Posted Friday, Sept. 25, 2009, at 1:07 PM
My daughter Sasha and I walked the dog together last Monday night after dark. This would not be newsworthy but for the fact that it was the first time we’d done so in nearly six weeks.
My family lives in Harlem, on Sugar Hill, on the same block where our local serial rapist, who was finally caught on Sunday night, sexually assaulted and robbed his fourth and latest victim, by crawling through her bathroom window via a fire escape. That attack, aside from his weapon of choice, a knife, was an anomaly for our rapist. Normally he simply overpowered his victims as they were entering the front doors of their buildings.
Before we go any further, let’s just get a few facts out of the way: I was attacked multiple times in my early twenties, and the best way to deal with these assaults, as I’ve learned over the two decades since, is simply to list them in the order they occurred and move on:
1) Attempted rape by a man who broke into my college dorm room around lunchtime. I escaped. He was arrested but released on personal recognizance. He never showed up at the trial.
2) Robbed at gunpoint while with a male friend, by a man in the early evening on a quiet, safe street, as we made our way home from a dinner out.
3) Robbed at gunpoint by a man crouched in the back seat of a taxi at Penn Station, while his accomplice pretended to be the driver.
4) Sexually assaulted by three drunk men on a dark street. Lots of groping, no penetration. I beat one of them until his eye bled.
5) Date-raped by an acquaintance.
6) Sexually assaulted by an elderly rabbi whom I was interviewing about his friendship with Arafat. I tried to push him down a set of stairs; bystanders intervened.
I mention these random assaults not for shock value but for background. Women recover-or never recover-from these types of crimes in different ways, and my own road back to normalcy has taken the form of what from the outside might look like either denial or a devil-may-care attitude toward danger but from the inside is what I like to think of as a carefully calibrated distinction between calculated risk and actual risk.
I recently moved our family to Harlem, which would give us more space for less money, after noticing on an Internet crime map that the Upper East Side often has more crimes and rapes per square inch than Sugar Hill. I am nothing if not rational about what is worthy of my anxiety and what is not, and I refuse to live my life as if a giant bus is just around the corner, waiting to crush me the minute I step off the curb.
Or rather, I live my life understanding that a giant bus is around the corner waiting to crush me, but I have little-to-no control over where and when. For while my attackers may have stolen my innocence and peace of mind, they also gave me two gifts: knowledge that every ugly crime one can imagine, aside from murder, is survivable, and a realist’s ability to distinguish danger from DANGER!
Enter the serial rapist: not just the amorphous threat of a threat-the one that’s always there for us women, because of the vagaries of our reproductive physiology-but a real Threat with a capital T. In my neighborhood. Where my 12-year-old daughter’s job is to walk the dog after dinner.
So I took over that chore of hers, because I promised my husband when I brought the dog home-against his and our eldest son’s wishes, both of whom were vehemently against dog acquisition-that Sasha and I would do everything, and I’ve taken a certain pride in keeping that promise, in the same way my husband has taken a certain pride, from time to time, in breaking it. But after the third attack, when it became clear that the rapist was targeting the very sidewalks where my dog likes to do his business, I asked my husband to either walk the dog himself or to join me. It was after 10 p.m., and I was both scared to go out alone and angry that I was scared and, truth be told, humiliated to have to ask my husband to be my bodyguard.
So when he responded that he had too much work, well, you can imagine how well that went over.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. OK, shouted.
"Come on," he said. "I married you because you’ve always been able to deal."
"Yes, but there’s a serial rapist in our neighborhood!"
I hated the way I sounded. I hated my fears. I hated my husband for being immune to the danger. I hated having this fight. But I hated the rapist most of all. He-or rather the threat of him-was getting to all of us. My adolescent daughter most acutely, who felt hemmed in by the new restrictions over her movements, but even my 14-year-old son was spooked by the presence of all those news trucks and reporters on our sidewalks, while our 3-year-old, who’d often listen to his Peter and the Wolf CD before bed, suddenly decided, after the third attack, that the wolf was simply too scary.
My husband relented and walked the dog with me every night between attack No. 3 and last Sunday night, but neither of us were happy about it. Nor was my daughter, who used to enjoy her evening jaunts. A few days after the fourth attack, I was having lunch with my new neighborhood friends, Leah and Maude (not their real names), both mothers of sons. We were all trying to laugh it off-self-protection through black humor-until suddenly I blurted out, "Yeah, but I have a 12-year-old daughter!" and the three of us, for a moment, fell silent. Then Leah went back to trying to get me to laugh it off, albeit less jollily.
The day the story broke about the rapist’s capture, Leah wrote me an unnecessary email of apology for having made light of the situation after I voiced my fears. It was her way of coping, she said, because one time, years ago, a man had entered her bathroom window via the fire escape, raped her, and and kept her prisoner for the next five hours.* (Note to self and to all city dwellers with fire escapes near tiny bathroom windows assumed to be impenetrable: If you’re going to go to the trouble to put bars on your big fire escape windows, go ahead and put bars on the little windows as well. Apparently, full grown men can squeeze through them.)
I was hoping to have been able to wait a few more years before talking to my daughter about what it means to be a woman in the world-that there are real and menacing dangers, and yet she can’t live her life as if they’re always out there-but I guess this period of actual danger has been as good a time as any to talk about the distinction. And Monday night, as the two of us walked the dog past the TV trucks, smiling and joking with all of our female neighbors, who were suddenly and unusually out in droves walking dogs, going for strolls, entering and exiting our neighborhood deli, the sense of sorority was palpable. Yes, of course there could have been a new criminal just around the next corner, waiting to pounce on any of us, but for that one moment in time, after our serial rapist was captured, we were all simply tickled to be out after dark without our menfolk, on the night before the fall solstice, with the still-warm breezes blowing through our hair.
"Thank God they caught him!" one woman squealed with delight, as our dogs sniffed each other's butts.
"I know," I said. "We’re so relieved."
* Correction , Sept. 26th : The original sentence incorrectly said that the rape continued for five hours.