When I was a teenager, my mom and I used to sit on the front porch as she’d tell me–usually with a touch of our family’s famous dark sense of humor–about her many brushes with danger. There was the time, while living in late-1970’s NYC, that a man followed her off the subway. When realizing she was alone and in danger, she began singing show tunes at the top of her lungs and acting so insane that she got him to back off. At least that’s the story I remember. I always keep that tactic in my back pocket.
Then there’s the date that went wrong. It all seemed fine until he pulled the car over and asked if she was interested in seeing his Vietnam knife collection that he kept under the seat. She rapidly talked her way out of that one–talked so fast and about so many things that he didn’t know what to do. And then he took her home.
The stories go on an on, each with a shared laugh (an empowering laugh) between she and I, along with a new lesson that I stored in my brain in case I someday find myself in the same position. On top of these, were all the stories of the 1980’s theatre world and grad school culture, directors being so terrifying with women that my parents later discouraged me from applying to certain BFA programs–where those men now worked.
In the 90s, my family went through several years of hell related to sexual assault. As it is not yet my story to tell, I will choose to remain vague. But I remember having a particularly dark thought at the start of it all while watching a NJ Lottery commercial. “Oh I get it, just the way you can win the good lottery, you can also win the bad one.” I was eight. For years, I became overly aware that I could win the shitty lottery at any time if I wasn’t prepared. I decided, wrongfully, that it was all in my hands, that I could handle these situations if I “trusted my gut” or knew how to talk myself out of it. If I didn’t buy a lottery ticket, maybe I couldn’t win.
Society, as luck would have it, backed up this idea. Don’t walk home late at night, always diffuse the situation with a smile, be careful what you wear. It’s in your hands. In 7th grade, they split up the boys and girls for a sex-ed talk. I learned a few self-defense moves while the boys in the next room, a friend told me, learned about contraception. Perhaps he lied. Either way, the message stuck.