Last year, a stranger locked me in my apartment and told me I was going to die.
It was July, my air conditioner was broken, and my door was cracked open for fresh air. He walked in, told me someone was following him and going to kill us both, and then locked the door behind him.
But no one was chasing him. No one was even following him, and within a couple of minutes I realized that this man who towered over me and was clearly not in his right mind was the real threat.
I grabbed my ten-pound dog, ran out, and called 9-1-1. He was arrested within minutes.
"Oh, Mason," the police said when they saw him. (I've changed his name and several others in this piece.)
"You know him?" I asked.
"Oh, we know him," said one officer. "He was bothering people at the Scientology Center earlier today."
"There's not much we can do," the cop went on. "He didn't technically break a law."
"He kind of held me hostage," I said.
"Yeah," he responded, "but he didn't say he was going to kill you."
This was a fair point: Maybe Mason really was mentally ill, and thought someone was after him, rather than wanting to hurt me. Even if he was the real threat, maybe he didn't know it.
The police took Mason in and booked him for the night. According to police records, he was out after three days.
A few weeks later, I was walking home with groceries in my arms, humming Cabaret as usual, when I spotted Mason. Then he spotted me. Immediately, he began walking at full speed toward me, cackling and pointing as I ran from him. I was so frightened by his pursuit that I ran straight into the street to get away. I barely missed getting hit by a car, but got to the other side, where I stopped and looked at him. He stared back. For a second, I felt like I was being held hostage again, but in plain sight.
Months later, as I was walking toward my car to visit friends, a dark figure jumped from behind my 2004 Matrix and attempted to get inside. It was Mason again.
I ran. He followed, shouting gibberish, albeit of the hostile and frightening variety. It sounded as if he were threatening me, but it was difficult to tell. What I did know was that he was running now, shouting at me and dodging behind trees in an attempt to sneak up on me.
I called 9-1-1, but no one came.
Related: The VICE Guide to Mental Health
Most people who attempt to get restraining orders are trying to protect themselves from someone they know, but my situation is different. I had never seen the man before that summer day when he entered my apartment. Only by talking with neighbors did I discover that he was homeless and lived in the park nearby.
When I faced a judge, five months after the first incident, and asked for legal protection, my case was fairly clean-cut. A mentally ill person was stalking me; he had six arrests on his record, including two for felonies, and he wouldn't leave me alone. The judge granted the order within two minutes.
Restraining order laws vary from state to state, but California offers four types: a domestic violence restraining order, an elder or adult abuse restraining order, a workplace restraining order (that's for if you are an employer who wants to protect your employee from threatening behavior at your workplace), and civil harassment restraining orders. My restraining order is of the latter variety, which is reserved for those of us being pursued by a stranger or acquaintance who won't leave us alone. While many tend to think of a restraining order as the final word, it is actually only one step in what can be a long process of self-protection.
When I first got my restraining order, everyone I'd ever met wanted to let me know why such documents are useless.
"Crazy people don't care about a sheet of paper!" I heard, over and over.
OK, so maybe they don't. But the order's purpose is not simply to tell the offender to stay away, but to stop them before they come close enough to do harm. If Mason comes within the distance spelled out in my order, I can call 9-1-1 and, simply for being near me, he may be arrested and jailed for up to a year, or fined up to $1,000. This safety net can prevent crimes before they occur.
In my case, Mason stopped his stalking the minute the police told him that he would be arrested if he came near me. I had secured a temporary restraining order, and was waiting for the court hearing on a semi-permanent order.
The temporary restraining order worked. He didn't return.
But for some stalking victims, the situation isn't so cut and dry. What is harassment to one person may be a mere annoyance to another. California was the first state to enact a civil harassment statute in 1978 (and the first to pass a stalking law in 1990), but the statute's language reveals the slippery nature of trying to define "harassment":
A person who has suffered harassment… may seek a temporary restraining order and an injunction prohibiting harassment… "Harassment" is unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose.
The statute goes on,
The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner.
So you can't just be annoyed by your harasser—you have to be seriously annoyed.
