PERSISTENCE, PERSISTENCE

 

▪ CHAPTER EIGHT ▪
PERSISTENCE, PERSISTENCE

“That’s what happens when you’re angry at people.
You make them part of your life.”
Garrison Keillor

In America, persistence is a bit like pizza: We didn’t invent it, but we’ve certainly embraced it. We promise our children that persistence will pay off. We treat it as an attribute of success and we compliment the people who hang in there against all odds. However, when persistence is unwanted, those same people we praised can plague our lives. Few situations are more confounding than dealing with people who refuse to let go. We try to predict what they might do next, we worry that they might get angry or dangerous, and we agonize over what strategies will make them stop whatever it is they feel so compelled to continue doing.

Imagine that this happened to you instead of to a client of mine: You and your spouse attend a seminar, and an acquaintance there introduces you to Tommy, a preppy-looking, energetic young man. When told about the upcoming expansion of your travel agency business, the young man lights up with enthusiasm.

 

This chance meeting may not sound like the start of a nightmare, but that’s exactly what it was for Mike Fedder and his wife, Jackie. Over the chatter of the seminar, Tommy told them some of his ideas about the travel business: “I’ve always been interested in unconventional travel packages, and it’s clear that people are moving away from the big hotels kind of thing, more toward camping and rafting and hiking. I have some packaging ideas that I know will double any agency’s sales. I just haven’t found the right partners to kick it off.” He told the Fedders about selling father-son vacations by marketing to lists gathered from Little League organizations.

“I work with some of these teams, and the parents put in a lot of time with their children, so they’re obviously willing to invest money in enjoyable activities. The leagues are well organized, so the packages could be offered through their newsletters and meetings. Plus, you can get one father in a group and offer him incentives to sign up others.”

Jackie told Tommy she liked the family aspect of the idea, Mike said it sounded interesting, “goodnights” all around, and that was that.

Two days later, Tommy called Mike at his successful seventy-five person travel agency. He’d gotten Mike’s number from the woman who introduced them, and he was following up on the “business discussion we started.” He wanted to have “just a brief meeting. I could stop by today. Ten minutes is all I need. I promise.” Rather than hurt his feelings, Mike agreed. “Two o’clock?” Two o’clock.

Mike was on a long-distance call at two o’clock, so Tommy was kept waiting a few minutes. He seemed a bit put out by this: “I thought we agreed to two o’clock.”

“Oh yeah, sorry, I’ve been working on a forty-person Africa excursion…” Why am I making excuses to this guy, Mike wondered. It was a good question. The ten minutes Tommy requested turned to twenty. He had put together some material on his idea and it was actually impressive—not so much the quality but the quantity; he had obviously put a good deal of effort into it.

 

Tommy said, “When we really clicked on this the other night, I got to thinking…” and then his drop-by visit became a formal proposal: He would take a leave of absence (from? Mike never did hear where Tommy worked) and he’d organize some father-son package tours to Yosemite. If it didn’t succeed, Mike would pay him nothing, and if it did succeed, Tommy would get a percentage.

When Mike told him he didn’t normally work with outside agents, Tommy said he understood: “I can join the team full time.” When Mike told him there wasn’t an opening, Tommy said, “Oh, I can start anyway, and then we’ll formalize it when something opens up.”

Persistent, Mike thought. Mark of those who succeed. Indeed, it was the mark of something, but not success. It was refusing to hear “no,” a clear signal of trouble in any context.

Forty minutes into the meeting: “Listen, Tommy, my best agent, Marlene, might be leaving in the next few months—she’s getting married—and if that happens, I’ll call you and we can re-visit the matter.”

Tommy was disappointed that there wasn’t a more concrete result but said he’d be in touch to explore ways to move “into the next inning.”

He called a week later and asked if Mike had made any decisions. (Decisions about what?) “Nothing’s really changed, Tommy. Marlene and her fiancé haven’t set a date yet,” and brush off, brush off.

 

Tommy ended with “Well, say hi to Jackie.” This call gave some clues to another feature of those who don’t let go: projecting onto others commitments that were not expressed and are not present.

The next day Marlene asked Mike a bit hesitantly if he had a friend named Tommy. He had called and was wondering about her marriage plans! He had asked if she had “even a ballpark idea” of when she’d be leaving because “Mike and I are trying to get to the next inning.”

Within five minutes, Mike had Tommy on the phone: “Listen, you’re a nice kid, I know you’re just excited about the business, but I have to be clear with you: If we ever want to pursue your idea, and IFit fits into our plans, I will call you. There’s no need to call me anymore, and I certainly don’t think you should have called Marlene. Understand?”

