Kate Brennan opened her passport and studied the photo for long seconds before passing it across the table.
"I've aged," she said, looking up ruefully. "All this has aged me."
I needed to see her passport because I needed to see her real name. "Kate Brennan" is a pseudonym. It's the name under which she wrote her memoir and one of several names she goes by. The reason for such complicated secrecy is at the heart of her new book, "In His Sights," her account of 14 years of being stalked by a former lover.
For safety reasons, and legal ones -- the stalking has lessened (but not stopped), and the man in question has never been charged -- Brennan and her publisher are protecting her identity and his. She traveled from elsewhere to talk with me, but agreeing to the terms of an interview was complicated. Not only can I not reveal her name, but I cannot describe her physically nor say where she lives. Nor will Brennan confirm the city or state where the book is set.
I can tell you where I think it's set, though; I think it is set here. As described in her book, the events unfold in the Midwest, in a big city with cold, snowy winters and many lakes, at a place where "the Mississippi River flows west to east, like a snake whose lazy midsection rested before dropping south."
And that is what gives the book, for me, an extra jolt.
Seduction, then fear
The book is told in two parts. The first half is about the romance between Brennan and the man she calls Paul.
Paul was wealthy. He was world-traveled and sophisticated and could be a lot of fun. He was also persistent and demanding, calling her six and eight and 10 times a day, wanting to see her constantly, wanting her to move in with him, wanting, wanting, wanting. His father had recently been murdered, and Brennan cut him a lot of slack.
"I stay with a difficult man because I can't bear to abandon a wounded child," she writes.
But eventually, she leaves, which brings us to the second part of the book: the methodical, systematic terror.
It begins so subtly that it's hard to tell if it's deliberate, or just disturbing coincidences. Her phone is cut off. Her power goes out. Her mail is inexplicably rerouted. She comes home to find her apartment door ajar. Nothing is taken -- just one object moved. The message is clear: I can get in any time I want.
Paul calls her constantly. He calls her friends, her family members. He drives past her house. She bumps into people he knows; they all tell her the same thing, almost as though it was scripted: "Paul saw you yesterday."
She moves. He finds her. She moves again, and again. He finds her again, and again. She moves 16 times in 16 months.
Anonymity vs. veracity
An anonymous memoir presents a particular problem for both the writer and the reader. In recent years, much damage has been done to the genre by writers who exaggerated or lied outright. If James Frey was caught making up a fantastic story of drug addiction and crime, and if suburbanite Margaret Seltzer tried to pass herself off as a drug-running gang member, why should we believe a disturbing account of a shocking crime written under a fake name?
Brennan sees the problem from a different perspective.
"I have always wanted to write books," she said. "And now I've written one, and I can't claim it."
Brennan is well-educated and articulate, a writer and teacher for 30 years. Veracity is deeply important to her. It is the reason she described her surroundings so precisely, even while not naming them: "I wanted to make it as authentic as possible." This was her conundrum.
Her first draft was deliberately vague. She tried to hide too much and ended up saying too little.
"It created a huge screen between me and the reader," she said.
She realized that for people to understand what was happening to her, they had to understand what she was forced to give up.
"I had to show the readers who I was," she said. "I had a life. I loved my life. I loved where I lived."
Her editor at HarperCollins told her, "Write it as if you don't have anything to hide."
Later, with the help of lawyers, they decided what to obscure. In the end, Brennan said, she changed only four things: her name, Paul's name, details about Paul's appearance and the circumstances of his father's death.
All else, she said, is true.
"I chose not to fabricate anything, so there could be no question," she said. "I didn't want to set up a situation where the reader is trying to sift through what is real and what isn't. Every detail I could, I checked."
She was guided by her journals, as well as by timelines and reports she prepared for the police.
Ah, the police. Where were they during all of this?
It took Brennan two years to talk to them; she had assumed that they wouldn't believe her. But they did. They brought Paul in for questioning. They warned him that if anything happened to her, he would be the only suspect. They gave Brennan advice on how to stay safe and on how seriously to take the situation. (Very.)
They wrote letters to allow her to get plane tickets and credit cards under fake names. They told her that even though Paul had not physically harmed her, she should not let her guard down; they considered him a likely suspect in his father's death.
"The biggest thing they did for me was affirm what was going on," she said. "It was huge. They believed everything I told them."
She now lives far away from where the stalking took place, far away from the city she loves. She said she wrote the book to give voice to the 1 million American women who are stalked every year.
"I did it because of the anger I feel," she said. "I live a good life, but it's under this cloud. The world is less secure for me than for the average person. It always will be."
The most recent incident was about a year ago. She is quite aware that publication of her book could start things up again.
"I can't ever assume it's over," she said. "It's been 14 years, and counting."
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302