When Royce Baxter's GMC Yukon was pulled over in Washington's Thurston county in December 2010, deputies found a handgun, four pit bulls, and a plastic bag of women's underwear, carefully sorted. Police had been searching for Baxter after he had been spotted breaking into a home in Olympia, Washington. Baxter's vehicle also contained a camera containing photos of the inside and outside of the house as well as pictures of the underwear of a woman living in the house and a key to the front door. He had been obsessed with the woman, a former coworker, and had entered her house on repeated occasions to steal articles of her clothing. Baxter was later charged with trying to have the woman's husband and his arresting officer killed. In a statement that he made to the court during his trial, Baxter said "I am not the villain, the violent, dangerous person or criminal Detective Haller and Prosecutor (Andrew) Toynbee have attempted to so diligently and adamantly portray me as. I am not a threat or danger to the victims … and I have never physically harmed, assaulted or injured anyone in any way, and I never would."
While everyone experiences "secret crushes" or infatuations at some point or other in their lifetimes, thosecrushes are usually harmless. In more extreme cases though, the obsessive love can lead to far more serious consequences. More often known as erotomania, obsessive love is usually associated with celebrities being stalked by overzealous fans but such cases are probably more common than most people realize. First identified by French psychiatrist Gaetan Gatian de Clerambault in his classic 1912 paper Les Psychoses Passionelles, the syndrome is also known as de Clerambault's syndrome in his honour. Although de Clerambault considered erotomania to be found almost exclusively in females (all of the case studies in his paper were female), cases of males with erotomanic delusions were quickly identified as well Numerous case histories have been reported in the psychiatric literature for decades but erotomania is no longer considered a separate diagnosis (it is not included in the DSM-IV and is usually classified as part of a broader delusional disorder such as schizophrenia).
Known cases of delusional erotomania tend to share the following characteristics:
- A delusional conviction that he or she is has a "love connection" with the intended target, including covert messages being passed back and forth
- The intended target is usually of a much higher rank or social status
- In many cases, the patient insists that the other person fell in love first and made the initial advances
- While the intended target rebuffs the patient's advances, the patient then constructs elaborate explanations of why there is no real evidence of rejection
- The intended target endures months, if not years, of embarassment, humiliation, and fear over the patient's advances. If the patient is rejected too harshly, the intended target (or anyone perceived to be a threat to the relationship) may be physically harmed by the patient
- Erotomania is often a fixed delusion which is resistant to any form of treatment
Celebrities stalked by obsessed fans include David Letterman, Uma Thurman, Steven Spielberg, Madonna, and Rebecca Shaeffer (who was murdered by her stalker). A study by forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz of personal letters sent to celebrities and politicians found that, of the 214 letters sent to celebrities, 16% showed erotomanic delusions with eleven of the writers actually believing that they were married to the object of their obsession. Of the 100 people who wrote similar letters to politicians, five had erotomanic delusions and two believed that they were married. While many erotomanics gradually give up when their love is not returned, the most dangerous cases involve love turning to hatred over perceived betrayal or jealousy. One case that brought erotomania to public attention in recent years, involved John Hinckley Jr.'s obsession with actress Jodie Foster and the subsequent assassination attempt on U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. For John Hinckley, Jodie Foster became his entire world (likely triggered by her gripping portrayal as a prostitute in Taxi Driver). After learning the location of her dormitory at Yale University, Hinckley pursued Foster with numerous letters, phone calls, and notes designed to show his love for her. In a page torn from an art book that was later found by his parents, Hinckley had written "Napoleon and Josephine- John and Jodie" under the picture of a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte. The entire point of shooting the President involved proving to Jodie Foster that their union was inevitable by guaranteeing himself a place in the history books.
In a final letter written just before the assassination attempt, Hinckley wrote that:
There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing you this letter now. As you well know by now, I love you very much. The past seven months I have left you dozens of poems, letters and messages in the faint hope you would develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times, I never had the nerve to simply introduce myself. Besides my shyness, I honestly did not wish to bother you. I know the many messages left at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt it was the most painless way to express my love to you. [...]
Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever. I will admit to you that the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you. I've got to do something now to make you understand in no uncertain terms that I am doing all of this for your sake. By sacrificing my freedome and possibly my life I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel.
Jodie, I'm asking you to please look into your heart, and at least give me the chance with this historical deed to gain your respect and love. I love you forever. John Hinckley.
Along with impressing Foster, Hinckley also apparently had a dream of somehow replacing President Reagan and living in the White House with her. An unmailed postcard found by the FBI after the assassination attempt , Hinckley had written "Dear Jodie, one day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy". While President Reagan recovered from the shooting, several others at the scene were not so lucky (including Press Secretary James Brady who was left permanently disabled). Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Hinckley was confined to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he has remained ever since. Even after his trial, he insisted that the shooting was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world" and public outrage over his sentence has spurred new legislation to restrict the use of the insanity defense. Although he has been allowed public outings on different occasions, continuing evidence of his fixation on Jodie Foster has generated renewed concerns over potential risk to the public (including incidents in 1988 and 1999 when he was found to have smuggled materials about foster back to his hospial room). John Hinckley is currently seeking to have many of his current restrictions lifted by the courts.
Erotomania is often associated with stalking behaviour but most cases of criminal sexual harassment typically involve former partners or former employees/coworkers. While celebrities typically have security staff to deal with overly amorous admirers, ordinary citizens need to rely on police for protection. Unfortunately, many victims of erotomanic stalkers are often reluctant to make a formal complaint due to fear of retaliation or the hope that the stalker will simply give up in time. Even restraining orders are only marginally effective unless there is an anti-stalking law in place. Victims should take every measure possible to protect themselves including providing a picture of the stalker to friends and family as well as having an emergency police number to call (preferably dealing with the same police officer each time). They should also refuse to respond to the stalking in any way (including meeting with the stalker directly). Every contact attempt by the stalker should be documented and reported and victims should insist on periodic police drivebys and a security system for protection. Victims should also avoid being alone whenever possible and should carry a mobile phone and a personal alarm.
Sadly, none of these measures are foolproof and victims are often left isolated and afraid since police rarely have the power to act effectively until after the stalker has become violent. For more information and to learn about available resources, please contact the following organizations.