In 2018, a mystery phenomenon that was plaguing me around town came to a climax.
Over the past year, I had noticed sloppily-written graffiti using my first name, with sentiments such as, “Find Me Bess”, “Marry Me Bess”, and “Bess, I Love You”. If these statements were written on valentines, they would sound appropriately warm and affectionate. But these words, tagged in red, one-foot-tall capital letters in public, were creepy. The messages popped up along the bike routes I tended to ride, on the sides of buildings, or on sidewalk panels. Friends tried to convince me that this was an unrelated coincidence, and I shouldn’t grow paranoid.
I saw another message on an orange construction sign outside my workplace, and alerted my coworker. He pointed out the tagger’s street name scrawled alongside the message. This later proved to be valuable information. One week later, when I took out the garbage, I found another message sprayed on our recycling bin: a plea for “Bess” to “find” the culprit, also named — we’ll call him “X” — on social media. Two days went by where I retreated inside and checked over my shoulder constantly for signs of this stalker.
On the second night, I confided with two of my close friends. We decided to do some sleuthing. It turned out to be an insanely easy search, using the clues I noticed out in the open. We used a search engine on the street name, and found it titled on a blog. From there, we found the social media profile of X — and the other Bess whom he had been targeting. I contacted that Bess, explaining the situation and asking her about the missing pieces of information I sought. She confirmed that X had been on a delusional hunt for her for as long as I’d noticed the graffiti.
I reached out to more friends, and they suggested I take this information to the police. At first, I didn’t want to go alone, but realized I had no other choice. My coworker refused to come into contact with the cops. My other friends had to work. So, I was seated in a small, windowless room with an open door, where two officers heard my case. They left for five minutes to check X’s record, and then confirmed that he was under probation for vandalism. The most concerning moment came when one cop muttered to the other, “This isn’t the first time he’s gone after a girl”. Their offhand comment was not clarified, and neither officer mentioned the real Bess’s accusations of assault and harassment — other than the written testimony I received from her online. She had not informed the police. Their lack of investigation into X’s activities outside of vandalism was aggravating.
When I broke the news to my family, I suspected they wouldn’t take it well, but I had to tell the truth. My brother passed it off as bad luck that my name was written on the trash can, and my parents called all the messages a coincidence. Not one of them wanted to believe that a sick man had located where I live, where I work, and left a note for me to find him. My family wanted me to calm down. However, one of my housemates took the threat seriously. She was a recently hired sex-ed teacher, who told me that many women are followed or preyed upon in person and on the Internet — often by people they know. She was deeply concerned for our collective safety, a household of four anonymous apartments occupied by multiple young women with varying similarities that could be compromised by a delusional stalker.
Together, we composed a flyer with photographs taken from X’s social media, with a warning to call the cops if anyone saw him nearby. I took the flyers door-to-door in the building, meeting some of my neighbors for the first time, and compiled an emergency phone tree that was seldom used but still provided a conscious network. I also spread the information to neighboring businesses by my workplace, asking them to post it out-of-sight. The staff members reached out with kindness to lean on them if I felt comfortable, if I needed a place to get away from my “haunted house”. I didn’t know it then, but I am really grateful to my housemate for encouraging this kind of action, because at the time, I was in a state of disbelief and would not have taken such measures on my own. She let me cry and bought pepper spray for us, which I put away in a drawer. I couldn’t bring myself to be paranoid again.
After a while, I could breathe a sigh of relief when I was home, unless I saw X’s street name on the dumpster at the corner of our block. It might have been there a long time, but I had no way to keep records. I passed by the flyer whenever I talked to customers at my workplace, knowing they would not see what I saw behind the counter. But catching the darkened photo out of the corner of my eye still caused me to imagine there was a person lurking in the lobby. If I saw a stranger who matched X’s picture, I discreetly analyzed their face, their behavior, and wondered if this was him. How do you shake the presence of a person you hope never to meet?
I started to feel gaslighted. Had I been in danger, or was it an exaggeration of unrelated proportions? Would the stalking reoccur with the same person, or another stranger? The most the cops did was vaguely promise to send squad cars down my street. I was not about to go into hiding from a bastard I had never met, but I imagined the circumstances differently: if only I could see him under supervised, safe conditions where I could tell him to his face to stop. Stop harassing this other Bess. Stop writing her name, stop going on this delusional theater trip of searching for someone who will never show her face to you again. Just stop.
I have not received the satisfaction of this encounter, but I felt empowered to rise above the perceived threat of the stalker, who mistook me by name only for someone he was infatuated with, perversely, who he had hurt before. Many of the graffitied messages have been painted over, but some remain on the streets. I curse inwardly, every time I see one by X. Somehow, being vigilant has allowed me to recognize local tags in widespread public areas and have a level of appreciation for the lengths graffiti artists take to make their mark — on bridges, under freeways, behind fences, on curbs, signposts, in the form of stickers, stencils, and beautifully wrought calligraphy. The pseudonyms shrouded in mystery that eludes capture.
Safe Horizon is a website to visit if you need help with a case of stalking, although they are physically located in New York City. It says, “Approximately 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime (CDC, 2015). Most stalking is done by someone known to the victim, such as a current or former partner. Yet some victims are stalked by complete strangers.”
Stop Violence Against Women lists these behaviors as signs of stalking, from a 2012 report by the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
• making unwanted phone calls
• sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or e-mails
• following or spying on the victim,
• showing up at places without a legitimate reason
• waiting at places for the victim
• leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers
• posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth
“Naming this pattern of behaviors [legitimizes] and conveys the seriousness of these behaviors…they indicate the presence of a severe threat to the victim”. stopvaw.org /stalking
Here are some things to do if you feel you are being stalked (from Northern Virginia Community College’s PDF on Stalking FAQs):
• Record all instances of stalking in a written log.
• Save a copy of all emails, text messages, and phone calls from the stalker in both physical and electronic formats: use screen shots, photographs, and archive your messages.
• Tell your family, friends, and loved ones that you are being stalked. Provide them with a photo of the stalker and information you may have.
• If you are a victim of stalking, know that the abuse is not your fault and there are resources you can use. You have the right to follow a police report and seek services, like for mental health. nvcc.edu/support/_files/Stalking-FAQs.pdf