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Jian Ghomeshi went to trial this month. And so, in a way, did Canadian women. The Ghomeshi trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell.
It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I have shared my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day 29, in which I share my experience of being mugged while pushing my babies in a stroller in a quiet, leafy part of Oakland. I had planned to include a reflection on the project in this post but then it got long, and then this happened, and I feel so stupid happy. So I will wait until the dust settles and be back in one week with my (less) hot take on what I have found it means to be a woman who tells.
I have a lot to say about what I have seen and experienced in this past month. It's been insults and compliments, cold silences and unexpected thank yous. I'll be talking about it today, February 29, on Vancouver's Co-Op Radio show The Rational at 6:30PM PST.
If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow.
Please note a trigger warning: photographs of bruises are presented at the end of the blog post.
This is incident number 41.
I had a nearly three year-old son and an eight month-old daughter. We lived with their dad in a one bedroom apartment in North Oakland. People were friendly, the sun shone year-round and the strangest, Suessian plants grew. While my husband worked two jobs I was home with the kids, breastfeeding one and baking over-mixed cakes with the other.
Housing prices were absurdly high but not because crime was low. Crime was not low. There were daily muggings, often at gunpoint, in our small section of the city. Wealthier, more conservative residents had pooled their resources to hire private security firms to patrol their streets.
A few hours before it happened, I picked up a good quality double stroller off the street. It was sitting on the sidewalk with a hand-markered sign on it that said, "FREE -- works well." I had been walking with my son in an umbrella stroller (a stroller that folds up like an umbrella does; cheap and lightweight), our baby in a cloth carrier on my front. I had tools from the tool lending library, shopping bags, and a diaper bag, all draped on the back of the stroller, and it was a workout. In a split second I had both kids riding high in our new chariot, bags and tools stowed safely beneath. I left a bottle of kids' sunscreen as a thank you in its stead. It was a behemoth but it cornered like it was on rails.
I returned home to drop off the umbrella stroller. I got the kids out to change the baby's diaper and give everybody a snack. I called my husband, who was at a cafe nearby, and said that the kids hadn't napped yet but that I had just acquired an awesome street-find stroller and maybe they would nap in it if I took them for a slow walk. I kind of wanted him to say that he would do it but he was in the middle of programming a quantum computer and that shit cannot be interrupted.
Before heading back out, I touched up my lip gloss, slipped into a pair of tan and black patent leather flats and threw on a black puffy vest. I wanted to look nice when I saw my husband. And I laughed at how yuppy-mommy I must look, with the expensive double-stroller, and my lip gloss and flats and puffy vest. Maybe everyone achieves this look through haphazard circumstances, I thought. Maybe it's something that just happens when you grow up.
I placed the kids into their new stroller's bucket seats. I had not been planning to buckle our almost three year-old in for our short walk through residential streets. The stroller was heavy and sturdy. He is not a runner and would be asleep shortly, anyway. But he likes pulleys and levers, buckles and hooks. He said, "No, I need to be buckled in!" and so I did, for him. I buckled the baby in as a matter of course. I tucked in her Sophie the Giraffe and a one-eyed pin cushion owl made of felt, which she liked, mostly to mouth.
We strolled through the city streets. As the kids got quieter, we passed a man working in a garage and said hello. We stopped for a minute so that my son could see what he was working on; when the child was satisfied, we continued our walk. He fell asleep a few minutes later.
I turned down a street that I had always liked -- a side street off a side street, created by the church at the end of it, whose grounds had caused the city planners deviate from their grid just a little. There were tall willows and the yards were neglected in that beautiful Bay Area way, where a garden left for a week will begin to hold its own caucus. I thought, We could live here. I wouldn't mind having a house on this street if we had the money. I heard a jogger behind me and began to move the (large) stroller to the left so that they could pass. I turned to see that they could make it past us but I didn't get to turn far enough, I never saw his face.
I was falling, I was twisting.
I was holding onto the stroller's push bar and I wasn't able to fight him off or break my fall because of it but letting it go was not an option. Did I close my eyes? I remember this moment in darkness, as if we were falling, fighting, floating in outer space.
