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Celebrity status is often risky business

Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt discusses how celebrity status comes with risky side effects, such as stalking, and how you can protect yourself from stalkers.
Image: Uma Thurman
Actress Uma Thurman arrives at Manhattan criminal court for her trial on Thursday in New York. Thurman is scheduled to testify against Jack Jordan, who is accused of stalking her and sending bizarre notes to her family. Louis Lanzano / AP

A 35-year-old former psychiatric patient found himself in court facing charges of stalking actress Uma Thurman. Jack Jordan, the alleged stalker, had appeared at Thurman’s residence on many occasions, as well as on movie sets where she was working, all in an attempt to gain contact with her. In a letter that he sent to Thurman, the disturbed man wrote, "Dear Uma, I love you completely. I feel afraid if I see you out again with another man I may just die, kill myself." Both Thurman and others around her will testify concerning the alleged stalker's actions that have caused them to fear for their personal safety.

Stalking is often defined as "repeated and persistent unwanted communications and/or approaches that produce fear in the victim."  Over one million women and in excess of 370,000 men are stalked each year in America. Over three-quarters of female victims and two-thirds of male victims know their stalker and the increase in incidents of stalking over the last few decades has compelled all 50 states and the federal government to enact anti-stalking laws.

Stalking is usually an individualized problem rooted in a personal relationship. A woman, for example, may struggle to end a personal relationship in a positive way, but her former intimate will not give her up. Such stalkers are both consumed and preoccupied with their victims.  They may have developed a delusional fixation on their victim, something usually found in the case of celebrity stalking cases where the victim may not know his or her stalker. Such stalkers seek to develop a “real” relationship with their targeted victim, or simply seek to develop or enhance their own identity via an imaginary relationship with some high profile figure. 

Many stalkers are motivated by a psychological delusion, a belief held despite evidence to the contrary; a reality they have created that they believe in. They have made up their minds and no one will dissuade them from their targeted victim, no matter how outrageous the fanaticized relationship between the stalker and his victim may seem to others.  Many celebrity stalkers are psychotic, actually believing that they have some intimate relationship with their victim.  Some celebrities have received hundreds of letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from their stalkers. While most stalking obsessions usually run their course in two years or less, others last for decades.

Image: Jack Jordan
Jack Jordan exits Manhattan criminal court during a recess in his trial, Friday, May 2, 2008, in New York. Jordan, 37 who testified on the stand Friday morning, is accused of stalking actress Uma Thurman and sending bizarre notes to members her family. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)Louis Lanzano / AP

When protection becomes violent
David Letterman was stalked for years by Margaret Mary Ray, a woman haunted by her own schizophrenic demons for years before killing herself in 1988 by kneeling before an oncoming train in Colorado.  One of Madonna’s stalkers, Robert Hoskins, was shot by a security guard while attempting to break into the pop star’s residence. Britney Spears has had a number of stalkers. One was a Canadian man arrested twice in one year for stalking her, the second time when he was found on her family’s property, and then there was the Japanese businessman whom she obtained a restraining order against after he tried to reach her at two of her residences, her parents’ home and after he sent letters and pictures of himself to her.

Celebrity stalkers many times just can’t cope with reality, so they create their own that is far more interesting than that which surrounds them.  They may be dissatisfied with their own life, so they include the celebrity as part of their new reality, one in which they have a fantasized relationship with the celebrity that can include believed mutual love.

How to say no
With a stalker, “No” must be a complete sentence.  Any small bit of sympathy can inspire a stalker, thereby providing him with some small island of sanity on which to stand in an otherwise sea of pathology.  Stalkers can suffer from a sense of powerlessness and by their actions, seek to gain power over another.  One study found a fairly predictable progression in stalking cases, to include:

  • Some type of initial attempt at contact followed by infatuation.
  • Some type of inappropriate approach behavior. His social skills are such that he is ultimately doomed to failure.
  • The inevitable rejection activates his delusion concerning his target, to include the possible belief that the victim has some feelings for him.
  • When the rejection continues, the stalker becomes depressed and angry. He seeks to control his situation, and his victim, through his stalking activities.
  • Because of his narcissism, he must make his fantasy concerning the perceived relationship between him and his victim somehow come true.
  • Should he eventually grow to dislike and even hate his victim, this due to her perceived rejection of him, he may, in the extreme, resort to violence to make her pay for her betrayal.

Many stalker typologies have been developed to categorize stalkers, to include one that defines stalkers as one of four types, including:

  • Simple Obsessional – stalking someone with whom you once had a true intimate relationship.
  • Love Obsessional – Usually related to a celebrity or someone else the stalker had idealized from afar, believing that the person would eventually entertain a personal relationship with the stalker.
  • Erotomania – This stalker comes to the belief that his victim actually loves him.
  • False Claim – Usually related to someone with a histrionic personality disorder who wants attention and falsely claims that she is the victim of a stalker to get attention for herself.

Most important tips to remember
Of the almost 60 tips that I provide to stalking victims, most that need to be considered by any stalking victim, some are set forth below:

  • Never respond to the attempts at contact by a stalker. (Any attempt to dissuade the stalker on your part only serves to convince him that should he push forward, that he can break down your resistance and make you love him.)
  • Keep copies of phone calls, e-mails, letters, pictures, etc., sent to you by your stalker to support your case, this should you decide to go to the police.
  • Never answer your door without knowing who is on the other side, do not accept packages from people you do not know, and let a trusted friend know about the inappropriate attempts at contact.
  • Use a caller ID and an answering machine with a generic voice (one other than your own) to screen your calls.  As one victim told me, “He called me 60 times and I finally answered the phone and told him to leave me alone.  Did I do something wrong?”  Answer – “Yes.  You have now told him the cost of talking to you is calling 60 times.”
  • Notify the police immediately should you become frightened or concerned.

Law enforcement usually recommends obtaining a restraining order against the person harassing or stalking you. Some stalkers will “cease and desist” their actions if ordered to do so, while other stalkers may see the restraining order as yet another rejection as well as a personal challenge that must be met by them. A restraining order is only a piece of paper, not a shield.  It cannot, in and of itself, protect every stalking victim and is not necessary the correct answer for every case.

Stalkers wage psychological warfare against their victims.  Any inappropriate attempt at contact, communication or threat should be evaluated for the safety of the victim and the protection of those around her. Most stalkers do not see their actions as wrong and many times blame their targets for any action the stalker may take against his victim.  Upwards of 40 – 50 percent of stalking victims report that they are eventually threatened and over 40 percent report some type of property damage related to their stalker. These are not situations that you should try to deal with by yourself, noting that over two-thirds of all stalking victims have reported being assaulted by their stalker. Consider your actions carefully in such cases; your life may depend on your response.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, , provides readers with security-related information.