Baby Reindeer’s messy stalking has led to more messy stalking offscreen

Jessica Gunning as “Martha” in Baby Reindeer. | Ed Miller/Netflix

As a woman named Fiona Harvey claims to be the real-life stalker, the paradox of true crime as entertainment strikes again.

As a medium, autofiction has long been a source of controversy, but rarely has an autobiographical work of fiction come with as many built-in issues as Netflix’s hit Baby Reindeer. The show, a seven-episode limited series from British comedian Richard Gadd, chronicles Gadd’s history of allegedly being stalked for years by an older woman, as well as his experience of allegedly being sexually assaulted by a male mentor.

The show is a breakout word-of-mouth phenomenon, drawing more than 13 million viewers in its first week of release and over 22 million in its second. Audiences and critics have praised the series for its wild twists and comedic yet vulnerable glimpses into a difficult story. Yet the real draw for many viewers seems to be less about Gadd’s experience and more about the mystery afforded by his extremely transparent depictions of other characters — particularly Gadd’s stalker. Gadd and his fellow cast members have quickly tried to staunch the public reaction, which has now escalated to doxing and harassing private citizens believed to be the real perpetrators behind the show’s events. This hunt culminated with a woman named Fiona Harvey appearing on the YouTube show Piers Morgan Uncensored, claiming to be the real-life version of the stalker character, “Martha.” The series’ grim real-life side effect seems to be both an epic case of viewers missing the point (don’t stalk people!) and an entirely predictable outcome based on Gadd’s treatment of the story.

Should he have known better, or should we?

Baby Reindeer combines two narratives of extreme stalking and sexual assault

Baby Reindeer combines two different autobiographical plays that Gadd, an acclaimed comedian, actor, and playwright, wrote and premiered to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Both shows depicted deeply disturbing events in Gadd’s life through a lens of intentional overexposure. The first, 2016’s Monkey See Monkey Do, was similar to Hannah Gatsby’s Nanette in that it subverted audience expectations for comedy and instead treated them to a harrowing confessional. Ultimately revealing the details of a long-hidden sexual assault, Gadd traces his subsequent trauma through an onstage psychological meltdown accompanied by a visceral sensory overload.

The second, 2019’s Baby Reindeer, forms the backbone of the Netflix show. In the show, Gadd plays a version of himself named Donny. The fictional Donny has a random encounter with frumpy, middle-aged “Martha,” a patron at a bar similar to the one where Gadd once worked. This brief interaction allegedly led to an intense four-year period of stalking in which Gadd claims she sent him exactly 41,071 emails, 106 pages of letters, 744 tweets, and a staggering 350 hours of voicemails. Over the course of the show, Gadd digs into her past and learns he isn’t her first victim — she has a documented criminal record for stalking at least two previous families.

The Netflix adaptation of the two storylines has plenty to say about criminal justice, mental health, and gender. Gadd struggles to get the police to take Martha’s stalking seriously, even as he battles his own past history of trauma and abuse at the hands of his industry mentor. Gadd’s social awkwardness and PTSD emerge alongside a lack of systemic support for male victims of sexual assault.

These are all complicated themes. But the main appeal, at least for the most active audiences, seems to be the real-life mystery of it all: Who are the real people Gadd based his story on?

Gadd’s clues about his alleged sexual assault were somewhat oblique, but led to difficulty for one prominent British theatre director who wound up contacting the police after fans began harassing him, convinced he was the sexual predator being depicted in the show. Gadd has since been working overtime to clear the man’s name, insisting that he’s not the perpetrator. “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real life people could be,” he posted in an Instagram story. “That’s not the point of the show.”

Things with the woman Martha is based on are perhaps even more complicated. In an interview with GQ, published shortly after the show’s April 11 release, Gadd claimed he’d made his stalker an unrecognizable character. “We’ve gone to such great lengths to disguise her to the point that I don’t think she would recognise herself,” he said.

It’s reasonable to assume Gadd knew whereof he spoke. After all, in Baby Reindeer, he portrays his stalker as a classic sexist and anti-fat stereotype: the lonely, socially awkward middle-aged woman with higher weight who channels her unhappiness into obsession. The first thing he tells us about her, before we’ve even met her, is that “I felt sorry for her.” It’s a trope we’ve seen countless times before from Misery to Matilda; for Gadd’s stalker to fit so easily into it, you’d think that his fictional depiction of her is informed less by reality and more by cheap Hollywood distortion.

