Under the streetlight glow, I’m walking to the next place on a Saturday night. I pass a group of men clasping each others’ shoulders in a drunken lean, languishing down the street, blocking the path with their pace. I hear them start to make some noise and it’s directed towards me.
“Heeeeey shorty why you alone? (Oooo look at her. Where she going?) HEEEEEY~”
A cold feeling washes over me. Disgust. I choose to pretend I don’t hear them. There are too many people on the street ahead so I can’t escape. One of them gets mad.
“HEY YOU. I’M TALKING TO YOU. TURN AROUND.”
I feel fear twist through my chest. Sighting an out, I dash into a coffee shop. My mind is blank, my legs do the thinking. I walk straight into the women’s bathroom and grasp onto the cold ceramic of the sink. As I look into the mirror, searching my reflection for some sense of equilibrium, I hopelessly wonder how long it will take before they’re gone.
In that moment all I do is blame myself.
I was reading the news in the US recently, and what I saw struck me so much that I felt like writing down my feelings about it. The recent mass shooting in California, though a world away, took me by the shoulders and shook me.
Though many tragic things happen every day, from a young age we are desensitized to some of the worst human experiences in existence. The TV plays in the background, and over family dinners we learn to peer right through the ribcages of starvation, mothers screaming in grief, blood and mugshots, bullet shells and vacant-eyed corpses, all without putting down our spoons. But, if by some chance we recognize a place, or worse, a person on the news screen, our whole world stops. Although I didn’t know any of the victims or even live close to California, somehow this tragic event made things stop for me. I felt affected and I wasn’t entirely sure why. What was it about this situation that broke the shell of my disregard? I realized what it was after a friend asked if I had watched the video that the killer left behind. I hadn’t, I explained, because I was too afraid to watch it.
In a moment of clarity, I was taken aback by my own answer. I tend to think of myself as exceptionally tough and unfazed by a great many things. I don’t cry, my stomach doesn’t turn when I see gore, and I don’t wince when I am in pain. To suddenly feel afraid in this way uprooted a fear that I have always carried but never acknowledged or legitimized. When I saw accounts of the killer’s motives, read through his own words his feelings of entitlement towards women, his anger, his frustration, his depravity and subsequent violence, the singular thought that came to my mind was,”This is why I’m afraid of men.”
I know that many will readily attest that there are plenty of good men out there, kind, adverse to violence, and generally good (#NotAllMen), but I need to start this conversation with how these kinds of feelings are cultivated. I am a daughter raised by a father who used fear as a tool.
My father is the man who I have known all of my life, who is responsible for my very existence. He is a great man, funny, hardworking, strong, and someone I have an affinity for. He is someone I respect and love. We never had a very close relationship, we never hug or have many conversations, and I have known him to be insensitive. He raised me to value strength over the appearance of weakness and vulnerability. When I was a child, he got angry when I cried. I am the tough girl he raised like a son, and although he is proud of me, I have often wondered if things between us would have been better had I been born a son. Growing up with him made me wary of what a man, even one as close as a father, is capable of.
My father’s worst fault is his anger. His explosive temper makes him irrational, irate, and at times violent. At the drop of a hat he would misunderstand and overreact. Blind anger forces him a few frightening steps forward in a physical threat. I see him barely holding back the anger from seeping through his clenched teeth. He exacted his authority through the unpredictability of his rage.
My mother raised me to deal with my father. She never cried or cowered during his outbursts, and on some occasions she provoked my father further. I used to fear for the safety of my mother, but I believed more in her self-assurance than in my own. I was about sixteen when I stopped actually fearing my father, knowing that he had to cycle through his anger every now and then to maintain his sense of dominance. I felt safe from the threat of actually getting hit, but psychologically I knew I would never be completely freed of my fear of him.
This is where my understanding of men began. I accepted that my father was a man and that it was within his nature to behave this way. It was also within the nature of women to pacify men, to verbally throw water on them, to diffuse an escalating argument and ultimately disarm a man of his anger. As a young woman, I learned how to deflect advances from men in the kindest way possible, most of the time because I was scared. I can’t differentiate a nice guy from a bad one anymore because I fear their potential.
When I was walking alone that night, I blamed myself for being alone. I blamed myself for not acknowledging the drunken group of men before they got angry. The world that I live in has taught me to abide by this fear, and for my entire life it was normal. But right now, I can’t believe that I so easily accepted this as my reality for so long.
Form an image of power in your mind and you will not see a woman. You may not even see a man. But you will see objects of fear – guns, knives, fists and fire. You will see the potential of violence – tensed muscles, a finger on a trigger, a boxer knocking his gloves together. You will see red. You will see terror.
Fear is one of the most powerful forces we know.
In his death, a young man in California tried to use fear to finally gain power over the women he desired.
Ironically, the best thing women can do is deny him of this, too.