cured of their obsessional behaviour.

One in seven victims of stalking experience post-traumatic distress syndrome and one-quarter of them think about suicide, Dr Mullen told an international meeting of psychiatrists in London yesterday. For his former client, the breaking point came with the realisation that her stalker would put his own life at risk in order to be close to her.

"She thought, 'if he would do that, what wouldn't he do?' ... What destroys people is not a dramatic incident or physical assault but the persistent apprehension of someone in their lives, of not knowing what they will do next," Dr Mullen said. "In fact many of the victims are relieved if an assault is made because then they have some recourse to law."

His study of 80 victims of stalkers, presented to the meeting of the Association of European Psychiatrists, is one of the most detailed to date. It reveals that the most common form of harassment is sending unwanted flowers, chocolates, pizzas and pornographic magazines. But there are more sinister variations: one woman was sent a beheaded cat, another a pig's head with a threat nailed on it; and two were sent voodoo dolls impaled with pins. Two victims moved countries to evade their stalkers, from New Zealand to Australia, only to be followed there. Many are forced to change jobs.

Most stalkers are men but women also stalk men, and Dr Mullen has studied eight cases where women were stalked by other women. "The motive is not always sexual," he said. "One of the most persistent women stalkers was looking for the ideal friend. She was heterosexual but stalked other women because she was looking for a sort of mother figure."

More than half the victims were threatened by a stalker and one-third were physically assaulted. However, one stalker just wanted his victim to listen; he wrestled her to the ground, sat on her chest and read a love poem to her.

One-third of the victims had no acquaintance or only a very casual acquaintance with their shadow. One-third were former lovers - the stalker could not believe that he or she had been rejected and was driven by rage and incomprehension, or a desire to wreak revenge. Another third had met at work, and the obsession may have been prompted by a missed promotion or failure to get a new job.

A minority of the perpetrators suffer from erotomania, Dr Mullen said. This is a mental disorder which manifests as a morbid and delusional pre- occupation with a person whom they "love", and whose behaviour to them is always interpreted as love. Another group is the socially incompetent, for whom this is the closest they can get to having a relationship. Many are intellectually disabled, he said.

Finally, there is a tiny number of dangerous, predatory stalkers who take sadistic pleasure in the fear they induce in their victims, and may make a sexual or violent attack. Some serial killers exhibit this pattern.

Men driven by obsession

Robert Hoskins

The singer Madonna testified against Robert Hoskins (left) in a United States court last March, telling the judge that she had been suffering from nightmares and even felt forced to sell her house because of his unwelcome attentions. Hoskins, 38, was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for stalking and making terrorist threats. The court was told that he had vowed to marry Madonna or cut her throat. He was arrested when a bodyguard shot him as he tried to break into her estate.

Klaus Wagner

The Princess of Wales's stalker was Klaus Wagner (right), 37, who was arrested outside Harrods as the Princess arrived for a charity ball on 8 March this year. He was committed to the Claybury psychiatric hospital, but charges of breach of the peace were dropped. He was arrested three times from January-March for causing a disturbance in connection with the Royal Family. He practised as an orthopaedic surgeon in Britain for six years, but was jailed for making out false prescriptions for morphine last October.

John Hinckley

Jodie Foster was stalked in the United States by John Hinckley (left), now 41, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on 30 March 1981, and claimed it was a stunt to impress Foster. A court found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity and he is now incarcerated in a mental hospital in Washington. His obsession with the actress began after her role as a 12-year-old prostitute in the film Taxi Driver. Hinckley showered Foster with love letters and phone calls.