What bogeymen, sisterhood, and walking alone taught me about “staying safe”
I was washing dishes in a dingy Queens apartment when I remembered him.
“What was his name again?” I had to ask my sister, Adrianna, mentally flicking through some plausible names — O’Leary, O’Malley, O’Murphy — as Irish as they come.
“Officer O’Reilly,” Adrianna said without skipping a beat.
Officer O’Reilly was a family friend and a protector. He was tall, gruff but kind, and above all, deeply intimidating. On long walks at night in Redmond, a quiet suburb with its fair share of car prowls and petty theft, Adrianna and I would reminisce in loud voices about the last time Officer O’Reilly came over for dinner. How he’d promised to show me his gun collection. Or how he was planning to pick us up from the bus stop where we were waiting alone at midnight. We weren’t scared, of course, because “Officer O’Reilly” — as we said in loud, conspiratorial voices — would protect us. And just like that, we thought confidently, we sent the bogeymen back to their bushes.
You wonder why I forgot the name of a man so important to my childhood and early adolescence.
I wonder, too.
Here’s one (poor) excuse: Officer O’Reilly wasn’t real.
I don’t know how it began. Maybe it was because there was originally a real Officer O’Reilly (a junior high’s School Resource Officer), and we used his name because its comforting familiarity swathed us like a safety blanket. Maybe it started with the things many siblings do, the games of imagination like Hot Lava that rely on much more than creating fictional characters, but entire fictional worlds. Or maybe it started long before all that, with the first child kidnapping/molestation/rape/murder quadruple whammy my mother saw on the nightly news. There were those forlorn pictures of missing children that showed up in coupon mailers and newspaper pages, and my family had the desire, as all families do, that my sister and I never be in one of those photos.
So when I was three, I learned to scream if someone tried to grab me. “Bite down on someone’s hand if they use it to muffle your mouth,” my dad said. “Kick them in the groin,” my mom said. I looked up at her innocently and asked, “What’s a groin, Mommy?”
When I was seven, I learned the way to twist my wrist out of an attacker’s grip. “Don’t pull directly away,” my tutor, Natasha, warned me. “Twist against the thumb, instead — like this.” We practiced.
When I was fourteen, I started walking up to the high school track at night to go running. Around 9 PM one night, I became conscious of a man in long basketball shorts who had been following me for some blocks now. He was closing the distance between us. I changed direction. He followed.
If this story had gone a different way, this would be the point at which some might ask, “Why didn’t you run? Scream?” I was scared and 14 and terrified of doing the wrong thing, and breaking into a run in the middle of the street seemed like the wrong thing. So I thought of my phone and my mom and I shakily dialed her number while walking a little faster toward the streetlight at the top of the hill, and I said when she picked up in as calm a voice as I could muster, “Can you come meet me?”
We were a few blocks from my house. But I didn’t want to go back with a man following me, and inadvertently show him where I lived (something I’d probably read online on one of those how-not-to-get-kidnapped Wikihow articles). The moment my mom found me, I grabbed her hand. “Thanks,” I whispered.
The man in basketball shorts quickly and silently turned around.
I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that it was just an ill-timed series of events. But when you’re a young girl walking alone at night, you don’t get the luxury of entertaining the what-ifs of the better side of human nature. Thinking the worst of someone, and being wrong, means needlessly walking faster and keeping a hand on your cell phone before you step outside. But thinking the best of someone, and being wrong? Maybe it means being that forlorn missing child, forever frozen in time in an envelope of coupons or a newspaper page.
Have you seen me?
That’s the worst-case scenario.
It doesn’t take the worst case to make me afraid. There’s something that happened in Vienna, which I thought of yesterday when some little boys on bikes whipped past me on the sidewalk. One of them reminded me of an Austrian boy. Maybe it was the blonde hair, or the cheeky smile that seemed to illustrate that feeling when you’re rushing by on wheels that the world, and everything in it, is yours to run over.
I rarely felt that powerful on a bike, or on anything with wheels. The summer I graduated high school, I had barely begun to drive (badly) by the time my family traveled to Europe. One week, we rented an adorable third-floor apartment in a quiet Viennese neighborhood near a giant park where I went for a run. I ran around a lush lawn, an abandoned mill, and manicured hedge upon manicured hedge. It was idyllic.
I saw my mom on her way to the grocery store as I ran out of the park, and slowed to a walk. A boy behind us on his scooter, maybe 13 or 14, stared at us as we all approached the intersection. My mom smiled as she glanced at him, saying, “Hello,” but he didn’t speak English. He sped ahead on his scooter.
