In the fall of 2003, James Lasdun was teaching writing at a New York City school he calls Morgan College when he met a student he calls Nasreen. She was in her 30s and she seemed reserved—shy or aloof, Lasdun thought. The work she presented for discussion (excerpts from a historical novel based on her family’s experience of the Iranian Revolution) swiftly established her as the star of his class. “Her language was clear and vigorous,” Lasdun recalls, “with a distinct fiery expressiveness.”
Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun’s new memoir, describes how Nasreen became his Internet stalker. At the height of her harassment, she was writing him dozens of daily emails, defaming him online (in his Amazon reviews, his Wikipedia entry, the comment sections of his articles), and sending off denouncements to his colleagues and employers. She is a tireless, mysterious bearer of ill will. She is a nightmare-scenario case study in exactly how easy it can be to “ruin” someone online, or at least to bother him very, very much, to the point where he begins to feel like he’s the one going crazy.
The story begins with an unexpected request for a favor. Two years after their class, Nasreen emails: She wants help with her book. Lasdun, no longer teaching, hesitates. But she’s persistent, flattering, and after all, a talented writer. They fall into a regular correspondence. He’s mostly terse but still helpful, putting her in touch with his agent and agreeing to read her work. She sends him chatty messages full of creative musings and daily gripes and links and Photoshopped self-portraits, but probably, he figures, this is just how younger people use the Internet. What a fun new friend he’s found, a sympathetic fellow writer, and one with an excitingly novel background —“most of my friends are middle-aged Western men like myself,” he notes. However: “At a certain point,” he writes, “I realized I was being flirted with.”
The ominous precision of the book’s early pages is riveting. Lasdun’s description of email’s slippery nuances will engross anyone who has ever changed “Hey!” to “hey—“ to “HEY:” to “Dear James.” With its unexpected courtliness, its unspoken rules and parameters, its strategic sense of tone, and its endless archives, email affords plenty of opportunity for close-reading daily life. Lasdun is a skilled and sensitive critic of the accidental epistolary novel we’re all writing all the time.
Happily married, he does his best to discourage Nasreen’s overtures while still serving as a friendly mentor. (Her manuscript impresses him: It features, he notes, an “interestingly unbalanced heroine.”) At times, early on, Lasdun’s equilibrium may startle the reader. “Nasreen’s insistent, unstoppably amorous communications, often a dozen or more a day now, had begun to feel oppressive,” he writes at one point. He responds to fewer and fewer of these emails. She, meanwhile, begins copying him on messages concerning a discrimination suit she’s filing at her office job, messages in which “sex, gender, race, money, and Middle Eastern politics mingle” with a taste for “exhibitionistic boisterousness.”
“This will be fun,” Nasreen writes to her lawyer. “Let’s call it legal performance art.”
The discrepancy between this emerging character and the quiet student he remembers distresses Lasdun. Had he misjudged her? Had he lazily imagined “the corniest archetype of demure Middle Eastern womanhood as concocted in the Western male psyche”? If he had, what would it mean for his abilities as a writer and observer of other humans? Or was she herself somehow changing? He stops responding altogether, and then things get bad.
“You had no integrity with me and you’re using a God given talent to say nothing,” she writes, in her first “unequivocally hostile” missive. “I don’t want to hear about your family because your kids have a future of being thought of as Nazi Germans.”
In quick succession follow more hostile messages, mapping out the main themes of the harassment to come: spasms of anti-Semitism (“Do you have to be the stereotype of a Jew, James?”), accusations of artistic fraud (“You steal. You steal. You steal”), accusations of sexual impropriety (“Morgan College, your brothel”), and demands (“I want your apartment … give me your fucking keys”).
“I think this is called verbal terrorism,” Nasreen eventually writes.
“Though I didn’t quite know it yet,” Lasdun says, “I had entered the realm of stricken enchantment in which technology and psychology overlap, where the magical thinking of the primitive mind, with its susceptibility to spells, curses, witchcraft of every kind, converges with the paranoias peculiar to our own age.”
Lasdun progresses from confusion to horror as he realizes the scope of Nasreen’s campaign to “ruin” him. From her voluminous correspondence (with himself and an expanding array of his associates), Lasdun gathers that he is racist, misogynist, and Zionist; that he has appropriated Nasreen’s ideas for use in his fiction, slept with his students (although not Nasreen herself), and conspired with his agent and an editor to sell material from Nasreen’s novel-in-progress to other writers. He hopes that most of her accusations are obviously absurd, but he also believes in the power of words—and in the tendency of people to believe what they read.
