Since the new year started, I’ve been trying to work on what my family calls “the anger thing,” because we’ve noticed that the dogs are acting a little jumpy when I’m around. Every so often the stress in my life builds up past the point where I can defuse it by hitting inanimate objects and agreeable people. This is when I’m liable to do things I’m not proud of; or, more honestly, things that I am compelled to apologize for.
It’s real work, dealing with anger. I’ve tried many different anger management methods and not only are most of them ineffective for me, some of them backfire rather badly. Counting to ten, for example—though I come from a family of scientists and engineers, I am fundamentally a word person, and numbers confuse and enrage me. Some people learn visualization techniques to help them calm down. I’m trained to visualize targets. While that’s a handy skill, and can help you focus in an emergency, it doesn’t necessarily make you less angry.
When I was growing up, my mother had some wise advice for us children whenever we couldn’t resolve our differences peacefully. “Sit down and shut up,” she would say, and though in retrospect I realize she said it more out of concern for her own mental health than for our spiritual enlightenment, it’s still good advice. So lately I’ve been going to meditation class, where we practice sitting down and shutting up.
Meditation is harder than it looks, but luckily, the worse you are at it, the more good it does you. I gave up going to church a long time ago (church also confused and enraged me), so I’m completely out of practice at communing quietly in the presence of others. Sitting there in the circle, the lights dimmed, the atmosphere hushed, I am seized with a sudden irreverent urge to tell ghost stories. Mom was right, I realize sadly. I can’t take me anywhere.
On a recent night our instructor opens class by reading a short excerpt from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. “It would be a pity if we were only aware of suffering,” the reading begins. “Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.” Fair enough, I think; I’m in touch with the dreadful already. Bring on the wonderful, or whatever else you’ve got.
After the reading, all of us close our eyes and sink (metaphorically) under the waters of meditation. The idea is simply to breathe, and to clear one’s mind if possible, but if that’s not possible, to just let your thoughts go where they will, and observe them. Tonight, I observe that my mind keeps drifting, persistently, back to ghost stories.
The old dojo, where we trained until a couple of years ago, was afflicted with ghosts, mainly in the plumbing. The new dojo smells a lot better and also meets all relevant building codes, but it still harbors some ghosts. In a space where dire threats are so often imagined and discussed, it’s bound to happen. I’ve heard many ghost stories here.
I’ve heard the one about the serial killer who lures women out of their homes at night by playing a recording of a crying baby. And the story about a gang of predators in the parking lot at the mall, who hide under their van with a knife, and when a woman is getting into her car they reach out and cut the tendons in her ankles so she can’t run away. Or the one about the serial killer at a shopping center in Houston (or Tulsa or Dayton or San Diego or Atlanta) who gives women perfume samples that have ether in them, to knock them out before abducting them.
The villains in these stories are faceless and nameless; vicious, calculating, and insatiable, they nonetheless possess a deep creative streak and excellent planning skills—sort of a cross between Grendel and Vlad the Impaler, driving around town in a windowless van.
The women in the stories are just like you and me, except they didn’t have anyone to warn them about how vulnerable their ankles are.
You’ve heard these kinds of ghost stories too, no doubt. They are told via email, on coffee breaks, at soccer practice. Sometimes they make it onto television news programs, and they infest the Internet like leeches. Year after year, women who attend our self defense classes tell the same ghost stories, with slight variations, when we ask them about their personal fears regarding safety.
The stories often conclude with instructions and admonitions: “You should never take the same route home two days in a row because an attacker can watch you and learn your routine.” “Rapists prefer women with long hairstyles that are easy to grab, so keep your hair cut short.” “I’ve heard you should always take the elevator instead of the stairs.” “My cousin told me you should never fight back, because it only makes the attacker mad.”
These absolutes—always, never, do, don’t—are the crucifix, garlic clove, and silver bullet of women’s safety. The bogeymen are dreadful but, the ghost stories teach us, there is a path to safety. The stories and their morals hold out the promise that if we do the right thing, if we listen obediently to what we are told—if we are good—we will not be hurt. This is such a preposterous concept that, even in the middle of meditation class, I can feel my blood pressure rising when I consider it. Just observe your thoughts, I remind myself.
