I know who’s been send­ing me poi­son pen let­ters

Daily Mail - - Confidential - by Paula Byrne

tHREE years ago, an en­ve­lope dropped through our let­ter­box, ad­dressed to my hus­band.

There was some­thing cu­ri­ously old-fash­ioned about it. Typed out in a for­mal type­face, the ad­dress had been cut out and Sel­lotaped onto the en­ve­lope. The words ‘pri­vate and con­fi­den­tial’ hung omi­nously at the top. And in­side, the let­ter it­self be­gan: ‘ Please, please do some­thing about your wife.’

Signed only from a ‘ well-wisher’, this anony­mous note to my hus­band, Sir Jonathan Bate, who is a well-known Shake­speare scholar and provost of Worces­ter Col­lege, Ox­ford, went on to as­sas­si­nate my char­ac­ter, my looks, my dress sense, my gram­mar, my moth­er­ing skills, my work as a writer.

It ram­bled on for five pages. ‘Barely lit­er­ate’ and ‘patho­log­i­cally vain’, I was, the writer stated, a ‘li­a­bil­ity’ and my vul­gar tweets were giv­ing the col­lege a bad name.

In­sults poked fun at my work­ing-class ac­cent and North­ern back­ground. I was told that I ‘looked like a Cheshire house­wife’ who had only mar­ried my hus­band ‘as a pass­port to a glam life’. The ac­cu­sa­tion that I was a gold-dig­ger struck me as par­tic­u­larly un­fair as, not only had I mar­ried an aca­demic rather than a hedge fund man­ager, but I’ve al­ways worked hard and earned my own money as a bi­og­ra­pher.

My hus­band’s first re­ac­tion was ‘ file it away in the box named lu­natic’. Mine was rather more emo­tional.

I felt shock, dis­be­lief, a sense of my world sud­denly be­ing turned up­side down. I won­dered who would do such a thing and why. Above all, I was wor­ried. As far as I knew, no­body held a grudge against me, so why was I be­ing tar­geted in this way? PAGE

af­ter page of cruel in­sults to­wards me was bad enough.

Even worse were the per­sonal de­tails about my chil­dren and crit­i­cisms of me as a mother.

It was clear that these let­ters weren’t com­ing from some prankster, but some­one who knew, or had known, me.

Some­one who could get to my chil­dren. Ev­ery mother’s worst night­mare.

Over the next few days, my hus­band and I ru­mi­nated over the con­tents.

The let­ter, though anony­mous, claimed to be from a con­cerned col­league of my hus­band’s. The first temp­ta­tion was to be­lieve this was true, which made the let­ter feel even more of a per­sonal at­tack, as my hus­band’s role as the head of an Ox­ford col­lege meant that we were ‘liv­ing above the shop’, with our fam­ily of three chil­dren, two teenagers and an eight-year-old.

At the time, we were rel­a­tively new to the job, and feel­ing our way in a new en­vi­ron­ment that was some­times like be­ing in a gold­fish bowl. Was this per­son watch­ing us? Was it some­one want­ing to bring us down?

The deeply un­set­tling ef­fect of this kind of poi­son pen let­ter is the havoc it wreaks. It’s as if some­one has thrown in a hand­grenade, then sat back watch­ing for the chaos to erupt.

My ini­tial feel­ings of be­wil­der­ment and fear were re­placed by those of anger and con­tempt. Why should we be sub­jected to this tor­rent of abuse when we had done noth­ing wrong?

Not know­ing who my at­tacker was left me feel­ing a great sense of im­po­tence. I couldn’t re­spond. I felt I had been robbed of my voice and my rights.

No­body de­serves to be bul­lied in this way.

This kind of hate mail also en­cour­ages a con­spir­acy of si­lence. Many would re­act by putting the let­ter away in a drawer, not telling any­one, keep­ing it a se­cret for fear that gos­sip will spread. Af­ter all, peo­ple will only say: ‘There’s no smoke with­out fire.’

But I was de­ter­mined that I had noth­ing to hide, that I would not be com­plicit in such a con­spir­acy. Surely, I rea­soned, the let­ter’s power would only be in­ten­si­fied if it re­mained se­cret.

So I told a few close friends, who were out­raged on my be­half. I also told the two older chil­dren. Typ­i­cal teenagers, they thought that the let­ter was so ‘mad’ it was some­how com­i­cal — a view, sadly, I just couldn’t share.

My fears were com­pounded when, a few months later, another let­ter ar­rived in the post — same en­ve­lope, same printed ad­dress, the same warn­ing at the top of ‘pri­vate and con­fi­den­tial’.

Only this time the let­ter pur­ported to be from some­one else, a prospec­tive stu­dent. But just like the first let­ter, this one was also full of mal­ice and spite.

A third, pur­port­ing to be from a sec­ond col­league, told me that my hus­band was ‘think­ing of go­ing back to his first wife’.

