As women, we're expected to be on the lookout for
This is known as being "street smart," which encompasses all of those loaded, TV news tips like "Avoid dangerous neighborhoods at night," "Don't put your home address on Facebook," and "Don't advertise the fact that you're wearing crotchless panties to strange, rapey looking men."
I’d say I’m a pretty street-smart, savvy young lady. I don't do things that would be "asking for trouble," because, as a woman, I've been taught that it's as much my role to thwart trouble as it is man’s role is to give it. ("Give me trouble" will henceforth replace "Wanna see my imitation of a dead frog?" as my favorite way it initiate sex with my boyfriend.)
But, victim shaming aside, some of us just seem to attract lunatics like magnets. Me, for instance: I've managed to draw every insane person in a 25-mile radius, every place I live.
I’ve been in in Montpelier for a little over a year, and I've already had multiple encounters with crazy people. True, it's a small town, and I work at a youth center, but the number feels disproportionate.
I have two local men who may well be classified as "stalkers" -- one young ginger guy and one older man. In my first conversations with both, they were friendly, eager to tell me about the treatment programs they are in. They've since proceeded to follow me around town, and show up to my place of work every few days. Just yesterday I saw the older one, quickly walked from my car to my appointment, dismissively but politely, and came back to a note on my car seat ... inside of my locked car (see above).
Then there was the neighbor who accused me of denting his sedan (he “didn’t see it happen but knew it was me because he measured it with a string.”) The “dent” was actually two nicks in the clear coat of the door, and he wanted me to pay him $600, plus get him a rental. When I said no, he moved, filed a small-claims court case, slashed all four of my tires and then never showed up to court.
Finally, there is the very drunk woman who lurks at the American Legion next to my work who has decided she hates me. She once saw me smoking (I've since quit) and ran through the parking lot toward the Teen Center screaming, “You’re supposed to be with the fucking youth! You fucking slut!”
I had to charge at her, while calling the cops, so that she wouldn’t run into the Teen Center. The only explanation I received from the apologetic old men at the Legion was that “Melody gets jealous sometimes.”
The point is: I've asked myself why have I, Jackie, been to the police station so many times in one year?
I'm not a troublemaker! And yet this happens, time and time again. Is it the crazies, or is it me? Am I wearing some kind of emotional miniskirt visible only to the mentally unstable?
I’ve examined my behavior, and I’ve realized some things that I need to change to avoid trouble. They sort of make me sad ... but here they are.
Maybe they can help you, too, if you're also an unwitting lightning rod for lunatics.
1. Make less eye contact.
Although I grew up in Brooklyn, my entire family was very outgoing and friendly, so we never really prescribed to the head-down-plow-forward-don’t-talk-to-me mentality. Then I moved to Richmond, Virginia, where everyone you pass is a new friend. I love new friends! It’s a hard adjustment to decide to be less friendly, then I remember the several times that I have made eye contact with someone and then been followed around by them. It feels impolite, but the first rule is "Don't engage."
2. Be more straightforward.
In retrospect, the older guy who left the note first seemed a little creepy when he asked for my phone number and if we can be “friends.” But whatever my attempt at directness was at the time didn’t cut it. The truth is, I probably should have been a little bit meaner.
I'd said something like, "It’s cool to see you on the street sometimes, but I have a boyfriend and I don’t want to talk to you on the phone." I thought that was pretty good! After all, he lives three doors down from me, staying civil is a good thing.
But, subtlety escapes these people, and two months later, I’m still dodging him, and trying to figure out how he got that note into my car.
3. Stop loving attention.
This one is hard. While I definitely don’t like attention from people who make me feel scared, I think that the pleasant nature of getting male attention sometimes blinds me initially. Somebody telling you you look beautiful can be nice, but sometimes it's someone crazy saying it, and he has lots of follow-ups. It seems fitting to smile and respond, but you can't tell if somebody complimenting you is crazy until it’s too late.
If you live in a big city, the crazy may follow you down the street. In a small town, the crazy will probably learn your name. Then it can call my name from across the street, loudly, while I’m standing in a group of co-workers, or with my boyfriend.
4. Put myself first.
When it gets to the point where I know I need to say something, I feel terrible. Why did I let this go on for so long without realizing what was happening? Am I going to crush this person? Is there a way to completely disappear from his or her life and never have to witness their disappointment?
It’s completely irrational to feel bad about quashing somebody's stalking behavior. I end up putting myself through distress and guilt, completely forgetting the part about how this person whose feelings I'm afraid to hurt is making me feel uncomfortable and potentially putting me in danger. This is something that a lot of us have to unlearn to stay safe.
A few months ago I was vacationing in St. Thomas, and the snorkel guy at the resort struck up a conversation with me. It started out pretty friendly, but eventually he told me that he wanted to "bring me down there and take care of me."
At first, I laughed it off, along with other gems like, "I want to teach you how to catch a fish" and, "I have land, let’s build a house on my land," and "I want to make you my Queen."
Now, friends, I am not a stupid girl. Clearly snorkel man had game, and this was a perfectly rehearsed soliloquy whose hopeful crescendo involved 10 minutes of sloppy, condom-less sex behind a shed in the St. Thomas jungle. The man had goals. Rather transparent ones.
AND YET, I found myself sitting on my beach chair trying to be nice to him. I was so massively uncomfortable, but I blamed myself, because I must have done something to let it get this far. I was sitting there, on vacation, in this completely inappropriate situation, trying to figure out how best to gently break it to this snorkel guy that I did not want to be his queen.
Ultimately? "I'm going swimming," I said, and just stood up and walked away down the beach. OK, I was baked. But it worked.
So I’m going to follow these rules to see if they help.
It sucks, and I’m not happy about it "hardening" or becoming so disillusioned that I can't nod politely back at friendly strangers. But I’m also pretty tired of hearing, How does this always happen to you?!