The day started promisingly with egg and bacon rolls, fresh coffee and the upbeat operatic pop-rock of Queen at a bicycle event in Adelaide in the summer of 2014. Ellis Gunn had been invited to read a poem for the gathered cyclists, after which she biked across town to an auction house where she had her eye on a chest of drawers. She felt good.
It had been four years since she'd left the cobbled streets of Edinburgh for the sprawling parks and hot summers of Adelaide, and she and her partner had just purchased a house. She had a small business selling up-cycled furniture and she was getting into a groove in her adopted homeland. As she peddled, thoughts of mother-of-pearl drawer handles in her mind, she had no idea she was riding towards an encounter that would plunge her life into terrifying chaos.
It began with a brush with a stranger. A civil exchange. This particular stranger was a tall, lean, middle-aged man wearing a Ralph Lauren V-neck when he approached Ellis at the auction house and struck up a conversation. He seemed harmless and they had a polite back-and-forth about furniture and houses. The Man asked Ellis her occupation. She said she was poet, but when he asked her name so that he could look up her work, something made Ellis' internal warning system light up.
"I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, though I couldn't really put my finger on why," she writes in her memoir, Rattled. As he probed deeper, a sense of unease settled over Ellis. The man explained he'd just moved to Adelaide from NSW. Then he said, "Look, I'm not trying to find out where you live or anything, but which suburb?" Ellis was unnerved. "Why would somebody say that?" Caught off guard, she named the suburb and excused herself.
"Something raised my hackles and I just wanted to go," she recalls. Later, she had to pass The Man to leave. As she did, he called out, "Can you give me your number or email address? Maybe we could meet for a coffee."
Ellis, who had mentioned her partner and children, told him she didn't think that would be appropriate and made a hasty departure. She left with a feeling of disquiet, but she shook it off. "Maybe I was just being paranoid," she reasoned.
But a few days later an unwanted email appeared in her inbox.
"Hello there Scottish Lassie … I've been lying in bed reading about you. I'd love to discuss your writing sometime. It would be nice to have a coffee with you."
"Initially I was thinking, maybe he's just a chatty guy who's looking for a relationship," she tells The Weekly, "recently divorced and feeling a bit desperate. Then, when I got the email I thought, no this isn't normal. People don't do that. For him to be that persistent, not listening to my no …"
She knew something was not right, but she didn't know how not right. After all, he hadn't done anything overtly threatening, yet. She questioned herself. Had she given him the wrong impression? Why was he being so persistent? The email sat on her computer, demanding action. She decided it was best to ignore it and try to put the incident out of her mind. But she found herself avoiding the auction house, until something she wanted to bid on came up …
She entered the auction house feeling wary. Phew. He wasn't there. She was just starting to relax when The Man snuck up behind her and whispered in her ear, "I know what girls are into." Ellis staggered backwards. When he saw the horror on her face, he became defensive. He told her she was being paranoid. The sentence he had uttered was the title of her book of poems, he said petulantly. Ellis said she knew that. He challenged her on the unanswered email. Again, her gut told her that there was something potentially dangerous about this man. He barely knew her, and yet he was angry.
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"He's not just someone who doesn't get social cues," Ellis says. "There was a desire there to be the one in control. When I said I hadn't read his email, he then repeated the whole email to me. Was that because he wanted to say: Well, if you're telling me you haven't read it, I'm going to make sure you hear what I said, because my intent was you hear that stuff that I said?"
Again, he pressed her to go out with him for a coffee. Ellis said no and he told her he'd been thinking about her because he'd been in her suburb, looking at a house. Then he described the home directly opposite where Ellis lived.
Rattled, Ellis made an excuse and left. Afterwards, she turned the experience over and over in her mind. Why was he pursuing her? Why had he told her about the house? Was he threatening her, or was it all in her head?
It wasn't in her head. The stalking intensified. Over the coming months she would feel violated, threatened and completely upended.