Tommy didn’t seem at all dejected. “Oh, I understand completely, sorry for the confusion. I just thought I should get a time frame from her so I’d be ready to come to work, that’s all, no big deal. I won’t bug her again.” It sounded as if he had gotten it until he added: “She said about eight weeks, so I’ll plan for that.”

“Um, well, listen, Tommy, don’t plan for anything. The travel business isn’t like that; you never know what might happen. I hope our paths cross sometime, and I wish you all the luck in the world, and thanks again for your suggestions.”

Finally, that was that. What a persistent guy, Mike thought, but I’m sure he got the message.

About three months later, Mike came back from lunch to find three messages from Tommy on his voice mail. Mr. Persistent. Before Mike got around to calling him back, Tommy was on the line again. He seemed agitated: “That was really kind of a surprise, Mike, and not a good surprise—more like a shock. When I called this morning to touch base, they told me Marlene had been gone for two weeks. Two weeks! We had an agreement, you know, so I was a little disappointed. I can’t believe we lost two valuable weeks. I’m very committed to making this idea work and I’ve put a lot more time into it, refining things. It’s really come a long way. I sure hope you haven’t hired anybody to replace Marlene.”

Mike felt bad for the guy because it obviously meant a lot to him. How to let him down easy? “Well, first of all, Marlene’s position is not filled yet (Why’d I say that!?), but, uh, that’s not the point. We didn’t have an agreement. We had a chat, really.”

“Well, maybe that’s what you think it was, but I’ve put my heart and soul into this thing. You know, I thought you’d have the kind of commitment it takes to stick with something, but maybe you don’t.”

An opening, Mike thought. “Maybe I don’t, Tommy, so let’s just agree to go our separate ways and chalk it up to experience. I’m sorry you went to so much trouble.”

Mike hung up.

The next day, Tommy called again, twice, but Mike didn’t return the calls. One of the messages said it was urgent, but what could be urgent with somebody you hardly know?

Tommy left five more messages that week, and Mike finally discussed it with his wife. “I don’t feel like I led him on, but obviously I must have said something or done something that gave him all these hopes. I don’t know what else to tell him and I can’t just not return his calls. I don’t want to get him angry.”

“He’s already angry,” Jackie said wisely. “He was angry the moment we didn’t become his best friends and go into business with him. I don’t think anything you can say will be heard by him the way you mean it to be.” Jackie, like most women, had much more experience than Mike in dealing with unwanted persistence. She knew that “maybe” is sometimes perceived as “definitely,” that “like” can be taken as “love,” and that people who don’t hear you don’t hear you. You get to the point that it doesn’t help to keep trying, in fact, it makes matters worse, because it encourages attachment when you are seeking detachment.

 

If Tommy could read a lifelong partnership into almost nothing, then a response could be taken by him in who knows what way. Contact is fuel for the fire, and Tommy was someone who didn’t need much fuel.

“I’ll give it another week, and then if it doesn’t stop, I’ll call him back and lay it on the line.”

“But Mike, you did that,” Jackie reminded him. “You told him point-blank not to call you again. You said, ‘Let’s go our separate ways.’ That all seems pretty clear to me.”

Jackie was right. If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to. If you call him back after he leaves twenty messages, you simply teach him that the cost of getting a call back is twenty messages.

 

For two weeks, there were no calls, and Mike was glad it was finally over. But then another message: “It’s urgent I speak with you immediately.” Mike felt that he really had to put a stop to this now. At each step, he was making predictions about how Tommy would respond, but he was doing it by applying his own standards for behavior. Mike reasoned that not calling back would be insulting but that somehow calling back and being insulting would make things better, and that’s what he decided to do:

“What is it with you? You flake! We aren’t going to be working together, period. Do you hear me? That should have been clear, but you don’t listen. I don’t want to talk to you about it anymore, okay?”

Tommy reacted in a way Mike hadn’t predicted. He said he was just calling to apologize because he didn’t want to burn his bridges behind him. “I still think we can hit a home run with this thing someday,” he added.

“No, Tommy, you should move on to something else. If I hear of any interesting openings, I’ll let you know. (Oh, god, why’d I say that?) But this will be our last call, okay? Can we just leave it at that?” Mike was asking, not telling.

Finally, finally, Mike thought he had gotten through to the guy. That night he told Jackie, “I called that guy back today, and it turns out all he wanted to do was apologize.”

Jackie said, “Good, and I hope that’s the last call you ever have with him.”

“Of course it’s the last call. He has apologized and it’s over.” Until a week later, when there was a Federal Express envelope from Tommy. It contained a note requesting that Mike sign an enclosed letter of reference, which Tommy said would help him at his bank.

