David Berman and My Stalker
David Berman killed himself on 7 August 2019, aged 52. Since his death the world has already changed drastically. I wonder what he would have made of the pandemic. He might have enjoyed the time and space to write during the lockdowns, although in his last years it sounded like maybe he had too much time and space already. Probably the time would have fed into at least one song. Some glancing allusion; nothing hammered home and worthy. Berman was the lead singer and songwriter of Silver Jews, a band I listened to a lot in the early part of this century. I used to play ‘Bright Flight’, his 2001 album over and over again. I never bought any of his other albums or researched him at the time; I’m not a completist and for some reason it wasn’t important for me to know much about him. His music spoke for itself. ‘Tennessee’ is my favourite song of his. Some days I would listen to it five, ten times on repeat, while commuting to work or going for a run. It’s hard to put into words why I love this song so much. Maybe because it reminds me of driving alone through Tennessee when I was single and childfree back in the summer of 2008. Maybe it’s the novelistic specificity of the fact his girlfriend’s doorbell plays a tune of Stephen Foster’s (the writer of ‘Oh Susanna!’ and ‘Campdown Races’) or the melancholy wit of declaring he’s going to live in Nashville and make a career out of writing sad songs and getting paid by the tear. The defiant way he sings of users, suckers and steady badluckers, his cracked voice, the curling American way he pronounces his ‘rs’; the overall bittersweet tone.…….
…….From reading his obituaries, his death seemed horribly inevitable. Drug abuse, life-long depression, a suicide attempt in 2003. I felt deep sadness for his loved ones, for his songs that will remain unwritten and for the fact he’d given so many people such great pleasure and yet this, and the esteem in which he was held, hadn’t been enough to save him. He sounded like a charming but self-destructive man. I had no one to share my sadness because no one I know likes Silver Jews, or even knows about them, although typically and ironically his final album, released under the name of his new project, Purple Mountains, three and half weeks before his death got far more attention posthumously than he ever got during his lifetime. It’s more lushly produced than ‘Bright Flight’ and almost unbearably sad behind the droll aperçus. His wife and former bandmate, Cassie Berman, had left him and he was living in a room above the offices of Drag City, his Chicago-based record company. He’d been living reclusively for much of the previous decade and despite the burst of creativity that produced Purple Mountains, things were obviously not good for him.
…….I can’t remember how I got into Silver Jews. Much of my music was discovered through the men in my life; as a kid my dad introduced me to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Later on, boyfriends imposed their record collections on me – and I didn’t mind being imposed upon when it came to music – and yet I think the Joos, as Berman called them, were my own find. Curiously, the only person who might have understood my sadness about Berman was a man I had kept at arm’s length and never actually met. A man who stalked me for about a year more than a decade ago. Roundabout the era that I drove through Tennessee alone. A man that used to work in the Houses of Parliament like me, who first saw my image on Facebook, back when Facebook first started, before I understood what privacy settings were and how to use them.
…….This man saw my profile picture, liked it and sent me a private message. ‘You have amazing beauty,’ was all it said. I was in a fragile state when I received this. I had just suffered a depression, of the kind that has stalked me all my adult life, but this had been my longest and most extreme. I had been off work sick and was recently returned. I wasn’t actively looking for a boyfriend but I was single and not opposed to attention. I was flattered and not as alarmed as I should have been. I knew I didn’t have amazing beauty, I was simply okay, but I thanked him and asked who he was. A correspondence began. He’d worked at the House for longer than me and I’d worked there long enough. We were both in low level admin jobs that paid for our artistic vocations; for privacy reasons I won’t expand on which particular art he was pursuing. He was from a modest background, had never gone to university but was bright and articulate. He read good books, watched good films and our taste in music was similar. He moved in bohemian circles although I think he lived somewhere in the deepest suburbs of outer London. He was wryly funny and off-beat, sent me surreal lovelorn poems that I think he’d written for previous targets of his affection. Through his extra-curricular activities he had recently met Pete Doherty, who was a tabloid fixture back then. Neither of us were fans of his music but apparently he was ‘very handsome’ in the flesh and ‘quite friendly’. X was into boys and girls but despite various wild escapades that he related to me in a self-deprecating way, he was, as far as I could make out, eternally single. I could tell he was lonely and unstable but he was not uninteresting, especially compared to most of the stiffs in suits who worked in admin. I was bored and his emails were entertaining during the long days of routine office tasks. During our back and forth, I told him I had just discovered the Silver Jews. He also loved them. He sent me MP3 files of songs I didn’t know. After much procrastination on my part we agreed to meet for lunch. Then on the morning of our lunchdate he left a message on my work voicemail to say he was off sick.
