parenthood, Uncategorized

They’ve got your back: Why my real-life crime story became a sign of hope

img_3475The first time I was catcalled was the summer I turned 12. “Loooooove you! In the purple!” the boys called. My reaction was a mix of awkward flattery and disbelief. Were they mocking me? They kept at it, giggling.


The first time I was propositioned was four years later, the summer I turned 16. A classmate at writing camp asked me in a student lounge, without particular warning, whether, hey, I wanted to “go do it now.” I said, “Go do it?” and turned away from him. We weren’t even friends. Lack of teenage nuance aside, the message was disheartening: there were those who cared not at all about what I had to say, my interests or biography or my voice. To some, I was only a body, and a body was something to be used.


I chose to teach my eldest daughter, now 15, that term “catcall” not long ago, when a truckload of men passed us while we walked the dog. I didn’t tell her much more — I didn’t warn her that as a comely young woman, she could expect years of this, or that she should always be mindful of her personal well being. We’ve talked about safety before, but on that street with the truck newly passed and her awareness of the men’s behavior still tending toward innocence, it felt like too much a visit from the adulthood she has not yet fully entered. I numbly kept it as a vocabulary lesson and couldn’t bear much more.


My youngest daughter made it to only first grade before she was viewed in sexual terms by a man, albeit one with criminal psychopathy. She and a friend had stopped at a park drinking fountain, taking a break from their rides on their scooters, when a man dropped his pants in the alcove of the adjacent bathroom. She and her friend were both only six years old.


One might look at me and my daughters, and at the countless similar stories of so many of us women viewed first as objects of sexual interest, and feel sullen or even enraged. We might gauge the low bar we have set for those in the recent public sphere and grow further troubled. Surely, we have work to do.


Amid this clamor, I offer a single hopeful sign that we humans are worthy creatures. There is more to the story of the day my youngest daughter became the victim of a sex crime.


Two young men witnessed the man’s criminal behavior in that alcove. They immediately accosted the offender and ensured he couldn’t flee. They moved him to the nearby lawn, where scores of their friends and family — at the park that day for a large gathering — encircled him.


I was aware of none of this. My daughter had subsequently fallen and skinned her knee. Totally ignorant of what had happened by the drinking fountain, I went to my vehicle to find a bandage and left my daughter with her friend’s mom. When I returned, I observed the group maintaining their angry circle around a lone man, seated helplessly on the grass. Their outrage was obvious. I gradually pieced together what had happened. Without those everyday heroes, the crime would’ve gone unpunished. I would have no idea what had happened to my young child.



Of course I was sickened to realize my little girl was a victim of a crime and that our lives were about to be impacted by a criminal case. Juxtaposed against those strong emotions, however, I couldn’t help but be reassured by the actions of those two young men and their benevolent posse. It was not their children who were victimized. Yet their outrage was certain and their course influential. By intervening, they likely protected future victims. The perpetrator turned out to be a registered sex offender with a lengthy record.


So it was their children who were victimized that afternoon next to that drinking fountain. And their children are mine. With their swift action, those two 22-year-olds – not much past their teen years themselves — introduced me to the justice of community, to a selfless vigilantism that comforts me to this day.


The legal proceedings dragged on for three years as the defendant sought repeated delays. Finally he pleaded guilty. A repeat offender, he will be sentenced in December and could receive up to 14 years in prison.


So it can be an ugly world. It can be an ugly and contentious world, a place dominated by self-interest and greed and the undervaluing of others. I’ve fretted over my child’s innocence lost, mulled restlessly over the unsettling “What if…?” question, and regretted the sad optics of taking my baby to a courtroom to practice serving as a witness in advance of a trial. The world can bring us pain. But two young men rushed to protect two little girls that day, and their tribe became my tribe, and our lives were linked. Our culture might stumble and err, and our media-saturated narrative might seem beyond repair, but there is good out there. There are many who respect the bodies and minds of women and girls. There is connection. We belong to each other. We have to let ourselves believe that, and then live that credo as brave witnesses.


Grief, Racism, Uncategorized

High elopement risk

IMG_2880.JPGMy mother spent the better part of March of this year living on the geriatric psychiatry floor of a hospital near my home. To get into this wing, I had to pick up a phone, sign in and surrender my purse. Signs at the doors warned of “high elopement risk.”

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

My mother was the most ill patient in the psychiatry ward. She did not speak coherently, her only words short riffs of old phrases thrown together. She made no connections with her fellow patients and she never slept. My visits were spent in the common area of the wing. This space brought together a small crowd of regulars, folks whose faces became familiar to me. There was Mary, lucid enough to once say “I haven’t seen you here before,” but always disheveled and melancholy. I noticed an inscrutable woman who played cards without playing cards, deploying all the motions and none of the method of a card game. And then there was Ethel, loud and urgent, yelping “Heeeelp!” but sometimes losing interest before anyone came to her aid. She was my favorite, full of drama in a pink nightgown.

