James Lasdun is a British novelist and poet who has made his home in the US. His father was the distinguished architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, who designed the National Theatre. He has a Jewish background but not upbringing. Indeed, he was set to be confirmed into the Church of England at boarding school but pulled out when he realised he had no faith.
His work has attracted awards and critical praise. He has also attracted something more sinister: a stalker — a former creative-writing student of his at a US college. After a five-year ordeal at her hands, he has set down his account of it, a cautionary tale showing that stalkers do not need to have a physical presence to do their foul work. They can do their best to destroy their target’s life by the internet alone.
Lasdun’s stalker is a young woman of Iranian descent whom he calls Nasreen. She was quiet and attractive and Lasdun thought her work promising. As good teachers do, he encouraged her and even put her in touch with his agent. If, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, Lasdun was to suffer a hundred-fold for his small acts of kindness.
He lived (with his wife and young children) in upstate New York, Nasreen in the city, so their relationship developed online, conducted by email. His fatal mistake was to be a little too friendly, even, he admits, a little flirtatious.
Gradually he realised she was getting the wrong idea. When he tried to extricate himself as delicately as he could, the trouble started. Her emails became more frequent and started to show signs of a worrying mental fragility. Before long, they were an abusive torrent.
Nasreen became more and more cunning, using the internet to blacken Lasdun’s name, denouncing him to his college employers and online sites as a sexual predator who stole his students’ work. Desperate, he went to the FBI, who were of little help.
But the most horrifying element was an increasingly open antisemitism. Lasdun became the latest in the long line of assimilated Jews to discover that they will never be forgiven for their heritage, however loosely they adhere to it.
It had, however, a positive side: he became defiantly more interested in his Jewishness. After the Six-Day War, his father had been commissioned to redesign a replacement for the Hurva Synagogue in the reclaimed Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948.
The project records are in Denys Lasdun’s papers at the V&A; among them, James found a vile, anonymous antisemitic letter, a foretaste of what he, too, was to experience decades later. It encouraged him to visit Jerusalem, and his feelings of both alienation and belonging among the throngs at the Western Wall are brilliantly documented. Perhaps Lasdun wouldn’t have been there but for his stalker: but he has paid a high price for his voyage of self-discovery.