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Friday, April 27, 2007


My junior year in college I learned that fear is not the wisest response to danger. The lesson began with an obscene phone call from a young man who called me by name. At first I was so surprised it took me a minute to hang up. A week later he called again. He said he had been watching me and knew I had cut my hair. “I’m going to rape you,” he concluded. I gasped and slammed down the phone.

This time I was afraid. Not only was he right about my hair cut, twice in a row he had caught me alone in my room, making me wonder if he was watching to see when my roommate was out. My dorm was surrounded by fraternities, so he could have been nearby. I started glancing over my shoulder at night and pulling the shades.

Then I heard that a young woman down the hall from me was getting the same kind of calls, so I went to hear her story. Helen was holding forth in her dorm room, telling a small audience about his daily, violence threats. She demonstrated how she dropped the phone and screamed every time he called. Suddenly I realized this was exactly what he wanted—our fear and the sense of power it gave him. That’s why he called Helen more often than he called me. Her screams made her more fun.

The next time he called, he began with the rape threat, but I was not afraid. “I’m concerned about your mental health,” I said calmly. There was silence on the other end. “You must be very sad or disturbed to be making calls like this. Did you know the university offers a free counseling service?” There was still no response, so I gave simple directions to the counseling office on the other side of campus. “I hope they can help you,” I concluded. This time, he hung up and never called back. I heard he stopped calling Helen, too.

I don’t know how my fearless response to the young man’s threats affected him, but it taught me several valuable lessons. First, I learned that fear can get in the way of seeing clearly. When we are afraid of people, we often ascribe them more power than they actually have, which can amplify our fear out of all proportion to the real threat. Second, I learned that I control my own attitude, no matter what someone else is doing. In other words, no one can make me scream (something I need to remember when my son starts climbing on parked cars). Third, I learned that controlling my response is a much better way of affecting someone else than trying to control them. Without realizing it at the time, I won by refusing to play his game.

Learning to be fearless isn’t always easy, so it is good to hear each other’s stories. That’s why I was happy to hear that my friends Miriam Peskowitz and Andi Buchanan over at MotherTalk are featuring a blogging event called “Fearless Friday.” They are spreading the word on the paperback release of Arianna Huffington's Becoming Fearless, a book about women overcoming the fears that can limit us. So today I am joining other bloggers across the country by writing about this theme. If you want to join the fun, visit MotherTalk for details (Non-mothers welcome!).


Blogger Julia said...

That's a remarkable story. I hope the young man got help rather than moved on to look for others to stalk. And I am bit surprised that an RA didn't pay attention to Helen's story enough to involve campus authorities. The guy really could have been very dangerous.
I am incredibly impressed with you.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous said...

A story I heard that has stuck with me - though I can't remember who was describing their experience - was this:
A woman was walking home in the dark after grocery shopping, when she heard steps behind her. Nervous, becoming scared she would be mugged? attacked? she turned and saw a man approaching. She said that it came to her to do something completely different - and said to him, "I'm so glad you're here to help me carry these bags. Thanks so much."
And he did. When they reached her apartment, he admitted that he hadn't been planning to help, of course, but that someone seeing something positive in him emboldened him to live up to that expectation and help, instead of hurt.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Wow. That story is very similar to one I have in a book I am writing now. The incident, which I heard from the person who experienced it, occurred in West Philadelphia. The woman did not have groceries, but she heard a voice within her say, "Go talk to the man behind you." She asked him to escort her to her car as she was nervous. As in your story, he confessed his original intentions at her car door.

I am curious if your story describes the same incident, with the details changed by retelling, or if someone else had a similar experience. I wouldn't doubt the latter. I know other people who have gotten out of sticky situations by seeing the person in front of them, rather than the threat. In fact, that was my experience as well the one other time someone threatened to rape me.

I hasten to add a disclaimer to these wonderful stories of empowerment through humanity: It may be obvious, but it bears saying that it is no one's fault if they are attacked. My advice is not a blanket "be friendly to potential perpetrators" but "listen to your gut," which might offer different advice in different circumstances.

7:39 AM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

An inspiring story Eileen. Thank you.


4:16 PM  
Blogger juliloquy said...

I loved your story, Eileen. And I have heard the story in the comment above, but instead of grocery bags it was library books. I think my husband heard it in an alternatives to violence training.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting story............I wonder if any of them are actually true?

11:19 PM  

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