If the let­ters had set out to open up old wounds, they were suc­ceed­ing. My hus­band and I have been hap­pily mar­ried for 22 years, but it’s a sec­ond mar­riage for both of us.

We’ve also with­stood some chal­leng­ing times; most par­tic­u­larly the se­ri­ous ill­ness of our daugh­ter, who lost her kid­neys when she was five and had spent months in hos­pi­tal, and then on dial­y­sis, await­ing a trans­plant.

It takes a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious per­son, who claims to be a friend and well-wisher, to at­tack a fam­ily that has al­ready en­dured so much pain.

De­spite the pre­tence of there be­ing dif­fer­ent let­ter-writ­ers, it was clear I was be­ing stalked by one per­son.

And the es­ca­la­tion of their ha­tred left me trau­ma­tised.

I was di­ag­nosed with stress — phys­i­cal pains, sleep­less­ness, weight loss. It was time to go to the po­lice. They said that, while this looked like an of­fence un­der the Ma­li­cious Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act and the Pro­tec­tion from Ha­rass­ment Act, as the let­ters were anony­mous, there was lit­tle they could do.

Things went quiet over the sum­mer. We dared to hope it was all over. But with the start of a new aca­demic term there was another one — claim­ing this time to be from the mother of a girl who had died from anorexia ner­vosa.

She said that, by shar­ing pic­tures of fun times with my girl­friends on In­sta­gram and Twit­ter, I was set­ting a bad ex­am­ple to young girls.

First the let­ters had tar­geted me for my back­ground, now it was clear the de­ranged writer was also stalk­ing my so­cial me­dia ac­counts, pick­ing holes in any and ev­ery per­ceived be­hav­iour.

If I told a joke on Twit­ter, I would be ac­cused of be­ing shal­low and friv­o­lous. If I wore a nice dress in a pic­ture, I would be ac­cused of show­ing off, as if the let­ter writer ex­pected me to dress ei­ther in sack­cloth or as a blue­stock­ing in tweed and pearls.

There be­came a strange sort of pat­tern to them.

Each new term, another one would ar­rive, all in the same brand of Basil­don Bond en­ve­lope, with the same Mid­lands re­gional post­mark.

They be­came in­creas­ingly odd: bizarre stream- of- con­scious­ness rants that went on for pages and pages, one mo­ment ran­domly in­sult­ing tele­vi­sion his­to­ri­ans such as Lucy Wors­ley and Bet­tany Hughes and the next de­scrib­ing a dis­tin­guished aca­demic col­league of my hus­band’s as ‘a slip­pery char­ac­ter who can’t be trusted’. My

hus­band was told that this par­tic­u­lar Pro­fes­sor was go­ing around de­scrib­ing me as ‘ the WAG’ (as in foot­baller’s wife) be­cause of my dress sense.

I was body-shamed, ac­cused of be­ing over­weight and look­ing ‘like a tranny’ — a term I find par­tic­u­larly big­oted.

I was a bad mother, who only fed my chil­dren corn­flakes. (This in­duced a chuckle from my chil­dren who know about my ob­ses­sion with cook­ing from scratch and my fond­ness for Nigella Law­son, whose cook­books reg­u­larly ap­pear in my Christ­mas stock­ing.)

And how dare I In­sta­gram a photo of a beach in Lyme Regis? Who did I think I was show­ing off to about my hol­i­days? Ev­ery at­tempt was made to un­der­mine my con­fi­dence.

Then came the ac­cu­sa­tion that my books had been ‘ghost­writ­ten’ by some­one else. Of course they hadn’t been —

It’s a mys­tery straight from In­spec­tor Morse. An au­thor wife and her Ox­ford don hus­band are plagued by hate mail say­ing she’s a gold-dig­ging, il­lit­er­ate, patho­log­i­cally vain, ne­glect­ful mother. Here she dra­mat­i­cally re­veals ...

and yet it was al­leged that, in the lit­er­ary world, I was a joke, a laugh­ing stock.

Even my poor dog, a silky lit­tle Ha­vanese, was in­sulted — ac­cused of be­ing ‘merely a fash­ion ac­ces­sory and an ugly one at that’.

Shaken, I turned my at­ten­tion on my own be­hav­iour.

Per­haps I was tweet­ing a bit too much, and be­ing in­dis­creet about de­tails of my life (though why any­one would be in­ter­ested was a puz­zle).

I de­cided per­haps I should take a break from Twit­ter, to see if that halted the let­ters.

My then 17- year- old son dis­agreed, say­ing: ‘Why should you change your be­hav­iour to suit a de­ranged per­son? If you do that, they’ve won.’ I saw that he was right. For as a pro­fes­sional writer — a free­lance with no reg­u­lar income — the use of so­cial me­dia is cru­cial to me.

As an au­thor, I reg­u­larly tweet in­for­ma­tion about my lat­est books, re­views, ar­ti­cles. In ad­di­tion, many of my read­ers tweet to me and we ex­change book tips, jokes and in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cles.

For all its dan­gers, so­cial me­dia has its pos­i­tives.

