When stalking is part of the "college experience"

It's time we stop treating stalking like a joke and more like the red flag that it is on campus and in our culture

Published May 22, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Stressed college student hiding behind a wall (Getty Images)
Stressed college student hiding behind a wall (Getty Images)

A few years ago, a young woman was murdered on the campus of my hometown's university, the same campus where I received my doctorate. It made national news, so even though I teach on a campus thousands of miles away, I heard about it.

She was a track star murdered in a parking lot. She knew her killer. I called my brother, who lives within a couple of miles of campus, and he told me terrible details. She had felt threatened by this man before, she had notified police. She had dated him, and things had gone awry. He hadn't gotten the point.

He was stalking her.

She asked for help.

No one helped.

And now she was dead.

When I talked to my brother after it happened, I was out in my yard on a balmy Louisiana night, far away from the mountains where this took place. In many ways, I was often out of my own body at that point: I was pregnant, a junior professor, working my ass off daily to try to prove myself to myself. Imposter syndrome doesn't even begin to describe it.

But in that conversation, I was more than in my own skin. I know this, I said to my brother. I know this because I watched it happen to someone else.

Seven years earlier I had been teaching a creative writing class as a graduate student on the same campus where the girl was murdered. I had a bright student, whom I'll call Jenny here. Jenny, when she came to class, was a fabulous writer. She handed in great work. But she often did not come. Her absences became more and more frequent, or she'd show up an hour or more late. Finally, Jenny approached me after class one day and told me the very practical reason for her inconsistent attendance: She was being stalked.

Her tone as she told me this in an empty classroom still astonishes me. She was matter-of-fact, but clearly exhausted. She was afraid, she said. Often times her stalker, who knew her schedule, was waiting outside my classroom for her. She'd try to come to class many times, she said, only to turn the corner, see him down the hall, and turn back around. She did not feel safe leaving, or walking to her car. This man was a campus employee, and she told me he had already sexually assaulted her once.

I had so many questions; I wanted to swoop in and fix it all. Had she reported the assault? She had. The campus police had sent her to the city police. The city police had never called her back. She had contacted the counseling center, the dean of students.  The man still held his job on campus.

She had been desperately trying to get help, I told my brother years later.

I offered to walk her to her car and did so that afternoon. I offered to call someone. I offered to meet her and walk to class with her every week for the rest of the term. Then she contacted the Office of Equity and Diversity and finally things changed. They assigned her a security escort to classes. They started an investigation. She came to every class the second half of the semester, and rocked it.  

That didn't happen for the track star.

Lauren McCluskey repeatedly asked for help from campus police. She had started dating a man who turned out to have lied about his age, who turned out to be a convicted sex offender. When she broke up with him, he went full-on "crazy ex." Whatever play you can imagine, from pretending to be dead to telling her to kill herself, he did it. She blocked his calls. Reported him to campus police. She was literally told by an officer, "Not much can be done."

I recently listened to a 911 call Lauren made nine days before her death about her murderer. Her tone matches that of my student in my classroom all those years ago. Calm, but exhausted. Women working against stereotypes of "drama" and "hysteria," but in such a way that no one realizes how afraid they are.

I didn't tell my brother on the phone that night the other reason I knew this story: I too was stalked in college. In fact, a lot of college women are. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, people aged 18-24 have the highest likelihood of being stalked, one in six women are stalked, and three-quarters of victims know their stalkers.

When I was being stalked, we didn't call it stalking. Instead, it was a joke. We will call my stalker Casey. Even though his behavior was typical of stalking patterns, all of my friends laughed it off. He's just so in love with you, they'd say. He was their friend, too.

Stalking is often a joke in our parlance. We laugh and use phrases like, "Stop stalking me" or "I'm, like, totally stalking him" to refer to all sorts of normative behavior in flirting and dating. Like when you notice your crush goes to the café at noon, so you start showing up around then too, hoping to run into each other. But our ability to joke about it in day-to-day life enables authorities to ignore it. This is doubly true of college students. Kerri Raissian, a specialist in child and family and interpersonal violence, says in Inside Higher Ed, "College students are often dismissed when they bring up troubles in relationships because the turbulence is just considered 'part of the college experience, something you experience as a young adult.'"