Even though Mike had assured Jackie that he’d made his last call, he decided to respond to Tommy’s request. To Mike’s relief, he reached an answering machine and left this message: “I don’t feel comfortable signing the reference letter you sent, but I wish you the best of luck.”

People who refuse to let go often make small requests that appear reasonable, like Tommy’s letter of reference, though the real purpose of such requests is to cement attachment or gain new reasons for contact. Within a few hours, Tommy left a message for Mike: “I’m not surprised you didn’t have the courage to talk with me directly. You know, it would have taken less time to sign that letter than it did to leave me your condescending message. No wonder you’re in the travel business; everybody wants to get away from you. Please mail the unsigned letter back to me.” Unfortunately, Mike had thrown the letter away. Now Tommy had another issue to chew on.

The next day there was another message: “No need to call back, I just thought I’d let you know you are an asshole. I want that letter back!”

This was too much for Mike. He felt he had to take some real action now. It is at this point in these situations that a fascinating thing happens: The pursuer and the victim begin to actually have something in common: neither wants to let go. The pursuer is obsessed with getting a response and the victim becomes obsessed with making the harassment stop.

What the pursuer is really saying is “I will not allow you to ignore me.” He’ll push buttons until one provokes a reaction, and then as long as it works, he’ll keep pushing it. Guilt is usually first, then harassment, then insult. Each works for a while, and then doesn’t. When victims participate in this process, threats are not far behind.

But Mike wasn’t going to just sit around and do nothing. He called the person who had introduced them, told her the whole story, and asked for her help. “Maybe you can get through to him and get him to leave me alone.”

The next day Mike’s voice mail had three messages from Tommy, one of them left at two A.M.: “Now you’ve ruined one of my best friendships, asshole! I don’t know what lies you’re spreading about me, but I demand an apology, a written apology. You are on notice.”

Two days later, more messages, including one saying that Tommy was going to make a formal complaint, whatever that meant. Then a message saying, “I’m going to book twenty bogus trips with your agency every month. You won’t know what’s me and what isn’t. Then you’ll learn not to make promises you never intended to keep.”

Jackie convinced Mike to keep the voice mail messages but otherwise ignore them. The following week another message came in saying that if Mike would call and apologize, Tommy might accept that, “but we’re getting to the point that an apology won’t be good enough. I like Jackie, and I’m sorry for all the trouble your stubbornness is going to bring her.”

Mike and Jackie finally ended up in my office, playing the tapes of the voice mail messages. By this time, they had already been to the police twice. Officers had visited Tommy and warned him to stop, but he actually got worse after that. To understand the police inclination toward direct intervention, one must recognize that in all cultures of the world, the role of police is to control conduct. Police are the enforcement branch of our society, and when people misbehave, it is police we expect to make them stop. That’s usually fine, except in cases in which police contact actually encourages the very behavior it is meant to deter. When nothing else worked, the police told Mike to get a restraining order, but Jackie convinced him to wait until after they had discussed it with me.

Sitting on a couch in my office, Mike made it clear that he was near the end of his rope. He wanted me to “send some people over” to convince Tommy to cut it out (even though that hadn’t worked when their friend did it or when the police did it). He said he wanted me to “explain the facts of life to Tommy in no uncertain terms.”

I told Mike that all terms were uncertain to Tommy.

“But if he knows he can get into trouble,” Mike argued, “it’s logical for him to stop.”

“Tommy does not have a track record for being logical. He doesn’t speak the same language we do, and we can’t teach it to him with logic. If he were reasonable, he wouldn’t have pursued this behavior in the first place. There is no straight talk for crooked people.”

Mike argued more: “I don’t want this guy thinking he can get away with harassment.”

Jackie responded before I could: “If we can’t control what he does, we certainly can’t control what he thinks.”

I suggested, with Jackie’s quick agreement, that if Mike did not respond, Tommy would eventually turn his attention elsewhere. “That may take some time and some patience, and I know it isn’t easy, but efforts to change his mind or to change him are the opposite of what you want. You don’t want him improved—you want him removed. You want him out of your life. There is a rule we call “engage and enrage.” The more attachment you have—whether favorable or unfavorable—the more this will escalate. You see, we know a secret, and that is that you are never going to work with him or be friends with him or want anything to do with him. Since anything less than that is not going to satisfy him, we already know that part of the outcome. He is going to be left disappointed and angry, and he is going to need to deal with that. If you talk to him, what you say becomes the issue. The only way you can have your desired outcome right now is to have no contact. Only then will he begin to find other solutions to his problems, which you can’t help with anyway. As long as he gets a response from you, he is distracted from his life. If, however, you don’t return the calls, then each time he leaves a message, he gets a message: that you can resist his pursuit.”

