Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Most Likely to Be Stalked

Why Certain Women Are Vastly More Likely Pursued by Obsessive, Delusional Men

A career as a female TV news anchor isn't all glamour. Away from the glare of the studio lights, the job is plagued by a little-known but particularly unpleasant occupational hazard: stalkers. In newsrooms across the country, the problem is endemic. "Everyone has a crazy guy," says broadcaster Amy Jacobson. "It's expected."

Though no statistics exist on the scope of the problem, experts who study stalking confirm that female anchors and reporters can expect to be targeted sooner or later. "One in eight American women will get stalked in her lifetime," says stalking consultant Dr. Park Dietz. "But for a female news readers, it's virtually a certainty. At any given time, she might be stalked by several at once and not even know about it."

To be sure, anyone in the public eye is at risk of being stalked. But something about news anchors makes them particularly compelling to the desperate creatures who lurk in a twilight of loneliness. "These are people who are lacking in a sense of self," says Dietz. "They lack a feeling of security with their own status in life, and so they try to attach themselves to people who have what they most want. Which, superficially, might seem to be the money, the glamour, the fame. But it's really the identity that they lack."

The typical delusional stalker is a single male in his thirties, unemployed or underemployed, a man who has never experienced an intimate relationship. Desperately he yearns for a connection, yet, tormented by mental disorders, he can find no way to fulfill his dreams. And as he sits alone day after day, it suddenly comes to him: an image of a beautiful young woman, friendly, engaging, cordial yet warm, talking to him, looking him in the eye. She comes on every day at the same time, greeting him with a warm smile saying goodbye to him at the end: "That's the news. See you tomorrow!"

Before long he may believe that her eyes are following him as he walks around the room. That she's sending him coded messages by the choice of brooch or the color of her blouse. She wants him to know that she loves him. That she wants him to come to her.

In clinical terms, this kind of stalker is termed "love obsessional." "These are people who live lonely, destitute lives without meaning," explains psychologist Dr. Michael Zona. "By attaching themselves to some person that comes into their home every night, they can get meaning out of life."

The preferred victim, Zona says, is not a stunning beauty, but a Girl Next Door type, a woman who appears sweet, approachable, and engaging. In the mind of a delusional stalker, it might not seem implausible that such a woman might want to be in a relationship with him. Particularly when stations go out of their way to market their on-air talent as "Your Friends at Channel 7" or "Your Home Town News Team." Kam Carman, a mid-day news anchor at WJBK near Detroit, was stalked for four years by a man who woke every day to a billboard touting her newscast outside his window. "His messages got stranger and stranger," Karman recalls. "Until he started saying he was going to blow my fucking head off."

When a stalker's yearning is thwarted, the danger escalates. As his grandiose fantasies of love collapse around him, the stalker grasps at the only tool that can bolster his self-worth: anger. And so the love obsessional turns hate obsessional.

In 1998, 36-year-old Kathryn Dettman, an anchor at KWTX in Waco, Texas, complained to colleagues that a 21-year-old neighbor named Anthony Gary Silvestri had been pestering her, calling her repeatedly and asking her out on dates. Unbeknownst to Dettman, Silvestri had his binoculars trained on her apartment. At 8.30am on January 22, as she was coming out of the shower, he entered her apartment, surprised her, and beat and stabbed her to death with a screwdriver. Police responding to neighbors' complaints arrived to find Silvestri spattered in blood, standing over Dettman's naked body. He plead guilty to murder in return for a life sentence.

According to experts, a few simple precautions can greatly reduce the danger faced by a female TV anchor or reporter. "It's one of our core ground rules: don't send out personalized items such as autographed photos," says John Lane, a principal in the stalking-protection firm Omega Threat Management Group. The point, Lane says, is to avoid encouraging the stalker's delusion that he shares a personal bond with the anchor. "If a newscaster wants to send a photograph to a fan, it should be a group photograph of the entire news team. But we prefer they not send any photographs at all."

Likewise, Lane says, anchors should not respond to fan letters, and screen incoming calls through voicemail or a receptionist. They should keep their personal lives out of the broadcast, never mentioning their children or talking about where they're going on vacation. "You don't, as a rule, even want to wear a wedding ring on air," Lane says. If viewers send in gifts they should be thrown out, or if they are valuable, mailed back with an impersonal note by station staff on company letterhead. During public appearances, newscasters should always be accompanied by station security.

"It's just a matter of education," says Lane. "If stations do some up-front orientation and set up a protocol within the newsroom, they could reduce 97 percent of the risk."

For the vast majority of stalking victims, the unending, nerve-racking uncertainty is the crime's cruellest aspect. "It's like being at war," says Rebecca Gooddale, a former stalking victim turned advocate. "You're constantly waiting for something terrible to happen, and in the meantime the stress and the anxiety and the tension and the pressure that you're under are unbelievable. Many victims are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder."

The mental repercussions are a more present danger than the threat of physical attack. Statistically, fewer than three percent of all stalkers kill their victims, and the figure is much lower for celebrity stalkers. Says Lane, "stalkers who write the more sexually graphic and threatening letters are as a rule the least likely to actually do physical harm." But that's cold comfort to a woman whose torment seemingly comes out of nowhere and then never seems to end. Stalkers may lurk for years, periodically resurfacing and then disappearing. As one victim told psychologist Paul Mullen, "I have given up all hopes of ever having a safe life. For the rest of my life, I will be looking over my shoulder, expecting to see him there."

"I've worked with more than 3000 victims," says Rebecca Goodale, "and only one has told me she ever found a sense of closure. When I asked her how, she said that her stalker had broken into her house while she was a way and blown his head off in her living room. She says that if she had been home she knows it would have been a murder-suicide."

 

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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