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Professional News
Stalkers Inhabit a Reality All Their Own
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 21 page 10-46

Resentful, delusional, predatory, or pathologically infatuated—stalkers of the famous and the powerful live in a world of their own.

And they have been recognized long enough that forensic specialists have developed a unique nomenclature to classify the types of individuals who obsessively follow, intrude upon, and sometimes take the lives of the celebrated, said Robert T.M. Phillips, M.D., Ph.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Phillips presented a broad overview of the colorful, if disturbing, history of celebrity stalkers and presidential assassins at APA's 56th Institute on Psychiatric Services last month in Atlanta.

While describing in detail the unique quirks and idiosyncratic fantasies of stalkers over the years, he outlined a specialized system of classification to encompass them all.

"It is important to recognize that celebrity stalkers don't fit neatly into existing typologies," Phillips said. "When you attempt to categorize the unique behaviors manifested by those who persistently follow and intrude upon the lives of the famous, a slight modification of nomenclature is necessary."

He is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland schools of medicine and law, Baltimore, and serves as a consultant to the Protective Intelligence Division of the United States Secret Service. He is a member of the AMA House of Delegates and a former deputy medical director of APA.

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Stalking itself is relatively straightforward, involving actions that are unwelcome and intrusive to—and induce fear and concern in—a" target" individual. Such actions can include following, loitering, and approaching the target repeatedly; they can also include such technological intrusions as repeated telephoning, faxing, or e-mailing.

"Any way in which an individual can make an unwelcome contact with the target can form the foundation for a legal case of stalking," Phillips said.

Drawing on terminology developed by Paul Mullen, M.B., D.Sc, of the Victorian Forensic Psychiatry Services in Australia, Phillips examined a long line of celebrity and presidential stalkers, sorting them into one of several categories: pathologically infatuated stalkers, predatory stalkers, intimacy seekers, and rejected stalkers.

John Hinckley, morbidly obsessed with movie star Jodie Foster, is perhaps the most famous example of the pathologically infatuated celebrity stalker. Phillips described how Hinckley's fascination with Foster long predated his 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan and persisted even as Hinckley was engaged in long-term psychotherapeutic treatment.

"It is not uncommon for individuals to be engaged in these [obsessive stalking] activities while they are engaged in long, well-developed therapeutic relationships," said Phillips. "The issue simply never comes up. They are very, very good at making sure that information is contained."

Somewhat less well known are the predatory stalkers William Tagger, who assaulted newsman Dan Rather and later murdered an NBC employee, and Jonathan Norman, who stalked filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

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Intimacy seekers are those possessed of a delusion of reciprocated love, and they have not always required the incessant spotlight of television to fuel their morbid fascination—a fact made evident in the case of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who in 1949 shot Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus. It was Waitkus who inspired the movie "The Natural," starring Robert Redford.

Phillips described how Steinhagen, of Chicago, first saw Waitkus on the field when he played for the Chicago Cubs. She became romantically obsessed with him and papered her room with clippings and pictures of the ballplayer. Frequently, she set a place for him at the family dinner table, Phillips said.

In 1949 Waitkus was traded to Philadelphia, which "upset" Steinhagen, Phillips said. When she learned that the Philadelphia team would be in Chicago in June of that year, she made reservations at the Edgewater Hotel under an assumed name.

"On the 14th she went to the game, then went back to her hotel, had a daiquiri and two whiskey sours, and paid a bellhop to deliver a note to Eddie Waitkus's room," Phillips said.

The note read: "It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We are not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain it to you."

Waitkus met Steinhagen, who shot him in the chest with a .22 caliber rifle, reportedly telling him that if she couldn't have him, then no one could. Waitkus recovered from the shooting and returned to baseball, but did not return to his old form.

Similar cases of intimacy seekers described by Phillips included Margaret Ray, who stalked late-night television comedian David Letterman, and Athena Rolando, who stalked movie star Brad Pitt.

The rejected stalker is typified by the individual whose fantasies include the delusion that he or she has been rejected or slighted by the target of an obsession. In 1989 Robert Bardo shot actress Rebecca Schaeffer, with whom he had become infatuated after the actress made the mistake of responding to a fan letter from Bardo with a handwritten, personal note.

Hiring a detective to track down her address through the local division of motor vehicles, Bardo visited the actress where she lived and engaged her in conversation on her doorstep. When she rebuffed him, Bardo shot her, saying later that her behavior was "callous" and that he "expected more of someone like her," Phillips said.

In all of these cases, Phillips emphasized the deeply rooted, nearly intransigent nature of stalkers' fantasies.

"When assessing this cohort, you have to truly put yourselves where they are," Phillips said. "When you confront them with your reality, they will say, `That is only your reality, because you really don't know.'" ▪

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