I had gone to Mexico to try to escape. I thought that immersing myself in a month-long writers’ retreat would take my mind off what was happening to me.
But I should have known better.
One night, at a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, a woman I’d met leaned across the table to me and whispered, Laurie, do you have a cyberstalker or something?
What? I clanked my fork down on the table. She walked over to me.
I don’t want to freak you out, she said as she pulled out her phone, but yesterday, after we were both tagged in that Facebook photo, I got a friend request from someone I didn’t know. I rejected it. It was from ‘Egly Hidalgo’, a young Mexican woman with ridiculous cleavage. Then she sent me this message. She handed me her phone so I could read it.
STAY AWAY FROM HER…She is a wolf in sheeps’ clothing and has no conscience
WARNING – Laurie Gough = WARNING! it began.
One of the people around you is author Laurie Gough. She seems like a nice person at first-but actually she is a toxic person under a silver tongued mask. Laurie Gough is a secretly sadistic narcissistic person who tries to get others to commit suicide. STAY AWAY FROM HER…She is a wolf in sheeps’ clothing and has no conscience.
Oh God, I thought. Not again.
It had started two months before, back home in Canada. On my website, I’d written briefly about my upcoming memoir about my son’s struggle with OCD and soon after, the messages started coming: threats to keep me away from my son, warnings to loved ones, and finally, personal attacks.
Today, there’s a lot I still don’t know about what happened. I don’t know why this person started to stalk me online. I don’t know if we’ve ever met, and I don’t know where he or she lives. All I know is that my cyberstalker is currently being investigated by a federal cybercrime unit.
I first heard from this person in May. The principal of my son’s school called to say she’d received a strange and disturbing email from a stranger named Ana Petruleasa. The email contained not only my son’s full name, but our address, and it took an even more eerie twist when it continued with a piece of writing cut and pasted (I soon discovered with a simple Google search) from Psychology Today on narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. My name was awkwardly inserted into the article between brackets, replacing the word narcissist or narcissistic.
With young children, the <Laurie Gough> parent is experienced as unpredictable and confusing. After all, <Laurie Gough people> are awfully difficult to understand for adults, so just imagine how confusing the capricious <Laurie Gough> is in the eyes of a young child!…. A person with <Laurie Gough disorder> will be two-faced; charming and polite in public, while critical, rude, arrogant, sarcastic and passive/aggressive in private; usually to the people who are closest to her.
As the principal read me the email, I could feel my heart ricocheting around my ribcage. What did any of this mean? How could someone make such cruel and ludicrous assumptions, especially when my husband Rob and I had spent every waking moment three years prior trying to help our son battle OCD and restore him to the boy he’d been? The thought that anyone could think of my actions as capricious or arrogant cut right through me. My book hadn’t even been released yet. None of it made sense.
When I Googled the name Ana Petruleasa, the only hit was the Facebook page of a young woman with cantaloupe breasts spilling out of her T-shirt. It contained the same Gmail address as the message sent to the principal. Was this Ana real? Could this young attractive woman really behind the threatening messages?
Not long after the principal’s message, my husband Rob received an anonymous email saying that I was having an affair. Among its highlights was this nugget: You appear to have a loving marriage but you are being abused by a predator. It was written to an old work email address of his that someone could have easily found online. Rob works in IT and when he tried to find the email’s source (not a Gmail address this time), he found a server that was impossible to trace. Someone was going to a lot of trouble to stay hidden.
I began receiving one fake-looking Facebook friend request per day. I deleted them all.
That evening I decided to go through all of my Facebook friends to find people I didn’t know personally or at least with whom I didn’t share many mutual friends. I found a few suspicious profiles and deleted them. Immediately afterwards, I began receiving one fake-looking Facebook friend request per day. I deleted them all.
Friends out in the real world assured me that that anonymous Facebook requesting was on the rise and there was probably nothing to worry about. At this point, I didn’t think that the messages sent to Rob and the school meant I had a cyberstalker. The messages had stopped, and I was getting ready to attend the program in Mexico. I posted about it on my website. I realize now that anyone who wanted to know where I was going to be in July could have easily found out.
But that’s the thing about having a cyberstalker: they don’t need to physically track you down. They’re already everywhere.
After I read Egly’s Facebook message at the restaurant in Mexico, I wanted answers. I wrote Egly a Facebook message from a friend’s Facebook account, someone who’d also been sent her first message: Who are you? Nothing you’re writing makes sense. Stop immediately or you’ll go to jail.
