science of us

What It’s Like to Be Stalked by Your Professor

Photo: Photographer: Roc Canals/Getty Images

In her new book, Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, author Donna Freitas, a writer and lecturer, dissects her own experience being stalked by a professor when she was a graduate student in her 20s. Lasting more than two years, Freitas’s experience is distinct from the stereotypical stalking story we see in pop culture — her stalker was not a stranger, but a trusted authority; her stalker was not physically violent, but he was insidiously manipulative, and controlling. What began with an unusual interest in Freitas’s studies soon became an unending barrage of calls, letters, and unsolicited visits to her apartment.

What interests Freitas most, though — and what her book seeks to unpack — are the emotional complexities and power dynamics that contributed to her isolation, and her silence. The Cut’s interview with Freitas, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

How did you meet the person who became your stalker?
I went to graduate school to get my Ph.D. [in religious studies]. I’m one of those people who loves to ask questions, and when I was in undergrad, I had the most amazing professors, and I wanted to become like them. In so many ways, going to graduate school for me was the best thing ever, because I got to be in a place where that’s all people wanted to do was study theory and ask questions.

There were required classes students had to take, and I had this professor in one of those classes in my very first semester. I thought he was wonderful, really smart, and a caring professor. I was excited by the fact that he was so generous with his time when I went to his office hours.

Had you known anyone to experience inappropriate attention from a professor before? Was that on your radar as something to watch out for?
No, never. I was lucky to have wonderful professors and teachers growing up, which is also why I wanted to become one. I cared deeply about my professors, and I felt deeply cared for by my professors in a way that never made me feel uncomfortable, ever. Maybe I’m lucky in that way. And I didn’t know anyone else who had an issue. It wasn’t a topic of conversation among my friends.

Do you think that made you second-guess your own concerns or feelings about this professor, once he did start to feel uncomfortable?
Yes — that’s what a lot of the memoir is about. It was very hard for me to make the shift from admiring my professors to becoming suspicious of them and their actions, because it had never before occurred to me that a professor would see me in an inappropriate way. When I say that now, it sounds so naive, but I really believed that. What I wanted most in my life was to become a professor. The people I admired most were professors. The people who encouraged me most in my life were professors, other than my parents. This was a role that was wholly positive for me. So for me to go from that sort of admiration and respect and enthusiasm for someone in that position, to the place where I became suspicious, angry, even hateful — boy, did that take a lot of work.

When did you first get the feeling that something was off or different about the way this professor treated you?
In the beginning, the discomfort was subtle. There were ways in which he surprised me early on. When my class [with him] was over, he was still interested in my studies, and I was like, “Wow, that’s so nice.” But the biggest shift I can remember was when he showed up at my apartment unannounced.

He had a whole song and dance about why he was in the neighborhood. I invited him in, because what else was I going to do? I liked him. I made him tea, and we sat and talked. That was it, and then he left. But I was very startled that he showed up unannounced. After he left, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given him my address. So then I realized he had to have looked it up. This was pre-internet, so he would have had to do some digging. That was the first real moment of unease. And shortly after that, letters he wrote me started arriving at my house.

How long had you known him by then, and when had the class ended?The course ended the first week of December, and I think he came to my house in March.

And had he contacted you during that time before showing up?
He was leaving things in my mailbox at school, little notes. He’d invited me to go to a play and for coffee, and he told me to continue coming to his office hours, which I would do once in a while. He continued to engage me in conversation, in a cordial back-and-forth, but when he showed up at my house, I felt a shift in myself. It felt off.

Did his actions seem flirtatious to you?
Nope. Not even a teeny bit. He was also a priest, and this was also before the Catholic sex abuse scandal hit the news. So to me, the celibacy was a wall. It didn’t even occur to me that someone would violate that. It was another five or six months before I allowed the thought to enter my head.

When he began writing to you, how often did that happen? What did you do?
In the beginning it was really innocuous. He would see an article in the paper and put it in an envelope, and say, “This made me think of you.” Or he’d send an academic article he read that he thought I’d enjoy. Or he’d send a card, but it was very innocuous stuff. At first it was maybe one a week. Then maybe a couple a week. Some of these were just little folded notes that said, “Donna, you should come to my office hours this week so we can talk about X.” But as the spring continued, the letters grew quite frequent. They’re one of the things that began to make me feel unease. He continued to invite me to do things, and the more I said no — and I was making excuses, I wasn’t saying it in a mean way — the more he invited me to things, and sent me letters.

