Nicole Madigan’s encounter with a stalker started over a sausage sizzle and casual game of cricket on a sweltering Queensland day. Journalist Nicole Madigan was feeling flat. Her marriage was ending, and it had been a bruising few years. But she had tossed her blond hair up into a bun to take her son to his game and when it was his turn to bat, she perked up and snapped some photos. A woman she didn’t know breezed past. “Are you taking photos of Adam?”
“What?” Nicole asked, bemused. She wasn’t sure she had heard the woman correctly. Adam was one of the fathers who coached the team. “An acquaintance at best,” Nicole says.
It was a strange interaction that Nicole might have completely forgotten had she not received a Facebook message that night from someone named Karissa*. “Hi! Sorry, totally didn’t mean anything by my comment when they boys were playing cricket … Anyway, really wanted to chat to you today.”
Nicole was taken aback. “This is a person I don’t know. I thought it was really strange.” But she didn’t give it much thought. A week later Karissa messaged again: “Can I ask you a question? Are you married?” Nicole was in the process of separating from her husband of 12 years. “I was not going to start talking about this to this stranger,” she says. The woman sent several more messages. “But you aren’t married, right?” “Sorry it’s quite weird, hey! Haha. Guess I’m trying to ask if you’re married.”
Karissa’s determination unnerved Nicole. “It seemed like something was going on, but I didn’t know what,” she says. She initially replied so as not to be rude but decided to ignore the woman when she pressed the marriage question. That night, the woman sent more messages: “Is that a no? No worries. You have beautiful kids.” A few weeks later, Nicole and her mother took her kids away for a short break on the Sunshine Coast.
Another message arrived: “Okay, we’re still trying to work out if you’re married or not.” Nicole was perplexed. “I didn’t know her, and I barely knew Adam. I just thought the entire line of questioning was strange and it came across as quite juvenile as well.” Nicole’s mother advised Nicole to let Adam know what was going on. He responded quickly and apologised. “He seemed embarrassed but not as shocked as I would have expected,” Nicole says. From then on, she and Adam messaged a little.
Over time the contact became more frequent, and more personal. Eventually, they went on a date. Then another, and another. Karissa faded from Nicole’s memory. “I really did put it out of my mind … until it all started.”
A year went by. Nicole and Adam were in a relationship and had just thrown a Grand Final party together. “It was our first joint party,” Nicole says. After the turmoil of her divorce, she was finally feeling happy and content. Adam’s team had won, and the day had been festive. Afterwards, Adam and Nicole cleaned up, basking in the afterglow of a wonderful day spent with family and friends. When Nicole’s phone pinged she figured it was one of their guests thanking them for a great night. It was, instead, a Facebook message request. Nicole read it and was confused. It was followed by a barrage of abuse. She realised, with growing horror, that the person writing to her was Karissa, and she had turned nasty. “Enjoy sleeping in the bed we f***d in hundreds of times,” was one of the milder comments.
“It was such a shock to me,” Nicole says. Karissa’s messages filled her with “horror and disgust and total disbelief at what I was reading. It was just so vulgar and crass and nasty.”
Her hands began to shake. But there was worse to come. Over the next three years, Karissa tormented Nicole. She harassed and threatened her, attacked her appearance, impersonated her and tried to interfere in her relationships.
On that first night, Nicole had no idea what was about to come. As she stood in the kitchen feeling uneasy, her phone pinged again. It was a text from her ex-husband: “Karissa says hi.”
A campaign of fear
When the stalking began, Nicole was “overwhelmed with confusion and self-doubt … In the beginning, I really didn’t know how to react. I was scared and I was uncomfortable, but it was really hard to articulate why. Looking back, obviously I had every reason to be concerned,” she says.
Being a journalist, she dealt with the violation by learning about it. She spoke with experts and victim-survivors. Her subsequent book, Obsession: A journalist and victim-survivor’s investigation into stalking, examines the effect of stalking on victims, and tries to understand how it can be addressed.
So, who was Nicole Madigan’s stalker really? Stalkers aren’t the stereotypical, deranged characters most of us think of when we hear the word, she writes. Nor is stalking a single act. Rather, it is a pattern of behavior designed to instill fear. It can be subtle, which makes it hard to identify. To an outsider, the individual incidents that make up the pattern can seem harmless. Nicole points to a 2020 move by the Commonwealth Bank to change online banking rules after an internal investigation found people used transaction descriptions to send abusive messages. It seems small but it happened a lot. Eight thousand customers were affected.