Nothing happened for three days. Then Egly, or whoever hides behind Egly’s profile, responded:
Wow – results of our Laurie Gough facebook message are superior to what we expected. All we wanted to do was warn people about a covert -repeat COVERT – evil narcissist person – but now far more people know than we were able to reach originally…Follow what happens to Laurie Gough in the future and buy her upcoming book, Stolen Child It will not say that Laurie herself caused her unfortunate son’s OCD. After the triumphant success here, let’s take the show on the road to protect more people… You can show this message to Laurie and also to every man named Rob in Wakefield Canada if they want to read it.
I read these words on my phone as I walked along a narrow sidewalk beside a busy San Miguel street. The sentences blurred before my eyes. I felt unclean. Did the Mexican people passing by think I was this vile person too? The family on the motor scooter? The old lady selling gorditas at the curbside? Even though I knew the cyberstalker’s words were inane, he or she was creating a chilling version of me in cyberspace, one that people who didn’t know me might actually believe. How far would this person go? Would the stalker write similar things on my book’s Amazon page? Would the stalker hack my computer, email all my friends, hijack my accounts, steal my identity, blanket reading groups with nonstop napalm about me?
Would the stalker show up at my door?
I decided to let all my Facebook friends know that I had a cyberstalker to make sure they hadn’t received any suspicious messages about me. Getting the word out seemed my best defense. They suggested I contact the police, which I did.
My best friend, who lives in Montreal, was already on the case, sleuthing long hours into the night, asking me for more details. She thought the latest message sounded as if it had gone through Google Translate.
I was also spending long nights looking for clues – trying to make sense of this person’s obsession with me. The stalked had become the stalker. On Egly’s Facebook page I saw that she’d friended the San Miguel Literary Sala, the program I joined in Mexico. When I clicked on her likes I inhaled a sudden breath. She’d liked almost everything I had.
The next evening, I sat with another writer, Tad. I showed him the messages and explained what I was going through. Tad’s observation shook me.
This is a man, Tad said.
All along I’d been thinking of this person as a woman, not only because the profiles were of women, but because I’d interpreted the messages to read in a kind of bullying mean girl tone. But the profiles my stalker created (Ana Petruleasa and Egly Hidalgo) both looked like porn actors. A man’s ideal woman. Maybe Tad was right. Maybe behind the cleavage, there was a man sitting in a basement somewhere, tracking down my friends and writing threatening messages about me. A tickle of fear rose up my spine at the thought.
But why would this guy go to all this trouble? I could hardly choke out the words. Suddenly I felt very cold. Everyone else in the bar seemed to be erupting into laughter, their lives untouched by madmen.
It’s not trouble for him. He’s on a mission to warn the world about you and destroy you.
Pass the limes, I said. I need some tequila.
Today, I still have no idea who my cyberstalker was, or is. I’ve heard nothing directly since the last message from Egly. The cybercrime unit tells me they’re still working on the case. The person seems to have disappeared as quickly as he or she appeared, leaving only a trail of aliases. But has the stalker really gone for good? Although I catch myself telling people it’s probably over, I’m not sure I believe it. The stalker was triggered by my book and my book comes out at the end of this week. How do I know what I’ve experienced so far isn’t just a prelude of worse to come?
How do I know what I’ve experienced so far isn’t just a prelude of worse to come?
What I’ve come to believe is that my stalker was once a Facebook friend, a stranger whose request I unwittingly accepted. That’s how he or she had access to enough information to figure out where my son goes to school. Maybe I misremembered a former colleague or a university friend? Maybe the stalker emailed me, pretending to be a fan or a potential client wanting my editing services.
I’ve always assumed my readers out there are friendly, curious, like-minded. But in our digital world – where it’s almost effortless to be anonymous as opposed to 25 years ago when it was nearly impossible – something seems to have shifted in the human psyche. In a world that’s supposed to be so connected, perhaps some are left more disconnected than ever. Maybe they’re feeling some kind of primordial upheaval of inner collective rage and lashing out online is the best way to express it.
I don’t know. What I do know is that anyone who uses email or the internet is vulnerable to cyberstalking, especially if you’re interacting on social media. And since being an author requires communicating with our readers, we can’t simply withdraw from the public eye without withdrawing from our careers, and thereby our livelihood.
The upside of this type of misfortune is that you realize how many friends you have and how they’re always behind you. My best friend in Montreal wrote: Laurie, something I’m certain of is this person doesn’t know who they’re dealing with. I know you’re feeling shaken up by this, understandably, but I also know you’re not the type to adopt a victim mentality and do nothing about it. She’s right.
News Source TheGuardianNews