I’ve been followed home by strangers a handful of times in my life.
(Once, I followed a stranger out into the middle of nowhere, but that’s a story about a different kind of stupidity.)
I’d like to go all Ian Fleming on you and talk about espionage, and in one case, I guess I could kind of do that. But really, these stories aren’t all that exciting.
Still, I did glean one interesting observation from both instances, which is this: Sexual predators and the federal government have more in common than you might think.
[I’ll pause here to let you insert your own joke about congressional aides.]
Sometime around 1995, Newark, Delaware, became the stalking ground for a sexual predator who, in the parlance of criminal profilers, was in the escalation phase of his development. First, we heard about a guy in a long trench coat flashing unsuspecting women of all ages. Then we heard that a man with a similar description had been seen following female pedestrians down the quieter side streets in his white sports car.
In one instance, he exposed himself in the vehicle to the pedestrian and tried to entice her into the car. He was unsuccessful in that case. Whether or not his failure was what led to his next step, we’ll probably never know, but he started following female drivers in his own car, presumably with the idea of accosting them at their homes.
It was winter and cold; there was a dusting of snow and the roads were icy. I was driving home from the university one night when I noticed a white sports car in my rearview.
I admired the car because I’m the daughter of a mechanic, and I like sports cars, especially hot-looking ones like the Trans-Am behind me. Then I recalled the news item about the sex stalker and decided to keep my eyes on the road and the rearview.
I wasn’t entirely sure the guy was following me, but to be safe, I pulled into the strip mall next to my apartment complex, preferring not to lead him to my apartment if I could avoid it. I parked as close as I could to the SuperFresh that anchored one end of the plaza and ducked inside. I bought milk and wandered around like I was planning a six course meal. When I finally decided to pay and leave, I hovered in the big windows near the doors, searching the lot.
I didn’t see a white car, so I risked heading back out to my own. I drove down to the end farthest from the grocery store and closest to my apartment complex and looked at every car along the way. Then I turned at the end of the lot and came back the length of the plaza and made for the exit.
He was lying in wait, idling at the bottom of the big truck loading ramp. I slammed on the brakes, nose-on in the T-bone position, and tried to make out his face in the glare of my high beams.
He shot out of the loading dock, jumped the curb at the exit, and made a squealing right up the winding, suburban road that made up the outer loop of my neighborhood. I followed him, trying to get close enough to see his license plate, but he was going fast, much faster than was safe on those slippery, curving roads.
At one point, as he gave his brakes a nominal tap at a stop sign, I got close enough to see that his rear plate was obscured with mud or paint. Then he shot ahead of me, took a left with a wild fishtail, and disappeared.
I gave up the chase but didn’t go right home, instead turning down a dead-end cul-de-sac and maneuvering so that my car faced out. I sat there with the engine on, lights off, waiting for him to appear again. I don’t know what I thought I’d do—engage him in a game of ice-road chicken? Anyway, I took the long way around, eyes looking everywhere for a white Trans-Am, afraid that he was waiting up in the park across from my apartment building, scared that he’d discover where I lived.
I never saw the white car again, nor, to my knowledge, did they ever catch the guy. A year later, there were a series of home invasion sexual assaults, one of which ended in murder. I don’t know if that was the same guy, but I do know it made me keenly aware of how vulnerable a young woman alone on the road could be.
It also made me pretty paranoid as a driver, but honestly, I would have had to have been completely oblivious to not notice the blue Ford Explorer with obscured plates that followed me from the high school where I teach to my home thirty miles away for three days in February 2003.
For one thing, they weren’t trying to hide the tail. They kept a precision distance between their front bumper and my rear one on the highways; they took the same checkerboard route my father had taught me for shaving a few minutes off my drive once I hit my small city’s limits. They parked on the wrong side (a no-parking snow zone) of the road facing the wrong direction three doors down from my house.
On that first night, the city cops cruised them four times before they stopped, rolled down their respective windows, had a little confab, and disappeared, never to be seen again for the next seventy-two hours or so.