One of the things that made me feel really, really stupid afterward was that I stopped opening the letters — because there were so many, but also because I began to not want to open them. It was a kind of resistance. I felt dread around them, so instead of opening them I tossed them into a pile. Eventually I had enough that I realized I was never going to open them, and I threw them all away. Then that process repeated several times over the course of everything that happened. It wasn’t until much later that I opened the letters I had, and I was able to see that the tone of them had shifted.

To me, not wanting to read them seems like a natural response, so I’m wondering if you can tell me why you think that made you feel stupid later.
Because I wonder if I would have been forced to acknowledge much sooner what was happening. Some of them included love poems. Not love poems he wrote, but love poems he copied down and gave me. Like everything he did, he could have said, “Oh, I just thought you’d like this poem, why are you reading into it?” This is the forever seed of doubt I’ll have about everything that happened.

With my students, I wouldn’t ever copy them a love poem and give it to them. I know, instinctively, that’s inappropriate. He was crossing lines in that way, and maybe if I’d looked at the letters I’d have been forced to reckon with it sooner, and save myself a lot of trauma. I had all this evidence piling up, but I wasn’t looking at it.

Given that he was in a position of authority, did it occur to you to talk to anyone about it?
No. I had to become utterly desperate. That’s the only reason I reached out for help. It took me ages to get to that point. I was in a position of doubting myself, because he was very clever. He would do things that were inappropriate, but at the same time, could be explained away as innocent. That was part of what kept me silent. I didn’t even want to have the thought that he was doing something wrong, because it felt so disrespectful. I couldn’t even imagine accusing a professor. And he had so much power over me in my program that I thought it could ruin my life, even if I had the thought.

This was maybe a few years after Anita Hill. There was not a robust conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence going on in our culture. I had no context for it.

So after he’d been sending letters for a while, and you started growing wary, what happened next? 
He started calling me at home, and I’d never given him my phone number. I switched apartments during this time, and he also seamlessly moved from sending letters to my old apartment to sending letters to my new apartment. I didn’t give him those addresses. He also got the phone numbers on his own. None of these were solicited.

I called him back if he left a message because that’s how I was raised — to be polite, and to have respect for my elders. He invited me a couple times to go away with him, and I said no, and I would say that was one of the other moments when I was really uncomfortable, which I didn’t articulate to him. I knew when he asked me the first time that there was no way I was going away with him, just the two of us, to a retreat house. But I also didn’t know how to decline. I came up with an excuse about why I couldn’t go. I thought that the subject would go away, but he persisted and persisted and persisted. I began to realize that he was desperate for me to go with him.

How did the retreat thing get resolved?
I came up with excuse after excuse after excuse, and he came up with alternative possibility after alternative possibility. I came up with every excuse in the book: “I can’t get a ride.” “Well, what if I rent you a car?” Every excuse I came up with, he had a response. Eventually he ran out of time. Finally he had to go, because he couldn’t get me to say yes. I remember feeling this enormous relief, like this is finally off my plate, having to evade this retreat. Then he started calling me from the retreat house and saying I could still come, and it was so nice there. It just wore me down.

You write that eventually he also develops a kind of relationship with your mom. How did that start?
That same summer, he wrote this article he was obsessed with me reading. He kept pestering me about reading it, and I was resisting, because I didn’t want to. He was just obsessed, and had sort of given me a deadline for when we were going to talk about it, because he was coming back from his trip, and I was dreading this deadline. And then I read the article, and I realized it was kind of a veiled way of telling me he was in love with me. But I knew he was coming home, and the day before, I was wondering what I was going to do. Then, coincidentally, my mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. I was devastated, of course, but I was also like, “Oh my gosh, now I can get out of this conversation.” Which is horrible.

I had to rush home to be with my family, and because he was constantly after me to talk about this article, I left him a message saying I couldn’t talk, and I had to go home because my mother had cancer. I thought that would be the end of it, but instead, he started calling my family’s home in another state. He’d gone into my records again. He began to minister to my mother and her cancer. He spoke to her on the phone and wrote her letters. He used the occasion of her cancer as an excuse to insert himself further into my life.

What did your mom think about this?
My mom was a really good Catholic lady. I think she was surprised that a professor of mine was writing to her, but I told her that it was okay, he was really nice. I didn’t know what to say, I was so stunned. When she was sick, the whole Catholic community I grew up with was helping my mother, and bringing us lasagna, and helping my grandma who had Alzheimer’s. We had priests and nuns coming over to the house everyday to give my mother Communion, and so my family was really relying on our Catholic community to make it through this. I didn’t want her to worry, so I told her how nice that he would do that for her. I was horrified, but I was scared of taking something away from her.

