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I wrote "me too" on my timeline a few days ago, and just that simple act sent a wave of exhaustion through me. I thought of all the incidents inherent in that statement, beginning at age five, all the way up to a few weeks ago. They make me want to vomit--which I in fact did repeatedly, yesterday morning, after a restless night spent with the ghosts behind those words.
But I also thought of those times in my life, when instead of "me too," I said "not today." When instead of allowing something to happen to me I forced it back on the would-be perpetrator. And the times when it might have been "her too," and because I was vigilant, she did not have to suffer alone; not on that day. I want to share one of these times, because now, looking back, it seems like a particularly important lesson.
Years ago when I was living in Southern California, I'd gone to the store with a friend. It was around 9pm, dark out, and the parking lot was empty except for us, a few other cars, and a delivery truck that was unloading supplies. As we came out of the store with our stuff, I heard a woman screaming. Like, panic-freakout-screaming. My heart started going ninety even before I saw it: two men yanking a woman out of her car, beating her violently as they did so.
My brain and body kicked into gear simultaneously. Everything was photo-stop-clear to me: the delivery-truck guy sitting there passively watching the scene, my friend dialing 911, my own feet sprinting toward the men, and what felt like a primal roar bursting from deep in my belly: "HEYYOUMOTHERFUCKERSLEAVEHERALONE" and then everything a blur again as I neared them. They looked up--two dogs caught in the act, guilty as hell--and dropped her. Then they jumped in her car and tore off.
I reached her a second later: this tiny Chinese woman, her lip swelling from where they'd hit her and one wrist broken where they'd grabbed her. She was curled in a weeping ball on the ground. When I touched her she immediately latched onto me and wouldn't let go. Between broken English and wracking sobs she got out that she'd been talking to her husband, back in China, here in the parking lot because she didn't have reception where she was staying. She thought, innocently, she'd be safe because she was parked under a light. The men had started pulling her out of her half-open window, completely traumatizing her.
The cops showed up a few moments later, followed by EMS. All these men in uniforms encircling us, talking all at once; it was confusing, even more terrifying. She wouldn't let go of me. She shook and clung and sobbed as they tried to inspect the bruises on her face, and the broken place where the men had grabbed her small, birdlike wrist. For my part, I was still in a rage. I held her tight, and when the paramedics needed to touch her, I did it for them, gently holding out her wrist and turning her face to the light. It was all I could do not to slap their hands away.
Looking back, I was acting on good instinct. Men had done the damage. Now other men wanted to fix it. But to her, they were still men. They didn't know how to calm her. Their voices were brusque, deep, loud. It did nothing to assuage her fear. But we--my friend and I--knew how to be gentle. How to radiate calm. How to sponge up her fear, like so much blood spilled. To place a tourniquet there where she was bleeding out her strength, and help her come back to herself.
Not half an hour later the cops caught those guys. They hadn't made it far. They got tagged with assault and grand theft--two felonies--and went to jail. It should have felt like a victory.
But it didn't. After they interviewed us, she had to get into the ambulance, which meant leaving with the strange men who she didn't want to touch her. It took us an age to calm her enough to get into the vehicle. I was so young then. Not yet a healer. If I was me-now, me in the present, I might have demanded they let me go with her so that she would be less afraid. As it was, I wrote down my name and number and gave it to her. It didn't feel like enough.
But the lesson I took from that night, and that I am still learning nearly two decades later, is this: never back down. Never stand by and watch while the strong brutalize the weak. We can do this for each other as women, and some men--good ones who truly care--can do it, too: keep an eye out. If you see something amiss, or the hairs on the back of your neck go up, pay attention. You're much stronger than you think. Predators like to act incognito, and if you draw attention to them, they'll usually run. You could save a life. It could be your own.