When my boss asked me in a low voice to come into her office and close the door, I thought that she was going to tell me she had cancer. I couldn’t imagine what else could make a person look and sound as distraught as she did. Instead, she explained that the man who had been repeatedly calling our office wasn’t just another person in our industry wanting to talk about business, he was harassing her. I don’t remember if she said stalking then or if I understood it to be that. I do remember her - a rock-solid, tough-as-nails, no-nonsense woman - locking herself in her house and missing days of work. I dropped off meals from her favorite restaurant but she couldn’t eat. When she reappeared at work, her already slight frame was that much slighter. She looked tired and gaunt. I felt fiercely protective of her, a boss, yes, but also a mentor, a friend, someone who would become like family.
When I offered to help her manage this, neither of us understood the weight of what we would each have to carry. I printed copies of the emails she had received by then, filling one two-inch binder and then a second one. I carried them, heavy, back to my desk and locked them away. That was the start of collecting evidence, tracking every move he made to try and protect her. In the months and years that followed, I screen-grabbed thousands of tweets and websites he made trying to hurt her reputation, her career, and her. Pictures of her house. Descriptions of where her assigned parking spot was. It became my job to let her know if things escalated, but I lost the ability to tell what might be a real threat. My nerves frayed as I weighed when to give her updates, knowing it would ruin her day and cloud anything else she was working on.
I found his daughter’s Twitter profile and considered contacting her. I figured out what program he was using to track emails he sent to her, so while she never responded he still knew when it was opened, where it was opened, and more information all obtained through this entirely legal method. I tracked down receipts from flowers sent anonymously - fluffy, white peonies that had been her favorite and now left her in a cold sweat. I arranged security guards for her at all public events after he bought tickets to an intimate ceremony where she was being honored. She stopped accepting public-facing speaking engagements or honorary awards, declining opportunities to celebrate the mark she made on our industry. She kept hidden the reasons why, likely coming off to some as cold or distant.
When her alma mater called to tell us they wanted to give her an honorary degree, I asked the woman if she could help me find out who had accessed her school transcript which had been altered to make it look like she hadn’t graduated from the college. That’s when I found the name of the private investigator he hired to track her. I imagined each of these pieces being presented in a courtroom, although I knew inside she wouldn’t pursue a legal case. He had already threatened her if she did, and she knew he was hungry to get into the same room as her, even if it was a courtroom. She was petrified of having to see him. I imagined a perhaps more likely reality, that this would be used as evidence against him if he were to physically attack her. She had started to wish that he would, believing - probably accurately - that was the only way this would stop.
I started to wonder what I would do if (when?) he came to our unsecured office. Would I run for her office, for the supply closet, for the staircase tucked further away? I would have joked that I would take a bullet for her but… would I? My friends and family told me to step away, that this wasn’t my problem to fix and it wasn’t but I didn’t feel like I could leave her alone with this. I told her as long as she was dealing with him, I would be there with her and I meant it.
I suffered, my career suffered, my life darkened, and I started antidepressants for the first time. After many years, when there finally seemed to be a break in his abuse that lasted more than a month or two, I put in my notice but assured her she could reach out anytime she needed to. She never did. She had always been a deeply private person and this violence perpetrated against her put her at odds with herself, forcing her to discuss things she didn’t want to talk about with people she didn’t want to tell. I don’t know if his abuse started again or not.
What I do know is this: A couple of years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. I know I’ll never be able to draw a straight line between the years of stress she endured due to this psychological torture and her getting ill at a young age. I do know that when she died shortly after her diagnosis, he attempted to sneak into her funeral, unable to let her rest in peace. That her life was cut short while he still inhabits this world is a cruelness that gets caught in my throat and turns my blood into angry lava that burns through my veins.
I fantasize about confronting him, threatening him, outing him to his peers but I don’t because it’s not my story, not really. It’s hers and it’s one she kept private. This may be the closest I get and it will have to be enough.