Bryan interviews people he knows: author, blogger, and stalking survivor Kristy Burmeister

Intro

I don’t want to shortchange my guest or this very important interview by burying it in a long introduction.

The story you’re about to read is devastatingly common. If you’re being stalked, please call 911 immediately, and visit the National Center for Victims of Crime’s Stalking Resource Center for support.


Who is she?

Kristy Burmeister has been a good friend for the last half-decade or so. We met the way normal people do these days – through Reddit, specifically the /r/Christianity sub, which deals with the theological and sociocultural aspects of the Christian faith.

On Kristy’s blog, she details the events of this interview in a blog post titled That Time a Fellow Church Member Wanted to Murder Me, among other posts.


Bryan interviews author, blogger, and stalking survivor Kristy Burmeister

Trigger warning: This account deals with stalking and sexual violence.

Note: This interview is transcribed verbatim, but with grammatical and punctuation edits according to my own personal style guidelines.

Bryan
Let’s go back a few years to when you were 18. In your blog post, That Time a Fellow Church Member Wanted to Murder Me, you discuss your active involvement in your local church, which seemed to be a central hub around which your life unfolded. In retrospect, what can you tell me about your everyday life at that time?

Kristy
Since my dad was the pastor, I was there all the time. I spent as much time in the sanctuary as I did my own living room. I was highly involved with the church. I started a weekly Bible study for my friends (along with a short-lived lunchtime Bible study at school).

I wrote and performed skits on Sunday mornings. I went to youth group meetings every week and attended Sunday school. I also cleaned the church on most Saturdays. I was very connected to the people there. I was in a relationship with a boy there, and was at his family’s house a lot. I was also close with several other adults that I looked up to as mentors.

There was definitely a sense that we were all family.

It was gradual. I didn’t even realize what was going on for a while.

Bryan
So it’s not a stretch to say that faith was part and parcel to who you were.

Kristy
Absolutely. It was the thing that defined me at that time.

Bryan
Was it a healthy thing for you – not Christianity, per se, but that brand or branch of Christianity at that time?

Kristy
That’s something I’ve wondered about. I don’t think it was, but I didn’t know it at the time. The church was complementarian with a charismatic streak (focused on faith healing). I felt like I was definitely limited in what I could do there, as a girl.

Bryan
Around this time, when you became an adult, in the legal sense, you began to experience unwanted interactions with an older man in the church. He was in his 40s, and you were just 18. Was there a moment that precipitated these advances, or was it gradual?

Kristy
It was gradual. I didn’t even realize what was going on for a while.

Bryan
How did it start? That is, were you friendly with this man? [Editor’s note: In this interview, we’ll refer to him as “Adam.”]

Kristy
I was just as friendly to him as I was to anyone else. I’d known Adam since I was 14, when we first moved there. He had a serious mental illness, and that made me a little more wary of him than most people, but I was taught to be kind and loving to everyone, so that’s what I did with him too.

He mostly ignored me until the summer after I turned 18. He started coming up to me at church then and interrupting conversations I was having with my friends. Or at potlucks, he’d come sit at the table with all of us teenagers instead of sitting with the adults. It wasn’t anything overtly threatening. It was just an awful lot of attention focused just on me.

He’d ignore my friends. Some of the women at church noticed it and talked to my mom about it. My impression is they were a little suspicious that I might be involved with him. In that church, there were plenty of people who thought if a man slipped into sexual sin, it was because he was tempted into it by a woman.

My mom had a brief conversation with my boyfriend and me about it, but I shrugged it off as her being paranoid because I couldn’t believe someone my parents’ age would be romantically interested in me. But then I asked a male friend of mine, and he told me that he’d noticed all the attention as well and he was concerned about it.

My mother was in the house when he broke into my bedroom.

Bryan
Was your boyfriend a part of your church community as well? Did he notice any warning signs?

Kristy
His father was the assistant pastor. He wasn’t the kind of boyfriend who was ever concerned with me interacting with other men, so I don’t think he thought anything about it at first. After my mom talked to us, he tried to justify it as general friendliness on Adam’s part. Adam was good friends with my boyfriend’s older sister, so it was a difficult situation for him.

Bryan
This kind of attention – seemingly innocuous at first – led to a break-in incident when you were on a disaster relief service trip. Did you immediately suspect Adam?

Kristy
We did. My dad had already had a talk with him by that point and asked him to stop sitting with me, but he ignored that. Also, my mother was in the house when he broke into my bedroom.

When she walked through the house with the police, she noticed a strong smell in my room. (Adam lived in a shack without running water, so he had a very distinct smell.) We also had several cars parked in front of our house at the time, and only someone from our church would have known that all the owners of those cars were out of state.

He had also point-blank asked us who was and wasn’t going on the trip, and when we’d be back.

Bryan
Right. Were the police any help? Was the church?

