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'Baby Reindeer' Shows Stalking Can Happen to Anyone

The latest Netflix hit, "Baby Reindeer," portrays a complex story of trauma and violent stalking, which creators claim is based on real-life events. Experts say although the series depicts an exceptional case of stalking, everyone can fall victim to it.

The series tells the story of Donny, a bartender and wannabe comedian whose random act of kindness earns him a stalker named Martha.

Author and leading actor Richard Gadd says he has hundreds of hours of voice messages and over 40,000 emails from his stalker over a four-year period. Despite his plea to stop speculations about the characters' identities, fans quickly discovered the alleged real-life Martha by tracking down old Twitter posts.

Appearing in a heavily criticized interview by a British journalist, Piers Morgan, the real Martha denied stalking allegations, but many were left unconvinced. Gadd and Netflix neither confirmed nor denied the identity of the stalker, while the woman thought to be behind Martha's character became the subject of online harassment herself.

While the lines between facts and fiction may be blurred for artistic purposes in "Baby Reindeer," it brought attention to a serious problem.

In 2019, about 3.4 million Americans were victims of stalking, with 67% of them reporting fear of being killed or physically harmed.

What leads to stalking behavior?

Stalking describes a pattern of unwanted and repeated behavior that targets another person and causes harm but is not a mental health disorder itself, according to Dr. Alan Underwood, a lecturer in forensic mental health at the Queen Mary University of London.

"This is a pattern of behavior in which the individual intrudes into another's life where they have no right to be," Underwood explains.

Scientists don't have a full sense of what causes or underlies stalking, says Dr. Timothy Valshtein, an assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University.

However, things that are known to increase the risk of someone engaging in stalking behavior is substance use, a history of abuse victimization, being more socially isolated, and the presence of a personality disorder, among others.

The context of the relationship is also important because more than 70% of stalking is committed by a current or former intimate partner, according to Valshtein. He says that stranger stalking, as depicted in "Baby Reindeer," is relatively rare, and stalking usually lasts for less than one year.

What makes 'Baby Reindeer' a compelling show, among other reasons, is that this is a rather exceptional case of stalking — Martha is a complete stranger who ​goes to extreme lengths to involve herself with Donny, despite there being no prior relationship between them, platonic or otherwise.

Valshtein

Dr. Rachael Wheatley, a practitioner psychologist who works with people who have engaged in stalking, says their motivations vary but usually revolve around three key points: ending of a significant relationship, a desire for a relationship, date, or sexual encounter, or involves some grievance.

Wheatley says many people engaging in stalking often have a unique combination of issues that can span health, social, financial, practical, psychological, and psychiatric domains. She emphasizes the importance of early intervention to help individuals desist to prevent forming a new behavioral pattern.

She tells Healthnews, "Oftentimes, people feel righteous in what they are doing, projecting their feelings outward as opposed to processing them and responding healthily. They may be lonely and lost, feeling relationship grief, or unwell. Stalking is self-punishing and detrimental to all involved."

Man being stalked by ex girlfriend.
Image by J Walters via Shutterstock

Valshtein says people who engage in stalking struggle with self-regulation both in choosing individuals towards whom they direct their romantic efforts, as well as how they choose to engage romantically. For example, they may use strategies that people do not find socially appropriate or desirable.

If Donny reciprocated Martha's feelings or found her courtship tactics charming, her conduct and behaviors might not be considered stalking.

"We can think of plenty of examples where this is the case — making a surprise visit to someone's place of work might be a very thoughtful gesture in a different relationship, but because Martha disregarded clear cues from Donny that her advances were not welcomed, it crosses into the territory of stalking," Valshtein explains.

What are the consequences of being stalked?

Being stalked may have a long-lasting impact on a victim's mental health. Underwood points to research suggesting that 78% of stalking victims met a clinical cut-off for a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) screening tool. One in four victims reported seriously considering or attempting suicide because of their experiences.

Levels of trauma and PTSD symptoms associated with the stalking episode were comparable to acts of violence, acute bereavement, or traffic accidents, and were higher than being a repeated victim of bank robbery.

Underwood

Underwood says the evidence would suggest there is no such thing as a typical victim of stalking, and certain life circumstances do not make individuals more vulnerable to it.

He tells Healthnews, "Stalking can happen to anyone. Anyone can be a victim of stalking, although women tend to be victimized at higher rates than men. There is some evidence to suggest that professions that may be more prone to be targeted, such as general practitioners, politicians, and health care workers, likely because they see people in distress more often than the public."

Wheatley underlines that the victim is never at fault for stalking happening to them. She says it is important to have the courage to speak out about what is happening and trust gut instincts when something feels wrong.

"Reaching out to trusted friends and family, to stalking victim helplines or websites, and getting the police involved in order to keep themselves safe ensures the best and earliest response is afforded to the perpetrator and victim for the best outcomes," she says.

Nervous, stressed teen girl in glasses reading messages in smartphone feeling bad.
Image by DimaBerlin via Shutterstock

How do I respond to a stalker?

For those who are being stalked, Underwood recommends not responding to a stalker, as it acts as a reinforcer. However, blocking the person may also not be a good option.

"The reason for not blocking is twofold: it helps evidence the course of the stalking behavior and provides a way of managing the unwanted contact. Blocking can lead to the person's behavior change: for example, blocking on social media could shift online behavior to offline behavior, such as turning up at the workplace," he adds.

Valshtein says a restraining order usually doesn't work and is often associated with an increased continuation of stalking behavior​. Deterring stalking behavior may require an overriding intuitive sense of common social norms about dating, social connection, and communicating boundaries, which Baby Reindeer does a great job depicting.

We can all put ourselves in Donny's and the real-life Richard Gadd's shoes because we have an understandable degree of empathy for Martha and her clear loneliness and desperation. There is a fairly ubiquitous motivation not to reject others explicitly and to soften the blow of rejecting someone, especially someone who is already down on their luck, so to speak

Valshtein

However, in the case of people who engage in stalking, clearly communicating their feelings, setting concrete boundaries, and sticking to those boundaries is the most important thing a victim can do.

Despite the criminal justice system being ill-equipped to handle stalking and a strikingly low number of stalking convictions, Valshtein recommends documenting behaviors to build a strong case for convicting someone of stalking.

Wheatley says, "Do what you can reasonably to avoid any contact with the person stalking you. Do what you need to do to keep safe and support your own wellbeing during this very difficult time."

However, "Baby Reindeer" is much more than about stalking, as it uncovers deep into trauma, sexual assault, and queerness. Poised to become among the most-watched Netflix shows, it already had a significant impact on breaking taboos regarding seeking help.

Since the release, a United Kingdom-based charity providing help to male survivors of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual exploitation, We Are Survivors, saw an 80% increase in first-time callers.

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