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.”