Three years ago, an envelope dropped through our letterbox, addressed to my husband.
There was something curiously old-fashioned about it. Typed out in a formal typeface, the address had been cut out and Sellotaped onto the envelope. The words ‘private and confidential’ hung ominously at the top. And inside, the letter itself began: ‘Please, please do something about your wife.’
Signed only from a ‘well-wisher’, this anonymous note to my husband, Sir Jonathan Bate, who is a well-known Shakespeare scholar and provost of Worcester College, Oxford, went on to assassinate my character, my looks, my dress sense, my grammar, my mothering skills, my work as a writer.
It rambled on for five pages. ‘Barely literate’ and ‘pathologically vain’, I was, the writer stated, a ‘liability’ and my vulgar tweets were giving the college a bad name.
Paula Byrne and husband Jonathan Bate, who were the victims of a poisoning letter
Insults poked fun at my working-class accent and Northern background. I was told that I ‘looked like a Cheshire housewife’ who had only married my husband ‘as a passport to a glam life’. The accusation that I was a gold-digger struck me as particularly unfair as, not only had I married an academic rather than a hedge fund manager, but I’ve always worked hard and earned my own money as a biographer.
My husband’s first reaction was ‘file it away in the box named lunatic’. Mine was rather more emotional.
I felt shock, disbelief, a sense of my world suddenly being turned upside down. I wondered who would do such a thing and why. Above all, I was worried. As far as I knew, nobody held a grudge against me, so why was I being targeted in this way?
Page after page of cruel insults towards me was bad enough.
Even worse were the personal details about my children and criticisms of me as a mother.
It was clear that these letters weren’t coming from some prankster, but someone who knew, or had known, me.
Someone who could get to my children. Every mother’s worst nightmare.
Over the next few days, my husband and I ruminated over the contents.
The letter, though anonymous, claimed to be from a concerned colleague of my husband’s. The first temptation was to believe this was true, which made the letter feel even more of a personal attack, as my husband’s role as the head of an Oxford college meant that we were ‘living above the shop’, with our family of three children, two teenagers and an eight-year-old.
At the time, we were relatively new to the job, and feeling our way in a new environment that was sometimes like being in a goldfish bowl. Was this person watching us? Was it someone wanting to bring us down?
The deeply unsettling effect of this kind of poison pen letter is the havoc it wreaks. It’s as if someone has thrown in a hand-grenade, then sat back watching for the chaos to erupt.
My initial feelings of bewilderment and fear were replaced by those of anger and contempt. Why should we be subjected to this torrent of abuse when we had done nothing wrong?
Paula Byrne at Worcester College
Not knowing who my attacker was left me feeling a great sense of impotence. I couldn’t respond. I felt I had been robbed of my voice and my rights.
Nobody deserves to be bullied in this way.
This kind of hate mail also encourages a conspiracy of silence. Many would react by putting the letter away in a drawer, not telling anyone, keeping it a secret for fear that gossip will spread. After all, people will only say: ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’
But I was determined that I had nothing to hide, that I would not be complicit in such a conspiracy. Surely, I reasoned, the letter’s power would only be intensified if it remained secret.
So I told a few close friends, who were outraged on my behalf. I also told the two older children. Typical teenagers, they thought that the letter was so ‘mad’ it was somehow comical — a view, sadly, I just couldn’t share.
My fears were compounded when, a few months later, another letter arrived in the post — same envelope, same printed address, the same warning at the top of ‘private and confidential’.
Only this time the letter purported to be from someone else, a prospective student. But just like the first letter, this one was also full of malice and spite.
A third, purporting to be from a second colleague, told me that my husband was ‘thinking of going back to his first wife’.
If the letters had set out to open up old wounds, they were succeeding. My husband and I have been happily married for 22 years, but it’s a second marriage for both of us.
We’ve also withstood some challenging times; most particularly the serious illness of our daughter, who lost her kidneys when she was five and had spent months in hospital, and then on dialysis, awaiting a transplant.
Paula with her husband Sir Jonathan Bate, who is a well-known Shakespeare scholar and provost of Worcester College, Oxford
It takes a particularly vicious person, who claims to be a friend and well-wisher, to attack a family that has already endured so much pain.
Despite the pretence of there being different letter-writers, it was clear I was being stalked by one person.
And the escalation of their hatred left me traumatised.
I was diagnosed with stress — physical pains, sleeplessness, weight loss. It was time to go to the police. They said that, while this looked like an offence under the Malicious Communications Act and the Protection from Harassment Act, as the letters were anonymous, there was little they could do.
Things went quiet over the summer. We dared to hope it was all over. But with the start of a new academic term there was another one — claiming this time to be from the mother of a girl who had died from anorexia nervosa.
She said that, by sharing pictures of fun times with my girlfriends on Instagram and Twitter, I was setting a bad example to young girls.
First the letters had targeted me for my background, now it was clear the deranged writer was also stalking my social media accounts, picking holes in any and every perceived behaviour.
If I told a joke on Twitter, I would be accused of being shallow and frivolous. If I wore a nice dress in a picture, I would be accused of showing off, as if the letter writer expected me to dress either in sackcloth or as a bluestocking in tweed and pearls.
Paula, who was called ‘a bad mother who only fed her children cornflakes’ with her professor husband
There became a strange sort of pattern to them.