“Yeah, but the guy never stops.”

Jackie interjected: “You haven’t tested ‘never’ yet, Mike. You haven’t even tried two weeks.”

She was right. I explained that every time Mike called Tommy back or showed any detectable reaction to his harassment, this engaged him. “With each contact, you buy another six weeks.” I explained that the same concepts apply with romantic pursuers who don’t let go, ex-boyfriends who don’t let go, fired employees who don’t let go, and all the other incarnations of don’t-let-go. I wanted Mike to know that though Tommy was annoying, he wasn’t unique.

I asked Mike what he thought Tommy might do next.

“I have no idea. That’s why I came to you.”

I waited.

“I guess he’ll threaten some more.” (An exactly accurate prediction from someone who a moment before had “no idea.”)

Mike faced a type of situation that initially offers two widely different management plans: (1) change the pursuer, or (2) change the way the pursuer’s conduct affects us. Under the first heading are such things as warnings, counter-threats, police interventions, and other strategies designed to control someone’s conduct. Under the second heading are such things as insulating ourselves from hazard or annoyance, evaluating the likelihood of violence, and monitoring new communications. Under the second plan, we limit the impact the situation is allowed to have by limiting our fear and anxiety. We also limit impact on the pursuer by not responding.

In this case, we agreed that my office would conduct a general background inquiry on Tommy, evaluate all the messages and information available thus far, and institute the following management plan: Mike would get a new voice mail extension. My office would check Mike’s old voice mail every hour and forward to him all of his messages, except those from Tommy. We would review, evaluate, and keep each message left by Tommy. I assured Mike and Jackie: “Between where we are now and his becoming violent, there would be several detectable warning signs. If there is anything that gives us the slightest reason to believe he might escalate beyond phone calls, we will contact you immediately.”

What impact a harasser has is one of the few things a victim can control, and from that day forward, Tommy’s calls would have no impact whatsoever on Mike or Jackie.

 

In the end, Tommy continued to call for five more weeks. He left many messages, including threats that Mike would have found hard to resist responding to. Mike had predicted that Tommy would only stop if someone “made him stop,” but in fact, the opposite was true. He would only stop if nobody tried to make him stop.

This case could have been very different. Mike and Jackie might have gotten a restraining order, which is really the process of suing someone in civil court to leave you alone and stay away from you. Would Tommy have advanced or retreated? Who had more to lose: Tommy, or Mike and Jackie? Had Tommy reacted favorably the other times Mike tried to put a cost on his conduct (enlisting Tommy’s friend, sending the police)? What would a lawsuit have done to Tommy’s perceived justification?

 

People in these very frequent situations, whether involving a former intimate partner, a former employee, or someone like Tommy, wrestle with their options, rarely seeing that doing nothing provocative is an option too. Everyone they know has a suggestion: “He’ll stop if you just return his call; all he wants is to be recognized;” “Maybe you need to have someone else call and say you’re out of town;” “try changing your number, he’ll get the message.” There is an almost irresistible urge to do something dramatic in response to threats and harassment, but often, appearing to do nothing is the best plan. Of course, that isn’t really doing nothing; it is a reasoned management plan and a communication to the pursuer every bit as clear as direct contact. This approach is a real test of patience and character for victims, but that is often the fastest way to end harassment.

The way a friend of mine describes his approach to work offers a valuable analogy for managing some interpersonal situations: “I have two drawers in my desk. One is for the things I must do something about, and the other is for the things time will take care of.” Time will take care of most people who refuse to let go.

 

Some of these persistent people suffer from delusions, the very definition of which explains why they don’t let go: a false belief that cannot be shaken even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. Most harassers, however, have something less than a delusion, something we might call an alternate perception or an unreasonable opinion. The resolution they seek is usually not attainable, and these people are so confounding because the original issue they cling to is seen from their unusual perspective. We may think Mike made no promises to Tommy, but Tommy can say he feels otherwise. He can even base his feelings on objective facts and statements that were actually made.

But it is the outcome he desires and his way of getting there that establish Tommy as an unreasonable person. Professor Mary Rowe of MIT is among the few academics who have studied these cases. She identifies as a warning sign the “extreme nature of a desire—for example, a desire for total physical and emotional control of another person, or total control of an office process, or the unwarranted firing of another person, or the total acceptance of a proposal.” She also describes an “extraordinary sense of entitlement, such as ‘She must talk with me!’… ‘The department must let me work on that project!’ or ‘I refuse to vacate my office.’”