It seemed like a tough gig, working behind those locked doors. Decisions requiring a certain nuance would arise in chronic rhythm. Ignore the latest wail from Ethel or go to her?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

Among the staff members dressed in scrubs was a young African American man. He was a bright eyed twentysomething with a ready grin, his hair long and in dreadlocks. He was friendly, freely commenting to me about the newspaper I could no longer share meaningfully with my mom. He filled me in on her preceding hours, which generally consisted of my terminally ill mom refusing and struggling. He betrayed not a moment’s frustration with her. In fact, the two of them always managed it all, making it through my mom’s showers, her garment changes and her meals.

Research in social psychology has long provided insight into the impact of bias. We’re biased to favor our own viewpoints. The “false consensus effect” is a classic observation, in which we believe our knowledge and beliefs are shared by a majority of others.

A related phenomenon is known as naive realism. This is the belief that one’s private experience, which is inherently subjective, is a universal reality. A clever way of demonstrating this, first undertaken by a psychology graduate student in the 1990’s, is to ask individuals to tap out a song on a table. While a tune in your head might seem well conveyed via those taps, the tempo and melody both clear, the effect tends to sound like just so many random knocks to a listener. Still, subjects overestimate the likelihood of a partner’s success in discerning the tune.

So we tend to think that our views and our experiences are shared by others. And we are inclined to think that our own ways of being are objective, unvarnished and universal.

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I liked my mother’s young care provider and admired his ease. There were things to be done, and he did them. I would have had a harder time in his role, even with my own mother — or perhaps especially with my own mother. I might stop to lament, or I might hesitate, or I might impatiently murmur why can’t you. My frail, confused mother moaned and groused her way through the acts of caregiving this man provided, and she was met with only his gentle face and firm instruction.

Now that months have passed and my mother has died, I still think about that man. I’m aware that although I found all the staff members’ jobs intriguing, my attention was so focused on him because he did not fit my stereotype of a professional in geriatric medicine. I couldn’t help but wonder why a young black man would choose a position of caring for elderly, mostly white individuals with serious psychiatric illnesses. Moments of connection would be less than in other medical specialties, the tasks of caregiving especially fraught with awkwardness for those of us observing. Moreover, patients with psychiatric illness — like my own mother — can be noncompliant at best and aggressive at worst. And I feared what I knew was possible: this man’s own patients could very well be biased against him. So why choose them?

Elopement: leaving a safe space.

I know that I made certain predictions about my mother’s care provider based on his appearance: his long hair, his thin frame, his young age, and, I don’t doubt, the color of his skin.

Even if my predictions were as benign as expecting him to like hip-hop, they could have impact. We are all repeatedly generating, and repeatedly subjected to, biases. For me, a middle aged white woman who drives an old minivan and could stand to lose a few pounds, these biases may often be favorable or at least neutral: I probably have children, or am friendly toward kids. I probably speak English fluently. I probably enjoy the company of other women my age, am not filthy rich, am not a marathoner, and am trustworthy.

That last one is a big one. Does my mother’s care provider enjoy the same assumption in his favor? Mike Ditka, former NFL coach, commented in response to the recent silent protests of professional and amateur athletes that, “I just don’t see the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” Lacking particular insight or empathy, Ditka and those with similar attitudes remain naive realists. A masculine white man in a male-dominated high-income career like Ditka’s may be relatively unlikely to encounter biases against him that undercut his sense of freedom, that question his dignity, or that impede his progress. Ditka’s movement through the world is his perceived reality, which he — like all of us — mistakes for an objective truth. Lifting oneself out of one’s own veil requires effort. It requires pause. It may represent an elopement of sorts: a willful movement out of a safe space. Most of us, most of the time, choose the well-greased path instead and allow our own perspectives to dominate our beliefs about and responses to others.

My mother had a career as a school librarian. She was a skilled researcher, adept at connecting with both students and faculty. She was well liked and well informed. At the end of her life, she had lost virtually everything: profoundly disabled, she required nearly constant care to make it through the day. It was an elopement of body and brain away from the safe spaces of ability and achievement to the modest floor of pronounced, unremitting need. Once pushed away from her safe spaces, she was tended to by a man whose place at her side may have represented a further elopement, his own: defying the likeliest expectations of him, despite challenges both shared by others in that role and unique to him, there he was.

For the sake of both of them, the dying white woman and the young black man, may we all elope more. May we accept that there is no one reality apart from each of our minds, and that the fears, beliefs, and even the joys of others ought not be dismissed simply because they are not our own.

My mother was fortunate in her final weeks to have that gentleman at her side. I wish now that I had learned his name. There they were, at that moment in time, existing within a practical safe space but both far from anything so describable. Life crosses paths of souls, and we are all at turns both powerful and at each other’s mercy. Let us all elope together.

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