The daughter, now that she has a driver’s license, does most of the grocery shopping. Especially since I’ve been sick lately. It takes the sting out of paying that higher insurance premium. She called me from the store yesterday and whispered, “Stay on the phone with me.” Then in a louder voice, she asked what kind of tea I wanted. I began asking yes or no questions, and eventually through the doubletalk, I learned that an older man was following her around the store, staring at her, touching items she put down and often putting them in his own cart. When I asked if he were someone she could kick the crap out of, she said, “Probably.” My daughter has a very gentle nature, but she can definitely play rough. We’ve always encouraged it, and she got an idea of her own strength when she accidentally cracked a couple of The Man’s ribs when he was tickling and wrestling with her. The Man is 6’2″ and very strong. But being agile and (probably) physically stronger than someone is no guarantee of safety – what if this weirdo were armed?
I told her she did exactly the right thing by calling me. It is far better to consider someone a pervert and feel embarrassed that you made a mistake – at worst, you might have to apologize – than to play it cool and find out that he is indeed a pervert when he attacks you. She was in my car, so I couldn’t get to the store, but I told her to go to the checkout and if he followed her there, ask the manager to walk her out to the car. If for some reason that wasn’t possible, she was to sit at the lunch counter until someone got there to help her. Luckily, he didn’t follow her to the checkout, and she got out of the store unmolested. Maybe he was a nice guy and it was all a coincidence, but his behavior was decidedly strange, and it’s always wise to honor the threat. One thing we have always tried to impart to her is that she is responsible for her own safety. We’ve tried to teach her situational awareness, and when to ask for help (always sooner rather than later.) We’ve taught her that her pride is not worth her life and a million false alarms are better than risking a real attack. A lot of my ideas of how best to protect myself come from the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. I highly recommend it, and the knowledge within literally saved my life on one occasion.
Even before reading The Gift of Fear I believed that you can’t depend on strangers for help, and this famous case is why:
1964: Bystanders watch murder
Miss Genovese noticed a man at the far end of a parking lot where she had left her car… Nervously, she headed up Austin Street… The man grabbed her. She screamed… Lights went on in a 10-story apartment house… Windows were opened and voices punctured the early-morning darkness. Miss Genovese screamed: “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” From one of the upper windows in the apartment house, a man called down: “Let that girl alone.” The assailant looked up at the man, shrugged and walked down Austin Street… Miss Genovese struggled to her feet. The lights went out. The killer returned to Miss Genovese — now trying to make her way to her apartment. The assailant stabbed her again. “I’m dying— I’m dying.” Miss Genovese shrieked. Windows were opened again and lights went on in many apartments. The assailant got into his car parked nearby, and drove away. Miss Genovese staggered to her feet…. The assailant returned. By this time. Miss Genovese had crawled to the rear of an apartment building and sought safety by entering one of the doors. The assailant, after trying two doors, found her slumped on the floor at the foot of the stairs. He stabbed her a third time — fatally. It was 3:50 a.m. by the time the police received their first call. It was from a male neighbor of Miss Genovese. Police were on the scene in two minutes. “I didn’t want to get involved,” the man sheepishly told the police. Two weeks after the crime, witnesses in the neighborhood — made up mostly of homes in the $35,000 to $60.000 price range — find it difficult to explain why they didn’t call police. Police said most told them they had been “afraid” to call.
It’s shocking to think that people hearing cries of “He stabbed me! Please help! I’m dying!” were somehow afraid to pick up a phone while within the safety of their own apartments. But it’s true. And worse, this was not an isolated incident.
Five days after the stabbing, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported on other incidents when multiple witnesses failed to help a victim. According to the paper, 40 people stood by and watched a young woman try to fight off a rapist just two weeks earlier.
Today is the 43rd anniversary of Kitty Genovese’ murder, but things haven’t really changed. Last week, at The Daughter’s piano lesson I was watching Dr. Phil. (Although she drives, I have to go because her piano teacher is a man. Although he is a wonderful person, happily married, and I am completely confident in him, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety I tag along for her lessons and wait in the living room, reading a book or watching whatever channel he left on. I also enjoy hearing her lesson.) Dr. Phil hired a couple of actors to violently argue in the street. The man would get increasingly out of control, to the point of shoving the woman around. For the most part, people averted their eyes and kept walking. One woman stepped in between them, facing the actress and said, “You need to come with me,” and tried to lead her away. But that intervention was rare.
Blanche Dubois may have depended on the kindness of strangers, but the rest of us had better not.
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