When I agreed to write a guest post for Camela on stalkers, it was with the understanding that I would be writing from a mental health perspective and not that of a novelist. Which is not to say that I am an expert on stalking. My background features a BA and an MA in psychology, as well as roughly a decade of experience working with youth and families struggling with mental illness and addiction. I never worked in an in-patient setting (read: hospital or similar) so my experience with previously diagnosed psychotic disorders was fairly limited. However, one of the insidious things about the kind of mental illness that can lead to stalking is how long it can fly under the radar. And I am very familiar with obsession, delusion, and the seeming inability to break unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Stalkers are fascinating to average people (in a freaky way) because their mentality is so distant from our own. There is no single mental illness that results in the behavior known as “stalking,” although most stalkers would qualify for some kind of psychotic disorder. That’s because they typically suffer from some kind of delusion, which is central to any kind of psychosis. A delusion is a belief – a concrete, sure-as-gravity, unshakable belief – in something that is not true, and this causes significant personal and/or social distress. This delusion could be that the victim is in love with the stalker, or is cheating on the stalker, or intends to harm the stalker, etc etc. This is a topic that could (and has) fill multiple books. In this brief post, I will write about stalkers from two very different psychological perspectives: Freudian (because there’s just no beating the basics), and Behavioral. Please note that these will be very simplistic; both perspectives can offer far more complex and in-depth explanations than what we have room to explore in a blog.
To the Father of Psychology, everything came back to early childhood experiences and the people most closely involved: the parents. Psychoanalysts believe the Mother is the first and most important female in the life of an individual. The love that an infant feels for his* mother is raw and all-encompassing, because his survival literally depends on its mutuality. It also blurs all kinds of sexual boundaries because the infant has not yet encountered most of the world’s social norms, which is why the Oedipal Complex evolves: the infant’s desire to kill the Father, and have the Mother all to himself.
Freud believed that mental illness in adults was the result of unresolved issues in early childhood development—a concept we fully embrace today, although in a less Victorian-influenced framework. Through Freud’s perspective, the Stalker is an individual who never felt he received the necessary love and care from his mother, a rejection that could have proven fatal. This desperate, life-or-death emptiness remains in the unconscious mind into adulthood, until he meets someone who triggers those feelings. In the mind of the Stalker, This is the person who can fulfill me gets paired with This is the person with the power to destroy me. This becomes I need you, I want you all to myself, and also How dare you hurt me, I have to destroy you before you do it again. There’s nothing logical to it, because when these unconscious patterns are laid down the infant is incapable of logic; there is only raw, desperate need. And just as infants and toddlers are capable of illogical and horrible cruelty through their naiveté, so is the Stalker capable of these terrifying behaviors because he regresses to the infantile state of emotion.
Pure Behavioral Psychology is built on the idea that all animals – including humans – do things because they are rewarded for the action. There is only action and consequence. An infant cries, receives cuddles and food, and therefore will cry in the future because he wants the same reward. The reverse is true with punishment: a child touches a hot stove, burns his hand, and therefore will not touch a hot stove in the future. We use these principles to train our pets, teach our children, and even maintain international relations...with varying levels of success. So the simple explanation for stalking from a Behaviorist view is that the Stalker was at some point rewarded in some way for being around his victim. If he knows the victim personally (e.g. an ex-girlfriend or a co-worker) then their relationship was so powerfully rewarding that any closeness, any interaction triggers the same reward feeling. If he doesn’t know the victim personally – such as with a celebrity – his experiences in watching her shows/listening to her music/reading about her have been rewarding enough to inspire increased closeness. Even though the Stalker’s behaviors become strange and may result in punishment, the initial and lingering rewards are strong enough to overpower them. (If this seems illogical, just remember how many times you’ve had to punish your pet for eating out of the garbage.) These kinds of deeply ingrained patterns of behavior can be very difficult to break, because the Reward Systems are essential to survival, and – once again – defy logic.
While both of these perspectives are intriguing, it doesn’t take much pondering to realize neither displays the whole picture. Human beings are far too complex and diverse to be captured in any single psychological paradigm. Neurological imaging technology not yet been used in extensive research in the area of stalking, although some initial findings suggest the prefrontal cortex (right above the forehead) may not be doing its job of helping emotion and rational find common ground. But here’s what we DO know about the brain: the more often we repeat a thought or an action, the easier it is for the brain to repeat it. Like a popular bike trail where after a while, a rut appears, and that’s where the wheels just tend to go.
Compare your handwriting now to what it was in the second grade—with repetition comes fluidity and ease. So the obsessive thoughts that feed stalking are self-perpetuating. Every time a Stalker allows himself to think about his victim, or look at her picture, or follow her, his brain becomes that much more likely to do it again. And again. And again. And whether that’s because of insufficient care when he needed it most in infancy, or because of a social reward he may or may not remember probably doesn’t matter that much to the person being stalked.
*I will use the default male since the majority of stalkers are men, but it should be noted that women follow the same psychological patterns and are just as capable of committing the associated crimes.
Z.D. Gladstone is an aspiring young novelist. Having spent most of her life in the Pacific Northwest, she whet her imagination on rainy afternoons--and her appetite on the warm, bustling kitchens of her family members. She uses her blog to share some of her creative work, both the literary kind (scribbles) and the culinary kind (munch).