…….By that point I didn’t really want to meet. He’d told me something that made me realise we weren’t going to get together. Out of politeness, I felt obliged to meet, but I knew I didn’t fancy him from his Facebook picture. I thought maybe we could just be friends, even though I didn’t need any more friends.
…….To my relief, I didn’t hear from him for a while. Then an email arrived. He was back at work, did I want to meet? I told him gently that I didn’t. He told me he’d been off work with terrible insomnia. I suggested remedies that had worked for me. He wheedled to meet up. I said I didn’t feel up to it. He seemed to accept this.
…….Then he started calling me on my office phone; I hadn’t given him my mobile number or personal email. He wanted to hear my voice, said I sounded ‘very middle class’, that my voice ‘was like crème fraiche’. His accent was Estuary Essex but not strongly so. I told him via email to stop ringing me, but he didn’t.
…….I began to feel uneasy walking around the Parliamentary estate. He worked in another part of the building. Still, we could easily bump into each other. There are many deserted corridors in the Houses of Parliament where you can’t help but acknowledge the people you pass, many windows overlooking courtyards; vantage points for an unseen observer. I began to fear I was being watched.
…….Then I got an email saying he liked what I was wearing. He described in detail the outfit I had on that day. He liked the way I wore my hair. He did it again, told me he’d seen me in the Terrace Cafeteria. He loved my red dress. I threatened to report him to HR. He begged me not to; he had a mortgage, he couldn’t afford to lose his job. He promised not to contact me again. I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t a bad person, just fucked up. He thought we had a connection. In a way, we did. I felt as if I’d led him on. Friends told me to ignore any future emails. A couple of male friends offered to square up to him, make it clear he was out of order. In retrospect, they understood more than me the potential darkness of thwarted men. They worried for my safety. I laughed it off.
…….Weeks passed and nothing. I saw him from afar in Portcullis House but I kept my head down and hurried on. I hoped he was over me. Once I passed him on the colonnade that leads to the Westminster tube exit. He was with a colleague. So was I. Our eyes met but we didn’t acknowledge each other.
…….‘I’m really depressed. I want to kill myself.’ I got this out of the blue while sifting through my work emails one morning. He was back. My heart began pounding and my fingers became clammy on the keypad. I looked at the time the email had been sent. Four in the morning. What the hell was he doing on work email in the middle of the night? I replied immediately, ‘Where are you? Can I help you?’ No reply. Panic set in. I envisaged him already dead in a flat god-knows-where. I logged onto Facebook and scrolled through his friends. I selected someone who also worked in Parliament. I messaged him, told him X was suicidal, asked him to check he was okay; I also explained that X had been stalking me for months and I wanted him to stop. His friend was understanding, said I’d messaged the right person; he worked with X and knew him well. He said X had been off sick with depression but had family and friends looking after him. A little later he got back to me and said X was safe. He promised to speak to him firmly about his unwanted attentions. X was eccentric, apparently, and although he was clever and entertaining he could be too intense with women.
…….There were various reasons I didn’t immediately go to HR like a sane normal person. I feared X would lose his job and then he might do something rash and it would be my fault. He wasn’t a bad person, just unhinged and he had a crush on me. If I had fancied him, perhaps he would have ended up as my boyfriend. I couldn’t shake the idea that a stalker was simply a man you didn’t fancy. I also couldn’t shake the idea that I had led him on by being kind and taking an interest. I now realise this self-blaming is typical of those who have suffered sexual harassment.
…….Weeks went by and then I got an email from an address I didn’t recognise: firstname.lastname@example.org. This unknown man claimed to have met me in the Stranger’s Bar a few weeks before. I went out a lot at that point, I sometimes drank a lot. I couldn’t remember a Joel Ethan Glass but I liked his name and it was possible he was someone I’d briefly met at a colleague’s leaving do. I was still single, more actively searching for a man at this point. Joel Ethan Glass said he worked in one of the Government departments on Whitehall. I asked him to send a picture of himself to jog my memory. The picture he sent was of a young man on a kitchen chair holding a beer. It looked like it had been taken at a house party. He had a slight beard, tousled dark hair, dark soulful eyes. An attractive man. Just my type. I didn’t remember him but he looked plausibly like someone I might have met on a drunken night out. I asked if he wanted to meet for lunch. We agreed a date the following week.
