What do you call that exact instant when all social conventions break down? I’m not even sure there is a word for it. I only know that I find it the most interesting moment in the realm of human experience.
This is the moment when things cross that line and your actions determine your safety. It can happen on a grand scale, the period after the tornado hits and before the Red Cross moves you into the high school gymnasium. It can happen on a small level – when you are in your home and suddenly threatened in some way. Instantly, you experience a hyper-awareness and a consciousness of your actions that you seldom experience.
Movies and t.v are filled with these stories of dramatic occurrences. And I watch every one of them. My husband calls them “baby in the pipe” movies and he’s not far off. I remember nursing my first born and watching with tears streaming down my face as they struggled to save baby Jessica from that pipe in Texas. I also remember nursing my second child, just 20 months later, and watching from my hospital bed the movie of the week based on that story. It was even more dramatic than the real one.
Movies, though, tend to focus on the moments when civilization starts to regroup and go forward. In films about nuclear destruction or alien invasion they pay attention to the forming of provisional governments and committees to get the generators up and running. To me, that isn’t nearly as interesting as the time when everyone is out for themselves and all bets are off. I think it’s just too hard to maintain that level of drama.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t search these moments out in real life. I’m not looking for the thrills you can find right on the edge. On the contrary, as a mother I spent a great deal of time and effort looking for ways to avoid any kind of situation which is fraught with danger. But when I watch Rescue 911 or E.R. I pay attention.
Of course, the awareness of these dangerous times don’t always occur to everyone in the situation at the exact same time. I was hitchhiking once at 14 with a girlfriend and, alone in the back seat, I found some mind-blowing, violent child pornography in a box on the floor and had to warn my friend without alerting the man that was driving. I was about to open the door to get the attention of other drivers when she asked if we could stop for a hot chocolate and we were able to slip away. She will never know how lucky we were.
I have a friend who had the farmhouse she was living in set afire by a jealous ex-lover. She and her boyfriend were alerted by a teenager driving by and they managed to get upstairs and save her two children with only minor burns and smoke inhalation. The entire house was destroyed. The teenager drove them to the hospital and it was only when she started to talk to the staff there did she realize that she was totally naked. Throughout the drive, rushing into Emergency, she hadn’t even noticed. And when she did notice, she didn’t care.
It’s the not caring that is the really hard part. I attended a seminar on women’s safety given by the Metro Toronto police many years ago when there had been a series of rapes in the area I worked. They were taking place in the morning when women were even less likely to be cautious. So many of the women, particularly older ones, said they would be too embarrassed to cause the kind of fuss, much less attempt the kind of damage, that the officers were suggesting. The cop conducting the course said that was a huge problem – women being reluctant to scream or act out in a dramatic fashion. He said that the first 15 seconds of an attack determine the outcome and if you are reluctant to make a scene, you are that much more vulnerable.
Even more than women, children face a great danger. Taught from infancy to behave, to not cause trouble and obey their elders, they are especially reluctant to scream or damage something. I tried to teach my children to follow their instincts and not be afraid of making a scene. It’s a fine and very difficult line to walk between educating them to the possibility of danger and making them afraid of everything.
When we would watch a violent movie we would constantly see the girl hit her attacker – once – and then run. He would inevitably rise up again and grab her ankle as she ran up the stairs. I know it made people uncomfortable when I would query my adorable six year old daughter as to what the girl did wrong and she would sweetly reply; “hit him AGAIN and keep hitting until you see brains!” Good girl.
I know bad things don’t happen very often. We are blessed to live in a very safe part of a very safe country. But monsters are real. I know because I’ve seen one. That’s why, when we are alone, sometimes we practice screaming out as loud as you can. Because you just never know.