Fed Up With Harassment, Author Reveals Her Cyberstalker
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Melissa Anelli is the author of Harry, A History, a best-selling book about Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling's famous series. And for more than five years, she has also been the victim of a cyberstalker.
Anelli initially reached out to New Zealand resident Jessica Elizabeth Parker when moderators of Anelli's online forum reported harassing behavior. "I wrote her an email with all of my staff cc'd, asking her to please listen to my staff," Anelli tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "She told me she would immediately, and the next morning, I woke up to a death threat."
She went to the police, but a restraining order would only be useful if the stalker was in New York, where Anelli lives. As the rate of harassing messages increased, she finally turned to the FBI.
There, she got immediate assistance. "The agent was a massive Harry Potter fan, which helped, I think," Anelli says. "She was the first one to say to us that no, you absolutely shouldn't be going through this, and we can help."
There was no big break in the case until late 2011, when Parker was arrested for criminal harassment in New Zealand. Parker was instructed not to contact Anelli, and to stay off the Internet. But the day Parker's restrictions were lifted, Anelli received another threat.
Anelli was hopeful that because Parker had been arrested once, it would be easy to have her apprehended again, for her more recent messages. Not so, but she has been blocked from entering the U.S. Getting a cyberstalker placed on the Interpol database was a really big deal at the time, Anelli says.
Since then, the harassment has continued. Anelli takes comfort in the fact that Parker's a long way away, but "that doesn't stop you from fearing what's behind the door every time somebody unexpected is there." She's sought therapy, locked down her online presence, and turned to her family and friends.
But being quiet doesn't feel like enough. "You're not supposed to engage her ... but whether you like it or not, you do forge a familiarity with your stalker," she says. "When she makes a fake account, I can spot that account by the name, instantly." So Anelli decided it was time to start talking about her experience publicly.
Anelli's experience has dramatically affected the way she lives her life. She built her career online, and she once enjoyed connecting with people there. "This has completely changed that in the sense that I'm a much more suspicious person."
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MELISSA ANELLI: I'll get 20 messages, you know, in a day. And they range from really, really graphic rape threats to really graphic death threats to threats of at both of it at once.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of Melissa Anelli. She's been the victim of cyberstalking for more than five years. The perpetrator is thousands of miles away from her, in New Zealand. There's even an FBI warrant for her arrest if she were to come to this country. But, for Anelli the barrage of e-mails and messages are an imminent mental threat.
Anelli runs a popular website for Harry Potter fans called The Leaky Cauldron, which is how she became a target. This past week, she broke her silence about the woman who's been stalking her since 2008. Anelli wrote on her blog that it's time to show the effect it has had on her life.
Melissa Anelli is our Sunday Conversation.
ANELLI: I had heard from moderators of our forum that she was harassing one of our volunteer staff. And I wasn't a hundred percent sure why at the time, but the words I had heard were: I'll only stop if Melissa asks me to. And so, I wrote her an e-mail with all of my staff cc'd asking her to please listen to my staff. And she told me she would immediately. And the next morning I woke up to a death threat.
MARTIN: Clearly, when you get a death threat you call in the authorities. It's a clear case of stalking at that point, right?
ANELLI: Yeah. We went to the police and the police said: Well, I'm sure we could get you a restraining order but it's a piece of paper that's only useful if she's in New York, where I live. So they said: You know, this is not going to end this. And so, then we started trying every agency we could go to because they weren't stopping. They started coming in frequently.
Every time I would turn around on Twitter there was a new account adding me. It became very quickly that I had to shut down any method of anyone contacting me if I didn't know you already. And finally, somebody said why don't you try the FBI? And I wasn't aware that the FBI would be the most useful place, but immediately somebody got back to us.
The agent was a massive Harry Potter fan, which helped I think. And she was the first one to say to us: No, you absolutely shouldn't be going through this, and we can help.
MARTIN: So I understand in 2011, there was some kind a breakthrough in the case, right? Can you explain what happened?
ANELLI: In December 2011, we received a message from the FBI saying that she was arrested for criminal harassment in New Zealand. It was a big deal because they warned me that, not only are stalking cases notoriously hard because until the person actually harms you, it's hard to get it prioritized. But international stalking cases where old school thinking deems that if they're not in your physical proximity and they can't harm you with a knife, you know, or something like that, then it's less important. And that couldn't be further than from the truth because the mental toll is exorbitant.
And she was arrested and but on bail and was given a diversion program, they call it down there. And there are terms to this diversion program where she would not contact me and she had to stay away from the Internet for a while. And that was through March of '12. And the day, I believe, that it expired, I got my first, you know, comment from her again. And it only exacerbated the situation. And so we were fairly sure that, well, OK, they've arrested her, she's doing it again. Maybe they'll go and get her again. And it's been now two and a half years since that. And it hasn't happened again. So...
MARTIN: That had to have been disappointing at that point.
ANELLI: Very, because the release that we felt the night that she was arrested was palpable because not only was there a chance this would all finally stop. I mean but maybe she would also get the help she needs. She has tattoos that supposedly represent me. She sent my nephew, when he was just born, a package and a note that said: Enjoy your family while you can. She found my cell phone number. She found my mother's number. She sends me satellite photos of my house.
It's really beyond the extreme with her and we thought that maybe there was relief coming. And so when two months were quiet, you know, we had careful hope and then she only got more vociferous when she came back.
MARTIN: So, I'm wondering how you cope.
ANELLI: I do take solace that she's a long way away. I agree when people remind me that at least she's not going to actually knock on my door, but that doesn't stop you from fearing what's behind the door every time somebody unexpected is there. I've woken up at 4 o'clock in the morning scared that I had forgotten to lock my door. I've sought therapy and it has helped.
I've tried to just lock down all my privacy channels. And even the FBI has told me we are astonished at how long this woman is hanging on. Usually people, you know, they give up. And so sitting and being quiet sometimes leaves you with pretty bad moments. There are times when I'll see, you know, other cases having progress and I'm still sitting there waiting for this one to go forward or I'll just get frustrated or I'll get angry about unrelated things that I realize were related to the situation.
And it's incredibly frustrating. The mental toll that cyberstalking takes on people can't be overstated, because you're not allowed to engage, so you're not allowed to be part of the solution. Whereas, with a lot of other crimes, as hard it is to come forward for some other crimes, when you do, it's not making the crime worse - the crime happened already. This actually does potentially makes the crime worse and I'm taking a big chance even doing it. But it just finally felt like enough was enough.
MARTIN: Did you ever consider shutting down your website altogether, just saying I'm done with this whole thing?
ANELLI: No. As much as she's affected me and harmed my ability to trust, I won't let her win in that way, I won't let her. I won't let her make it bad for other people in that way. The website has done way more good than any bad she could conjure. And so, while I've had the moment of thinking, man, that it would be easier if there was nothing, it would feel like a defeat. So I've never considered it.
MARTIN: Melissa Anelli, author and webmaster for the Leaky Cauldron. Thanks so much for talking with Melissa and sharing your story. We appreciate it.
ANELLI: Thank you for having me.
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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.
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