Yet Gadd seems to have left so many clear identifying details in the series about the woman Martha appears to be based on — particularly the one about her previous criminal history — that audiences turned web sleuths were easily able to identify her, journalists were able to track her down and interview her, multiple British and US tabloids doxed her, and she’s now considering suing Netflix.

Media coverage of the frenzy has included a fair degree of shock and skepticism. Even the Daily Mail, never a stalwart champion of ethics, pointed out that several of the details of the show were all but taken verbatim from the stalker’s real history, and questioned “how such a deft storyteller could not have foreseen the Netflix effect which amplifies the fall-out that comes from blurring fact and fiction.”

While the Daily Mail declined to out the woman, it did publish a lengthy interview with one of her previous stalking victims, Laura Wray, a woman who claimed Martha’s real-life counterpart harassed her for over five years, culminating in death threats and a false report to have her family investigated for child abuse. Wray’s story was very similar to Gadd’s initial impression of his stalker — they each felt sorry for her and engaged with her because they pitied her.

And even Wray, while discussing how powerful she found the validation Baby Reindeer offered to stalking victims like herself, also marveled that the resemblance between Martha and her real-life counterpart was so “uncanny.”

“It must have occurred to him that people were bound to speculate on who Martha is — and whether she’s done this to anyone else,” she said.

“Martha” may be just as much a victim as Gadd himself

Baby Reindeer argues that both Gadd and “Martha” are victims. “I can’t emphasize enough how much of a victim she is in all this,” Gadd told the Independent in 2019, in a profile pegged to the original stage production of Baby Reindeer. Gadd went on to stress that she was mentally unwell and that mental health support was a major theme of the play.

It’s perhaps worth asking, then, why he chose to further victimize her through a depiction of her — in an internationally distributed Netflix series, no less — that apparently hewed so close to real life that it enabled her not only to recognize herself but for her other stalking victims to recognize her as well. After all, while Gadd can be forgiven for sticking close to his real life in the play, he had nearly five years to fudge the details and make it less likely that people would discover who she was.

That he failed to do so could be seen as a form of targeted revenge. There’s a real and obvious cruelty in the strength of the resemblance between the pair; the woman Martha is allegedly based on has since protested that she’s not as unattractive as her double (played by Jessica Gunning), and that of the two of them, she’s the real victim. Indeed, it feels more than a little disingenuous that Gadd became mutually obsessed with her to the point of writing a hit play about her and then funneling that success into even greater heights of fame.

On May 9, a woman named Fiona Harvey appeared on Piers Morgan’s YouTube show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, claiming to the be the basis for the character of Martha. Harvey claimed she had been targeted by web sleuths online and sent death threats. She denied stalking Gadd; denied sending him thousands of emails, hundreds of voice mails, or dozens of letters; and denied sexually assaulting him, going to jail, or being in love with him. She had previously been connected to a stalking incident with solicitor Laura Wray, but she denied ever being served an interim interdict (effectively a temporary restraining order) in that incident. Harvey did admit to knowing Gadd when he was a bartender in London, being friendly with him, tweeting at him, and, like the character, possessing a baby reindeer toy as a child. In a not-particularly illuminating hour-long interview, Morgan repeatedly asked Harvey about the supposed emails and arrests, but presented no counter-evidence to her assertions. Harvey claimed that the reason Gadd might have made the story up was because “stalking is in vogue.” At points in the broadcast, over half a million people were watching live.

To be fair, Gadd is by no means the first creator to confront the slippery ethics around true crime. Subjects from Amanda Knox to Vili Fualaau and the families of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims have spoken out about the ways that fictionalized versions of their reality have revictimized them. It could also be the case that Gadd simply underestimated the power of the internet, the power of fandom, and the lure of a real-life puzzle. Many modern fans view media, even autobiographical media, as interactive texts, games they get to play, full of mysteries they have to solve — even if the “mystery” involves real life. For some Baby Reindeer fans, the sleuthing was of the traditional variety; fans analyzed the contents of the fictional Martha’s emails and found Easter eggs referencing the TV show Lost.

Whether or not Gadd anticipated the show’s runaway success, it seems clear that he could have at least anticipated that if he couldn’t resist Googling his stalker, neither could anyone else.

Update, May 9, 4:45 pm: This story was originally published on May 3 and has been updated with Fiona Harvey’s Piers Morgan Uncensored appearance.

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