Each new term, another one would arrive, all in the same brand of Basildon Bond envelope, with the same Midlands regional postmark.
They became increasingly odd: bizarre stream-of-consciousness rants that went on for pages and pages, one moment randomly insulting television historians such as Lucy Worsley and Bettany Hughes and the next describing a distinguished academic colleague of my husband’s as ‘a slippery character who can’t be trusted’.
My husband was told that this particular Professor was going around describing me as ‘the WAG’ (as in footballer’s wife) because of my dress sense.
I was body-shamed, accused of being overweight and looking ‘like a tranny’ — a term I find particularly bigoted.
I was a bad mother, who only fed my children cornflakes. (This induced a chuckle from my children who know about my obsession with cooking from scratch and my fondness for Nigella Lawson, whose cookbooks regularly appear in my Christmas stocking.)
And how dare I Instagram a photo of a beach in Lyme Regis? Who did I think I was showing off to about my holidays? Every attempt was made to undermine my confidence.
Then came the accusation that my books had been ‘ghostwritten’ by someone else. Of course they hadn’t been — and yet it was alleged that, in the literary world, I was a joke, a laughing stock.
Even my poor dog, a silky little Havanese, was insulted — accused of being ‘merely a fashion accessory and an ugly one at that’.
Shaken, I turned my attention on my own behaviour.
Perhaps I was tweeting a bit too much, and being indiscreet about details of my life (though why anyone would be interested was a puzzle).
I decided perhaps I should take a break from Twitter, to see if that halted the letters.
My then 17-year-old son disagreed, saying: ‘Why should you change your behaviour to suit a deranged person? If you do that, they’ve won.’ I saw that he was right. For as a professional writer — a freelance with no regular income — the use of social media is crucial to me.
As an author, I regularly tweet information about my latest books, reviews, articles. In addition, many of my readers tweet to me and we exchange book tips, jokes and interesting articles.
For all its dangers, social media has its positives.
I have made new friends on Twitter, reconnected with old ones, and discovered a community of writers and mothers who have been a hugely supportive network. Was I supposed to give all this up just because I was being stalked?
My rational mind was doing its best to present a logical defence.
But still the paranoia was setting in.
My husband and I began suspecting friends, colleagues, even the partners from our first marriages. Might my first husband still nurse a grudge after more than 20 years?
At night in bed, we would scan through all the names of people we thought could be culpable.
The author was clearly intelligent. Well written, even occasionally witty, the letters were obviously the work of a confident wordsmith.
There were references to Shakespeare. I was compared with the femme fatale Cleopatra, who ‘makes hungry where she most satisfies’ — a fancy way of accusing me of being a filthy old slapper.
The letter attacked the charitable foundation Paula and her husband set up
Thankfully these feelings of paranoia would vanish in the clear light of day.
Blessed with a large group of loving and loyal friends, we would feel angry with ourselves for our moments of irrationality. Angry, too, that we had allowed the poison to do its job.
Just before last Christmas another letter arrived. This was number 14. And this time, its contents went too far.
The letter attacked the charitable foundation my husband and I set up for the relief of stress and mental well-being. We run poetry workshops in prisons and half-way houses, schools and hospices. The letter said I was only doing it ‘to engineer a trip to the Palace’, whatever that meant.
For our foundation to be attacked was the final straw. I went back to the police to lodge another complaint.
This time, the police officer was superb, and she made some incisive observations about the anonymous letter-writer, convinced (as was I) that the writer was female and someone from our past.
It was traumatic reading through every letter and making a statement about each one. But it helped me to see a pattern emerging — and suddenly, I realised I knew who it was.
The culprit, I’m sure, is a disgruntled colleague from a long time ago, who had suddenly teetered over the edge.
The police officer helped me to see that the perpetrator was clearly unwell, and that the letters were increasingly desperate and fantastical.
Returning to the police felt like taking back some power and control. I was reassured they were taking the case seriously. They are currently examining a selection of letters for fingerprints — results of which are imminent.
‘None of this is your fault,’ said the kind but firm policewoman. Just to hear someone objectively and calmly expressing their sympathy, and praising you for handling it well, felt empowering.
After all, how could I be an example to my own children, when I gave them advice about how to stand up to bullying, if I didn’t stand up to my own aggressor?
So, with my husband’s support, I decided I would go public. I would confront the harassment full on, shine a spotlight on the secrecy and the lies.
I believe the letter writer to be in the world of education, and yet some of the insults were sexist, deeply misogynistic, transphobic and snobbish (I’m from the North, so I’m common as muck — that was the implication). I was worried about this person being responsible for the development of young people.
Thankfully, revealing that I have a stalker has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. There has been a tsunami of support and love from many unexpected places.
When something as distressing as this happens, you learn who your real friends are — and that knowledge is as precious as diamonds.
My other way of fighting back has been to turn this horrible experience into something positive and creative: I have written a novel shaped around the evil letters. My hope is that it will speak to everyone who has been victimised or bullied.
Ironically, the most recent letter — which was also sent to two colleagues of my husband — carried a postmark saying ‘Royal Mail Supports Mental Health Awareness’.
My only message to the letter-writer is: get some help.
- Paula Byrne’s fee for this article will be given to the work of the foundation for reading as stress relief, relit.org.uk. Her novel, Look To Your Wife, is published on April 6.