Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

My Patient, My Stalker Empathy as a Dual-Edged Sword: A Cautionary Tale

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

My Patient, My Stalker Empathy as a Dual-Edged Sword: A Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

When the comedy film What About Bob was released in 1991, I expected to be annoyed by yet another stereotype of the remote psychoanalyst, but nonetheless was curious enough to see it. I loved it. I enjoyed seeing the arrogant psychiatrist get his comeuppance from his lovable patient who stalked him. An adolescent patient of mine also had seen it and when I was about to take a summer vacation, she joked that I should not be surprised to spot her sitting on a blanket near me on the beach. I laughed at this healthy expression of both her affection for me and anger for leaving. Eight years later after I began to be stalked, I recalled the film. There was nothing funny about it then. I felt for that psychiatrist and understood his terror.

Evolutionary theory explains how man's body and mind evolved (Pinker 1997). Like the other creatures in the animal kingdom, we are capable of violence to others and ourselves, but are different in one crucial way. We are "quite alone in our capacity to murder in cold blood, to torture one another and to threaten our species' very existence" (de Zulueta, 1994, p.vii). The fight-or-flight response is the most obvious example but other anxiety states have also been speculatively traced to the evolutionary experience of predation (Ehrenreich, 1997; Marks, 1987; Marks & Nesse, 1994).

The transformation from prey to predator, in which the weak rise up against the strong, is the central "story" in the early human narrative. Some residual anxiety seems to draw us back to it again and again. We recount it as myth and reenact it in ritual, as if we could never be sufficiently assured that it has, indeed, occurred (Ehrenreich 1997, p. 83).

I was stalked for 11 months, at a time when there was little literature on the subject and when I was in no frame of mind to consider seeking it had there been. It was a horrific experience that induced a posttraumatic stress disorder and impaired my thinking more than I knew at the time.

When it began, I knew little about stalking, equating stalkers with serial killers who hunted their prey, usually celebrities. Although not all stalkers are violent, I did not know this then. I muddled my way alone through this experience, then sought forensic advice, and years later, after reading the literature on stalking that helped me deconstruct this experience, I was convinced that it is a very real occupational hazard (Kaplan 2006) for health and mental health clinicians. I came to understand why I had become such an enticing morsel for my predator.

Several years after it stopped, when I had some emotional distance from it, I wanted to understand just how and why it happened and how and why it stopped. I reviewed my notes and collection of letters, photographs, and tapes, which jogged my memory of this time. I realized I had done some things that inadvertently served to maintain the stalking relationship. I do not blame myself for this. There was nothing in my professional training to prepare me for being stalked; there was a lot in it that prepared me to use my empathy in dealing with my stalker. I concluded that my empathy and compassion had served as a double-edged sword, allowing my stalker to reveal her history of stalking psychotherapists and providing me with other critical information. But the combination of empathy for my stalker and fear of her served to maintain the stalking behavior.

The psychodynamics that characterize most mentally disturbed, violent offenders generally involve preoedipal character pathology expressed in personality and delusional disorders (Skoler 1998).

No thoughtful mental health or criminal justice professional can long ponder upon 'the violent processes and sequelae of unrequited obsessive love' without reaching the same conclusion as the late . . . Helen Singer Kaplan, that the psychodynamics of violent attachments disturbingly resonate in the personal and collective unconscious, and conversely, that an understanding of the personal and collective unconscious can enlighten the psychodynamics-and even the behaviors- of violent stalkers (Skoler 1998, pp. …

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