A lawyer friend recently told me there were two ways to exact revenge in the 21st century: The rich and powerful use the legal system. For the rest of us, there’s the Internet.
James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, is his true account of just how horrible an Internet vendetta can be. It describes his experience as a graduate writing professor mentoring a former student, Nasreen (not her real name), an Iranian woman working on her first novel. If it’s difficult to believe Lasdun didn’t have designs on her—I struggled with this in early chapters—it becomes easier to accept as we get to know him better: He’s aloof in that classic professorial manner. Lasdun is a celebrated poet and novelist, but for all his verbal acuity, he comes off as a little naive. When he describes Nasreen as sophisticated about the Internet—“she was always sending links and attachments,” he writes—you begin to sense where things are headed.
Lasdun gets an education in the Internet that’s more like a lashing. Nasreen’s correspondence turns flirty, then hostile, then vile and anti-Semitic. The first section of the book is a riveting depiction of her mind unraveling, and it’s hard not to feel for a professor who wants to help a once-promising student even as she turns into a she-demon before his eyes. Nasreen takes her campaign public, sending damning e-mails to his agent and employers. It was, as Lasdun puts it, a “great fugue of hatred and malice that thundered over my life.” Or, as Nasreen herself phrases it in an e-mail, “I think this is verbal terrorism.”
Central to terror is the notion that you never know where the danger lurks and what the rationale is. Nasreen’s attacks are ambushes that rarely have a clear motive: She accuses him of affairs with his students (though never her), of plagiarism, of conspiring with other Iranian novelists against her. It’s a foggy and paranoid list of grievances that’s ingeniously hard to combat. She alters his Wikipedia page (a judges’ citation about an award Lasdun had won read, “We chose the story that lingered most”—Nasreen appends, “like a fart”) and slams his character in Amazon reviews, calling him racist. She attacks him in the comments section of a Guardian story and starts posting diatribes against him (including a story about how he had her drugged and raped) on friends’ Facebook walls.
Professional reputations have become so hard to manage that a whole industry has emerged to scrub and polish your online persona. Websites you never knew existed can contain erroneous information about you, lying in wait like an Easter egg on the vast lawn of Google for any random passerby to find. Personal sites get hacked. Total strangers can post negative reviews on Yelp or Yahoo! and change the entire profile of a business. But it’s a special agony to be targeted like Lasdun. She never succeeds in ruining him professionally, but she does succeed in making him paranoid.
Lasdun’s torment is singular, but his story shows how society has yet to shake out the Internet’s moral and legal codes. In 10 years, I suspect there will be more clarity—more accountability in anonymous comments, clear avenues of action when a person has been wronged, and more laws to prevent the bullying behavior that victimized Lasdun. But for now we exist in a frightening place where our lives have moved online and yet our fortresses are not even close to being built. Most of us are profoundly undefended against someone who gets a wild hair to ruin us.
Of course, the question is: Why did Nasreen choose Lasdun? And on this point, he can be a frustrating narrator. He shrugs off explanations of mental illness and takes deep dives into old books, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He travels to Israel to unpack the roots of anti-Semitism. It’s all a little ponderous for such a propulsive narrative. We never get much insight into Nasreen. Why did she do what she did? Although perhaps that’s the point, and it’s an unnerving one: Maybe there is no reason at all.