I haven’t been watching much TV news in the last few years, but I couldn’t help but see the video of that poor little girl in Florida being led away by Mr. Creepy. I wondered why she went so willingly, then reminded myself this is no mystery. We raise children, and especially girls, to be obedient to adults. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is good. Sometimes, it isn’t.
Today, riding home on the bus, a staggering drunk boarded at a park-and-ride lot. Everyone else got off, making us the only two riders. He weaved back to his seat, sat and said “Shit! I need a transfer.” He got back up and weaved back to the driver, shoving a palm in her face. I noticed his coat was split all the way up the back seam, exposing the lining. Also, he was so redolent of his intoxicant of choice I felt it at the back of my throat. He weaved back, only this time he plopped down next to me. “Lady,” he started to say, warming up for a panhandle.
“NO!” I barked, with about 2,000 percent more vehemence than I felt. “You are NOT sitting here.” The driver actually took her foot off the accelerator; was she going to have a Situation? I waved her an all-clear in the mirror and she drove on. The drunk, looking stunned, went back to his original seat and put his head in his hands.
This is the second time this has happened to me in recent years. The last time, a drunk on a bicycle acted squirrelly on a bike path, then raced ahead about 100 yards and stopped, seemingly to wait for me. As we came abreast, I pointed a finger at him and snarled, “If you TOUCH me, I will HURT you.” He, too, looked as if I’d lashed him with a whip. When we passed again, he actually left the path and rode his bike up against a line of trees, averting his eyes as though I was the alpha bitch and he, just a cowering cur.
Where did this Inner Xena come from? When I was 23, a man sat down next to me on a bus and practically jerked himself off, and I sat there like a lox. When I was a teen-ager, creepy guys shouted things from cars all the time, and I put my head down and walked on by.
A lot is different now. The bloom is long-gone from my rose; this just doesn’t happen very often. And I know that while assertiveness is the recommended response to unwelcome attention, I don’t know that finger-waving, driver-startling assertiveness is the right idea — I worry that someday this anger is going to be met by more of it. Either that, or I’ll start resembling the crazy old ladies with the bulging tote bags whose eye everyone else avoids on these very same buses.
But mostly I wonder: How can I teach Kate to take care of herself like this? How can I teach her to recognize dangerous aggression, separate it from garden-variety assertiveness and react instinctively to it, without turning her into a fear-ridden little mouse who walks everywhere with her keys sticking out from her clenched fist? I want to let her walk home alone from a friend’s house at 11 without fearing she can be abducted by a stranger who simply takes her by the arm and walks off with her.
Gavin de Becker wrote an excellent book on this very subject, which I read back when Kate was a wriggling infant. Now that she’s out in the world, I think I need to read it again.