Here is a joke I like:
Q. What’s the difference between amnesia, ambivalence, and apathy?
A. I can’t remember, either way it doesn’t matter, and I don’t care.
I’ve heard that what a person finds funny is indicative of unresolved problems in the subconscious. Maybe I laugh at this joke because it represents an ability to let go, something I don’t possess: I do remember, I know that it does matter, and I do care. But despite all my worrying and wondering, I haven’t figured out why, twice in nine months, I was the object — the victim, even — of random violence. What lesson am I supposed to learn?
The first time was just after I’d moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Ten days before Christmas, I was going to a bookstore in Homewood, a part of town where I wished I could afford to live. Steering my weather-beaten CRX into the parking lot full of old Volvos and new Hondas, I noticed a young boy, maybe thirteen, sitting against a wall, hugging a red backpack to his chest. It was odd to see an African American in Homewood; I imagined that his mother was probably shopping in the bookstore, and he’d gotten bored and gone outside to wait for her.
I parked about twenty feet from the store and headed for the back entrance, dimly self-conscious because the boy was watching me. I could see people inside the store, but the door was locked. The hours painted on it said 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.; according to my watch, it was exactly six. Disappointed, I turned away, and the boy stood up as if he’d suddenly remembered something.
As I returned to my car, the boy walked in my general direction, angling as if to pass behind me. With a trace of nervousness, I looked down to make sure I had my key ready so I could get in the car quickly. Then his footsteps changed direction, coming at me hard and fast. I whirled around, and the boy — my height, older than I’d thought — barked something that I didn’t understand, except that it ended with “bitch.” It may have been “Get in the car, bitch,” or “Let’s go, bitch,” or “Shut up, bitch.” At the same time, he hit me in the head with a hammer. There was a second of darkness, a pain as if my cheekbone was broken, and then I was staring into his frightened eyes. In the corner of my vision, I saw a glint of metal in his other hand: a gun? I screamed.
I hoped that the people in the bookstore could hear me. If they can’t, I thought, I could die. My mouth was open wide; the boy must have felt the breath of my scream, which didn’t seem loud enough to me. We hung there, connected by our eyes, me screaming, him silent, for an eternity — several seconds — until someone ran out of the store.
My assailant wheeled around, grabbed his backpack, and loped out of the parking lot, not even running hard. I yelled to the men from the bookstore, “Catch him!” but they didn’t move. Furious and relieved, I hurled my purse at the boy as he ran, missing him by several feet. (Later, I thought: How silly, to fling my bag like a missile. “No, you can’t take my purse! I’ll throw it at you!”)
As the clerks walked me into the store, I thought: This is really happening; this is not a dream. I was shaking. Inside, one of them asked me if he should call the police. While he dialed, I told him that the guy had had something metal in his hand, something gray and curved, but not exactly like a gun. A knife? Maybe it had been a knife.
“Relax,” muttered the teenager who had possibly saved my life. “You’ve still got all your fingers and toes.” I thought his remark unsympathetic, and was glad when a young woman offered me a seat behind the counter and brought me some ice to hold on my face. From her post at the cash register, she glanced at me sadly, as if she, too, were bruised and shocked. Grateful for her kindness, I sat crying quietly, waiting for the police and whatever solace they might provide.
When the officer arrived, he stood a few yards away and looked at me for some minutes. I don’t know if he’d been trained to assess crime victims from a distance first, or what, but he just stood there. I said hello and tried to stop crying, to look collected and responsible.
The officer examined my cheek and asked if I wanted to go to the emergency room, which I didn’t. He then asked what had happened. When I described how I’d first seen the boy, the officer looked surprised. “You didn’t know him?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Never saw him before in my life.”
“Oh! We were told it was a personal dispute. The guy who called thought your boyfriend had hit you.” That explained — somewhat — the lack of sympathy from the male employee. I told the policeman the story, and after I’d answered his questions, he asked me to come outside and show him where and how I was mugged.
While we were in the parking lot, the radio on the officer’s belt crackled, and a voice said something unintelligible. He answered the call, then said to me, “Got to go. They’ve got a suspect right over there.” He nodded to an alley. Drawing his gun, he took off running toward what might have been serious danger. I stared, impressed, and grateful that I was a professor, not a cop.
I drove to my roommate’s workplace, a veterinary clinic. Julie held me for a few minutes, then gave me a calm, soft Saint Bernard to hug while she finished work and closed up. Once home, I took a hot bath and drank peppermint tea to calm me down, but that night, and for many nights afterward, I repeatedly dreamed that a man I didn’t know was running up behind my left shoulder and hitting me on the head.
