“Urgent: Murder and assaults in area north of campus,” read the subject line of an email I found waiting for me when I returned to the office after the holidays.
Early on New Year’s morning, a woman was murdered in her home a few blocks north of the university where I work. Two other women had been attacked in the same neighborhood shortly before and after the killing. Police had no suspects; only a composite drawing provided by the victim of the first attack.
Esme Barrera, the murder victim, had innumerable friends, including one of the students at my karate school. She loved music. She taught special-needs children. She was 29-years-old and she’ll never get any older.
The police released almost no information about the crime, so no one knew, for example, whether the attacker had broken into Esme’s house or been invited in. No one knew for sure if the three attacks were related. No one knew how Esme had died; if a weapon was used; if she fought back. The lack of knowledge added to the uncertainty. Police insisted that the neighborhood where Esme died was “safe,” yet urged residents not to go out alone after dark. People were advised to “be aware of their surroundings,” a useless idiom that implies you should count the stripes in the wallpaper and keep a watchful eye on the mailbox.
In an effort to do something that might actually be useful, friends of Esme printed and circulated hundreds of flyers bearing the composite drawing of the suspect. The bland penciled face stared out from telephone poles and bulletin boards all over town, especially near the area of the attacks.
Now it appears we may finally know who that face belonged to. James Loren Brown, a 25-year-old ex-serviceman who lived blocks away from Esme, evidently committed suicide in his apartment within a week of her murder. When his death was reported to the police, they noticed that his photo resembled the composite drawing. In fact, one of the flyers about the murder had been left on the door of Brown’s apartment.
While Brown has not been definitively linked to Esme’s death, he has been linked, through DNA evidence, to the third of the three attacks that happened that night. What’s more, he has been linked to four additional attacks on women in other parts of Austin last year: One on July 1, two on July 8, and one on September 11. All of those attacks, like the New Year’s assaults, took place in the early morning. In all of them, women were pushed or pulled to the ground. And Brown is also suspected in several cases of indecent exposure that occurred in Esme’s neighborhood.
So at least five assaults have now been definitely linked to Brown; one other assault and Esme’s murder seem very likely to fall at his feet as well, plus multiple cases of indecent exposure, and god knows how many other crimes.
In other words, while Esme’s murder seemed to come out of the blue, there was a very long string of escalating violence trailing behind James Loren Brown.
This is one of the most frustrating things about violent crime against women—the fact that the perpetrators often spend years honing their skills before anyone takes definitive steps to stop them. And by then, it’s too late for someone like Esme.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this; understaffed police departments are a big part of the problem. The massive backlog of rape kits and other DNA evidence in our overwhelmed crime labs is another.
And then there are the laws themselves—you know, those laws that you and I follow all the time; the ones we’re taught it would be wrong to break? The laws upon which our entire social order depends, and which we all have a moral obligation to uphold, so that society doesn’t descend into anarchy?
It turns out those laws do very little, in practical terms, to protect women who obey them. It’s not a flaw, exactly; they’re set up that way, to protect the accused, which I admit is an important thing to do. But the end result is that if a violent attacker wants to hurt a random target (which most of the time means a man targeting a woman), the law not only can’t prevent him from doing so, it can’t even do much in the aftermath to catch and punish him, or stop him from doing the exact same thing again.
Well, maybe the law can; all I’m able to say for certain is that, in almost every such case I’ve observed, the law hasn’t done much. There are obvious logistical challenges in locating an attacker who had no previous ties with his victim. But the legal obstacles are just as challenging.
“Officers do not have the authority to arrest suspects for certain non-felonious crimes that occur outside of the presence of the officer,” the Austin Police Department told me a couple of years ago, when I asked them why the man who assaulted a colleague of mine (in broad daylight, on a busy street, sending her to the hospital) had not been arrested. The same man went on to assault a student walking on the same block the next day. Apparently, because the police didn’t actually witness the first attack, they were powerless to prevent the second (and believe me, given the nature of the first assault, the second one was inevitable).
