In 1996, Sarah Garone rushed to the mailbox and tore open a package addressed to her. The incoming freshman felt sure it contained news that she had made the cheerleading squad at her high school in Chandler, Arizona.
But that wasn’t it at all. Instead, it contained pornography sent from an anonymous person. Shocked, the then 13-year-old had no clue this delivery would be the start of nearly a decade of stalking and harassment.
Over the years, this mysterious person sent her anonymous love letters, hacked her email and shared her private messages, stole her underwear, sent her subscriptions to lingerie catalogs and mailed her a sex toy. Finally, in 2005, the police had a suspect; they asked her if she knew someone named Gary Hardy.
She did. He was her stepfather.
“For so long, all the evidence had pointed to him even though he was really good at denying it and gaslighting me,” Garone, 37, a writer in Mesa, Arizona, told TODAY.
“Gary himself was very good at deflecting and turning things on their head. Even when confronted with evidence, he would turn it into, ‘Well, obviously someone wants to make you think this is me. I would never do this to you. I love you.’ I truly believe he is a very cunning sociopath.”
While she had suspected Hardy, grappling with the newfound evidence felt overwhelming.
“I primarily felt horror, disgust, violation knowing that this person that I had trusted with my emotions around the trauma was the person who was causing this trauma,” she explained.
At the time, the newly married Garone and her husband, Anthony, looked for support from their friends, who were mostly from a young adult Bible group. Yet, they received little help.
“No one understood the magnitude of it, and it would get brushed off,” Garone said. “It is such a bizarre — and it is a really difficult — incident for anyone to relate to.”
"I truly believe he is a very cunning sociopath."
She felt like people rarely asked how she was. Hurt, Garone confronted her friends, and they drifted apart. She and her husband had three children and built a life. With Hardy in jail — though not exclusively for crimes related to the stalking and harassment of his stepdaughter — Garone decided to keep quiet about her experience after feeling rejected earlier by her friends.
But the #MeToo movement, which started to go viral in late 2017, motivated Garone to open up. She was featured in an episode of the podcast "Criminal" and wrote an essay for The Washington Post. Talking about her experience has helped.
“It has been validating all these years later to have many people — even strangers — either thank me for this story or saying that it is a really good thing (I spoke up),” she said. “This era feels healing.”
Looking back, Garone wished her friends in 2005 would have just offered to bring her food or spend time with her. Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, who did not treat Garone, said that people often do not know how to act when a friend has been through a horrible ordeal. Yet, listening, being curious and empathetic, and offering to be there can help people process traumatic events.
“People often don’t know what to say. Sometimes they say 'just forget about it' or 'move on,' and it probably makes the person feel worse because they feel like they wish they could forget about it and move on,” Kearney-Cooke told TODAY.
Simply offering to chat makes people feel like they have somewhere to turn when they need support.
“Just be an active listener,” Kearney-Cooke said. “A person who is listening with empathy and caring helps the victim think more clearly and get a clearer perspective.”
She’s not surprised that when Garone shared her story, it helped her heal.
“When one person puts their voice out there, it helps other people to not feel so much shame and to feel empowered and together in a community. And again, trauma heals through this connection,” Kearney-Cooke said. “Writing about it and the podcast helped her reclaim some personal power.”
Garone said that while she struggled at times over the past 14 years, she has learned from her experience. She has forgiven Hardy thanks to her Christian faith and wants others to see the hope in her story.
“Life can go on,” she said. “I really do believe that things that can happen to us that are traumatic are an opportunity for growth and change and learning. And to see my experience through that lens — instead of this guy ruined my life — has been helpful in moving forward.”