July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

Ever get the feeling you’re being followed? You ‘re not alone. According to recent statistics, 8 percent of all women and 2 percent of all men in the U.S. are victims of stalkers at some point in their lives. And once a stalker fixates on you, it’s hard to break free. While every state has passed antistalking legislation, “in many, a first offense is only a misdemeanor,” says Dr. Doreen R. Orion, author of a new book, I Know You Really Love Me: A Psychiatrist’s Journal of Erotomania, Stalking and Obsessive Love.

For Orion, 37, a psychiatrist and faculty member at the University of Colorado Health Services Center in Boulder, stalking is more than just a professional concern. In 1989, after completing her residency at the University of Arizona in Tucson, she spent 16 days counseling a 38-year-old part-time insurance agent referred to her by Timothy Justice, an associate director at the Tucson Psychiatric Institute and Orion’s fiancé. The woman sent her a love note the next day, and Orion’s life hasn’t been the same since. Fran Nightingale (not her real name) tormented Orion with constant notes and phone calls, violated restraining orders and followed her and Justice when they moved to Louisville, Colo., in 1993 (the couple wed in 1995). “She stole my sense of security, ” says Orion, who diagnosed Nightingale’s obsession, as erotomania, the delusion that one is loved by another. Frustrated by her own powerlessness, Orion says she wrote I Know You Really Love Me “as a resource for other victims. ” The book may antagonize her stalker—who is serving a one-year jail term for twice breaking a probation order issued after she disobeyed a restraining order eight times—but Orion is willing to take that chance. “I spent years doing everything the courts and the police told me to do, and seeing nothing work,” she says. “Writing the book put me in touch with other victims and stalking experts and helped me educate myself.”

Orion, who has a medical degree from George Washington University and is working with Colorado legislators to toughen the state’s antistalking laws, shared her knowledge with correspondent Vickie Bane.

Is stalking more common than it used to be?

I’m not sure if it’s more common or we’re just hearing more about it. Our society is more mobile, making it easier for people with obsessive impulses to act on them. A woman in the old world may have had a crush on Napoleon, but she couldn’t have gone after him easily.

Are all stalkers erotomanic?

Studies say that at least 10 percent are “pure” erotomanics, meaning the only condition they have is the delusion that this person loves them; otherwise they appear to be normal. But between 50 and 90 percent of stalkers are mentally ill, and some of those probably have erotomanic delusions along with their other disorders. Not all are erotomanic, though. Some feel they are being persecuted by their victims or, in the case of those who stalk politicians, may be angry at them.

Is there a typical erotomanic stalker profile?

They tend to come from abusive and emotionally distant families. They are often self-conscious and lack self-esteem. Most of them work at menial jobs if they work at all. They also tend to be unmarried and unable to sustain relationships. Stalking is the only way they can experience intimacy.

Are some kinds of people more likely than others to become victims?

Erotomanics tend to choose people in positions of authority, people whom they perceive as good-looking and intelligent, and older than their stalkers—somebody they can look up to.

Like celebrities?

Certainly many famous people become stalking victims. Madonna, Kathie Lee Gifford, Whitney Houston, Michael J. Fox, Suzanne Somers and David Letterman have all been through it. But it happens more often to the average person, probably simply because there are more average people than celebrities.

Is there anything people can do to avoid being stalked?

Thirty-six percent of male victims and 23 percent of female victims are stalked by total strangers. There was a department store manager I wrote about who smiled at his customer and ended up being stalked by her. How do you guard against that?

What can you do if it happens to you?

Tell your stalker once, clearly, “No.” After that, do not engage your stalker in any way. People unwittingly encourage stalkers by trying to reason with them. When they do that, it gives stalkers what they want, which is contact. Also you need to tell everyone you know that you are being stalked, and give them a picture of your stalker if you have one. This is so friends don’t inadvertently aid the stalker by giving out information about you.

Does filing restraining orders help?

Before filing one, you need to make sure the police in your area take them seriously, that they immediately arrest the stalker for any violation instead of just saying yet again, “Don’t do that.”

Is moving away a viable option?

It works sometimes but, as I’ve learned, many times it doesn’t. Stalkers get to their victims any way they can.

Why are current antistalking laws insufficient?

Too much current legislation requires that an explicit threat be made for a person to be charged with stalking. But research shows no relationship between explicit threats and whether a stalker will become violent, as some estimates say that 25 to 30 percent of them will.

What emotions do victims typically experience?

First comes denial, then anger, then mourning the loss of their security, and finally, acceptance, and integrating changes into their lives to feel safe. Stalking has a profound effect on people. My husband and I decided not to have children partly because I was being stalked. How could I ever let a kid play in the yard without worrying?

Are there support groups for victims?

Yes, in the back of my book I list organizations. They can be extremely helpful, not only to give emotional support but also because they can give you information about laws in your area and counseling centers.

When do most stalkings end?

Unfortunately, when the erotomanic moves on to another victim. The stalker who killed [actress] Rebecca Schaeffer first stalked Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, and even when he was in jail for Schaeffer’s murder, he was fixating on Dyan Cannon. It’s tragic that often the best you can hope for is that the stalker will fixate on someone else.

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