When a person requires something unattainable, such as total submission to an unreasonable demand, it is time to stop negotiating, because it’s clear the person cannot be satisfied. Getting pulled into discussions about the original issue misses the point. It’s as if one party has come to the table wanting a million dollars and the other party is prepared to give five dollars, or no dollars. In such situations there is nothing to negotiate.

In some cases a person’s desired outcome can’t even be determined, much less attained. What would Tommy have been satisfied with near the end of his harassment campaign? An apology? A successful partnership with Mike? I don’t know, and I don’t think Tommy knew either.

Professor Rowe brings into focus the great internal conflict for such people, explaining that they “certainly do not want to lose, but may also be unable to stand winning, in the conventional way, since that would mean the fight is over.”

Of course, it isn’t over until all participants are out of the ring, and as long as people try to change the pursuer or satisfy the pursuer, it goes on. Most often, the fear of violence lurks in the shadows and keeps people trying, but was Tommy likely to be violent? Let’s look at him in terms of the four general elements of violence (JACA):

Perceived Justification

Tommy may have felt provoked when Mike called his friend, but he did not demonstrate that he felt violence was justified.

Perceived Alternatives

People likely to use violence perceive few or no alternatives, but Tommy’s continuing calls proved that he saw many alternatives (interfering with Mike’s business, harassing, threatening, etc.).

Perceived Consequences

Those likely to be violent perceive that it will bring them tolerable or even favorable consequences. Tommy showed no indication that he was willing to give up his freedom (an intolerable consequence to him) by escalating to violence. Interestingly, the consequences of threatening (including being visited by police) were clearly tolerable to him.

Perceived Ability

Those who use violence perceive that they have the ability to deliver it, but Tommy said nothing and did nothing that indicated he felt that ability.

▪ ▪ ▪

Though victims understandably find them confounding, most people who refuse to let go are highly predictable. It is perhaps too glib to say they continue until they stop, but that is basically what happens in the vast majority of cases—unless they are engaged. To accurately predict the little behaviors along the way, one must understand the languages of entitlement, attachment, and rejection. Above all, one must see the situation in the context of this culture, which teaches the myth that persistence pays. The earliest version most of us hear is “In America anyone can be President,” when in fact only one person can be president, and 240 million others cannot. F. Scott Fitzgerald said something about persistence that all the Tommys could benefit from: “Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist, but in the ability to start over.”

▪ ▪ ▪

No group knows more about being persistently pursued than famous people. From the local prom queen to the politician to the internationally famous media figure, all can teach us something about persistence. A very famous media figure might have hundreds of persistent pursuers, literally hundreds of Tommys.

 

People in Mike and Jackie’s situation often wonder what it would be like to have unlimited resources to influence, control, and punish an unwanted pursuer. They even fantasize about how simple the situation would be if they had the police, the courts, the government on their side. But it is a fantasy, because no matter how famous the victim, no matter how powerful the advocates, it simply isn’t always possible to control the conduct of other people.

Canadian singer Anne Murray experienced a case that proves this point decisively. She was stalked for years by a man who was given scores of court orders that he violated, arrested over and over again, and eventually put in prison for six years. Upon his release, a judge again ordered him to leave Murray alone, but within his first few months of freedom, the stalker violated the court order more than two hundred times.

 

John Searing, a thirty-six-year-old salesman of art supplies from New Jersey, was just as persistent in efforts to get what he wanted from Johnny Carson. In 1980 he wrote to The Tonight Show asking if they would let him do something he had wanted to do since he was a boy: yell “Here’s Johnny!” on the air some night. In response, he got an eight-by-ten photo of Johnny Carson.

Though most people would have gotten the message, Searing wrote again and then again. After a while, he got a form letter from a staff person thanking him for his proposal and explaining that it would not be feasible. But Searing kept writing. He enclosed audiotapes of himself doing impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Richard Nixon. Their famous voices made the same request: “Let John Searing yell ‘Here’s Johnny.’”

This went on for a long while, long enough, in fact, for Searing to write more than eight hundred letters. Tonight Show staffers, tempered by decades of experience with persistent letter writers, did not become alarmed. They did not call the police to make it stop. They did, however, call John Searing to ask why it was so important to him.

“Because nothing in life means more to me,” he told them. Soon after that call, an amazing thing happened: The Tonight Show said yes to the request they had ignored eight hundred times. Searing was flown to Los Angeles, given a dressing room with his name on the door, and like something out of a dream (his dream), he was walked into the studio. He watched from the side of the stage as Ed MacMahon introduced Johnny Carson with the famous words “Here’s Johnny.” “But, what about me” Searing wondered. He was told to be patient.