“Perpetrators know how to send a message to their target, how to remind them they’re being watched and that they haven’t escaped,” Nicole writes.
It’s a lesson she has learnt first-hand.
After contacting Nicole on Grand Final day, Karissa unleashed a tempest of revolting messages targeting both Nicole, “He’s using you to make me jealous”, and Adam, “I f*ing hate you sooooo much.” Many of them are not fit to print.
Karissa created fake profiles of women who claimed they worked with Adam. They contacted Nicole and said Adam was hitting on them. Karissa told Adam she was friends with Nicole’s ex-husband, and that crazy Nicole had tried to stab him. Every ping of Nicole’s phone would send ripples of panic through her body. She describes a “horrible anxious feeling because it kept coming. Ding-ding-ding!”
Nicole didn’t know what to do, so at first, she did nothing, hoping Karissa would grow bored and stop. The opposite happened. Karissa messaged Nicole’s mother. She also created a fake “Nicole Madigan” account, sent messages to herself and screenshotted the exchanges to make it look like Nicole and Karissa were speaking. She shared fake interactions with Adam and Nicole’s ex-husband.
“So those are the moments that I became scared,” Nicole says. She wondered, “What is she going to do? What is she capable of?”
Karissa pelted Nicole with messages that said she looked like a rat and had a big nose. She told Nicole Adam was planning on leaving her. She publicly accused Nicole of spreading sexually transmitted diseases.
“There was something unhinged about it. That just added another element of scariness,” Nicole says. It fried her nerves, and she didn’t know how to stop it. She feared the public attacks could affect her career.
How do you stop a stalker?
Nicole and Adam spoke to a friend in law enforcement about what they should do. He advised them not to file an official report, but instead to send Karissa a letter saying they would seek legal action if the harassment didn’t end. They did this, and it seemed to work. Karissa went silent. For a while.
“Six months later, I started getting text messages from random numbers all along those same sorts of lines about my appearance and Adam,” Nicole says.
When the second round of harassment began, Karissa lost interest in Adam and zeroed in on Nicole. “That somehow made it all the more terrifying and I just didn’t understand it because it became real stranger on stranger stalking.”
One of the most heart-stopping moments of the ordeal was when Nicole turned up to a mediation with her ex-husband, to find that he had a document titled ‘Statement by Karissa Owens’. The statement was never raised, but when Nicole read it, she saw it was a fabricated account of Nicole being obsessed with Adam. Karissa’s words were nonsense, but they still filled Nicole with horror. Karissa was interfering in a process to determine her financial future, and the security of her children.
“It just terrified me that she would be willing or wanting to impact a part of my life that is so important,” Nicole says. “It just took it to another level of hatefulness. She wasn’t just playing games with me and Adam. She was trying to ruin my life and she could very well succeed.”
Afterwards, Nicole saw a public comment from Karissa on Nicole’s own Instagram page. It was typically nasty and ended a nefarious warning: “Yeah, you’ll be hearing a lot more from me.”
The psychological harm
Stalking is shockingly common. Around 25 per cent of Australian women will be stalked during their lifetime. Yet, as Nicole discovered, it’s largely unreported and has a very low conviction rate. The crime is not well understood. It took Nicole three years to realise what Karissa was doing was stalking.
“There’s a huge lack of understanding around what stalking is. It’s one of those crimes we joke about. Nobody really takes it that seriously,” she says.
Nicole writes in Obsession that she believed Karissa’s harassment was something she could and should handle. “I thought ignoring it was the best approach and while I was clearly wrong, the longer the stalking went on, the less I felt I could do anything about it.”
Karissa was what experts classify as a resentful stalker. She felt she’d been wronged, and she was lashing out at the person she felt was responsible.
Karissa and Adam had previously dated, splitting up about a year before the first encounter at the cricket game, hence the first vile message the night of the Grand Final: “How do you like my sloppy seconds?”
Nicole has documented cases of people being attacked and even murdered by their stalkers, but stalking doesn’t have to turn violent to be damaging, she says. The psychological harm is real.