Ellis started her adult life as a social worker in Edinburgh and had fallen in love with a man who became cruel when he drank, which was often. She found herself unable to leave until a big-hearted woman, Jackie, gave her a room in her home. Despite this, her positive world view remained intact. Her new partner was decent and caring. They'd moved to Adelaide in 2010 and were happy in their life with their children.
"If you have a positive world view and you consider yourself to be fairly safe in the world, then something comes in to threaten that, then it's a huge emotional upheaval because you have to readjust your whole perspective," Ellis says.
At this point she was still unsure if The Man was a genuine threat, or merely odd but harmless. Then, one day at the park near her son's school, The Man started walking with her, asking questions and forcing himself into her company.
"I guess up to that point, I thought, maybe I'm imagining things. And then when I met him in the park, a couple of things he said made me think, that can't be a coincidence. Particularly when he mentioned, 'I'm here to see this house and it just happens to be on the route you travel every day from your house to your son's school'."
He knew her routine.
"That was a huge shock," Ellis says. "This person's been following me and I had no idea. That was the really creepy thing. He must have been there somewhere when I've been travelling to school with my son, and I hadn't even realised. That was what really freaked me out. That was the point that I just started to feel really unsafe.
"I remember looking around. Is there anyone else here? How safe am I? There was nobody in the park. There was nobody in the street. Whether or not he had deliberately picked that moment or not I don't know. I don't know what was going on in his head, or how often he had been there previously but certainly every time he approached me, I was on my own. He never approached me when I was with anyone else."
The Man continued to walk with her, chatting away. "And in my head, I'm going: Oh my God, oh my God," Ellis says. After they parted, she ran home, thinking: "What do I do? I've got a stalker. What do I do?"
She went to the police.
Seventy-five per cent of stalking victims are women, and the crime affects one in 10 Australians, according to Women's Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE). The police have increasingly become aware of the behaviour and developed ways to address it, but there are limits to their power. The police took Ellis' complaint seriously. The problem was, they couldn't help.
"The police officer said, 'He hasn't actually done anything to break the law so there's nothing we can do'."
They did a background check on The Man. He had no criminal record in South Australia, which didn't give Ellis much comfort as he'd only recently moved from NSW. She was dismayed to learn that the state-based police database couldn't access details of any charges or complaints that may be on file in NSW.
"I remember at the time thinking, what? That's just bizarre. This is the same country with the same laws. Surely there must be ways that police can find out these things."
This took a toll on Ellis. What really unravelled her, she says, was knowing that he had been following her without her knowledge.
"Generally, I think of myself as an optimistic person – not someone who jumps to horrific conclusions. That in itself was a shock. My own reaction was quite shocking to me. I would have these situations where I'd completely lose it and be having a panic attack."
She was constantly questioning herself. At one point, she saw him sitting in a car outside her house. But later she wondered, had it really been him? On another occasion she had reason to fear he'd been inside her home, but she had no proof. Being stalked was wreaking havoc on her mental health.
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She describes the conversations that would range in her head: "I'm in the middle of this insane panic attack and at the same time there's somebody else going, 'Stop that. What are you doing? That's insane. You're getting all worked out about nothing.' It was a strange experience and not one that I had previously experienced."
The majority of reported cases of stalking involve a victim being pursued by someone they know – often an ex-partner. "Stalkers often want to exert their power over you – to 'punish' you for leaving a relationship or rejecting them, or simply to control your life," according to WIRE.
However, an unknown stalker is more likely to want to harm you, Ellis says. "Stranger stalkers are generally more dangerous than ex-partners, proportionately. There are more women who are killed by ex-partner stalkers than women who are killed by stranger stalkers, but percentage wise, stranger stalkers tend to be more predatory and more violent."
Her interactions with The Man had begun to form a pattern. He would disappear and she would begin to relax, thinking he had given up and moved on. Then her peace would be shattered by an intrusion. After she went to the police, he disappeared for a while. Then he sent her a Facebook message. He wanted to meet up. She didn't reply. She went back to the police.