At work the next day, the sympathy was generous, even gratifying. The secretary of my division put her arm around me — something she’d never done before — and fussed over my swollen face and black eye. My boss called me to sympathize. Other people stopped me in the halls and said they’d heard, how awful. A colleague said I seemed wound up and gave me the name of the counseling group he used. He and others assured me that what I’d suffered was a real trauma. It helped.
But they weren’t with me when I had to get in and out of my car. For weeks, I was terrified every time I walked to my vehicle. Also, my stomach turned cold whenever a single black male was walking behind me, or whenever anyone approached me from behind and to the left. In co-counseling sessions, I cried and raged; I did everything I responsibly could to discharge the fear and confusion. I tried not to let the event exacerbate my feelings about Birmingham, which I had disliked initially, but was trying not to hate.
I had to meet with a detective to pick out a suspect from a photo lineup. None of the photographs looked exactly like my attacker, but I pointed to the one that came closest. The detective said that picture was of a man long gone from Birmingham. Then he pointed out the face of the boy who had mugged me — they had caught him in the alley. He’d been carrying the hammer and a pair of handcuffs: the curved metal I’d mistaken for a gun. He’d also had a bandanna in his backpack, the insignia of a gang. The detective shrugged. “Some of the gangs’ initiation rituals require them to pop a white woman.”
“ ‘Pop’?” I asked. Did that mean kill?
“Rape,” he said. “That’s what the handcuffs were for.”
He seemed disappointed that I hadn’t recognized my assailant, but not surprised. It happened all the time, he said: memory distorts images. Since I hadn’t recognized the boy, however, we couldn’t press charges. A minor, he would not be arrested.
The thought that he might attack someone else was sickening, almost as upsetting as the thought that someone else might attack me. Although I knew I shouldn’t be, I was surprised that I’d been mugged. Growing up in New Jersey, I’d been advised to look “strong and poor” on trips to New York City. I am five-foot-eight and heavy. I’d outweighed my assailant by at least twenty pounds. I’d been wearing old sweats when he picked me to mug. Certainly I didn’t look wealthy, but perhaps weak? Although I knew my appearance was no more cause for recrimination than a rape victim’s, at some level I thought: He pegged me for a slow, out-of-shape, reaching-middle-age woman. Despite the workout gear — and the workouts — I looked incompetent, incapable of fighting back. I was starting to blame myself for being mugged because I am overweight.
Then it occurred to me — there was no reason it had been me. That boy had been waiting for a victim, and I’d just happened to be the next lone female who came along. After I’d been mugged, as I walked into the bookstore, an elderly lady was leaving on her own. If I hadn’t taken the hammer blow, he might have killed her. It helped to think that I may have prevented her suffering.
It took a long time, but, by the following summer, I could get in and out of my car without hyperventilating. I could walk calmly down main streets in the daytime, although I still avoided parking lots and alleys, and rarely went out alone at night. I had new sympathy for crime victims, and, for the first time in my life, I routinely locked my house and car. But the nightmares had ended, the cheekbone had finally stopped hurting, and I was pretty much over it.
The second time was a weeknight in August. I had been at my friend Rita’s, and left her apartment deep in thought. It was dusk, not fully dark, and the rain had left silvery puddles everywhere. I kicked off my new Birkenstocks and stuck them in my bag so they wouldn’t get wet. Under my bare feet, the road was warm and damp.
As I was reaching my car, I heard not one but two people behind me: they’d been hiding in the bushes. Hearing those fast, determined footsteps, I felt a terrible, paralyzing dread: it was happening again. Before I could turn, my eyes were covered by an arm, and a hand held something over my mouth. I felt the cold barrel of a gun poke my neck. I knew if I screamed I might be shot, but I decided — or noticed myself deciding — to scream and fight anyway.
I pushed the gun away until it was pointing in the air, and screamed against the hand muffling my shouts. Rita’s apartment was farther away than the bookstore had been; she couldn’t hear me. I tried to make more noise. The moment froze — I stood yelling into whatever was over my mouth, holding up a man’s hand that was holding a gun, while somebody covered my eyes. I had a fleeting sense of futility, almost humor. Were we going to stand that way all night?
A voice said, “Give up the purse, bitch,” and I yanked the strap off my shoulder and threw it, saying, “Take it!” I also accidentally threw my car keys, which had been in my other hand. The men scooped up the bag and ran in one direction, and I ran in the other, back to my friend’s apartment. I left the keys where they lay, more afraid of being shot than of having my car stolen. While running, I remembered to look back at the muggers, but I could make out only race (black) and gender (male), and some light shirts and dark pants above flying feet.
