San Diego It was one of the worst shootings in Michigan for a long time. On November 14, 1996, Gerald Atkins, a 29-year old ex-soldier and glassmaker, shot his way into a Ford auto plant in Wixom, Michigan, and terrorized employees for five hours. He fired hundreds of rounds, killed a supervisor in cold blood, and wounded three other people, including two sheriff's deputies.
He said he did it for the love of a Ford assembly-line worker, Debra Myers. "I wanted her to know that...I will not let anybody infringe on her rights," he told cops afterwards. "She was afraid of [the] rank and file and Fords and the political action committees and all those little committees...that President Clinton has got full control over."
For J. Herbert Larson, Atkins's defense attorney, that speech was the one hope in a nightmare case. With eyewitnesses galore, a two-hour taped confession, a past full of violent, antisocial behavior, Gerald Atkins's only hope lay in a plea of insanity.
Then, just 12 days before the trial, Larson heard the magic words "delusional erotomania." The psychological condition pointed the way to a link between Atkins's deluded love for a woman he didn't know and his appalling massacre at Ford. Larson knew San Diego psychologist J. Reid Meloy was the only man for the job.
Meloy, a forensic psychologist, probably knows as much about stalking and "delusional erotomania" as anybody in the world. He has written scholarly pieces with such titles as "Unrequited Love and the Wish to Kill," a 1992 book on erotomania called Violent Attachments, and has recently edited The Psychology of Stalking, due out next month and believed to be the first-ever scholarly book on stalking.
Larson put in a call to Meloy. He wanted to know if Gerald Atkins's obsession with Debra Myers might fit the diagnosis of "delusional erotomania." Meloy agreed to testify as an expert witness.
"Dr. Meloy was absolutely critical to making this case," says Larson.
Meloy, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD, says psychologists' ethics prevent him from talking specifically about Gerald Atkins. But news reports of his expert testimony confirm Meloy believed Atkins truly fit the profile of an erotomanic, thus opening the possibility of the jury declaring Atkins "not guilty by reason of insanity."
Just what is delusional erotomania?
"Erotomania is a delusional belief that you are loved by another," says Meloy. "The first documented case came from Hippocrates [around the third century B.C.]. It has been diagnosed clinically [in Europe] since 1921. But it wasn't an official diagnosis in American psychiatry until 1987."
Meloy says it is part of the stalking syndrome.
"Stalking is a new crime," he says. "California created the world's first laws against it in 1990. But it is an old behavior."
It's also a serious problem. Meloy quotes figures from a study by the Center for Policy Research in Denver: 8 percent of adult American women and 2 percent of adult men have been stalked sometime in their lives; an estimated 1 million women and 400,000 men are stalked every year in the United States.
In most cases, Meloy says, victims don't find help. Here in San Diego County, with an adult female population of one million, at an estimated nationwide rate of 1 percent being stalked, 10,000 women are stalked annually. Yet there were only 45 cases of stalking prosecuted by the district attorney in 1996. Less than half a percent of perpetrators faced prosecution.
There is violence in 25 to 35 percent of stalking cases, according to Meloy. "Less than" 2 percent result in homicide.
"Typically individuals that stalk are males in their 30s," says Meloy, "and they typically are unemployed, or underemployed. They have a prior criminal, psychiatric, and drug-use history, and they are stalking a woman that they have had a prior intimate relationship with. That's the most frequent stalker profile."
Delusional erotomania motivates 10 percent of stalkers, Meloy says.
"Believing the other party loves you is a key to erotomania. Otherwise it's just a misguided romance. You have to actually believe in the face of evidence to the contrary that you are loved by the other. You have to be delusional to believe it [despite] a tremendous amount of data to the contrary."
What Meloy calls "triangulation" often happens. "A third party is brought into the situation, typically by the stalker or by the erotomanic. And that third party could range from a co-worker to a husband to another lover to a supervisor at work to a psychotherapist, an attorney, whomever, but there are three people, therefore the triangle.
"Typically an erotomanic triangulates as part of his paranoid thinking. The third party is viewed as impeding access to the object of his pursuit. So, for instance, in the Madonna case, Robert Hoskins, the stalker, believed that the bodyguard was impeding access to her. And, in fact, he was."