They told her she had options. If she confronted the man and told him to leave her alone, and he approached her again, the police could caution him. But this risked provoking him.
"These people sometimes treat any kind of response as a win. Even if it's negative, any interaction might encourage them to keep going," the officer told her.
Ellis decided the risk of making things worse was too great. "A lot of people had said to me, 'What are you scared of? He's not threatened you, what is it that's so scary?' That was really hard to articulate, even to myself. I would go, they're right. Why am I so scared?"
But deep down, she knew there was something threatening about him. "I just [knew] that he has the potential to be violent; he has the potential to be so angry with me; that he does something because I'm not behaving in the way he wants me to." She'd seen him get mad for no reason other than that he wanted to engage with her and she didn't want to engage with him. "That was enough to make him furious.
"I'd swing so quickly from thinking I might be making mountains out of molehills to thinking there was a possibility my life was in danger," she says.
After Ellis ignored the Facebook message, nothing happened. Again, she began to hope it was over, until she was dropping her son off at school and she saw what appeared to be a father from the school cycle past. He raised his hand in greeting and Ellis, not knowing who it was, waved back. Suddenly the light changed, and she realised it was The Man.
Anger surged through her. He lived on the other side of the city, yet he was always around. She decided she needed to make it clear she didn't want to see him. She walked over to him and told him to leave her alone. The Man left.
For a brief moment, Ellis thought she had freed herself, but not long after, he appeared in one of her favourite cafes. She couldn't believe it. He refused to respect her boundaries. Again, Ellis went to the police. The problem was he was just sitting in a cafe, not interacting with her. The stalker knew what he could get away with. What scared Ellis was she didn't know what he was capable of. "To be honest, I still don't know," she says.
Ellis needed a break. She was feeling homesick so she returned to Scotland to visit family and friends. As she contemplated what he had done to her and why it had rattled her the way it did, she reflected on all the misogynists that she had dealt with throughout her life: the man who screamed at her in a club in Edinburgh because she went out dancing while pregnant; the older male doctor who had made her strip down to her underwear and closely examined her all over with a torch, breathing on the backs of her thighs, just for a certificate of physical fitness; the boss who had raped her.
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Having a stranger stalk her certainly did dredge up that buried trauma.
"I remember being in the police station and being told, we can't do anything about the fact that he's sitting in your favourite cafe staring at you as you go past. 'You just have to put up with that,' is literally what the police officer said. It was like: oh my God, yet another thing I've just got to put up with. When is this going to end?
"One of the worst things about the whole situation was that sense of powerlessness. This is happening to me. Everyone knows it's wrong. I know it's wrong. Probably, on some level, even the stalker knows it's wrong. He doesn't care. He's going to do it anyway because he's worked out how he can get away with it.
"I think it's really important to recognise that all women are affected by misogyny," she says. "While the horrendous violence of sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and stalking can be devastating and life-changing, the many micro-aggressions that women put up with on a daily basis also take their toll. It's not easy. And because we tend to bottle up our emotions around this kind of thing, for fear of making men uncomfortable or being seen as too sensitive, it leads to an underlying stress that, if it's not dealt with, can eventually manifest as chronic illness."
Ellis returned from Scotland expecting to see The Man again, lingering around the school or when she was enjoying an unguarded moment in the park. She didn't, but the effects of his stalking lingered for months. It took both time and distance to heal. What finally helped was talking about it with others, coming to understand she was not alone in her experience, and sharing the story.
"I can't control what happened, but I can make it into something more positive," she says. There was power in that.
"That worked for me on two levels," Ellis says. "Initially, being able to talk to friends and counsellors was really useful. Writing the book took that to a different level. Being able to stand alongside the thousands of other women currently telling their stories, to be a part of that great tidal wave of voices who are refusing to be silenced is incredibly empowering."
Rattled by Ellis Gunn is published this month by Allen & Unwin. If this story raises issues for you, call 1800 RESPECT. You can report online abuse at esafety.gov.au
You can read this story and many others in the June issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now
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