It’s wise to be prepared for potential dangers, sure, and I’ve personally spent huge portions of my life preparing for some that are pretty darned unlikely, but does it make any sense at all to think you can always know what the right thing is to do in every situation? Of course not. Yet it’s a woman’s responsibility, these fantastic tales imply, to imagine every possible danger, to seek out and believe ever more preposterous scenarios, to dwell on them, to share them with friends and strangers, to shudder over the fate of their victims, to instill their villains in our minds like antibodies to a deadly virus. Only by keeping our fears alive and hyperactive, goes the logic, can we hope to stay safe.
Now I’d be lying if I said I’ve never used fear to influence someone’s behavior. It’s almost always unethical but, in the short run, it sure can get results. But how do these frightening stories actually help women? In the first place, they aren’t even true. They’re usually easy to debunk with a little research. Getting good information is a critical component of staying safe; fictional scenarios presented as truth skew our perception of reality and lead us to make bad choices. Certainly terrible things happen to people—especially to women—and we dread them for a reason. There’s really no need to embellish or reinvent the awful, true stories out there. So why do we?
If they were to think much about what they’re doing, people who spread these ghost stories about women and their attackers would probably say they have the best intentions: They want to keep women safe. But you know, there are lots of ways to keep women safe that people generally don’t take advantage of, like reporting domestic violence, or donating to women’s shelters, or supporting more funding for social welfare programs. When you think about it, those actions would have a far more immediate and lasting impact on women’s safety than forwarding a bogus email about a weird phone call this woman in Detroit got and IT TURNED OUT THE GUY WAS HIDING RIGHT THERE IN THE HOUSE!
Sensational stories about women and violence gain a wide audience not because of their supposed realism or the sage advice they offer, but because of their thrill factor. In small doses, people get a kick out of fear. That’s why we have ghost stories in the first place: We love scaring the pants off ourselves, especially around a campfire. I doubt, though, that humans began telling ghost stories before the invention of fire. If you’re sitting there helpless in the dark all night, cold and surrounded by leopards, scaring yourself probably isn’t very much fun.
But in a circle of your fellows, faces turned toward the light, your gathering a proof against the darkness outside—that’s a place where fear can be put through its paces, subdued, and sent back to the cage, toothless. Thus our acquired taste for scary stories. It may be, then, that people pass along these women-under-attack stories because they actually feel pretty safe.
Life in this country is quite safe for most people; we have to seek out a lot of our drama. People who share the crying-baby-on-the-porch story or the ether-in-the-perfume-sample story want to share that vicarious thrill, that little shiver of horror at the thought that death might be lurking right here, in the hedgerows and mall parking lots (Ether in a perfume sample! Why, I’ve been given perfume samples! I’ve even smelled them! I could have died!). And the “educational” tone of these stories and emails gives us an excuse to inflict them on others. We can feel helpful, and virtuous, and well informed.
But when you nurture and share fear, you’re not making the world a safer place. When you fear something that doesn’t exist, and shape your life around that fear, you help to make it real. When we pass along these fictional stories, because “You never know—it could happen,” we make women a little more afraid to go out of their homes at night. We make men a little more fearful about their mothers, daughters, and wives. And you know what? People may like to be scared a little bit now and then, but they don’t like to be afraid, really afraid. After a while, it makes them angry to be so scared all the time. And anger—listen to me on this one, people, I know what I’m talking about—anger makes us dangerous.
“Life is both dreadful and wonderful,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us. “To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.” We sit in a circle in meditation class, like campers around a fire, and instead of telling ghost stories, we shut up. In our shared silence the ghosts have no power. In silence, in meditation, it seems, I have another place to observe fear without feeling its bite. This strikes me as truly wonderful, and I hope I can remember it, for the dogs’ sake as well as my own.