At the same time I picked up a federal tail, I noted three interesting things.
One: The motion-detector security lights on my garage had stopped working. A brief investigation revealed that someone at least six feet tall and wearing big-ass boots had stood in the snow beneath them and unscrewed the light bulbs just enough to prevent them from touching the power contacts inside the fixtures. My husband got out the stepladder and screwed them back in.
Two: Giant boot prints tramped into the snow around the entirety of my foundation suggested that someone had been snooping in our windows. I hope they enjoyed the view of cat hair, unread magazines, and stacks of clothes in various stages of the laundry process. (From September through June, my house looks like a well-behaved tornado has been invited to live with us.)
Three: Someone was tapping my phone. Now, I know that the government can listen in on my phone calls without me ever being the wiser. I also know that they can tap the phone line physically from the pole outside in such a way that it causes hissing and popping on the line. I know this (now) because I asked a friend who happens to have some experience doing illicit surveillance.
What all of this ham-fisted Dick Tracying told me is that these guys wanted me to know that they had their eye on me.
Since the only thing I do in the winter is go to work, come home, grade papers, and watch television, and the only person I call on a regular basis is my mother, this had to be the world’s most boring assignment for these agents. (I’m sure they learned a lot about my mother’s psychosomatic illnesses and the latest thing my father had done to tick her off.)
And before you ask, no, I never did find out why these apparent government agents were following me home and tapping my phone. I considered requesting to see my file under the Freedom of Information Act, even filled out the online form, and then my eyes caught the very small print at the bottom of the page, which indicates, FYI, that by the very act of asking to see my file, said file will become more interesting to them.
This makes sense if you think about it. Who typically asks to see such government files but other law enforcement agencies and the kind of employers who hire mercenaries independent contractors? Surely someone whose security clearance is under investigation is going to be of interest to a government law enforcement agency. I get that.
What I don’t get is why Jane Average Citizen can’t see her own file without also pinging someone’s radar.
The best that I can guess is that I’d caught the government’s attention when I’d participated in Amnesty International’s card-sending campaign in the summer of 2002. The idea behind the annual campaign is to send greeting cards to prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in countries where the treatment of said prisoners might be suspect. The theory is not that the prisoner himself or herself will ever see the card. It’s the warden or superintendent of the prison who’s the real target of the campaign. If he sees that Jane Smith has gotten four hundred cards from all over the United States and the western world, he might think twice about disappearing her. These cards say: Someone cares that Jane exists. Someone is watching you, Mr. Warden. I don’t know if it works or not, but it’s the kind of passive resistance I favor in my activism.
Sadly, there are often too many prisoners to choose from, and typically I’d use some method to select to whom I’d send my greetings. In 2002, I chose to send cards to people who’d been imprisoned either for being identified as LGBTQ or for speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ people in their respective countries. In this case, I sent cards to places including Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria… Many of which happened to be on the top ten list of Al-Qaeda hotspots at the time. I didn’t even think about that. I was just trying to do some good in the big, bad world.
But apparently that shocking behavior plus my environmental activism plus my weekly (polite, website-generated form) letters to President Bush, asking him to stop the war in Afghanistan and not start one in Iraq was enough to get me labelled a domestic terrorist. God bless the Patriot Act!
So the moral of this rather long story is simple: If you don’t want to be targeted by your government, keep your big mouth shut.
Oops, sorry. That was my mother’s moral of the story.
The moral of the story is that sometimes the government and a sexual predator can behave almost identically, down to the obscured plates and the obvious tail.
I have a feeling I’m going to be watching the rearview a lot more in the next four years, now that our president is an actual sexual predator and my convenient analogy has become frighteningly literal. That possibility didn’t stop me from participating in this year’s Amnesty International Write for Rights campaign, and I hope it won’t stop you either.
Love trumps hate. Fear cannot conquer love. We are stronger together than we ever will be apart. To quote my favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”