Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/4/2006 7:19:54 PM ET 2006-08-04T23:19:54

Not long ago, I was at a funeral and somewhere between the macaroni salad and the deviled eggs, this guy hit on me. That in and of itself wasn’t all that unusual; lots of people deal with death by fully embracing their living, breeding status. What was unusual — or maybe what was typical about it for me — was the fact that the funeral was for a forensic psychologist who specialized in sexual predators. And the guy who hit on me was a patient.

Welcome to the world of the freak magnet.

For the lucky folks out there who aren’t familiar with the term — who’ve never had to endure a spate of hand-kissing by strangers or run from a naked man pushing a shopping cart, a quick definition, courtesy of “Ginger,” a 34-year-old blogger from Los Angeles whose Diary of a Freak Magnet (“I collect freaks like black pants collect lint”) records the oddball fest that is her life.

“A freak magnet is basically someone who attracts bizarre, unwanted attention,” says Ginger, who asked that her real name not be used due to the number of times she’s been stalked. “You’re minding your own business and then you suddenly have some encounter that you didn’t invite in any way. It just happens to some people more than others.”

But the burning question is why? Why do some people walk through a public garden and see beautiful flowers and other people, like Ginger, see a naked guy standing in his picture window masturbating?

Do freak magnets emit some kind of special scent? Use different body language? Are they more open and approachable than other people? Or do they just like all the crazy attention or perhaps attract it because they’re a little freaky themselves?

"Being a freak magnet sounds to me like half-complaint and half-boast,” says Dr. Doe Lang, psychotherapist and author of "The New Secrets of Charisma." “There is a sort of suggestive glamour about it. Even if you’re magnetizing freaks, you’re still magnetizing somebody. You’ve got the power to attract.”

But it’s what some folks attract that’s the problem.

Beware of a man with a hand on his zipper
Beth Duddy, 46, a restaurant server/artist from San Francisco tends to pull from the paranoid schizophrenic end of the spectrum, i.e., “intense people who like to talk,” often, as it turns out, about their “enemy lists”.

Duddy, whose mother suffered from mental illness, calls herself freak tolerant and admits to being a bit outside the norm, herself.

“I’m college-educated and can put on a business suit and pumps and all that,” she says. “But I’m not afraid to talk to strangers on the street. And it seems that I attract these amusing oddballs and losers. It feels like once I make eye contact with them, it’s all over. They pick up on whatever it is that tells them they can open up their freaky baggage.”

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Ginger, on the other hand, tends to attract random — and unwelcome — sexual attention, like the guy on the dance floor who kept unzipping his pants at her or the men who routinely pull over as she’s walking down the street and demand that she “Get in!”

“A lot of the freak encounters I’ve had are about harassment,” she says. “Which, unfortunately, is pretty pervasive in our society. But I think some things happen because I’m social. I’m out there meeting people and I’m open and they sense that and just pounce.”

According to Steen Halling, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Seattle University, Ginger and Duddy’s assessments aren’t far off. Some people are targeted, either by their body language or their open demeanor.

“If somebody is predatory or exploitive, they’ll have a good eye for people who look vulnerable,” he says. “They’ll look for someone who seems to have self-doubt or who might be sympathetic or who will respond to someone who gives them a lot of attention.”

But what about those instances where there’s no opportunity for eye contact or sizing up, like the time a fellow darted across four lanes of traffic in order to hand a cassette full of Christmas music to Jonathan Shipley, a 32-year-old writer from Seattle.

“He told me he couldn’t keep it because whenever his wife listened to 'Joy to the World,' she heard children being strangled in the background,” says Shipley. He says he's had many such run-ins over the years, including a recent beating aboard a bus by an umbrella-wielding transient who felt Shipley should be “writing it in his mind” instead of on his laptop.

Freak-magnet frequency
Could it be that there’s actually some kind of freak-magnet frequency?

“It could be that there’s a different level of communication going on,” says Halling, the psychologist. “Something preverbal and unconscious that registers with someone who is psychiatrically disturbed. It brings to mind those cats that have a knack for jumping up on people who have allergies.”

Ever the optimist, Shipley finds comfort in his magnetic appeal. 

“Being a freak magnet is a wonderful thing,” he says. “You get great stories to tell at parties and it makes for good fodder for my writing.”

Ginger, on the other hand, is philosophical.

“The only way to avoid these experiences is to stay in a darkened room with all the shutters drawn,” she says. “If you want to have new experiences, to keep growing as a person, you’re going to need to expose yourself to more people and that means exposing yourself to the crazy ones, too.”

As for me? My guess is I'll keep talking to strangers at bus stops, coffee shops, even the occasional funeral. But not without my trusty canister of pepper spray.


Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the recently released "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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