Kristy
The police weren’t much help. There was no way we could prove it was Adam, even though everything we knew pointed to him. The best they could do was tell mom my bedroom window screen had been removed.

As the stalking incidents continued, the police weren’t able to help us. The first people from our church who found out were our assistant pastor (my boyfriend’s father) and his daughter. They were adamant that Adam couldn’t have been the person who broke in.

We knew a couple of police officers, personally, and they did try to help, but anti-stalking laws are a joke.

My parents woke up to the smoke detector going off and were able to put the fire out before it spread, but he was already back out the window before they woke up.

Bryan
But the incidents unfortunately didn’t stop there.

Kristy
No, they didn’t. He started leaving things for us. At first, I think he believed I actually wanted to be with him, but my parents and boyfriend were preventing it. A note that warned them not to “keep him from what was his” showed up at the house. I found a pair of my underwear in the church pew where I always sat with my boyfriend. Inside the underwear was one of our prom pictures with my boyfriend’s face cut out. He also ripped some pictures out of a bridal magazine and wrote “MINE” across a bride. Another time, he scratched out the bride’s face.

Later on, he started leaving pages he’d ripped out of one of my Bibles (I assume he stole it during the first break-in). He’d underlined verses about my breasts and nakedness, and how if a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she should die in the fire. It was highly sexualized

He also broke in a few more times, just to let us know he could. The last incident was when he broke into my parent’s house while I was in my dorm room. He took a tube of my lipstick and drew an eye on my mirror. Then he took a Barbie in a wedding dress off my shelf, took one of my shirts out of my closet, put them both on my bed and set them on fire.

My parents woke up to the smoke detector going off and were able to put the fire out before it spread, but he was already back out the window before they woke up.

Bryan
I mean – this is pretty stereotypical Hollywood movie stalker kind of stuff, right? Like, “you can’t make this up,” “truth is stranger than fiction.” Does it seem surreal in hindsight?

Kristy
It’s definitely surreal. For years, I wondered if I hadn’t made a bigger deal out of it than what it was. About a year ago, I found some copies of those Bible pages in my parent’s garage and it was a moment of, “Wow. This really did happen.” I’d have a hard time believing it was real if I hadn’t lived it.

Even while I was living through it, I was in denial half the time. I thought, “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life.” I didn’t think I was in any real danger until after the fire. And it really hit home when I found the obituary he left for me – he clipped an obituary out of the local paper and put my name over top the deceased person’s name.

The obituary was the bucket of cold water on me. He was really going to murder me if I stayed around.

Bryan
You mentioned in your blog that that was “the last straw.”

Kristy
Yes. My mom already wanted to leave, but my dad was hoping to keep working with the police and the church to resolve everything. But the obituary was the bucket of cold water on me and my dad. He was really going to murder me if I stayed around.

Bryan
It actually forced your family to move. You dropped out of college (you had a full ride, room and board), your father resigned as the pastor of the church, and you were all residing in a different state within a month.

Kristy
Right. We went into hiding, which was easier to do back then. We didn’t tell anyone where we were going. Only one of my dad’s friends in Arkansas had our new address. We were effectively homeless for almost a year after that. We stayed with a family friend until my dad found a new church.

Bryan
So when you say, in your blog post, “I lost everything” – you really meant it. Not just you, but your entire family had to start from scratch because of Adam.

Kristy
Exactly. My sister was just starting her senior year of high school. She had issues with her credits and wound up having to drop out and get her GED.

It was disruptive for all of us. We had to start over from scratch. No church. No home. No education. No jobs. And I’d ended my relationship as a result of everything, so that was gone as well.

If someone was lusting after me, it was because I’d somehow invited that attention.

Bryan
You mentioned both here and elsewhere that there was a dramatic and aggressive sexual component to the stalking. Do you think there was a component of the church, and the community where you lived, that may have aided and abetted that? Or even just allowed a fertile environment in which it could flourish?

Kristy
Definitely. Girls were responsible for any lustful thoughts men had. If someone was lusting after me, it was because I’d somehow invited that attention. Just after the first break-in, my boyfriend’s sister actually told me that Adam wasn’t stalking me, but if he was, I was asking for it because of how I dressed.

There was also the belief that women should be submissive to men. Men were in charge. I can see how someone like Adam would take that idea and run with it all the way to believing he was in charge of me.

Modesty for girls was preached a lot more than self-control for men. To be clear, that was coming from other church leaders, not my father.

Bryan
I can imagine it would be hard to get un-stuck from that mentality after years of existing within it, throughout the entirety of your adolescence.

Kristy
It lingers for a while, but I had always pushed against those ideas to some extent. I especially pushed against the idea that women are responsible for men’s lust. It took me longer to wrap my head around egalitarianism.

Bryan
Yeah, you’re married now, with children who are approaching the age you were when some of the machinations of the stalking were in infancy. How has that horrible period informed your family life? Does it still?

