There are no domesticated animals in Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. The humans, as well, are wild or feral. In this collection of tightly wound personal essays, all of which generate insight into the human condition by ruminating on the animal kingdom or the natural world, Hale invites readers to consider survival in a persistently savage world.
It’s a savagery with which Hale is well-acquainted, both as perpetrator and as recipient. Some readers may associate her solely with the controversy from which the book derives its title, an incident in which Hale, convinced that she was being catfished, pursued a Goodreads member who had given her novel a negative review, engaging with the woman online and nearly confronting her in person. The collection’s opening piece revisits that incident, with Hale plumbing the ugly impulses that drove her behavior as well as the backlash it incited. But the collection’s other essays are stronger and more compelling, proving most effective when they focus on surviving savagery rather than surrendering to it.
In “Prey,” the collection’s most explosive piece, Hale introduces us to her anxious preoccupation with learning animal facts: “I’d always been a social creature. But during those first two months of college, it became difficult for me to talk to other humans about anything except animals.” It’s not long before she’s revealed the root of this obsession—it arose as a psychological side-effect of surviving a sexual assault. “I need to erase it somehow,” she tells herself, and so she seeks out “new things to be afraid of,” studiously learning the patterns of various wild animal attacks and the recommended survival techniques:
Feral Hog: climb a tree
Great White Sharks: dig your thumbs into their eyeballs
Piranha: don’t bleed
Deconstructing the animal world provides Hale with a language for navigating her trauma and its aftermath, supplying a non-human framework for assimilating an inhuman act. When she comes forward to report her rape, and agrees to deliver testimony for the DA in support of another woman’s case, she references “social carnivores”—the hyenas, lions, and wild dogs who survive by hunting in packs. A scene in which she describes her self-destructive sadness revolves around a metaphor about the fate of the dodo bird: “I felt sad about the dodo bird, which became extinct because of its tameness, that friendly tendency to walk up to human strangers and expect the best.” Framed throughout with quotations about the animal kingdom, the essay invites readers to think about whether humans have really evolved that far beyond our primitive tendencies. And when Hale recounts the scene of her rapist’s sentencing, we’re compelled to see him as a predator in the original sense of the word.
In “I Hunted Feral Hogs as a Favor to the World,” Hale graduates from imagining encounters with wild animals to actually having them. Finding herself directionless and at the “proverbial bottom of the food chain” after dropping out of an MFA program, she becomes obsessed with hunting wild hogs, thinking that “if I could triumph over these disgusting pigs, the rest of my life would fall into place.” Having watched a Discovery Channel special and learned of the feral swine “infestation” in the southern United States from the New Yorker, Hale decides to sign up for a guided hunt. “I’d failed at graduate school and at being a writer, and had given up on all of my life’s dreams. But there was still one concrete and good thing that I could contribute to the world,” she writes. “And that was murdering a feral hog.” The expedition takes her to Okeechobee, Florida, where she settles on a knife as her choice of weaponry and proceeds into the Floridian jungle, accompanied by a guide who eventually tackles a hog for her to kill. In the ensuing murder scene, which is delivered with a signature sly directness (“I considered that God had made this hog and me in His image and that she didn’t deserve this unnatural death. But then I stabbed the shit out of her.”), we see that survival can be both paralytic inaction and its opposite—unapologetic violence. As Hale recounts her progression from one approach to the other, the reader is invited both to witness the expansion of her agency and to consider that each approach is equally worthy. Perhaps, in a world full of ugly realities, survival is an ethic unto itself, valuable whether it comes with trauma or with triumph.
The collection’s closing piece, “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion,” observes an older Hale pursuing survival on behalf of her offspring. Now married and pregnant, she’s on the cusp of inviting new life into a world she knows to be dangerous. “Once the bliss of my first positive pregnancy test wore off, an animal panic set in,” she writes. True to form, she displaces her all-too-human emotions onto a quest to master the animal world: her anxiety finds a physical object in the form of a mountain lion prowling the Hollywood Hills. Convinced that she can’t give birth in a world harboring a hungry, roaming puma, Hale resolves to hunt him down. And, even though the piece ends on a bit of bathos, the subtext is clear: Hale has evolved from hunted into hunter, ultimately finding some “sense of safety in a predatory world.”
Whether the cause of danger is men or mountain lions, the world has never been a particularly safe place for humans. Hale’s book thoughtfully ponders the ways we deal with that reality—by denying it, by confronting it, and, finally, by accepting it. At the heart of each piece is a recognition of the savagery embedded in mundanity, along with the notion that we are most at risk when we assume domestication, both our own and other people’s. The first time someone hurts us, or injures us, or treats us as less than human, we may be surprised to observe our own reactions—to see how ferocious our initial instincts are. But in confronting such instincts, we learn that humanity resides in managing our ferocity, not eradicating it. This is a timely and timeless insight: base instinct is no more eradicable than natural disaster, and measurably more predictable. Although for many of us, as for Hale, the sheen of civilization is first and most forcefully ruptured by another person’s actions, it is in the process of assimilating that inhumanity that we come to question our own high-mindedness, and move toward the discovery of our own primal tendencies. As Hale demonstrates, the recognition of quotidian savagery can be an ironically humanizing experience: it leads to a clear-eyed affirmation of survival over despair.
Throughout the collection, Hale speaks with an assured, accessible voice. Her writing is grounded by a self-awareness that never becomes self-serious, a characteristic manifested in recurrent asides revealing the humorous contents of her own Google searches (one disarming example: “mcdonalds stop make pizza 90s why”). She’s also a master of the kind of destabilizing transitions that make nonfiction read like narrative. “One night I changed the passwords on all my various devices and started sawing at my wrist with a serrated knife,” she writes in “Catfish,” a turn to madness that manages to be both unexpected and earned. The most alluring aspect of Hale’s style is, however, something less flashy than a well-crafted cliffhanger. Her writing possesses a knack for understatement that makes it easy for the reader to follow her into uncomfortable territory. This is lucky, because there is little that is more uncomfortable than recognizing everyday ferocity. But that’s just what Hale would have us do.