I was down so fast. I had been standing at the top of a driveway leading down onto the street and on impact the stroller wrenched from my hands and tumbled onto its front, the incline dragging my children toward the street. I fought him. I had so little of value in my bag, it was tucked into the back of the stroller, and I didn't think someone would attack me just for my stuff with the babies there. So I thought he was going to rape me. I suddenly understood that it would be very easy for him to do that.
Then he scrambled over to the stroller.
He reached for it.
I saw him reach for the stroller.
He was nearer to my babies than I was.
Without lifting it up he fished through its back mesh pocket for my tote bag and I realized what the fuck was up. I yelled, I'VE GOT TWO BABIES HERE! He didn't answer, grabbed my bag and ran back down the street the way he had come, like a jogger with a beige canvas bomb in his hand.
Finally, I yelled for help. I must have pulled the stroller upright, though I have no memory of doing so. I unbuckled the baby and then my son, struggling with the extra-safe, extra-complicated buckles that I had not yet learned how to open. The baby was screaming. My son was crying too, yelling, "Mama, I didn't like dat!"
I did my best to pick them both up in my arms and reached some concrete steps. My body hurt. A blanket, a water bottle, Sophie the Giraffe and the one-eyed owl lay at the foot of the driveway, dispersed like an upended Monopoly board. They hadn't been buckled in. But my babies had been buckled in. I held them. Crying is a good sign. Crying means alive.
I heard a dog barking inside the house whose steps we were sitting on. A young woman with long dark hair came out, without the dog, wearing pink and red polka-dotted socks. She asked if we were OK and if she should call the police. I hesitated. I said yes, please, we should do that. She put me on the line with them. Two cruisers pulled up within minutes. The woman who lived at that house remained with us for the next hour and I don't remember her name but I will always remember her kindness. My kids settled down and a red welt the size of a quarter began to swell on my daughter's head. I felt so much rage.
The next day, I wrote a letter to the man who mugged us. I said,
You must have been disappointed. No good phone, no cash, no camera, no laptop, no tablet, no designer sunglasses, no house keys. The police kept asking me what brand names my stuff was - what brand was the purse? What brand the wallet inside? I felt a bit ashamed, surprised even, that there was nothing like that. The purse was a somewhat decrepit canvas tote bag I purchased from a craft store and painted myself. The wallet a $3.95 metal card carrying case from Walgreens. I didn't fit the type, the kind of person who would be good to mug -- though of course, I do. You would't have mugged me if I didn't.
I have always wanted to look rich. To look like I have money -- at first, enough money to be cool, then enough money to get by, and now, enough money to take care of my children. As if having money could justify my presence in this world. And it is a strange compliment to me that you saw me and thought She has money. And it is a strange happening that, in fact, I do have financial security now, but the objects I carry with me don't reflect that. I hope you feel bad. I hope you feel, she is just like me. I hope you feel, she tried to fight me off. I hope that when you have a child of your own, you remember this moment. The moment that you ran up to me from behind and knocked me down, only to find that I was not who you thought I was.
I wrote about how strange it was to feel another man's body so close to mine. You learn another person's body in fighting just as well as you do in sex. I had had so much physical closeness with the small bodies of my children and, because of them, much less with my husband. It was jarring to remember the feeling of the aliveness of his muscles and skin beneath a cotton t-shirt. I knew what he smelled like.
I wrote about about my children.
They have personalities, identities, favorite toys and games. They have names. When you jumped me from behind, when you expected to wrench my hands from the stroller, when you knocked me into the street, you weren't thinking about that. You weren't thinking about the way they were sleeping so peacefully, or the hours the baby had been up the night before, or the sweet way that little kid teeth look when you brush them very carefully. You were thinking about my purse. A bag I had painted with a funny little black design, faded in the wash.