“You start to have this almost a physical reaction, every time you hear your phone make a sound,” Nicole says.
She has observed there is a lot of shame and stigma around non-violent abuse. “Not just stalking, but also cyber-bullying, coercive control and other types of bullying. It’s hard to talk about. That just perpetuates that stigma and shame.”
Part of Karissa’s conduct involved posting memes, photos and hashtags on her own Instagram account knowing that Nicole was looking at them.
“One of the experts I spoke with described it this way: you almost develop a relationship with the person, for want of a better term, who’s stalking you because they have become so obsessed with you that the by-product of that is you start to develop that same preoccupation because you’re so anxious at the time for the next message or attack.”
She mentions TV presenter Erin Molan’s campaign against online bullying and harassment. They’re separate issues, but they cover some common ground. Namely, that victims are often told to look away.
“There’s often very strong advice – get off social media; stop looking – which makes sense. Eventually I had to make changes to protect myself. But I just think it’s one area of victim blaming that seems quite acceptable.
“Everyone should have the same rights to enjoy those parts of life and share photos without having to be the ones responsible for their own protection.”
Karissa menaced Nicole with hashtags: #mole #slut #witch #getridofthebignosebitch
“These behaviours that are associated with stalking are just so minimised by everyone, even by victims themselves,” Nicole says. “When you’re talking to people about it you tend to downplay it and talk it down because you just do feel so silly.
“When you isolate incidents that lead to stalking, sometimes they do sound minor. As awful as the content is, it’s the knowledge that I’m being watched and thought about, seemingly constantly, that’s even more terrifying.”
While Karissa was doing everything she could to destroy Adam and Nicole’s relationship, they were growing closer. They moved in together, combining their two families into a big, loud, happy household. Nicole’s bliss was quickly punctured when Karissa posted a photo of running shoes with a hashtag naming Nicole’s street and #ilivearoundthecorner.
Karissa had used Adam’s running app to find out where they lived.
“When I went outside, I used to wonder if she could be around or had she been around. What else was she going to do?” Nicole says.
Nicole fought through her anxiety and tried to live her life. On the night of their two-year anniversary, Adam took Nicole to Sanctuary Cove, where they’d had their first date, got down on one knee and proposed. The next night, they celebrated with their kids. Invitations went out. Nicole was on a high.
Again, her happiness was shattered when Karissa posted a picture of a mongrel dog-like creature with the caption: “A Madigan. The female carries the rat face gene.” And hashtags including #aringwontstopme
Another post appeared. This one contained the date and location of Nicole and Adam’s wedding.
“When those very personal details were popping up and I realised that she knew where I lived and she knew where I was getting married, that shifted it from an online assault that was horrifying and anxiety-inducing to something that was close to home and really scary,” she says. “I was quite nervous. My family became very concerned at that point.”
Nicole’s stalker faces justice
Nicole filed a report with the Australian Cyber Security Centre who referred the matter to the police. It took time, but eventually Karissa was charged with unlawful stalking. She was told not to contact Nicole or Adam in any way again. Nicole Madigan’s stalker would have to answer for her actions to the court.
The wedding was beautiful. Karissa didn’t interfere, but she also put off her court date again and again. Nicole just wanted it to be over.
Stalkers know how to intimidate someone in a way that isn’t necessarily obvious to outsiders. “They get to know their target. It doesn’t always seem scary when it’s written down or told to someone,” she says. “If you report a specific incident to the police, it’s probably not going to sound that bad. ”
“Things can look innocuous to outsiders.”
Nicole had kept a detailed record of her years of interactions with Karissa. When she finally arrived in court to hear a magistrate rule on the charge against Karissa, Nicole was a bundle of nerves. Fortunately she had provided the dossier of evidence. The magistrate saw exactly how vicious Karissa had been. Karissa was put on probation for two years and slapped with a restraining order.
Nicole was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. She was victorious, but her experience lit a fire under her. She has now dedicated herself to speaking out about this insidious form of abuse.
“The psychological impact of stalking is not understood properly,” she says. “Your social life can be impacted; your work. Something as simple as spreading lies can have a catastrophic impact on someone’s life.”
When you’re in the midst of it, you can feel like there’s no escape. But as Nicole proved, with her courage and tenacity, it is possible to wrest your life back from a stalker.
*Not her real name