When a journalist becomes the story
All the journalists I know say they would never want to be the story. We might be storytellers, but we are not the stories.
However, sometimes we are. This is about when I became the story; it’s about what it’s like to be stalked and how that changes your life.
Gone is the person who was confident enough to walk at night on her own — even in a foreign country, much to my father’s dismay. That independence — albeit enjoyed from inside a safe, mentally risk-assessed bubble — is now scuffed and tarnished, worn under a layer of fear.
It started with a series of phone calls — voicemails and hang ups — from a number I did not recognise around 10pm one night in May 2017. Confused, I ended up turning off the phone so I didn’t have to see the number flashing up on my screen over and over again.
Once I turned it back on again and listened to the messages I was unnerved. I didn’t know who this person calling me was, or how she got my phone number or why she was saying she was sleeping with my husband. Needless to say, I had many questions.
She had been reading my agricultural articles in the local newspaper and, as a dairy worker, she thought I did not know enough to be writing about the industry. Journalists are often confronted by angry readers or viewers who insist they know more about a subject so that in itself was not an issue for me after more than 20 years on the job. But, it seems, besides knowing more than I did about milk, she also had designs on my husband.
After that first night, when she called me 10 times, and the upheaval that followed, everything died down for a time. I was edgy and shaken but determined to get on with my life and not let this incident affect me.
But it wasn’t just one incident. Dissatisfied with the outcome and determined to do more damage, she started calling again. She left messages threatening not only me but also my children. She spent hours driving her little yellow car around the suburb in which I lived looking for my house and parked outside the building where I worked.
After the second run of incidents, I was advised to apply for a restraint order and block her number. I did both, squirming in discomfort as I explained my reasons for the application to the magistrate in a public court. Colleagues from my newspaper and competitor outlets were there. An interim order was granted, covering my workplace and the entire suburb I lived in so she didn’t find out my address, but it would be more than a year before that order was formalised.
Using a withheld number she continued to call me when she was high on drugs or during an alcoholic bender. I spent hours at the police station each time reporting her breaches. One night she called 22 times, most of those while I was at the police station to report her. In the end, I just handed the phone to the police officer, who told her who he was and that he was recording the conversation. Without missing a beat, she asked him to hand the phone to me because “I just want to talk to her”.
I changed my number, took all reference of my phone off the internet, including my freelance writing website and blog, White Pages and university contact page, and became a silent voter so she couldn’t find me via the electoral roll. Security requested I be dropped off and picked up at the door to my office. If I had an interview outside the office I had to be accompanied by a photographer or a colleague. My life ceased to be mine.
One morning I had a call from a detective requesting a meeting. I assumed it was about making the interim restraint order permanent. I smile wryly now at my naivety then. I had no idea what she was capable of.
My stalker had decided to amp up her efforts. She set fire to donated items outside a nearby charity shop. Picked up afterwards, she told the police she thought I would turn up to cover the story for the newspaper. The detective wanted to know what my involvement was with her. Even at this point, I didn’t even know what she looked like, save for a grainy Facebook profile picture, let alone have any involvement with her.
After hearing my story, the detective told me it confirmed what she had already told him and that it appeared she was “obsessed” with me. He also said they were planning to charge her with stalking, on top of multiple breaches of the restraint order and arson, but warned it would be difficult to prove and that there had not been any successful stalking convictions in my state. I knew this had all the ingredients of a newsworthy story.
Not able to get to me via phone anymore, my stalker found other ways: sending me an email via my blog, ending with details about how she had bought materials to kill herself at the hardware store; messaging the newspaper’s Facebook page; contacting a colleague via a dating app to talk to him about me. The police extended the restraint order to cover my family.
I’ve reported on court cases as a journalist many times, but nothing prepares you for being the person listed on the sheet outside the door. I’ve endured court date after court date as her Legal Aid solicitor argued the poor state of her mental health meant she needed to be assessed for fitness (this argument was used every time she breached the order adding months to the process), or that he had not had access to her so could not prepare her defence, or that matters in Supreme Court had to be finalised before my case could be dealt with in the Magistrates Court (she started stalking a Child Protection Services worker who had placed her two children in foster care and committed multiple counts of arson during a total fire ban while on community service for breaching my order).
It was in court, on one of these many occasions, that I saw her for the first time. It was also in court that she spat vicious words in my direction, telling me to get off my “high horse”. And it was in that same court that I had to walk out behind her, close enough to see the hair that had escaped her ponytail, after she was released from prison on time served following one of the many restraint order breaches.
Even after she finally pleaded guilty and was convicted of stalking, as well as multiple restraint order breaches, arson, drug offences and breaching bail conditions, it didn’t stop.
In October 2019, a police officer called to let me know she was being released early. I was about to board a plane to join a group of girlfriends for a long weekend at the beach and this rattled me as I wondered if she would do anything to my children while I was away. By the end of the weekend, she was back in custody after driving through my suburb and setting a bin alight. And the whole process starts again.
It’s exhausting and demoralising and traumatic. It never ends.
More than 1000 days have passed since this ordeal began. That seems a long time, and I often wonder if it has been enough time to move on, but the fingers of fear and doubt and stress still find ways to creep in and wrap themselves around my neck. It doesn’t matter how comfortable I get, I still find myself checking a noise I heard when drifting off to sleep, thinking about when the next court date might be and whether I would need to attend, or watching a car I am unfamiliar with but seems to appear frequently. The protective mind does not rest.
However, this goes beyond my trauma. This story is also about mental health, a mother’s need to protect her children, the broken court system that favours the defendant with a hard-luck story, relationships, modern policing, support networks and so much more.