I yelled and pounded on Rita’s door, then fell into her apartment; she locked everything tight behind me.
The bag was recovered on the street near the projects. It still held my Birkenstocks. My blusher had broken, spilling pink powder over everything, but I got back my Visa, checks, and ATM card. I got back my English hairbrush and my yellow frequent-coffee-buyer card, my pens and my little pot of lip balm and everything else except my spiral notebook with my to-do list, neatly prioritized into A, B, and C. It had vanished, probably thrown from the window of a car by the thieves. They must have been furious — I’d been carrying twenty-four cents in cash, which was gone. Crime does not pay.
I had the obligatory talk with a detective, but there was no hope this time of catching the criminals, since I hadn’t seen their faces. I could have sat next to either man and not recognized him.
My reaction to the second attack verged on hysteria. My roommate had moved away, but fortunately was visiting me that week. She and I went around the yard, mowing down tall weeds, trimming branches, even hacking back the flowering rose of Sharon that I loved, exposing anywhere a person could hide. As we were working, I glanced at a basement door that we never used and saw that someone had tried to jimmy the lock.
The next day, a few friends said they’d read an account of the robbery in the newspaper. I received a crazed letter from a man in jail who had gotten my address from the paper and wanted to start “a relationship” with me. I told the detective about it, and he promised to talk to the jail administrator. Around that time, I started getting odd phone calls. It began with someone hanging up on me and progressed to twenty or more messages a day on my answering machine. Sometimes there were just beeps or clicks, other times faint voices. I became afraid to answer my phone and contacted the phone company to have the calls traced, my number changed.
After my roommate went back east, I could not sleep in my house, which was in a far “worse” neighborhood than either of the ones where I’d been mugged. A few years before, someone had been murdered on my block. There was a crack house around the corner. Although it had seemed safe enough when I’d moved in, it now seemed as dangerous as anywhere I’d ever been.
I asked a neighbor and some friends who lived on campus to let me sleep in their homes. This arrangement was inconvenient — for me and for them — but at least I felt safe. In the daytime, when I went back to my house to change or get mail, I covered the gaps around the window shades with paper so no one could see in, no matter how close they got.
I had no intimate friends in Birmingham, but I was so frightened I asked a woman I knew only slightly to come and stay with me for a week, and she did. We slept with all the lights on. I begged the college where I worked to rent me a house on faculty row, against standard policy, and they agreed, perhaps because on the same day I’d been mugged, one of the college administrators had been murdered.
In the weeks before I moved, I was most afraid that the fear would never go away, that I would always be terrified of getting into my car, of going out alone at night, of living by myself. After the first time, I’d thought that danger lay everywhere. After the second time in nine months, I felt both that I’d had my lifetime’s share of violent crime, and that it could happen again at any time — fast.
Here is another joke: A snail is mugged by two turtles. The police come to the scene of the crime and ask the snail who robbed him. “I don’t know,” says the snail. “It all happened so fast!”
A white woman attacked by three black men, I was disturbed by the sudden appearance of racist phrases and images in my head, ideas and language I didn’t recognize as my own, but which were prevalent in Birmingham. Long buried or ignored racist programming suddenly entered the forefront of my consciousness.
I didn’t fear any white men or middle-aged black ones, but when I saw black male teenagers casually dressed, my heart constricted, and I would not get out of my car or walk past them. I began crossing streets to avoid black men. I hated this reaction and saw how irrational it was, yet I didn’t feel guilty. They had mugged me, not the other way around. “They” were all the young, streetwise black men in my Southside neighborhood; even my neighbors became part of “them.” Fortunately, my students did not. I treated my sole black male student that term — a gifted writer and exceptionally sweet person — with gentleness and respect, as he did me.
But worse than the fear of leaving my house, worse than the damage to my tooth done by the hammer blow, worse than the struggles with racist programming, was my confusion.
What was I supposed to learn?
Recently I was set upon by a large number of red wasps — I had invaded their territory, threatened their next of kin, or otherwise offended them. My misbehavior earned me ten or twenty stings in soft areas of my body. But I wasn’t too upset; the wasps weren’t attacking me for personal gain so much as for the good of their society. It was more like war, while the muggings felt like terrorism. But one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Was it possible that I had offended young black males in Birmingham? On some level, had I done something my attackers saw as invasive, even threatening?
