Rewriting a Violent Encounter & Other Acts of Self Love
On October 13th I was attacked in broad daylight by a complete stranger on Karl-Marx Straße, a busy Berlin street in the historically rough and tumble but now cool and edgy neighbourhood of Neukölln. I was attacked for looking this man in the eye as he yelled violent obscenities at a kid on a bike. As we passed each other he kicked me in the leg with his full force. ‘What the fuck?!’ was all I could muster in response.
Tears immediately starting rolling down my cheeks. He continued to walk away but I couldn’t help but stare at him in utter disbelief. How could this man, any man, violently kick a woman in such a manner, and in such a context? He must have sensed I was still watching him as he turned around to meet my gaze. I continued to look into his eyes and silently acknowledged that I knew there was nothing but a black hole where his soul ought to be.
I scanned the crowd; most cast their glances away, pretending as if they had seen nothing. I looked back at my attacker but quickly realized that my stare was a provocation of his inhumanity. He came charging towards me with his chest in full frontal flair and his shoulders and arms peeled back. He was ready for an attack. Shit, this guy is completely insane, I thought.
Never in my life have I had to shield myself from the brutally terrifying approach of a violent man.
Never did I expect it to happen under the passive gaze of dozens of bystanders.
I was certain that he was intent and prepared to punch me in the face or push me to the ground. That is, if I continued to affront him with my stare. I conceded and cowered in fear. Rather than hit me, he spat on me, like I was an animal.
Men who spit on women are perpetrators of a hate crime. They use this abusive tactic to dehumanize their victims. American philosopher Robert C. Solomon argues that such acts are that of contempt and are directed towards individuals whom the perpetrator perceives as having a lower status. Spitting on a woman demeans her, dirties her, and assures to the abuser, that she will not rise above the level he has set for her.
I had previously studied this concept in gender studies courses but this act of dehumanization felt acutely real. I have never felt so vulnerable or humiliated. What made matters worse was not a single person jumped to my aid. It was clear that I was in distress and this person had committed a violent crime against me, yet none of the dozen or more eyewitnesses demonstrated a willingness to either comfort me or confront my attacker.
I cried the entire way home and sobbed for the greater part of three hours in my tiny Berlin apartment. My sense of wellbeing and authenticity was shattered and I was not sure how I would begin to pick up the pieces. I could feel the anger and resentment stockpiling in the pit of my stomach.
When you are trying to make your way in a foreign city as big as Berlin, many things feel out of your control. Self-reliance and mutual aid seem to spread very far apart. No one wants to face a violent person, but doing so alone in a foreign city is even more traumatic. This is not the sort of story I want to write home about but how can I conceal this ordeal when my family ask, ‘How is Berlin treating you?’
When We Give Our Stories Away
I moved to Berlin in pursuit of a possibly ill-conceived journey of self-actualization. To grow through the challenges I felt would not come to me if I stayed in Vancouver. I wanted to write a courageous story for myself. I wanted to face my fears and live my dreams and I had always dreamed of living in Europe. I wanted to start a writing career, become a consultant, and take the social innovation world by storm. I was already aware that these were overly optimistic goals but I believed the opportunities for their pursuit could be found.
The point was less what I did but that I was setting to write my own story. Well, the day of the attack marked a full month that I had been living in Berlin. That day I was feeling particularly vulnerable. I could feel in my heart that I was holding a lot of old pain and feelings of self-doubt. Not only was I nearly out of money and struggling to find any form of employment but my decade old struggle with crippling anxiety had begun to resurface. I was seriously wondering am I cut out for this city? I felt (and still feel) alone and invisible in a foreign country and I wanted to desperately flee from the idea that this was the story I was writing.
As a woman I have had to work very hard at not giving my power away. More than we realize, women are allowing others to write the ending of our own stories. And sometimes these endings are violently taken from us. These experiences are extremely destructive to the mental wellbeing of those of us who desire mutual support, interconnection, and compassion.
Until we find the courage to reclaim our own stories, our fear and pain will continue to own us.
Was it poetic slap in the face that I found myself waiting in vain among a crowd wanting desperately to write a more courageous collective end to this story? Much of the pain and trauma I feel around this incident is connected to being denied this opportunity. Many times I have watched the bystander effect playout, but this one hit a core.
We are all a part of collective stories; we hold them in the hidden corners of our bodies and mind. I find myself calling on the life aligning wisdom of Brene Brown who helps me acknowledge that, ‘When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.’
I have spent many years studying violence against women and have been a part of many community based anti-violence projects aimed at addressing the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a social-psychological phenomenon where a diffusion of responsibility occurs relative to the number of individuals witness to a crisis situation. I have been a part of such situations on more occasions than I care to admit, but watching and waiting is a complacency I struggle to accept.
Violence against women continues to run rampant because of this culture of silence. This is not about playing the hero, or expecting others to jump to action but of the obvious need to confront this modern story of how society responds to singular acts of violence.
Like most women, I have been catcalled, stalked and bullied by sexually aggressive men. Everyday there is a new story of a woman being attacked for refusing the unwanted advances of men. While I walk with confidence during the day this assuredness quickly dissipates when I am walking alone at night. Affronting the violence of patriarchy is a tiring task. And I have found myself taking yearlong breaks from engaging in these issues.
Writing A New Ending
Writing a brave new ending of collective stories requires having millions of challenging conversations, many of which need to be with ourselves. But we also need to have these conversations with others; with a bigger community. Since a feedback loop of these events continues to make a mush of my brain, I owe it to myself to change the ending of this story and to address those who are a part of it, just as much as I was and I am.
To my attacker, I have nothing to say to you. Your fate is out of yours and my control. You no longer own your story. I care not how yours ends, but if given the opportunity to make a new ending, I hope you find the courage take it. I say this not out of pity or empathy for your wellness but for the wellness of those whom you are likely to hurt in the future.
To the complacent, whose choice of inaction was more powerful than you know, please let the image of violence replay in your mind. Let the reel keep spinning until the only choice you are left with is to turn to your neighbour, a friend, or even a stranger, and offer to them your humbleness.
You are a witness, not merely to a crime, but to a story about humanity. You are the reader and you are the writer. Tomorrow, pick up the pen, and tell the world that you are prepared to begin a new chapter. And perhaps, under different circumstances, we will meet again on another page.
To society, whose totality brings us together, please help us. I know you are an accumulation of our collective actions but we are also a reflection of some hidden and strange processes that brings so many disparate parts together into a whole. Please show us what this whole is capable of. Please tell us we are able and what waits around the bend from fear is a new type of hope. A hope that peels away all of the trauma and shows us we are perfect even when we are not.
To myself, whose courage I am constantly inspired by, don’t stop being vulnerable. This is hard and that is how it is supposed to be. You don’t need to hide your tears on a crowded train because you are worried it will make others uncomfortable. If you are struck by the shock of violence again, or are triggered into a downward spiral, know that you are not alone. This life, the one you are making for yourself, is hard at times. You may not always be shown respect or be given what you deserve, but you are not those things. You are your capacity to love in the face of all that. You are the fearlessness and the fright, the joy and the anger. You are the heartbreak and warm spring day waiting just around the corner.
By Jen Holden