I’m usually a law-abiding person. I don’t advocate retributive violence or acts of vengeance, even though I’m all too susceptible to their appeal. I’ve taught self defense to lots of women, and I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering how I myself would react if I were assaulted. “Protect yourself and get away,” has always been my mantra; fight if you have to, as much as you have to, so that you can get to safety. This strategy assumes that, once you’re safe, someone with more authority and muscle than you will deal with your attacker.
Except most of the time, they don’t.
Or can’t, or won’t; does it matter? Look at the appalling chain of assaults that preceded Esme Barerra’s death, and tell me this strategy works.
So I find, in the weeks since Esme died, that my beliefs about how I should respond to a violent assault are shifting. More and more lately, I think women shouldn’t waste time worrying about whether or how to fight back. Instead I incline toward the view that if you’re attacked, you should just go ahead and fuck the dude up.
Seriously: Gouge his eyes. Jam the heel of your palm up under his jaw and break it. Rake your fingernails across his face. After all, if there aren’t any cops witnessing the encounter, neither one of you is going to jail, right? So what have you got to lose if you fuck the dude up?
It’s not that I want to see the attacker suffer, necessarily. It’s just that I don’t have much faith that law enforcement will find him later, or that the legal system is going to keep him from hurting someone else even if they do find him. If, on the other hand, I injure him, the odds of both things happening improve.
Here’s why: Injuries get noticed. They’re clues that something out of the ordinary has happened. Injuries are hard to hide and they have to be explained. (Trust me; I’ve had to explain lots of them.)
Rapists and murderers don’t live in caves. Most of them have jobs, cars, landlords, obligations. They live alongside people whom they don’t try to rape or murder. They need to keep those people ignorant of their crimes if they don’t want to go to jail.
If a man shows up at work with curious scratch marks on his face, his co-workers might notice, and think, “Wow, that dude got fucked up.” They might not call the cops, but they’ll remember. They could put two and two together if they saw a crime report or a flyer with a composite photo. If a patient comes into the emergency room with a gouged eye or a broken kneecap, the doctors might not call the police, but they’ll have a record of the visit. Someone could do something with that—a detective could come looking for it, or the office staff might remember it when they see a story about an assault on the evening news. “Remember that guy who was in here the other night?” the nurse might ask secretary. “That dude whose eye was all fucked up?”
You can’t say for sure what people will do with evidence, but if you’re being assaulted, you can at least do something to make sure evidence of the crime exists. Injuries are evidence, and if you can leave tangible evidence of the crime on the criminal’s own body, you make it that much harder for him to keep the secret of his violence hidden.
So I’m backing off a bit, these days, from the ethic of least harm. I’m considering that maybe my social obligations don’t always run in the direction of minimal force. If we lived in a perfect world, it would make sense to calibrate our defenses solely for our own immediate safety. We could trust other, more qualified people and organizations to handle the follow-up. But in the world we do live in, you have to face the fact that your attacker, if he assaults you randomly, probably isn’t just your attacker. He was probably someone else’s attacker before you and, unless a cop happens to be watching you get assaulted, he’ll almost certainly be someone else’s attacker after you. He’s an invisible man, moving from one dot on the crime map to the next, leaving no trail.
Unless someone does something to make him visible. And one of the things we can do to make his violence stand out is to mark him. Scratch him. Dislocate his nose. Smash his instep. Hell, you’re already fighting for your life; you might as well fuck the dude up.
I’ve written before about research showing that fighting back, hard and immediately, gives a woman her best chance of surviving an assault. My own limited experience with fighting has tended to agree with the research. Now I’m starting to believe that a fast, committed, devastating response might also give other women their best chance of avoiding future assaults from the same assailant.
I keep looking for a downside to this theory, and I don’t see it. If I fuck the dude up, I’m more likely to survive. If I fuck the dude up, other women are marginally less likely to be his victims in the future. It’s a win-win.
I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, but can anyone give me a good reason—not a legal one; a good one—to think any differently?
I’m not judging other women’s choices here. Some women might not choose to fight back hard and viciously. Some might not be able to; some might not want to. It just so happens that I am willing and able, and I suspect a lot of other women are too. Most of us will never be in the position of fighting off an unknown attacker. It’s still a statistically rare occurrence. But I think we can make it rarer still if we fuck the dude up.