After the first commercial, Johnny Carson explained to the audience about John Searing and his hundreds of letters, and then Searing was introduced to America. He sat next to the famous man at the famous desk for about six minutes, explaining why he had been so persistent and what it meant to him. Carson directed Searing to a microphone and then went back behind the curtain. Searing was handed a script, from which he enthusiastically read: “From Hollywood, The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson. This is John Searing, along with Doc Severensen and the NBC Orchestra, inviting you to join Johnny and his guests: Danny Devito; from the San Diego Zoo, Joan Embery; letter-writer John Searing, and adventures in the kitchen with Doc.”

There was a drum roll. “And now, ladies and gentlemen… heeere’s Johnny!” Carson came through the curtain to great applause and gave Searing a simple instruction: “Now go and write no more.”

And that is exactly what happened: Searing went back to work selling art supplies. Persistent though he had been, his letters never contained anything sinister or foreboding. He had always maintained a job, had other interests, and above all, he never escalated the nature of his communications. While giving pursuers exactly what they want is not often my recommended strategy, particularly recognizing the impracticality of applying it regularly, it is interesting to note that The Tonight Show made no effort to stop Searing from writing letters.

Johnny Carson and his staff knew that letters, no matter how frequent, can’t hurt anyone, while starting a war can hurt everyone involved. Had Searing been left alone, he would likely have kept writing letters, maybe for years, maybe for his whole life, and that would have been fine. Our office has several cases of people who have written more than ten thousand letters to one media figure and never attempted an encounter. Those clients are entirely unaffected by the letters, which their staffs forward to us unopened and which we then review.

 

The issue then, is not persistence but knowing the differences between communications and behaviors that portend escalation, and those from which you can predict that a pursuer is likely to retreat or just fade away. In these situations, victims are understandably frustrated (to say the least), and they want something done to their pursuer to make him stop. The institutions of psychiatry, law enforcement, and government have proved that no matter what your resources, you cannot reliably control the conduct of crazy people. It is not fair, but it is so. My role is to increase safety and reduce fear, not to tell people what they want to hear. Still, there is always someone willing to do what a celebrity wants, whether or not it is the safest course.

I cannot recall how many times I have seen some private detective apply confrontational interventions and then feel these actions were justified by the fact that the pursuer’s behavior ultimately got worse. Having guided the pursuer into a warlike stance, the detective will say, “Whew, it’s a good thing we did all that stuff to him, because just look how serious a case this is. I told you something had to be done.” Do they never wonder what might have happened if they had just left him alone?

 

By way of analogy, when you are driving on a slippery mountain road at night, you do not manage the hazard by getting out and drying off the pavement—you slow down through the dangerous curves. When dealing with people who won’t let go, that means having strategies in place to lessen the likelihood of unwanted encounters. You change what you can and stop trying to change what you cannot.

A strategy of watch and wait is usually the wisest first step, but people frequently apply another management plan: engage and enrage. The option of engaging a pursuer will always be available to you, but once it is applied, you cannot simply go back to watching and waiting, even though you may find it wasn’t so bad by comparison.

 

Though Johnny Carson knew it, the lesson that persistence on its own is not sinister would come too late for another media figure, Los Angeles radio personality Jim Hicklin. Best known to listeners as a pilot-commentator who advised on traffic conditions, he also reported on other newsworthy events from his helicopter. When he received some annoying letters from a fan, he quickly found people who told him what he wanted to hear: “We’ll take care of it.” They didn’t.

The first letter had arrived at the Hicklin residence near the end of August 1971. The author was forty-five-year-old wimpy nebbish Edward Taylor, whose story is best told through his letters. The first one was intended to be friendly and supportive. It was addressed “Dear James” and signed “Respectfully Yours, Ed Taylor.”

Even though Hicklin never answered the letter, more came. They contained praise, remembrances, compliments, and one even suggested that Jim Hicklin run for governor. Another read, “You are a star.”

Jim Hicklin was unaware that Taylor was a tireless letter writer who had been known to several prominent people in Los Angeles for years. Taylor’s letters either amused or annoyed these people; mostly they were just ignored. But Hicklin did not ignore the letters. Instead he hired a pair of private detectives to resolve the matter. They made an unannounced visit to Taylor’s home and gave him one clear order: Stop sending letters.

This intrusive intervention didn’t stop the letters, but it did change them. The first letter following the visit from the detectives was six pages long. The penmanship was now erratic, there were many messy corrections, and all the friendliness and praise of the past was gone. “You have grievously offended me,” wrote Taylor. “I have given much thought to your implied threat against me; your presumed paranoia… or your naiveté… or your innocent receipt of a Pack of rotten advice… or is it that you are just simply Insufferably Arrogant?”