My former student, Jenny, had also very briefly dated her stalker before he allegedly assaulted her. In her interview with police, they cited the fact that she had dated him as a challenge to pressing any charges because then it would be about consent, a matter of he said/she said. But she had agreed to one date — that's all.

My stalker called multiple nights a week at one or two a.m., his speech slurred. I was encouraged even by my boyfriend to be a good sport. I'd pick it up, say, "Go to bed, Casey," and disconnect the phone. Sometimes at night he'd come to my dorm room door, bang on it or just stand outside. Almost all students lived on campus at my college, and this went on for three years. At the time I thought, Well, not much can be done. If I make a fuss, I'll just lose a lot of friends. After three years you get used to it, too. Even though there's something not right, and you know it, you laugh it off along with everyone else.

McCluskey's situation was far more dire, and she knew it. She did ask for help. She was explicit as to how threatened she felt. Later, critics would cite campus police's failure to visit her dorm. If they had, they would have seen how she'd blacked out her window, afraid he was watching her. Who is anyone kidding? He was watching her.

The Salt Lake Tribune would later report that she had contacted campus police more than 20 times before she died.

Leigh Gilmore, in her brilliant book, "Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony," writes that an essential question of the history of women's narratives, especially involving trauma, seems to be, "Can women tell the truth?" And, if they can, does it matter?

One night the fall of senior year when I was living in an apartment-style dorm, Casey knocked on my bedroom door and I answered. I had broken up with my boyfriend and was dating someone new and feeling free, and I had been out. I was a little drunk. I was fully dressed and knew my dormmates and their boyfriends were right on the other side of thin walls. I did not feel threatened. I don't remember now what he said but I do remember laughing a little. Laughing, I thought, at our three-year-long shared joke. Not at him, but at us. Isn't this ridiculous? Like I said, I was little drunk.

And then he hit me. On the jaw. It wasn't a hard punch, just hard enough that the bone was tender afterwards. I didn't need concealer makeup or a bag of frozen peas. The lack of a bruise would add to my sense of disbelief that it had actually happened in the following days. Our joke had a punch line? And it was literally a punch? Ha. I told no one. Not a soul, for seven years, until a student came to me to tell me she was being stalked.

At the time I felt that to tell would have made me a victim. There would have been many questions implicitly asking what I had done to bring this on. (I had been drinking, remember? And why I hadn't reported his concerning behavior earlier?)  He probably would have denied it, and I was not sure whose side our friends would take. I would have failed at being "the cool girl," the one who had been told by male and female friends alike not to "make a big deal out it." He's just, like, in love with you.

But my relationship with Casey changed after that night. He left a crying message on my phone. I told him to stay away from me and started turning my phone off at night. Whatever the story was in his head, it shifted. He finally started dating someone else and at first, I was relieved. It was short-lived, though: Six months later she would file assault charges. Next time I saw her on campus, her face was bruised and she had two black eyes. He was suspended and mandated substance abuse rehab and counseling. But he was ultimately not expelled. He was allowed to graduate. People expressed concern with some of the same rhetoric others would later use for a certain Stanford swimmer: Don't let this one mistake ruin his life!

Donald Glover has a comedic bit he does where he talks about his crazy ex-girlfriends, and then says he's been wondering, "Why don't women have crazy man stories? And then I realized, and I was like, 'Oh! It's because if you got a crazy boyfriend, you gonna die.'"

Glover isn't wrong. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 81% of women stalked by a cohabitating partner were also physically assaulted by that partner; 76% of women murdered by intimate partners were stalked first; 89% of femicide victims who were assaulted before their murder were also stalked in the year prior to their death.  

On October 22, 2018, Lauren's stalker texted her, pretending to be campus police. She alerted campus police, but the officer didn't file a report of the impersonation. Later that night, her stalker grabbed her while she was outside of her dorm on the phone with her mother, put her in a car, and shot her. 

Stalking is directly related to violence against women, even murder. And yet we still joke. We still don't take women seriously when they talk about their "crazy exes." We still don't believe them when they tell us they need help.