Testifying as Larson's expert witness in Pontiac, Michigan, Meloy told the court that the "third party" Gerald Atkins took revenge on was the Ford Motor Company. Atkins somehow felt Ford was blocking him from proposing to the woman, Debra Myers. He was sure she loved him despite the fact he hardly knew her and that she had spurned his advances. Classic triangulation, Meloy told the jury.
In The Psychology of Stalking, Meloy cites John Hinckley Jr.'s stalking of Jodie Foster, showing how a stalker believes a "crazy act" against a third party can somehow restore the fantasy bubble of being loved -- or at least linked to the object of desire. A "narcissistic linking fantasy."
"Following [Hinckley's] repeated and unsuccessful attempts to court [Foster]," Meloy writes, "he resorted to what rational minds would call a 'crazy' act: He would assassinate a public figure [President Reagan] to win her affection. 'To link myself with her for almost the rest of history.' "
At least in that daft sense, Meloy writes, Hinckley succeeded.
Hinckley's latest custody hearing is just one of many recent high-profile trials involving Meloy.
"I was retained by the defense in the Polly Klaus murder trial. I was also the forensic psychologist for the prosecution in the Oklahoma City bombing cases. I worked on the McVeigh trial and also the Nichols trial for the federal government. I was the forensic psychologist for the prosecution in the Madonna stalking case a couple of years ago. I was retained by the defense on the Susan Smith case to look at all the psychological testing. And I was contacted by the prosecution on the O.J. Simpson case. They asked me if I would evaluate Simpson if the opportunity arose. And I said I would. But he never entered any mental disability issues."
Is stalking a phenomenon of the cyberwired, star-worshipping age we live in, where artificial media bring a few cult figures into pseudo-intimate contact with millions?
"I'm not sure whether stalking has increased, or if we're just paying more attention to it. It certainly is a hot subject for research now," says Meloy. The worrying thing, he believes, is that in some ways, society actually gives it its blessing.
"Our popular culture sanctions obsessional pursuit. All you have to do is look at some of the movie titles, the songs, the advertisements in our society: you have Calvin Klein's perfume Obsession. The TV ad shows this little waif of a woman dressed in eight square inches of clothing. She comes on the screen and she's standing virtually nude on a beach and says, 'Between romance and madness lies obsession.' You think of Sting's song 'Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you.' That's a song of obsession."
Meloy expands on the thought. "The American popular culture," he writes in his book, The Psychology of Stalking, "...movies, television, music, and advertising...tacitly sanctions obsessional pursuits. Lurid and dramatic portrayals of stalking -- Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction are two cinematic examples -- intermittently appear in the popular culture. [In movie plots] obsessional pursuits, or stalking, end with a positive outcome or reinforcement for the behavior: [In Bizet's Carmen], we sympathize with Carmen's murderer; we laugh at Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally, for tenaciously pursuing Linus.... Stalking is the dark heart of romantic pursuit."
Even characters in Shakespeare, it seems, were stalkers. Meloy quotes Othello at the front of his book.
"She must die, else she'll betray more men....
This sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love."
-- Othello, Act V, Scene II.
Meloy's co-contributor, psychologist Glen Skoler, segues this quote straight to O.J. Simpson, talking to Esquire magazine last February: "Let's say I committed this crime.... Even if I did this, it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?"
Or John Hinckley: "I seem to have a need to hurt those people that I love the most. This is true in relation to my family and to Jodie Foster. I love them so much, but I have this compulsion to destroy them.... My assassination attempt was an act of love. I'm sorry love has to be so painful."
Skoler writes, "One of the most disturbing archetypes and psychodynamics in love obsession is the fantasy of both union with and possession of the beloved in death."
"The force of fantasy," adds Meloy, "...is the first step in understanding the psychology of stalking."
Meloy cites Princess Diana's death and the tidal wave of emotion it elicited, especially from the normally taciturn British. Part of it was guilt: people suddenly recognized that, through the paparazzi, they and the whole world were "stalking" her, seeking some "narcissistic link" with her.
"It is also a problem in Britain," says Meloy. "It's a big problem in Australia. And in Canada. It appears to be an Anglo phenomenon. Although nobody's researched the Latin countries."
His three-point advice for anyone who thinks they're being stalked: recognize when it begins, contact the police, and document each event.
Bottom line, says Meloy in his 1992 book Violent Attachments, is that American culture "knows too much about violence and too little about attachment."
Back in Oakland County court in Pontiac, Michigan, Meloy's testimony could not save Gerald Atkins: last week the jury convicted him on 25 counts, including first-degree murder.