Strangers are following you. Teams of them, coordinating their surveillance. Recording you. Attacking you with sonic devices. Maybe burning you with lasers. Maybe implanting grain-sized trackers inside your body. You can feel the hard bumps under your skin.
You are alarmed, naturally, and turn for help to those you trust: your family and friends. Maybe law enforcement. Only they don’t believe, you. They might even act like you’re the problem. Like you’re crazy.
Welcome to the world of Targeted Individuals, a loose confederation of those, in their words, subject to the “growing crimes of organized stalking, surveillance, abuse and electronic harassment.”
I first met Targeted Individuals last August, passing a protest in the Loop marking “International Targeted Individual Day.” I took a flyer, showing the fearful blue eyes of a weeping woman.
Calling spokeswoman, “Ella Free,” started with a surprise.
“A good portion of people who claim to be Targeted Individuals are actually mentally ill,” she said. Straight to the elephant in the room. “So many of them, people have the same story: it’s interesting that a person isolated is having a very similar scenario.”
She meant “interesting” as in “persuasive” — these people are describing the same thing, therefore it must have basis in reality. That logic doesn’t hold up.
“People who are paranoid start to latch onto the same kind of delusion,” said David LaPorte, a professor of psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “This is not uncommon. When airplanes first started, people started having delusions they were being followed by airplanes. The computer has been a huge issue that leaked into paranoid delusions. Every technological advance becomes fodder for paranoid individuals.”
I spoke with Free and listened to her interviews on Internet shows, about how a bad online relationship expanded into obsessiveness — whether hers or someone else’s I’ll leave unaddressed. Maybe everyone at the beach was videotaping her.
“I knew right off this guy had hired these people to do this to me,” she said.
Maybe the stabbing pain in her leg was being induced.
“I knew it was artificial,” she said. “I thought it was a laser, maybe going off the wi-fi.”
With the president in a state of near-hallucinatory grandiosity, spinning wild tales of government conspiracy, and millions of Americans blurring their perception of reality to accommodate him, this outlooks seems to be a continuum. Targeted Individuals are an outlier, an extreme case of what many suffer. In some ways they may even be more moderate.
“I don’t think it’s the government,” Free said. “I believe this is a multi-pronged approach. This is a new criminal tactic. I feel a lot of this has to do with security companies … I started getting followed by strange people. Finally about a year later, went online started researching the stalking and harassment and found Targeted individuals and thought, ‘Huh, I’m not the only one experiencing this craziness.'”
“They’re well organized because of the Internet,” LaPorte said. “That’s part of the problem. It deepens and entrenches what is probably a delusion.”
Note the “probably” in the previous sentence. Sometimes the improbable does happen. Stalking is real, though usually by individuals, not shady networks.
“No one’s really actually talked to these individuals in a clinical way to establish whether they are nuts,” LaPorte said. “Anybody who has worked in this field for a long period of time, you hear stories of fantastic delusions only to find out it was true. What they’re talking about could be true, but it’s probably not.”
That’s why the sane are always a few steps behind the unhinged: sanity reflexively questions itself, while certainty and delusion go hand in hand.
“That’s a common bedrock of paranoia, a common fallacy: confirmatory bias,” LaPorte said. “We seek out information to confirm what (we) already believe.”
Both classic mental illness and current politics seem to share a need for validation from people who feel overlooked. Grow lonely enough and space aliens show up.
“If everything is referring to you, you are special in some way,” LaPorte said. “You are being targeted by the government, by gangs. Then you look at these folks and ask, ‘Why would the government, if it had this sophisticated satellite technology, pick these people?’ They’re not particularly special.”
Ouch. You see why so many lose their hold on reality. It often stings.