“Here, take this water,” my mom said, handing me a water bottle; we were about to diverge paths, her to the store, and me back to our apartment. I nodded, waved, and walked onward, noting that the boy on the scooter had slowed conspicuously, until I had outpaced him and there was half a block between us. Suddenly I heard the wheels grinding against the sidewalk as he sped up. The same feeling of adrenaline and fear that I’d had when the man in basketball shorts followed me rose up in my gut, but I quickly dismissed it with the thought, He’s a kid. What is he going to do?
The next moment I remember in fragments —
His hand. Out of nowhere, grabbing my butt. Me, turning. Without even thinking whacking his arm with the water bottle. Yelling ineffectually in the English he doesn’t understand, “Don’t do that!”
He’s a kid. What is he going to do?
The answer to that question, now too terrifying for a follow-up —
What will he do now?
Torn between the absurdity of his age, the indignation of what had just happened, and a worse, growing, and more visceral feeling — fear — I found myself wanting to run, wanting to stay, and wanting to fight, all at once.
Fear won, mostly.
I speed-walked ahead, as he paused on the street corner, not following me anymore, laughing and then hissing at me.
It was humiliating. He was young and cocky and walked away with the feeling that he had gotten away with a (quite literal) tap on the wrist, while I walked away feeling ashamed for being scared, shocked at his audacity, and angry that it could affect me so much. Because even though I like to think I’m “over it,” reminding myself that so many people go through so much worse, I can still hear him hissing, and still see him in blonde-haired boys of a certain age, like yesterday in Queens. I can still feel the barely perceptible crinkle of my grey running shorts as he reached between my legs. My body is less memory foam ready to bounce back than newly poured concrete, and somehow it hardened with his handprint.
Officer O’Reilly could not have defended me then. And maybe Adrianna and I were always deluding ourselves — he could never defend us anywhere. It reflects our privilege, that we trusted this figment of our imagination to protect us from the bogeymen in the bushes, while to many marginalized groups in our society Officer O’Reilly and the institution he represents would be the real bogeyman.
Yet he represents our lack of privilege, too, because I don’t think that most boys grow up with Officer O’Reillys in their lives — at least, not in the same way my sister and I did. We talked about him in loud voices to dispel the demons around us, the same way you clap loudly when you walk in the woods to alert the animals to your presence and hope they run. He was the knight in shining armor to our damsels in distress. And many boys don’t grow up waiting for Officer O’Reilly to protect them. They grow up waiting to become him. I know this because I’ve met a lot of Officer O’Reillys, still recognizable without blue uniforms and badges. The friend who expressed concern and asked where I was when I walked campus unaccompanied in the wee hours. The jovial floormate who jumped up to walk with my friend and me to a dormitory half a mile away because it was after 10. The fellow partygoer who made sure I got home safe.
I love Officer O’Reilly, and all his real-life avatars.
But I abhor the conditions that engendered his creation.
We see girls as lucky for being seamlessly passed from fathers to brothers to significant others all willing to protect them, too often without questioning the world they need protecting from. I don’t think that the man who followed me in Redmond or the boy who groped me in Vienna were born with a predisposition for harassing women. More likely, someone instilled in them, through words or deeds, a screwed-up definition of what it is to be a “real man” — that masculinity derives its power from subjugating, whether physically, mentally, or sexually. When they saw me on the street, they might have seen less a human and more an ornament, to be displayed and elevated or cast down and broken at will.
My world raised me, from the first moments I remember, with the expectation that such people are the norm. My world is more willing to tell me to “stay safe” — and blame me when I stray — than it is to confront the embedded social norms that make public spaces unsafe for me in the first place. Rape survivors still hear questions like “What were you wearing?” and “Why were you drinking?” And when the Indian journalist Soumya Viswanathan was murdered, Delhi’s former Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, controversially said in response, “All by herself till 3 AM at night in a city where people believe…you know…you should not be so adventurous.”
I want to be adventurous — not just out of desire, but necessity. Cocooning myself in safety, or at least the illusion of it, has high costs. As Soraya Chemaly describes, these include paying for taxis when we might otherwise walk, joining gyms to avoid being harassed while exercising outdoors, circumscribing our opportunities for professional advancement (particularly when those professions involve field work in “dangerous” areas), and much more.
Harassment should not be the price we pay for existing as women in public space.
Officer O’Reilly made me consider the gender safety gap in a deeply personal way. But ultimately, he reminds me, too, of sisterhood, and how Adrianna and I could laugh and tell stories in the face of fear. “Officer O’Reilly will be coming over for dessert,” we would say, winking to each other, and suddenly the streets would feel a little safer, a little brighter, a little bit ours. Just two young girls, our arms round each other, as we skipped together into the dark.