The rest of the country followed suit, and civil harassment and stalking are now punishable crimes in all 50 states, and are grounds for a restraining order. Using data from five states, professor Aaron Caplan of Loyola Law School estimates that 219,700 petitions for civil harassment orders are filed in the United States every year (and remember, this is just one of four types of restraining orders). Caplan also projects, based on data available from Washington State, that about 330,000 civil harassment restraining orders are in effect at this very moment nationwide.
While many of these orders protect vulnerable people, and women in particular, this statute been used against protestors, activists, and others with controversial opinions. Caplan notes that in one small North Dakota town, the mayor successfully obtained a restraining order against an activist simply for being a vocal critic of the critic, and for staring at the mayor with "little beady eyes." Other attempts have been made to halt free speech via restraining order, like a case I witnessed in a courtroom where someone asked the court to "stop her talking about me."
On the hearing date for my restraining order, Judge Carol Boas-Goodson had to inform one plaintiff that she was not entitled to stop the grandmother of her children from photographing them, or from "saying mean things about" her. The woman stormed out, keychains jangling as she left.
Boas-Goodson struck me as a confident figure with an unusual combination of tenderness and pragmatism, poking holes in stories while showing sensitivity to plaintiffs and defendants alike. As it turns out, she is practically the only judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court system who hears restraining orders, giving her unusual power as well as unprecedented expertise.
While we would like to think that no one would bring a restraining order against someone they don't truly fear, the system can be used to manipulate.
I sat with my mouth agape as one woman explained that the defendant had barged into her apartment, pretending to be a police officer, and demanded to take her children. I was sure Boas-Goodson would grant protection to this woman who pleaded, "I am afraid for my life, and my children's lives" in broken English. Her attorney, acting also as interpreter, nervously wiped her nose and threw her hands up exasperatedly at the judge. You can't possibly turn her away, the gesture seemed to say.
Then the defendant explained his side of the story. He had banged on the door, he had asked to see the children but, he said, he had never claimed to be an officer. Perhaps it was a language barrier problem, he suggested, as the defense balked. Whatever the case, he was scheduled for a hearing for impersonating an officer. The plaintiff wanted protection until then. Boas-Goodson, pursing her lips in apology, closed the folder. "This will be solved in court," she said. "The petition is denied."
So either an innocent man was saved from a tarnished record and estrangement from his children, or a mother in danger was denied protection. I didn't envy Boas-Goodson's job.
And that is the great challenge of cases like this: While we would like to think that no one would bring a restraining order against someone they don't truly fear, the system can be manipulated. Restraining orders can be used maliciously as a means of keeping someone away from their children, home, or workplace, and they can affect someone's chances of getting a job, since they appear as part of your criminal record.
One case I saw involved two women who were attempting to get a restraining order against each other. They had dated the same man, and both had the same story: "She attacked me in the subway, and I'm afraid for my life."
"This is what we call ' mutual combat,'" the judge said, referring to California laws regarding two people who fight without there being an obvious aggressor. But the women disagreed. Both of them were certain that it wasn't mutual and that the other one had attacked them.
The judge did the only thing I could imagine doing in that situation: She denied the order to both parties, and told them to just stay away from each other. Maybe that was the last day they crossed paths. Or maybe one of them really did attack the other and got off scot-free.
Still, other cases gave me some hope for the restraining order process.
Marie met George seven years ago in an acting class. She was 23, he was 30, and "the opposite of my type," she told me. He was balding, chubby, and short, a full eight inches shorter than her. But he was also charming, funny, and engaging, and Marie found herself interested in him despite herself. Within weeks, they were dating. George had been down on his luck, so Marie leant him money and her car while he attempted to get back on his feet. But he never did.
"He started leeching off me and being very needy and clingy," she explained to me.
When Marie told George it was over, he "took it really badly."
"I was terrified," Marie told me. "But at least my cats were fine."
"Read this book before you break up with me," Marie remembers him saying, as he handed her Johnny Cash's autobiography. Johnny Cash, whose notoriously bad relationships with women had been documented two years earlier in the Oscar-winning biopic Walk the Line, was George's idol. That's when Marie knew she was in trouble.