How long into the ordeal are you at this point?
It’s about a year and a half.

What happened in the next six months or so?
I thought they would never come to an end. I got to a point where his persistence with me was so relentless, I didn’t know how to live anymore. He called me all the time. He invited me to do things constantly. He kept writing my mother. It became an obsession. I had sometimes three pieces of mail arriving a day. All I did was fend him off. It was my full-time job.

I got to a point where I thought I don’t care anymore if I lose everything. I don’t care if I become a professor, I don’t care if people hate me, I don’t care if people call me a slut — I do not care. I just need this man out of my life. I can’t take it anymore. I got desperate, and he was desperate. I didn’t want to answer the phone anymore, but I did answer the phone because my mother was sick, and this was before caller ID. I felt like I had to answer.

Then he made a plan to visit my family. My mom told me this. I think it was [my family’s] job to get me there, but I don’t think they realized that. I was saying no to him all the time, so I think he thought, I know how to get her to the table. I’ll make plans with her mom at their home in Rhode Island. I thought I’d never be out from under it.

I finally told a friend. I had no idea what he was going to think. He listened, and it was miraculous afterward, because he told me it wasn’t okay. There was no doubt in his mind that something was severely wrong. That was the first time I’d told someone, but also the first time that someone had no doubts that what was happening was inappropriate, and it was a relief, but it was also terrifying, because it was like my worst fears were confirmed. I was like, Are my dreams over? How in the world can I get around him, and how can I make him stop so I can finish my program?

Did your friend have ideas for how to handle it? What did you do next?We told another professor. My primary goal was to make him go away. All I wanted was for the behavior to stop. So we talked about me sitting down and writing out a list of all the things I wanted him to stop doing: Don’t write letters to my house in Rhode Island, don’t write letters to my house at school, don’t write letters to my student mailbox. It was very specific. I did that, and the plan was for me to choose a time to call him and read out the list, and when I was done, ask if he understood me. If he said yes, I’d say this would be the last time we talked. I did that, and it didn’t make a difference.

What did it feel like making that call?
It was terrifying. I felt full of dread. I didn’t ever want to hear his voice again. But I knew it had to be done. I understood why it had to be done, and I understood why it had to be me doing the calling. The professor I’d told felt I should be the one who initiated it so I had the upper hand, so I could control what time and what day it happened. I understood that. I was alone when I did it, and I did it during the day, because I don’t think I would have had the nerve to do it if it was at night. I would have felt too vulnerable in the dark.

[The professor] was really excited that I’d called him. I hadn’t called him back in ages, so he was pretty thrilled. Then right away I started my reading. I was like, “I have something to tell you, and I need you to listen to everything I have to say.” And then I just read. It was four pages handwritten. After I finished reading everything, I said, “Did you understand what I said?” He said yes, and then I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go now,’ and I hung up the phone. Afterward I was hopeful, like maybe I’d done it and saved myself. But I hadn’t.

How much longer was it before you stopped hearing from him?
After that, the frequency of his attempts went down a good deal, but the ways in which he did contact me got really out of control, and scary. He was doing crazier and crazier things. It took another year and three months for everything to be over. It was a long time.

What kinds of crazier things?
Well — the reason I wrote the memoir is because I have this really complicated, long experience I could analyze, and look at for all its complexity, and try to understand. Why was it so silencing? Why do we have so much shame? For me, the memoir isn’t about the details, it’s about that nuance.

Do you still worry that he might show up again?
No. I don’t. I did for a long time. For a long time I did have to worry about it, because of conferences, and when I did, I broke down. I would have a panic attack.

I started writing the memoir before the #MeToo stuff. When I was writing it, I didn’t know if I’d do anything with it. I had some time to contemplate how I felt. That was when I realized I was no longer afraid of him. I think I’ll always feel disgusted and repulsed by him, and that time in my life. I feel incredible revulsion. But I think if he showed up at my house, I’d be like, “Come right in. Let’s have a chat.” I used to be afraid of him, not because he’s a fearsome person physically, but because he had so much power in my life, and he was so clever about using it. Sometimes now I think I’d love to tell him off, or laugh in his face about how pathetic he is. I have these fantasies about what I’d do. But be afraid is not one of them.

For Freitas’s full story, read her book Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention

What It’s Like to Be Stalked