Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.
—”Every Breath You Take,” The Police
Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on “gang stalking.”
Reports of “gang stalking” (a.k.a. “gang-stalking” or “gangstalking”) began emerging at least 15 years ago by self-described “targeted individuals” (“T.I.s”) claiming to be followed, surveilled, harassed, and otherwise victimized by unknown forces wielding high-tech weapons of “mind control.” Since then, much more has been written about this phenomenon, especially over the past few years, with national attention devoted to a few notable cases of violence and mass shootings perpetrated by people identifying as T.I.s.1
These journalistic accounts—in the mainstream press, as well as in self-publication sites like Medium and two Vice documentary features (for a chronological bibliography, see the references section at the end of this blogpost)—offer intimate, sympathetic, and compelling portraits of those who identify as victims of gang stalking. By way of summary, T.I.s typically describe living in a state of constant fear, seeing evidence of being followed by unmarked police cars in every black SUV that drives by, of being zapped by “extremely low-frequency” (ELF) radiation or “Voice to Skull” (V2K) technology in every tingling sensation or bodily ache, and of malevolent intentions in other people’s every gesture.
Interviews often note that T.I.s don’t appear “unusual,” “disheveled,” or otherwise “crazy” and that some of them are doctors, acclaimed novelists, and other reasonably well-functioning professionals. Indeed, the T.I. community is comprised of thousands of diverse individuals, coming from all walks of life, with similarly diverse accounts of who might be harassing them and why.
For example, the “who” is variably attributed to neighbors, ex-boyfriends, employers, police, and other law enforcement agencies, “the financial elite,” or less conventional sources, like Freemasons and space aliens. The “why” is often attributed to retaliation for ending relationships, acting as whistleblowers at work, political activism, having run-ins with the law, or being privy to secret information. Seemingly motiveless harassment is chalked up to being hapless victims of experimentation by government agencies testing new techniques of surveillance or mind control.
If there’s a common thread to the accounts of gang stalking, it’s that T.I.s describe considerable suffering not only as a result of ongoing concerns about being harassed, but also from the experience of physical symptoms, like pain and “hearing voices,” and the significant social stigma associated with sharing their claims with family, friends, or mental health professionals who routinely dismiss them as “crazy.” As a result, T.I.s have found solace on the internet, where they share “war stories” and survival strategies with like-minded individuals who have similarly found themselves at the center of a vast conspiracy theory.
Source: Robert Pastryk/Pixabay
The Subjective Reality of Paranoia
Of course, stalking by a single individual is a dangerous reality for some—especially women fleeing abusive relationships and other targets of erotomania. And bullying by a group of individuals (a.k.a. “mobbing”) is increasingly recognized as a school and workplace hazard. In an episode called “Trust Fall,” the NPR Invisibilia podcast recently highlighted a seemingly improbable case of internet harassment that turned out to be real after all.
A recent New York Times article detailed another real-life case of “cyberstalking” and in-person surveillance by employees at eBay. And yes, a few real events in history, such as the CIA’s MK-Ultra “mind control” program and the FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance program of the 1950s, have occurred, just as the modern-day mass manipulation of human behavior through social media is a reality in which we all now live.
But if you aren’t personally experiencing gang stalking, it’s hard for an outsider, much less a psychiatrist, to accept it as anything other than a textbook example of paranoia. Indeed, that’s been the conclusion of the few mental health researchers that have examined gang stalking to date. In 2006, Dr. Vaughn Bell and colleagues published an analysis of 10 online accounts of “mind control experiences” consistent with gang stalking (though they didn’t mention that word explicitly).2 When assessed by three independent psychiatrists, all of the accounts were classified as consistent with the evidence of a psychotic disorder.
In 2015, Drs. Lorraine Sheridan and David James conducted an analysis of 128 responses to a survey about stalking that similarly concluded that 100 percent of cases involving gang stalking by multiple coordinated individuals reflected paranoid delusions (in contrast, only 4 percent of those reporting stalking by a single individual were deemed to be delusional).3 In both of these studies, gang stalking claims were attributed to paranoia because they defied credulity, often due to the sheer amount of resources or level of coordinated organization that would be necessary to carry out what was claimed.
As a psychiatrist, it’s nearly impossible to disagree with those conclusions. Delusions are defined in psychiatry as “fixed, false beliefs,” with paranoia representing a classic version in which one believes they’re being followed, harassed, or otherwise persecuted. Vigilance—keeping an eye out for and being generally wary of potential threats—is normal and can transform into exaggerated hypervigilance under various conditions, such as having been an actual victim of violence. At the extreme, full-blown paranoia of delusional intensity can be understood as that same evolutionary warning system gone completely awry, to the point of seeing the evidence and believing that such threats are almost everywhere.