This letter introduced a new theme that was to become the principal focus of Taylor’s life for a year: litigation. It continued:

I am both flattered and impressed to have been investigated. The Q is about what? That is precisely why there are lawyers… and you need a good one badly… At Hicklin’s earliest opportunity, it is imperative that he inform me, in writing, of the identity of his Attorney.

The next letter was to the general manager of the radio station Hicklin worked for:

There appeared at my residence two private detectives in the name of Golden West Broadcasting [the owner of the radio station]. They came unannounced to interrogate me relating to some verypersonal and confidential memoranda I have in past months sent to Hicklin.

Your people admitted they were instructed by Jim Hicklin to call on me… unannounced… with no regard to my Family, Guests, Responsibilities or even the State of my Health. It is harassment; it is a virulent invasion of one’s privacy; it is threatening; it is intimidating & it is Wrong!

Precisely of what reprehensible culpability does Jim Hicklin accuse me? Professionally & personally it is very important to me that I know. And I shall.

About a week later, Taylor sent the FAA the first of many letters calling into question Hicklin’s competency to hold a pilot’s license, “until it has been established by your jurisdiction that Mr. Hicklin is of sound body & mind, I suggest he is a threat to life, property and himself.”

Note that he had at this point introduced the concepts of threat and safety. Taylor next filed a civil complaint with the superior court, demanding an apology from Hicklin. He wrote to the judge:

The referenced case has meant to scathingly denounce and repudiate the presumed right of one citizen to conspire to contravene the right of another’s to free expression; to transmit mail; to be free from fear of retaliatory, psychological assault; emasculation at the door to one’s own home.

This letter gives a good opportunity to see the situation from Taylor’s perspective. He felt intruded upon, threatened, and, perhaps most importantly, emasculated. Recall the assumptions I said could be applied to most of us:

  • We seek connection with others.
  • We are saddened by loss, and try to avoid it.
  • We dislike rejection.
  • We like recognition and attention.
  • We will do more to avoid pain than we will do to seek pleasure.
  • We dislike ridicule and embarrassment.
  • We care what others think of us.
  • We seek a degree of control over our lives.

The effort to deter Taylor by sending private detectives collided with most of these. He was seeking connection and then saddened by the loss of his chummy (albeit one-sided) relationship with Hicklin. He was rejected. He had reached the point where the situation could bring him no pleasure, and all he could do was try to stop the pain. He felt chastised and embarrassed. He felt that others would think less of him if he didn’t reclaim his masculinity by getting an apology. Finally, he felt he had lost control over his life.

One day Hicklin made an on-air comment about people who start brush fires: “They should be tied to a stake and left there.” After hearing this, Taylor wrote that some teenager might “prod his group into acting out the sick fantasy as broadcast by Personality Pilot-Reporter-Folk-Hero Hicklin. Law enforcement finds enough skeletal remains in the hills. It is bestial to hear one condone murder-by-the-torch.”

Note the sinister nature of his references. They continued in Taylor’s next complaint to the FAA, which was that Hicklin had buzzed his home in what he called a “strafing mission”: “Is there a more barbaric, mindless, obscene act than a pilot who would aim an aircraft at defenseless humans on the ground for the sole purpose of harassment; by a pilot whose sole sick mission is to establish his dominance over his victims?”

Needless to say, the FAA did not (and could not) take any action that would have satisfied Taylor. Likewise, the court dismissed his suit. With his alternatives shrinking, Taylor typed a seven-page memo recounting in detail each “incident” involving Hicklin. He stated that Hicklin used his helicopter as a weapon and that “aircraft in the hands of mentally unbalanced men constitute offensive weaponry.”

Let’s stop and look at the context of the situation. At the start, it was simple: A famous person was sent some overly-praising letters by a member of his audience. Though perhaps not written in a style that appealed to Hicklin, the letters were appropriate for the context. At the start, the situation was not interpersonal, but after the admirer was visited by intimidating men who warned him to stop writing letters, it became interpersonal. Jim Hicklin got the last thing he wanted: a relationship with Edward Taylor. They had become enemies.

Hicklin—

I could’ve understood your conduct had you come to my door with a .38 in hand rather than having sent two private detectives—like a Strung-Out Queen.

Now you’ve psyched up buddies to threaten my life. That’s sad.

Remember to call me “MR.”

The day he sent this letter, Edward Taylor did more than just write about a .38. He went out and bought one.