I don’t think so. Although some privileges come automatically to white women — we do nothing to earn them — I haven’t gone out of my way to help myself at others’ expense. People like me hurt rather by our lack of purpose, by our acceptance of inequities, by our mistaking privileges for God-given rights. Clearly, the acts against me were random. Twice, I was, as they say, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet that cliché implies guilt on the part of the victim. The feminist writer Kate Millet says that anywhere a woman wants to walk is the right place, any time she wants to walk there. We must not be confined by the threat of violence. Just as it is no crime to be poor, it is no crime not to be poor, to have a job and credit cards and money. My being born into privileged circumstances does not mean I deserve to be attacked.
Many of my beliefs have changed. I still believe I am responsible for my own reality, but I no longer think I’m in control. I used to believe that I protected myself by creating a globe of white light around me, or by visualizing two panthers walking beside me, my strong sable guardians. I no longer trust such protective devices of the mind. They leave me vulnerable, less likely to engage in boring standbys like locking doors and asking friends to walk with me.
I used to believe in good neighborhoods and bad ones. I used to believe if an able-bodied woman was ready, she could instinctively defend herself. This would be true only if you had enough time, which you don’t. Both times I was mugged, I was carrying pepper spray, but there was no time to grasp the case, aim, and press the lever. There was no time even to think of doing so.
Like most women, I have been taught to watch out for rape and rapists all the time, especially at night. Any time I am alone on the street, part of my mind is always scanning for danger: That man over there, what’s he doing? Can I walk by this group of boys? Are my breasts bouncing? Is my clothing attracting attention? I take steps to avoid even being whistled at. Whenever I feel in danger, I make little contingency plans: If he jumps me, I’ll run to that house and pound on the door. I’m carrying my keys between my knuckles; I could blind him with a blow. I’m almost home now. Just have the key ready, get in the car fast. When I was attacked, however, it made no difference what I was thinking.
Here’s what I have learned so far:
1) I am a screamer. Some people can scream; some people choke up and can’t. A woman detective told me that how I react once doesn’t indicate how I will react in the future, but I disagree. Screaming has saved me twice.
2) When attacked, I tend to throw things.
3) I do not think of running. Maybe because I have always been a slow runner, it doesn’t seem like a possible escape.
4) So far, I have not thought of striking back. I am angrier now, however. I think if a stranger attacked me again, I would try to hurt him. I have learned that muggers are bullies — it was easy to push the gun away from my neck; the men expected no resistance. Given a chance, I would gouge eyes, kick shins, knee balls. I will not carry a gun.
Despite such practical self-knowledge, I still needed to study the metaphysical. I asked friends for guidance. One friend, Zeke, suggested that when things go wrong in our lives, especially when things go wrong more than once in the same way, we should consider what we have done to bring about those experiences.
But I didn’t — in any way that I can see — draw those attacks. Maybe in the past I have courted danger, by hitchhiking cross-country, or exploring scary parts of Manhattan, or choosing unstable, alcoholic partners. But when each mugging occurred, I was doing nothing that even the most cautious person wouldn’t do. Both happened in so-called good neighborhoods, where I had good parking spaces. I wasn’t sauntering or lingering or looking lost. Self-defense experts say, “Walk as if you know where you are going.” Certainly I am guilty of not looking purposeful at times, yet I doubt that the waiting criminals paused to assess my mental state before they jumped me. No, I don’t think I brought about those experiences.
But that isn’t what Zeke meant, essentially. She wasn’t implying that I had violated the Good Girls’ Rules of Self-Protection. She was suggesting that I question the experience on a different level, to see if, subconsciously, even spiritually, I could take responsibility for the events that seemed so unwelcome.
So I have questioned. I’ve asked my subconscious, “Did you do this?” I’ve considered my karma. I’ve prayed. So far, no answers.
If I am responsible, it is in some way I don’t comprehend, and what good is that? If I did draw violence to me, and if the universe is trying to teach me a lesson, surely after this much thought I should understand it, shouldn’t I? The student is ready, but the teacher has not appeared. The teacher is out today. I must work on my own.
Finally, I have realized that my search is like going to see a fortuneteller. She gazes at her crystal ball, my palm, the tarot cards, and murmurs, “I see you are a curious person. You have a big question.”
I see from all my big questions about my muggings that I look for spiritual lessons — if not goodness — even in random events. I see that I will struggle against racist programming and fear-mongering, and try to hold on to good thinking. And I see that all the lessons are less about race or God or violence or victimhood than they are about myself.
And maybe — this seems most likely to me — all the above are true, and they will coalesce into some larger truth I haven’t seen. I keep hoping I’ll understand it, and that someday I’ll be able to get into my car after dark on a city street without worry. Fearfully, optimistically, I keep hoping that, if I learn from it, maybe it won’t have to happen again.