I want you to know us. In the days afterward, I have wanted you to know who I am. Not my name or my address (you have those already), but me. I want you to know that I am a nice person. That I would call for help if I found you injured on the street. That I strive so hard not to take 'that which is not freely given'. I know things are different. I know that I don't know what it's like to be you. But a $500 purchase on my credit card at Footlocker doesn't make me think you were looking for grocery money.
My son knows that concrete is hard like a rock. I teach him that you can drag a piece of calcium carbonate along it and draw hopscotch.
Sight is what makes us put out our hands to protect our heads. Sleeping makes us sightless. We enter into it like a liquid in which our senses are blunted, our bodies no longer reactive. Concrete doesn't care if you're a baby, if you're asleep, if you don't have your hands out. Thanks to a child's capricious desire, my son was buckled in. The straps and buckles worked.
I have gratitude, I am grateful.
And I am grateful for the knowledge of what I would do in a situation like that. I wrote in my unsendable letter,
The baby was screaming. She has a bump on her head, I'm not sure from the stroller or from the sidewalk. Probably from the stroller -- there was no dirt embedded in it. I unbuckled her first. That was a good thing to learn: that when both my children need me, both are directly in front of me, both are terrified and maybe hurt, that I will instinctively go to the baby first. Sometimes I doubt my instinctive mothering abilities. Our son requires more energy and attention than our daughter, the baby. Sometimes I worry that I neglect her, that I am not deeply enough connected to her and that maybe, in a moment of crisis, I would neglect her then, too.
But I didn't. She, pre-verbal and not yet walking (though she is teaching herself how to stand!), needed me more. I unbuckled her and lifted her up. With my other hand I unbuckled my son. I tried to lift him up too, but I was hurt. My hip, my foot, my hand, my knee. And my legs were rubber. It was a great moment of relief, to know that you were gone.
I had felt that having my kids with me made me safer. The world had treated me more respectfully when I became pregnant and this continued into their infancy. A marked decrease in street harassment; men told me that I had beautiful children instead of beautiful [insert random paired organ]. A willingness to cut me slack for taking up space, for making noise, for showing my body by breastfeeding. Not across the board but enough that i thought the chances of being mugged while out with my children were close to zero. I felt more vulnerable when I went out alone.
It's likely that the joy of loving a child and the pain of losing a child are the same across cultures. When we see a person carrying their injured or dead child, we feel the gravity of their situation deep within us. So it is reasonable to think that, while nobody else has an obligation to love my children, they will see that they are vulnerable and they will know the immensity of the love that I have for them. The golden egg, remember?
They are my whole world.
My whole world was in that stroller that day.
But while having children with me warded off much of the violence and harassment I would otherwise encounter, I was the opposite of protected when someone did decide to break that human contract. Suddenly, catastrophically, vulnerable.
On November 28, 2014, Carol Off interviewed Kathryn Young on CBC's As It Happens about her experiences of sexual assault with the deceased Michael Gratton, Mulroney's former press secretary. Something Young said stood out to me. She said, "I thought, this is it...this is my time, I'm going to be raped." Her words struck me because I realized that I had thought the same thing when I was being mugged. In those first moments I thought that maybe it was "my time."
As if I've always been waiting, as if we are always waiting, to be violently raped.
The phrasing of it: an inevitability, a duty.
The police were concerned about the items missing. I didn't care about the items missing. The police were not concerned about my injuries, writing the incident up as a theft and not an assault. They said they would send a photographer to document my bruises and Evie's welt. The photographer never showed up, so my sister did. She took the photos you see here. My son, who was processing all of it in his own way, then asked her to photograph his hand. His hand had not been injured in the incident, but he wanted to be part of the documenting. Sweet and sad sauce.
The night that it happened, my son had his first and only night terror, in which he screamed and could not be woken until he peed all over me as I held him in my arms. I had PTSD for a year afterward and was worried that my kids would suffer but neither have had long-lasting psychological trauma from the incident.
I have gratitude. I am grateful.
Next week, I'll write about what the words "Brave, remarkable, courageous" and "Whiny cunt liar" have in common. OK, ok, it's me. I contain multitudes, and so do people on the internet. Thanks for reading today. This story means a lot to me.
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