Friends warned me against watching Baby Reindeer, the hit Netflix series about the comedian Richard Gadd and “Martha”, the character based on his alleged real-life stalker. It was too close to home, they said.

The reason for their concern was simple, or so I thought. Eleven years ago, I gave evidence in court against a woman who’d been stalking me online, with hundreds of abusive, often homophobic tweets and emails. She was subsequently found guilty of harassment, given a suspended sentence and issued with a restraining order. I never heard from her again, but the impact of her actions took its toll on my mental health. I was later diagnosed with PTSD.

I wrote about this for the Guardian, and used the experience as the inspiration for my last novel, The Closer I Get, about the relationship between a novelist and an online admirer who refuses to be ignored. Writing about it was cathartic. I was able to let go of all the fear and anger, and began to feel pity.

I don’t have Netflix, but last week I was house sitting for a friend who does. Curiosity got the better of me and I began watching the series that people had been talking about for weeks. I ended up watching all seven episodes in one sitting.

At first, I couldn’t understand why Gadd’s character was so attentive to the woman who turns up at the pub where he works and won’t leave him alone. Why encourage her? Surely he could see the danger signs? But then I cast my mind back to my own experience, and all the times I misjudged the situation or wished that I’d handled things differently.

The similarities didn’t end there. In the Netflix series, Gadd reports his stalker to the police and is asked what took him so long. The day I finally went to the police, I was asked the same question. The truth is, I felt embarrassed and a little ashamed. I’d never even met my stalker, yet she’d managed to disrupt my life to such an extent that I’d been prescribed antidepressants. In fairness to the police, they didn’t brush me off but took a full statement.

One reason why Gadd behaves the way he does is revealed in the fourth episode. Shortly before his character became entangled with Martha, he was sexually assaulted by a man he met a members’ club, who’d promised to help him with his career.

Watching this episode, I suddenly realised why my friends were so concerned. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I know from personal experience how sexual assault can make you behave in ways which might seem irrational. I also know that talking about it and writing about it can help free you from the shame and stigma. But what rights and responsibilities do you have as a writer?

This is a question I grappled with when it came to writing my memoir, We Can Be Heroes, which was published last year. So much of my life has been shaped by what happened to me as a child. I knew I had to address it. But I didn’t name the man who abused me and I left out some identifying details – partly for legal reasons, but also out of respect for other, innocent parties who might be adversely affected.

Do I owe a similar duty of care to the woman who stalked me? She never expressed any regret for the harm she caused. Still, I approached the subject with caution. In my novel, the stalker is female and the target is a gay man. But she bears little resemblance to the woman I saw in court. And since it’s a psychological thriller, I blurred the line between stalker and victim, making his behaviour more questionable. A similar thing happens in Baby Reindeer, as Gadd’s character becomes increasingly desperate and less sympathetic. In my book, the stalker is often the more sympathetic character.

Fiction allows you to do this. Memoir doesn’t. With the latter, you have a responsibility to tell the truth. Even so, I avoided going into too much detail about the court case – though, as one of my editors pointed out, it is a matter of public record. All it takes is for someone to search online and they’ll find the information for themselves.

This is exactly what happened with Baby Reindeer, which bills itself as a “true story”. No sooner had the series dropped than viewers were putting two and two together and identifying the “real Martha” from her social media posts.

Critics say Gadd should have gone to greater lengths to conceal her identity, and that Netflix should have been more diligent in terms of compliance. Perhaps. But you could also argue that she’s responsible for her own alleged actions. At what point does this become “exploitation”? The “real Martha” came forward last week in a live interview broadcast on YouTube. She protested her innocence, denying that she stalked Gadd and describing him as “psychotic”. She accused him of being an opportunist, cashing in on the demand for true crime stories. She said she’d had death threats and was considering taking legal action against Gadd and Netflix.

If it turns out that she’s telling the truth, and has been misrepresented, I hope she succeeds in clearing her name. Meanwhile, there’s been no word from the man depicted as sexually assaulting Gadd, whose identity led to some intense speculation but whose real name remains a closely guarded secret. In this case, much like my own, the male perpetrator appears to have gotten off lightly.

  • Paul Burston is a journalist and novelist. His memoir, We Can Be Heroes, is out now

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

Source link