The Internet, he suggests, has perhaps reversed the modern tendency to favor verified fact over rumor, allowing notions of reputation and honor to regain the traction they had in the past. Online we’re not so different from medieval knights or Victorian governesses: All we have are our good names, and any outlandish smear may tarnish them. You will be judged based on “this strange new emanation of yourself, your Internet presence.” Fortunately for Lasdun, though, the eerie weightlessness of online words can also allow them to vanish: Lasdun reports Amazon slanders and they go away, as does the fart joke Nasreen slipped into his Wikipedia page. Years later, a thorough Googling won’t turn up much to damage his reputation. (GoodReads, unlike Amazon, has no “report” function, so her one-star review of his “racist and horribly frightening” story collection remains.) But the most visible sign of Nasreen’s handiwork is Lasdun’s own extreme vigilance. “This is the official website of the writer James Lasdun, and the only reliably accurate source of information about his work,” announces jameslasdun.com.
“You don’t have to be a writer to imagine how it feels to find yourself the object of a malicious attack on the Internet,” Lasdun writes, and indeed, his story makes a thoughtful addition to broader conversations about “cyberbullying.” Still, he seems uncomfortable with the implications of writing about his own life. “Why should anyone but me be interested in these intimate, personal matters?” he wonders while working on a poem about his father, chiding himself for not addressing more “self-evidently important subjects.” This concern seems to haunt his memoir as well, and he addresses it partly by engaging with Nasreen’s attacks in the same geopolitical vocabulary she’s adopted. “It seemed to confer a more dignified solemnity on our conflict,” he writes. “Better to be found complicit in the original sins of Israeli history than in some act of petty plagiarism.”
Late in the book, in fact, Lasdun actually travels to Jerusalem, which doesn’t quite seem like the most effective response to Nasreen’s “verbal terrorism”—either for practical purposes or literary resonance. What a reader might find to be a more persuasive understanding of her behavior—that it’s a product of mental illness—Lasdun admits that he prefers to ignore. “As soon as you reduce human behavior to a pathology,” he writes, “it becomes, for literary purposes, less interesting (at least to me).” But his own response to that pathology, his attempts to resist its chaos, are interesting; much more so than the disquisitions on Israel and literature that he presents in an apparent effort to establish his story’s broader significance.
Lasdun is scrupulously polite, self-deprecating, and deliberate as he presents his saga. He’s at pains to acknowledge any burdens placed on his audience’s interest or belief. His account is salted with little apologies for subjectivity; I lost count of the number of asides along the lines of “(at least to me).” But his flights of writerly fancy can provoke impatience, and (at least for me) guilt over that impatience. Reflections on his father, an account of a train trip—he’d been so generous with his empathy for me as a reader, and I couldn’t even allow him this? No, evidently I could not. Come on, back to the crazy lady. Paranoia begins to seem like Nasreen’s lasting curse. In her wake, Lasdun’s self-flagellation is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. He admits everything (unseemly attractions, unfair judgments, vestigial prejudices) before any imagined adversary can accuse him.
Also paranoiac, in a different sense, is the endlessly evolving network of literary analogies he assembles. The Duino Elegies, The Penitent, Sylvia Plath, DH Lawrence, Strangers on a Train, Tintin, Gawain and the Green Knight—after a while it begins to look like everything is connected to everything else and it all connects back to Lasdun. In an acutely stressful and irrational situation, he explains, “you start to attach great importance to any circumstance that resonates with your own. These things become your signs: the clues that, if you follow them correctly, will enable you (so you believe) to penetrate the mystery that stands before you.”
Of course Lasdun doesn’t actually think everything is all about him. He’s too modest and too self-aware, as his constant apologies make clear. But the palpable effort required to analyze online experiences without sounding like an egotistical maniac (IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT ME?) comes to seem like the book’s central concern. While Internet privacy (timely!) and stalking (scandalous!) are snazzy talking points, Give Me Everything You Have is most revealing as a psychological portrait of lives split online and off, and difficulty of weighing what happens in one world against the other. Nasreen’s behavior and Lasdun’s response suggest different solutions to the same problems: They’re both struggling to keep themselves in balance, without the steady certainty of solid ground.
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.