Kristy
It informs everything about my life. I’m very protective of my family. I have two daughters and I worry about them going through something similar. If we go to church, I won’t let them attend Sunday school because I don’t trust church people with my kids. And we keep our house locked up tight.

What struck me was the statement, “You can do whatever you want,” because it was exactly the same attitude my stalker had.

Bryan
It would be impossible to have this discussion without talking about our current sociocultural moment. There’s been a lot of talk about a renewed culture of sexual violence, or at least a normalization of it in society, culture, politics.

We’re also in a very strange political moment where the potential first female president was unexpectedly defeated in the U.S. election by someone whose comments about women were very painful for many to hear.

As a survivor of sexual violence, what do you see? Are “things getting worse” for women in American society, or does media ubiquity mean sexual violence is merely more visible?

Kristy
I think we’re in a strange time right now. It’s more visible, but a lot of us already knew it was there.

I think it’s good that it’s more visible. We’re finally having public conversations about sexual violence. When I read through #YesAllWomen on Twitter, it was amazing to see so many women with similar stories.

The flip-side of that is, when you have something like Donald Trump’s tape come out, you’re bombarded with it. Fifteen years ago, I’d have seen that tape covered on the news, and then I’d have changed the channel. But things have changed. For days, I couldn’t get on Facebook to see what my family members were up to without seeing a clip of that tape auto-playing on my feed.

What struck me was the statement, “You can do whatever you want,” because it was exactly the same attitude my stalker had. Normalizing that is dangerous.

Because of all the outcry over the Brock Turner case, and similar cases, I think we started to get a little complacent. We thought, “We’re better than this” and dismissed the slaps on the wrist offenders get as “bad judges.” But it seemed like our culture was starting to make some headway. And then the election results came in.

It’s not that our culture has become worse. It’s just that the culture of sexism and objectification has become more obvious, and even more excusable.

I don’t think that everyone who voted for Donald Trump supports sexual assault, but they did have to somehow justify voting for him in spite of that tape.

Bryan
This month, Rolling Stone lost a defamation lawsuit after a jury found that a 2014 article about a sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus included some misinformation, to put it lightly.

Without getting into the weeds of that particular case, we know that it’s very uncommon for a person to falsely claim sexual harassment or abuse – in fact, data shows us that these cases are extremely underreported, not the opposite. Nevertheless, have you ever had to deal with the agony of someone claiming your experiences didn’t happen?

Kristy
That happened within my church. The church council held a meeting that I wasn’t invited to attend, and Adam was allowed to speak. The members of the council either remained silent or sided with Adam, and believed that my family and I had made everything up.

Other than that, if people haven’t believed me, they’ve kept it to themselves, although I didn’t talk about it for over a decade, so there wasn’t much opportunity. Part of why I didn’t talk about it was because I was worried about that sort of reaction.

The next worst thing, of course, is people believing you but downplaying the significance of what happened. That happens a lot with rape as well.

It’s important for me that people know these things really do happen in real life. This isn’t the movies.

Bryan
You’re in the middle of editing a memoir, Stumble. What aspects of this troubling time period have made it into the book? Was it painful to put pen to paper, even though the actual incidents are buried about a decade and a half in the past?

Yes, I’m finishing up edits on it now. I’ve focused mostly on a two-year time period, starting with the initial break-in. It’s important to me not only to show what it’s like to deal with a sexually motivated terrorist (and that’s exactly what stalking is), but how surviving that has an effect on your life long after you’re out of immediate danger.

I mostly tackle faith and sexuality. It was hard to write about, and it wasn’t just difficult for me. My family has been pulled into that as well, and these aren’t pleasant memories for any of us. But I think it’s important to share what happened.

I met with the writer-in-residence at Interlochen Center for the Arts early on to go over my first chapter, and she asked if I’d considered fictionalizing my story. I did consider that, since it’d allow me to shrink away from the nastier memories, but it’s important for me that people know these things really do happen in real life. This isn’t the movies.

Bryan
Your Christian faith is still a central part of your life. Did the incidents initially turn you off from it? How was your personal theology shaped and molded by the trauma?

Kristy
I was deeply injured by what happened. It wasn’t the only thing that shook my faith, but it was the biggest contributing factor. If Christians could be so wrong in dealing with what happened to me, what else might they be wrong about? That opened the door for me to question everything.

In the end, I think I’m better off since that allowed me to shed any garbage theology I’d absorbed, but it was difficult starting from square one. I never appreciated the Trinity when I was younger, but I do now. The idea that God, the master of everything, came down to Earth and suffered, as a human, is incredible.

I heavily identify with Jesus on the cross and find a lot of comfort knowing that, even if humans have a hard time understanding me sometimes, he gets me.


Kristy Burmeister blogs at kristyburmeister.com and is currently editing her memoir, Stumble. She can also be found on Twitter @KristyBurm. Despite the serious subject matter of this interview, she is, in fact, incredibly funny.

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