And despite stigmatizing stereotypes about psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, those whose paranoia is part of “delusional disorder”—where “non-bizarre” or plausible delusions are the only symptoms—don’t typically appear “bizarre or odd” and have functioning that’s relatively intact, according to traditional diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). (For an excellent portrayal of what it’s like to be married to someone with delusional disorder, listen to this episode of This American Life called “You Can’t Handle the Truth.”) This helps to explain why, aside from their idiosyncratic beliefs, many T.I.s don’t appear obviously psychotic—there is no such thing!
But digging deeper tells a different story. Many T.I.s report concerns not only about gang stalking but other common symptoms of mental illness, such as auditory hallucinations or voice-hearing and even less plausible beliefs, such as having “implants” inside their bodies that can control their thoughts or that people have been replaced by aliens. But even those with “pure” paranoia appear to display textbook examples of delusional thinking.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of people with paranoid delusions, including but not limited to those who have claimed to be victims of gang stalking. In such cases, claims of persecution defy credulity on several grounds.
First, there’s the unbelievably vast extent of what’s claimed… fleets of black SUVs with tinted windows, persecutors in disguise on every street corner, and futuristic secret technology being deployed from God knows where. Second, there’s a lack of any obvious or credible motive for the persecution… why would the CIA be devoting considerable resources to keep an “average Joe” under constant surveillance for years on end (note that paranoia and grandiosity—an exaggerated sense of self-importance—often go hand-in-hand)? Third, the persecutory experiences continue regardless of attempts to escape or relocate, including when hospitalized in the inpatient psychiatry ward and are contradicted by acquaintances or family and friends living in close proximity. And so, by process of elimination as well as recognition as a textbook case, paranoid delusions often offer the best explanation for most gang stalking claims.
Of course, it’s the rule rather than the exception that people with delusional disorder avoid being labeled as mentally ill and spurn referrals to psychiatry. But one more thing that can help to clarify that persecutory concerns are delusional is that paranoia often resolves when its underlying causes are actually treated, whether by participating in psychotherapy that challenges cognitive distortions in the face of evidence, taking medications for psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, or stopping the use of illicit drugs well-known to cause paranoia, like methamphetamines, cocaine, and sometimes marijuana or alcohol (many benefit from a combination of these interventions).
Once treated, people sometimes develop insight that the experience wasn’t real after all and is best explained by paranoia. But just as often, a delusional belief may not be fully relinquished as an explanation for past events, so much as someone is simply relieved and thankful that for whatever reason, the persecution has stopped.
Beliefs, whether those of T.I.s or psychiatrists, are ultimately probability judgments where the distinction between a delusion and a normal belief is the difference between what could be true and what’s likely to be true and the associated level of conviction for that judgment. By definition, people with delusions hold beliefs with unwarranted levels of conviction, with the main “evidence” for the belief lying almost exclusively within the subjective experience. They often reason that “I can’t be crazy because it seems so real” (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be delusional—in other words, if you believe you’re paranoid, you’re not!).
By way of contrast, clinicians assessing delusions must be open to and investigate the potential reality of seemingly unfounded beliefs (recall that in Dr. Sheridan’s study, 96 percent of individual stalking claims were judged to be real), making probabilistic judgments based on objective evidence. By most accounts, gang stalking doesn’t hold up to such objective analysis for anyone other than those experiencing it. That’s the confounding reality of delusions—they’re ultimately grounded in subjective experience, whereas the truth is objective.
Serving in the privileged position of authority as an arbiter of what’s credible or not—of the truth—requires that one be open-minded about what’s possible in the universe, aware of the breadth of culturally sanctioned beliefs, and humble about the limits of human knowledge. And so, rather than succumbing to the binary bias, perhaps we should consider whether gang stalking might not be quite so black and white after all. Maybe it’s not as simple as a question of paranoia or not. In Part 2 of this series, “Gang Stalking: Conspiracy, Delusion, and Shared Belief,” I’ll examine a third possibility, revisiting the intersection of conspiracy theories and shared delusions in the digital age.
Read Parts 2 and 3 of this series on “gang stalking:”
Media coverage of gangstalking in the popular press and online (in chronological order):
Weinberger S. New on the Internet