 

Meanwhile, Hicklin decided to try his first strategy again. He asked the district attorney’s office to send investigators and get Taylor to stop. They did visit him, but they did not get him to stop.

Taylor told the district attorney’s investigators that he was the victim of Hicklin’s harassment, not the other way around. He feared that Hicklin may have hovered above his house in order to draw a map. He explained that he was so apprehensive of Hicklin’s bizarre behavior that he always carried with him a note of explanation addressed jointly to the Los Angeles Police Department and the D.A.’s office. Along with the note, he always carried the handgun.

 

After he was warned by the D.A.’s investigators, Taylor wrote to them:

When a complainant perceives that established authority does not care and/or will not empathize with what it is like when one has his life threatened by a mindless, manipulative robopath; to experience the trauma of purchasing a .38 handgun in his 46th year in order to defend himself from a paid or emotionally-involved assassin; to see a handgun on his desk during working hours; to see it again first thing in the morning upon awakening and as the final objet-d’être upon retiring at night. Worst of all, is to consider the nature of complainant’s alleged provocation against respondent (to hear the latter tell it): mail(!).

All the information needed was in this letter. What Taylor projected onto Hicklin, namely that he was “an emotionally-involved assassin,” was actually at work inside him. As James Baldwin said, “In the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.” Though Taylor never made a threat to harm Hicklin, the clear hazard can be gleaned from that letter nonetheless by applying the JACA elements: Taylor felt he had justification to use violence (defending himself); he had few alternatives left (established authority did not care about him); the consequences of violence had become favorable because violence would stop the “mindless robopath;” and finally, he had the ability to deliver violence—the gun.

 

The visit from the DA investigators, like the first visit from the private detectives, clearly had a major and unfavorable impact that Taylor had difficulty recovering from. The ultimate intrusion, the ultimate insult, was still to come, and from that one Taylor would be unable to recover.

One evening while his elderly mother was visiting him, Taylor answered a knock at his front door. It was the police, who, in front of his mother, arrested Edward Taylor. He was booked into Los Angeles County Jail for misdemeanor libel. Unable to contact anyone to bail him out over the weekend, he spent three days in jail.

 

Home from jail, shaken more than even he realized, Edward Taylor could not get relief from his indignation about all that had happened. Now that there was a cost on his writing letters, he stopped writing them. Instead, he stewed, tried to sleep, tried to eat, and stewed some more. He couldn’t find the life he’d had before all this had started, such as it was, so he just sat at home listening to Jim Hicklin’s radio show. In this sense, media figures are unavoidably adding some fuel to the fire just by being in the media. A person obsessed with a movie star, for example, might see her in magazines, on entertainment news programs and talk shows. Ironically, even if he wants to, an obsessed person might find it hard to get away from the object of his pursuit.

But soon Hicklin would be off the air. He and his wife were going on a vacation cruise. Just as he had planned, and just as he had announced over the radio, Jim Hicklin and his wife boarded the Italia cruise ship on April 2nd, 1973.

 

Before leaving port, the Hicklins entertained friends who’d come to see them off. But not everyone on board was a friend. In the presence of his wife, Jim Hicklin was shot to death by a man he’d never met and never spoken to. Edward Taylor had “defended” himself in the way he had obviously been thinking of for some time.

Believing that others will react as we would is the single most dangerous myth of intervention. When people wanted to stop Edward Taylor’s letters, they were certain a strong warning would do it, then they were certain arrest would do it. But even his being arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for life did not stop Edward Taylor’s letters. He continued to write to the district attorney and others until the day he died in prison.

▪ ▪ ▪

People who refuse to let go are becoming more common, and each case teaches us the same valuable lesson: Don’t engage in a war. Wars rarely end well because by definition someone will have to lose.

 

In Predicting Violent Behavior, Dr. John Monahan explains that violence is interactional: “The reaction of a potential victim of violence may distinguish a verbal altercation from a murder.” As you have now learned from cases of public figure pursuers and other people who refuse to let go, the minute you get into it with someone, you are into it, and if you get angry, that all by itself is a kind of victory for him.

▪ ▪ ▪

Remember Tommy? In the course of a follow-up investigation, my office learned that he got a job with a bank, enjoyed a three-month honeymoon there, and was fired for insubordination. He began a harassment campaign against the bank’s personnel director that is still going on as I write this. The bank has threatened him with a lawsuit, and he has threatened them with everything he could think of. Tommy’s former employers, like others concerned about violence from an angry employee, face situations that are highly predictable (second only, in fact, to those between intimates). This ease of predictability makes some employers uncomfortable, because with ability comes responsibility. After you finish the next chapter, you’ll have both.







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