One night more than twenty years ago, I was followed on my way home by a drunk who wanted to get into a fight. A block from my house, he started throwing punches. I yelled, in a Texas accent that I didn’t know I still had. He broke my glasses. And then, to my surprise, I punched him back. He ran off, and when I got home, I was happy to find a little of his blood on one of my knuckles.
Over the next few days, I told the story to anyone who would listen. I expected sympathy, which many offered. But to my chagrin, quite a few listeners suggested that I must have done something to provoke the assault. Had I challenged the man? Maybe I had made a pass at him? It was my introduction to the human weakness known as the just-world hypothesis. As it turns out, many people wish so strongly to believe in the safety of their environment that they prefer not to acknowledge that a bad thing can happen to someone who has done nothing to deserve it. In the just world that they imagine, no one gets cancer unless he has eaten or smoked something naughty. Bicyclists aren’t run over if they wear their helmets. And no one is assaulted who hasn’t at least leered at his attacker.
The news in James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have is that there is a new kind of bad thing in the world: persecution on the Internet by a clever, mentally unbalanced person. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you may have trouble believing how upsetting and disorienting it can be. And you may be tempted to wonder if a sufferer like Lasdun hasn’t somehow asked for it. Lasdun, a novelist with a taste for creepy, unreliable narrators, doesn’t shy away from the suspicion. To the contrary, he rather exhaustively invites it, revealing even private thoughts as if they could somehow have set off his tormentor. I wouldn’t recommend full confession as a litigation strategy—in this case, readers who want to fend off Lasdun’s bad news will easily find grounds for blaming him—but it does clarify the stakes. Lasdun insists on being as messy as the next human being, and he demands to know whether he deserves six years of misery, and counting, because of it.