James Lasdun on writing about an obsessive student

James Lasdun: Five years on and still the hate messages come. Picture: Getty
James Lasdun: Five years on and still the hate messages come. Picture: Getty
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TWO years after leaving his creative writing class at a Manhattan university, Nasreen – not her real name – began emailing her former teacher, James Lasdun.

The thirtysomething Iranian was that rare thing, a natural writer, and Lasdun was curious to see how her ambitious novel, set in Tehran during the last days of the Shah, was progressing. An email correspondence blossomed. He introduced her to his agent, who arranged for Nasreen to speak to a freelance editor about how to get her manuscript into publishable shape.

The shy, quiet woman from class was verbose and flirtatious online. Lasdun, happily married to writer Pia Davis, politely but firmly deflected Nasreen’s overtures. She apologised, and they continued emailing, though his replies grew more guarded.

But why continue at all? He writes: “I could sense a mind akin to my own, someone for whom words were a primal delight. … I was ready to assume the role of one of those avuncular, rather eunuchy types …a critic-mentor figure… [But] the truth is, I saw us on a more equal footing than that: two writers at different stages of our careers, but involved in similar struggles.”

In 2007, Nasreen’s emails – now dozens per day – turned hostile, filled with anti-Semitic slurs and wild accusations. It was the start of an onslaught that became as much of an obsession for Lasdun as it was for his tormentor, whose blatantly stated goal was nothing less than: “I will ruin him.”

Give Me Everything You Have vividly recreates the paranoia, confusion, fear and frustration of being stalked. Joyce Carol Oates calls it “the most insightful, and the most beautifully written of any account from the victim’s perspective of what has come to be called cyber-bullying”. It is the first non-fiction from a critically acclaimed author of poetry, short stories and novels, including Seven Lies, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

This is a harrowing tale made all the more unbearable for its lack of a satisfying conclusion. Lasdun contemplates how reputations are made and compromised, and why they’re so important. It is also about the craft of writing itself. When I ring Lasdun at his home outside New York City, the first thing I point out is the irony that he’s written this book to exorcise a demon, and will now spend months talking about it endlessly with the media.

“Yeah. This thing was just going on and on, and still is. My feeling is this is not going to stop of its own accord … and it’s completely destroying my life. It’s getting to me on so many levels, and I felt – you know when somebody’s threatened to kill you and your children, it doesn’t really seem like things can get any worse, and she was doing that without me having written a book, so if we’re all going to die, I’d rather have a book out!”

Spoken like a true writer, but one of Nasreen’s recurrent complaints is that Lasdun pillaged elements from her life for his work. It wasn’t true before, but it certainly is now. “Having written about it has enabled me to start detaching myself from the experience,” he says. “It’s not that I feel it’s going to go away, but somehow I don’t feel quite as vulnerable to it as I did.”

Because a much wider audience will know his side of the story? “As I said in the book, this began as an attempt to write some kind of web posting that would lay out the facts, so that the next time she denounced me to some future employer, I could say, ‘Look, it’s really complicated and if you want to know about it, go to my website’. It is a kind of attempt to defend myself against some really, really damaging accusations.”

It’s a difficult story – and by extension book – to summarise. First Lasdun lays out the facts as he perceives them, but his inquiring mind keeps turning them over and over. In another section, he returns to the beginning, re-framing everything through Nasreen’s eyes, trying to understand what she might be feeling, and testing the extent of his own culpability. There are times, while reading, when you want to shake him for his passivity and 

Though she never appeared at his home or office, Nasreen’s behaviour was extreme. Sometimes she’d send an email full of apologies for her crazy behaviour, but more often her missives were hailstorms of abuse. Then, when he stopped replying, she emailed, “You f***ing faggot coward, say something!” Lacking any notion of privacy, she’d forward him private correspondence from others, and, presumably, did the same with his emails. She also tweaked emails so they seemed to be coming from reputable sources, until one read their bonkers content. In time she tried to “friend” Lasdun’s teenage daughter on Facebook, then threatened her. She altered his Wikipedia page, and left abusive reviews on Amazon (eventually he got offensive content removed from both websites).

