When that story broke on the evening news, I’d already decided to become a writer. I watched, midst the hormonal surge of teenage angst. Was horrified that someone’s art could lead to a death sentence.
Rushdie lived in hiding for several years. Skirting bounty hunters. His stalkers.
You might do a double take at that previous sentence. Believe that it’s a stretch, comparing a fatwā to being stalked. Want to pull me aside. Gently explain that there are differences. Remind that stalking is limited to the aftermath of a failed dating or marital relationship. Woman always the victim. Aggressor always the man. Give a caveat for a few celebrities’ deranged fans.
Legally, however, the term “stalking” covers a broader category than an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband, wrecking vengeance on their ex-woman. After all, the reason why we call those predatory actions “stalking” is to describe actions similar to a lion stalking its prey. Waiting. Watching. Ready to strike, and destroy.
As I read more stories about people who have been bullied, participated in mind-controlling cults, have been harassed, I see overlaps between those definitions and the stalking definition. Use of harassment. Intimidation. Following. Monitoring. It’s not too far of a stretch to say the stalking definition is an overarching category, with other crimes as subcategories. Like Rushdie running from an Islamic death edict.
As I read Rushdie’s books, it was to see how that death threat affected his creative bent. Admired and marveled that he continued to write such beauty, despite the years of sidestepping the threat. So, when I learned Rushdie was in my town, promoting The Enchantress of Florence, I lunged to hear him read. Even managed to get a front-row seat.
I didn’t ask him. Frankly, it had nothing to do with his new book. Nor could I find a brilliant way to intelligently spin it. What if asking, publically evoked bad memories? I couldn’t live with the guilt: knowing I pissed off a fantastic author. Especially since I was sitting in the front row. Hard to skulk off without everyone seeing my shame. Not knowing, at that time, that The Neighbor’s bizarre actions were leading to unearthing my own answers to that question.
I’m glad I kept mum. A few months ago, Rushdie wrote about those experiences for The New Yorker, giving me answers.
I nodded in agreement as I read, at Rushdie’s eloquent description of being on the run. Relating his account to my own tale. What it’s like to drop everything and run. Abandoning my home for the better part of a year. Leaving behind everything I worked so hard to build. Fearing that my stalker would find me. Harm the roommates who opened their homes to me. Or coworkers. Or friends.
That stunned feeling. Asking, “How could I have avoided this? I didn’t mean for this to happen. Surely I wouldn’t have done it, if I’d known the consequences.”
As for my question regarding how a writer deals with tragedy, I see that Rushdie traded the pronoun “I” for “he.” Writing as though the awfulness happened to someone else, one of his characters, instead of himself. Giving himself the distance needed, to objectively write. Giving myself the illusion that the story didn’t happen to me, but to a fictional character.
Something similar to the changes I made to my own story, to protect my identity. Sometimes it feels like I’m writing about someone else. It’s easier writing about someone else. Deftly tricking myself into believing those years of awfulness never happened. Just long enough to finish my post.