According to the NCADV, 54% of femicide victims reported the stalking to the police before their murder. Like McCluskey did, like Jenny did, like I wish I had had the courage to do. Each of these events — my own experience, my student's, and McCluskey's — happened about seven years apart, and if there's one a bright spot in this story, it's that women younger than me felt they could get help. That they should get help. They tried to get help. The #MeToo movement has had concrete positive effects on women speaking up. How much more disappointing then, that the system continues to fail them.

I've spent the COVID year back in my hometown where Lauren McCluskey was murdered. Even though more than two years have passed since she died, it seems like she is in the news weekly. Just this fall, the university settled with her parents, paying them $10.5 million and making a $3 million donation to a foundation in her name. After initial resistance, the university finally admitted it had completely failed one of its students (and likely many more, if Jenny's own experience is any indication). More recently, The Salt Lake Tribune revealed that campus police officers not only ignored McCluskey's desperate pleas for help, but before she was murdered, a university police officer showed intimate photos of McCluskey that were part of the investigation (her stalker was also blackmailing her) and made "crude remarks" to several colleagues that were part of her case file, bragging that he "could look at them whenever he wanted." After she was shot, that very same night, the same officer showed a nude photo of McCluskey — the same images her stalker had used to humiliate and exploit her — to a superior who had wondered out loud "what she looked like." 

I do want to be clear that I do not think there is anything particular to this university that makes it a hotbed for stalking and violence against women. In fact, statistically and logically, it stands to reason that the events that happened here could happen anywhere, and that this behavior is the rule rather than the exception. My own experience happened at a small liberal arts college in Vermont.

I think the larger picture is this: College campuses from the upper administration on down are still deeply patriarchal. Now that I am a professor — who was recently told by a female student when I walked into class the first day that "you are not what I was expecting," who has had course evaluations that compliment my sense of style, and who is aware of systemic gender inequity at my institution — this feels more true than ever. Despite their emphasis on progressivism and intellectualism, campus cultures all over the country still normalize violent and threatening behavior toward women. Just last year, a female student told a story in those chatty moments before my class started about how she had been in a car chase over the weekend: Her cousin's "crazy ex" had been after them. She tells it like a joke, like I did. I tell her that that's not OK. I ask her if she feels safe in this moment. I tell her there are resources I am happy to help her find. She looks at me like I am an alien, but other students are listening, quietly, and they will approach me in private later. Female faculty carry this burden often, ferrying female students to the Title IX office, handing out tissues in our own offices.  We continue to feel frustrated when we send them to get help and they return, telling us that the campus police advise along the lines of, "Not much can be done."  And we're terrified of the day when the joke a student makes in class will turn into a story on the nightly news.

The layers of stalking-related violence against women are many: We jest; we forget; we brush aside; we don't listen or believe; we let someone be beaten; we let someone be murdered. And we have got to stop. The crime is in our very language, our cultural blind-spot to women telling the truth and needing real help, and the deep-seated patriarchy of college campuses. It's been 43 years since Take Back the Night came to the U.S., 25 years since Eve Ensler premiered "The Vagina Monologues" and three years since #MeToo started trending. It is past time for a radical self-audit of our campuses and our culture at large, and it's time we stop treating stalking like a joke and more like the red flag that it is.

And it is time, too, to deal with my own past as a victim of stalking. This essay also marks the moment in my own story when I will finally share what happened with my brother and my parents. I imagine they will want to know why I didn't tell them sooner, and in some ways the answer is so complicated. I was on my own for the first time and I wanted to prove I could take care of myself; I did not have want them to worry; I didn't want to sully the pride they felt at sending me to a competitive school. But in other ways the answer is astonishingly simple: I was embarrassed. Ashamed that I was somehow complicit in a man's violence toward women, toward myself. I had been willing to treat it as a joke, and I didn't know how to tell the story without the language of a joke (see punchline comment above), and it feels like it is only when I call for a restructuring of our language around stalking, and write that out, that I suddenly feel that I can call my brother. Call him this time from down the street, to ask him if he wants to talk more about Lauren McCluskey and my student — and by that, I mean to talk more about me.

By Sadie Hoagland

Sadie Hoagland is the author of "Strange Children" (May 18, 2021; Red Hen Press) and "American Grief in Four Stages" (November 1, 2019; West Virginia University Press), which earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the former editor of Quarterly West. 

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