This is such a story of our time. “Absolutely,” says Lasdun. “I don’t think anyone, before email, could have bombarded another person with letters through the mail quite like this. She didn’t use the phone until very late in the game. I think the internet has lent itself, in a regrettable way, to people who are either malicious or disturbed or both.”

Lasdun consulted the FBI, and a former New York Police Department detective, who said that there was nothing they could do about what Nasreen herself described as “verbal terrorism”. He was advised not to block or respond to emails, but to read them, looking for a concrete threat of violence, which would enable the authorities to step in.

Why didn’t he change his email address? “I thought it would only be a matter of time before she found out any new address. The other thing is that I was told not to block them for a reason – that I needed to know what was going on – and for that same reason it wouldn’t have made sense to change my email address.”

The most baffling question is why he didn’t end the correspondence when her tone first discomfited him? “I just thought she would stop. Actually I have blocked her emails now. I got so fed up with what I was being told by the police, and what didn’t happen. I thought, well she has now threatened violence, and they’re still not extraditing her, so why should I keep subjecting myself to it? I get so much conflicting advice, but the two constants were don’t reply, but do keep everything and read everything.”

It’s some eight years since she first got in touch, more than five since the abuse began. What is the current situation? “She had a spate, in the summer, of leaving really violently horrible phone messages. About a year ago the whole case was taken up by a new detective in the hate crimes unit at the NYPD. Because it’s not just [happening to] me, it’s my agent and the editor, as well. There’s still not that much he can do. At one point she emailed something to the effect that she was going to come murder me, and that really got his attention. He said he thought he could probably get the district attorney to authorise an extradition [from California, where she lives] on the strength of that.

“I was all for it, because I would like this to be brought to some kind of conclusion, and so initially were the others, both of whom live in New York City, whereas I don’t. We all assumed they would extradite her, put her in front of a judge and keep her in custody. But she doesn’t have a criminal record, so what would happen is they would bring her in front of a judge and then set her loose in New York. That was extremely worrying to one of the other women, understandably, and she felt it was better not to facilitate Nasreen coming to New York.”

Lasdun says that he and his wife received a truly bizarre email from Nasreen asking them to testify in court that she was crazy in order for her to qualify for increased government medical financial aid. It begs the question of whether they should have contacted mental health authorities years ago.

“I am not able to ascertain that type of thing. I know she’s been called and visited by the police on several occasions and many of her emails have contained things about seeing therapists and being on medication.

“It’s very hard to tell, because she’s the only source of information, whether she is ill or not. When I taught her she didn’t seem in any way mentally unbalanced. She’d gone into a graduate writing programme at a pretty good school in New York, and had long left it by the time she contacted me again. She is an adult.”

How has this affected his children and his marriage?

“One of the things that makes me so upset is that five years is a big period of any kid’s childhood. My daughter is now 17, my son 13. Occasionally they seemed to be afraid that something bad is going to happen, and I had to reassure them, but I don’t think it’s terribly traumatised them – still, it’s something that I would rather not have had as a backdrop to their lives.”

As for his wife, “She has a completely different temperament to me. She’s very calm about things and has remained that way all through it, and been completely supportive and ready to talk whenever I want. Yes, she’s been exasperated – sometimes it got to me so badly, for long periods. I think that must have been a drag for her, but it hasn’t had a kind of serious effect on our relationship.”

He’s written eloquently about how his architect father’s bouts of depression were affected by public reaction to his work, and fluctuations in his reputation. Has this experience prompted Lasdun to reassess his reaction to those mood swings?

“Not reassess, because I never felt anything but sympathy and empathy for him, though I thought he was a little over-sensitive sometimes … He never had this kind of personal attack, but he did take it very personally, and of course some of it was vicious. People don’t sugar-coat their words and feel entitled, especially with something like architecture, to voice their opinions, however strong they may be. They don’t think about the individual architect who has to read this stuff.

“But this was different. I’ve had my books criticised in very hurtful ways, but I don’t consider that to be unfair or immoral. That’s the deal: you write a book, publish it, and people are free to praise or criticise it. You hope it’s honest praise and honest criticism. But this was a deliberate, malicious attempt to destroy me as a person, and I find that hard to forgive.”

• Give Me Everything You Have is published this week by Jonathan Cape, £14.99.