I have made new friends on Twit­ter, re­con­nected with old ones, and dis­cov­ered a com­mu­nity of writ­ers and moth­ers who have been a hugely sup­port­ive net­work. Was I sup­posed to give all this up just be­cause I was be­ing stalked?

My ra­tio­nal mind was do­ing its best to present a log­i­cal de­fence.

But still the para­noia was set­ting in.

My hus­band and I be­gan sus­pect­ing friends, col­leagues, even the part­ners from our first mar­riages. Might my first hus­band still nurse a grudge af­ter more than 20 years?

At night in bed, we would scan through all the names of peo­ple we thought could be cul­pa­ble.

The au­thor was clearly in­tel­li­gent. Well writ­ten, even oc­ca­sion­ally witty, the let­ters were ob­vi­ously the work of a con­fi­dent word­smith.

There were ref­er­ences to Shake­speare. I was com­pared with the femme fa­tale Cleopa­tra, who ‘makes hun­gry where she most sat­is­fies’ — a fancy way of ac­cus­ing me of be­ing a filthy old slap­per.

Thank­fully these feel­ings of para­noia would van­ish in the clear light of day. Blessed with a large group of lov­ing and loyal friends, we would feel an­gry with our­selves for our mo­ments of ir­ra­tional­ity. An­gry, too, that we had al­lowed the poi­son to do its job.

Just be­fore last Christ­mas another let­ter ar­rived. This was num­ber 14. And this time, its con­tents went too far.

The let­ter at­tacked the char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion my hus­band and I set up for the re­lief of stress and men­tal well-be­ing. We run po­etry work­shops in pris­ons and half-way houses, schools and hos­pices. The let­ter said I was only do­ing it ‘to en­gi­neer a trip to the Palace’, what­ever that meant.

For our foun­da­tion to be at­tacked was the fi­nal straw. I went back to the po­lice to lodge another com­plaint.

This time, the po­lice of­fi­cer was su­perb, and she made some in­ci­sive ob­ser­va­tions about the anony­mous let­ter-writer, con­vinced (as was I) that the writer was fe­male and some­one from our past.

It was trau­matic read­ing through ev­ery let­ter and mak­ing a statement about each one. But it helped me to see a pat­tern emerg­ing — and sud­denly, I re­alised I knew who it was.

The cul­prit, I’m sure, is a dis­grun­tled col­league from a long time ago, who had sud­denly teetered over the edge.

The po­lice of­fi­cer helped me to see that the per­pe­tra­tor was clearly un­well, and that the let­ters were in­creas­ingly des­per­ate and fan­tas­ti­cal. RE­Turn­Ing

to the po­lice felt like tak­ing back some power and con­trol. I was re­as­sured they were tak­ing the case se­ri­ously. They are cur­rently ex­am­in­ing a se­lec­tion of let­ters for fin­ger­prints — re­sults of which are im­mi­nent.

‘none of this is your fault,’ said the kind but firm policewoman. Just to hear some­one ob­jec­tively and calmly ex­press­ing their sym­pa­thy, and prais­ing you for han­dling it well, felt em­pow­er­ing.

Af­ter all, how could I be an ex­am­ple to my own chil­dren, when I gave them ad­vice about how to stand up to bul­ly­ing, if I didn’t stand up to my own ag­gres­sor?

So, with my hus­band’s sup­port, I de­cided I would go pub­lic. I would con­front the ha­rass­ment full on, shine a spot­light on the se­crecy and the lies.

I be­lieve the let­ter writer to be in the world of ed­u­ca­tion, and yet some of the in­sults were sex­ist, deeply misog­y­nis­tic, trans­pho­bic and snob­bish (I’m from the north, so I’m com­mon as muck — that was the im­pli­ca­tion). I was wor­ried about this per­son be­ing re­spon­si­ble for the de­vel­op­ment of young peo­ple.

Thank­fully, re­veal­ing that I have a stalker has been an over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. There has been a tsunami of sup­port and love from many un­ex­pected places.

When some­thing as dis­tress­ing as this hap­pens, you learn who your real friends are — and that knowl­edge is as pre­cious as di­a­monds.

My other way of fight­ing back has been to turn this hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence into some­thing pos­i­tive and cre­ative: I have writ­ten a novel shaped around the evil let­ters. My hope is that it will speak to ev­ery­one who has been vic­timised or bul­lied.

Iron­i­cally, the most re­cent let­ter — which was also sent to two col­leagues of my hus­band — car­ried a post­mark say­ing ‘royal Mail Sup­ports Men­tal Health Aware­ness’.

My only mes­sage to the let­ter­writer is: get some help.

Paula Byrne’s fee for this ar­ti­cle will be given to the work of the foun­da­tion for read­ing as stress re­lief, re­lit.org.uk. Her novel, look To your Wife, is pub­lished on april 6.

Tar­geted: Paula with her hus­band Jonathan Bate

Fight­ing back: Paula to­day

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