…….Later that day I told a friend about this mysterious stranger. ‘It’s your bloody stalker!’ he said. ‘I swear to god it is.’ The penny dropped. Of course it was. My stalker had created a false identity.
…….I emailed him the next day. ‘X, I know this is you. I am going to contact HR.’ Immediately he wrote back, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry…please, please don’t go to HR.’ I ignored him and emailed HR, explaining everything that had happened over the preceding year. I asked them not to fire X or open a grievance case. They asked what I wanted them to do. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to inflame or enrage X. I didn’t think he was violent but I didn’t want to do anything that might cause him to do something terrible either to me or him. Eventually we agreed that if he continued to pester me, they would issue him a warning.
…….But, still, my writer’s curiosity kicked in. I couldn’t understand the mindset of someone that would make up a false identity to contact a woman who had already given them the brush-off. What makes a stalker tick? He seemed to have tapped into my secret hots for angst-ridden poetic-looking Jewish men and for the importance I place on good names. He had weirdly sharp intuition. I emailed him and asked who the man in the photograph was, how he came up with the name Joel Ethan Glass, and what did he hope to gain from contacting me under an alias?
…….‘I just wanted to feel close to you. “Joel Ethan” came from Joel and Ethan Coen. “Glass” from Philip Glass. The man in the picture is David Berman from the Silver Jews. It was taken a long time ago. Handsome, isn’t he? I knew he’d be your type. I have good creativity, just like you.’ Using Berman’s photograph seemed a travesty. After all, Berman sings about all kinds of love: lost love, love gone wrong, strange love, thwarted love, but never creepy love.
…….X left the House a year or so after I contacted HR about him and he’s now working in his preferred artistic profession under another assumed name. I’m glad he’s escaped the gilded cage of his comfortable but dull job. I used the experience of him stalking me in the plot of my first novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, which is set within the gothic claustrophobia of the House. As Joan Didion said, ‘writers are always selling someone out’. However, I wish him well. I hope he’s happy enough. I hope he’s found someone who loves him. Despite his inappropriate behaviour towards me, he seemed a kind-hearted, likeable person. He made people laugh. Tears of a clown and all that, but he had friends.
…….I thought and hoped I’d never hear from him again. For eleven years I heard nothing. When Threat Level came out and my publishers wanted me to major on my real-life stalking experience in order to publicise it, I felt uneasy. Particularly as the angle that the publicist and journalists wanted to take was unsubtle. I hadn’t felt like a victim. I had felt sorry for him. He was more a victim than me. A victim of his own instability and unrequited feelings. I understood what it was like not to feel in control of your thoughts, although perhaps I was too understanding, too empathetic, not self-protective enough. Stalkers are not necessarily monsters, though. They’re just people. Screwed up people, just like many of us. In my novel I wanted to explore the inner workings of a stalker; I wanted the reader to feel sympathy for my character. My take on stalkers was not black and white.
…….Then, in the first week of the first lockdown, I was shocked to get a one-line email from X under his stage name: ‘did your book do well’. No question mark. Dashed off. Impulsive. I had no idea he even had my personal email address; surely I’d never been stupid enough to give it to him? I then saw he’d contacted me on Twitter too. I can’t quite remember what he said as I deleted the tweet immediately and blocked him. A reflex action. I felt shaken. Exposed. He’d sent the email and tweet late at night. Bored at home during lockdown, he’d probably suddenly thought about me and looked me up. The fact my novel came out in 2017 and it had taken him three years to contact me about it was a small relief. He wasn’t still doggedly following my movements. The tweet was something about me living the dream. A reference maybe to me having a novel published. A nice congratulatory tweet, I think; I was too freaked out to read it properly. Lockdown was already freaking me out and I didn’t want any more uneasiness in my head.
…….Nothing is black and white with me. Although X’s behaviour was obviously wrong, I did feel some sort of kinship with him because of our shared experience of depression. The difference is he dealt with his feelings in an unhealthy way. I hope this piece doesn’t upset/alert/inflame him again though. He’s probably been depressed since. So have I. Not everyone can turn their feelings of depression into beautiful music like Berman but equally men don’t have to become stalkers. Maybe that pain is what spoke to us in David Berman’s music and lyrics. His are the songs of the amusing but tortured soul.
Rowena Macdonald has published two books: Smoked Meat, shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize, and The Threat Level Remains Severe, shortlisted for the Guardian’s 2017 Not The Booker Prize. Smoked Meat is set in Montreal and The Threat Level Remains Severe is set in the House of Commons where Rowena has worked for the past twenty years. She has just finished a third work of fiction.
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