"I told him, 'I'm not going to do this anymore, under any circumstances,'" she said. Then she went out to a movie with friends and tried to forget him. When she left the theatre, her phone was bursting with text messages. They were all from George.
"Your car is gone."
"You'll never see it again."
"I'm not sure if you'll ever see your cats again, either."
Marie rushed home and found her apartment door wide open, her belongings strewn about, and her car missing. George had driven her car a block away and parked it, perhaps after having second thoughts about his career as a thief, or maybe just wanting to send a message: I have control of your life. She had never given him her keys.
"I was terrified," Marie told me, "but at least my cats were fine."
When she called the police, they found George and arrested him, but she still couldn't sleep. She had her locks changed and a friend stayed over that night.
When Marie got to court to fight for a restraining order, George stood to give his defense.
"It was half Hamlet, half Law & Order," she said. He recounted his relationship with Marie professed his undying love.
"You really don't need to do this," Marie remembers the judge saying. Everyone sat in uncomfortable embarrassment for the failed Johnny Cash, who wouldn't rest until he had declared his devotion to his personal June Carter.
The judge granted the restraining order immediately. George kept away for a month.
On the day of Marie's college graduation, as she was walking to her car, she spotted George outside her apartment. She called 9-1-1, and he fled. Without evidence of his being there, the officers couldn't arrest him. But Marie couldn't live in fear anymore. She decided to move to a nearby city.
Marie finally felt safe. A year later, a package arrived on her doorstep. Inside were gifts from George: a book she had wanted to read, a scarf, sentimental knickknacks from their time together. Marie was touched, and when he called again, she answered. She said she forgave him, and that she would try to be his friend.
"Now, remember, I was 24!" she told me as she recounted the story, mortified in retrospect at her own naiveté. "I just thought he could move on, and I could move on, if I forgave him."
But the attention only escalated. George began calling and asking for money again, and demanding she date him. He said he had her name tattooed on his forearm. When he showed up at her apartment again, Marie told him he had to go. So George climbed on the roof and threatened to jump.
Marie called 9-1-1 and drove away, her cell phone buzzing with calls from George. She didn't answer, and when she retrieved her voicemail messages, she heard a single word:
Then she says she heard the sound of wind rushing, and the phone smashing to the ground.
If you're too hard to find, you can't be served with a restraining order. Avoid being served, and the order is invalid.
While most think of a restraining order as a single prohibition mandated by a judge, it is actually only valid if two things happen: The judge grants it, and the restrained person knows about it.
Because restraining order cases can be heard without the defendant being present (in fact, in half of the cases I saw in court, the defendant chose not to appear), the petitioner is responsible for ensuring that the paperwork is delivered to the defendant so that he or she knows that the order is in place. However, the petitioner is the only person who may not deliver the order, so most petitioners turn to law enforcement to serve it. On their end, officers typically makes three attempts before pocketing the fee and returning the order to the petitioner.
This gives defendants a clever loophole: If you're too hard to find, you can't be served. Avoid being served, and the order is invalid. If your harasser or stalker happens to be homeless, or tends to be hard to find, he or she can use their very absence as another threat.
The day the restraining order ended, George was back on her street, sitting in his car.
When I told the officer handling my case that I had obtained a three-year restraining order but that I couldn't get it to my stalker, Mason, because he has no home address, the cop leveled with me.
"Well, let's be realistic," he said. "He's not coming by now, right? So if he does come by, you can call 9-1-1, and they can serve him then."
"But he won't be arrested," I said.
"That's right," he said.
As I sat with my new restraining order—one copy for me, and one copy for the stalker who may never receive it—I wondered about his mental health. Is he a deeply troubled mentally ill person who stumbled into my apartment, was arrested, and then fixated on me, the woman who sent him to jail? A drug user, unable to get help, who regularly thinks he's being chased? Or someone more sinister?
Marie's stalker, George, didn't kill himself. He threw his cell phone and then climbed down from her roof and walked away. But Marie did have to get a second restraining order against him. The day that order expired, George was back on her street, sitting in his car. She ignored him. So far, he hasn't come back.
Both copies of my restraining order are sitting in my desk, just in case.
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