Helen DeWitt, the author of the wonderful novels The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods (seriously! wonderful!), has an essay in the London Review of Books this week about her experience with a stalker. It's a sobering but necessary read.

It begins:

I write this with a baseball bat by the bed. A weapon that will do more damage than you can bring yourself to inflict is useless; last time I made the wrong choice. (Could I hit someone with a baseball bat? Perhaps.)

The bed is located in Vermont, where DeWitt had settled in an old family cottage to write. A neighbor she calls only E. began to visit. And visit. And visit again. Soon he was knocking at the door incessantly:

I explained that I faced financial disaster if I didn't finish a book. He said he understood. And he came apologetically down the road. If I stayed up till two he came because the light was on. ('If you want me to go I'll go.' 'Could you go home?' 'Not just yet.') If I got up at five to light the wood stove he came because his fire had gone out.

Most of the essay is about the desperate ambiguity which attends the whole business of stalking:

So – was E a stalker? Was it possible to know, based on the evidence available? I didn't then know that there are states where he could have been charged with stalking. There are states where obsessive behaviour causing severe emotional distress makes the grade; states where causing enforced relocation makes the grade; states where causing professional damage makes the grade; states where I could have called the police in November 2012. And there are states like Vermont, which confine stalking to a course of conduct representing a credible threat. (E made no threats until the very end.)

The ambiguity left DeWitt unable to really interest law enforcement in the matter until the stalker arrived in her home one evening with a weapon:

'Are you?' I said. 'Really? Are you really going to shoot me with that?'

And her experience of seeing him prosecuted and punished for what he did wasn't exactly comforting either.

Many police officers seem to believe that stalking is in the eye of the beholder, a thing they can only subjectively measure. They often blame the law, claim it leaves them powerless to act. But read DeWitt's essay and you'll see how clearly terrifying it is for the person targeted, whatever the law or the cops might have to say about it.

[Photo via Shutterstock.]