What makes a victim?
This might seem like an odd question for a writer of crime fiction, where the emphasis is usually on the crime, if not the criminal. But, recently, as I branched into the subgenre known as “psychological suspense,” the question came to the forefront — as it had, years earlier, in my own life.
The answer, of course, varies. Victims can be made by circumstance: the car that breaks down on a deserted street. The unhappy resemblance to another, or the unlucky appearance of a potentially violent person at a moment of tension or decompensation. At such times, an assault can seem random. A stroke of bad luck.
Often it may be. But at times, I have learned, it is not. Because, at times, circumstances can set us up to be vulnerable. To be a victim.
I learned this years ago, during an intense self-defense class called “Model Mugging.” This class drilled us in the best physical responses to an attack — how to strike out without hesitation, using our body’s particular strengths. How, if thrown to the ground, for example, to kick and keep kicking. How to shout. Despite its name, this course wasn’t designed to stop a simple mugging. One of the first rules, in fact, was: “Give up your wallet. It’s not worth it.” But if someone is trying to harm you? To stuff you into a vehicle and abduct you? Fight back. You may be fighting for your life.
Ostensibly, one reason I took this course was that I had been mugged. Coming home late one night, I had been followed into the foyer of my building and thrown up against the wall. I was told there was a knife, although I have no recollection of feeling anything other than the metal of the foyer mailboxes against my face. I certainly never saw anything.
During the Model Mugging course, I was shown how I’d been “interviewed” before the attack. Tried out as a potential victim. I recalled that, walking the few blocks from where I’d found an on-street parking space, a stranger had called out asking if I knew the time. I’d been tired. Distracted, and couldn’t be bothered. “Sorry, no,” I had mumbled, or words to that effect. I hadn’t looked up. That vague response, I learned, had let the mugger know I was not attentive.
In retrospect, my automatic apology — “sorry” — undoubtedly amplified the signal. It was certainly something I became aware of, and in the years since, I’ve tried to stay conscious of the signals I’m sending out, especially when I’m alone or at night. But as I’ve since realized, I had been conditioned to be a victim, long before the attack.
Let me make one thing clear: I have no patience with victim-blaming. It is neither our fault nor our responsibility that we are assaulted, robbed, or worse. We — I — certainly never “asked for it,” just as we never asked for the conditions that may have made us more vulnerable — the laggard in the herd, easy to pick off. And, as I noted above, many people are victimized without having any particular vulnerabilities.
But during that class, I became acutely aware of the set of circumstances that had set me up ― as much as the quiet of the hour, the long blocks between my car and my home.
I grew up in a disordered home. Both my older siblings had schizophrenia, and in the years before their official diagnoses or before any real treatment, my sister, in particular, had terrorized me, killing my pet hamster and frightening me with her outbursts. In response, I became an insular child, withdrawing into my imagination — and my books. As a corollary — and in part because I wanted to distinguish myself from my siblings — I also became the “good” child. The one who caused no problems, who never complained.
These traits appeared to serve me well — until they didn’t. At one point, in my 20s, I found myself in a ridiculous job situation, unable to advocate for myself and afraid to quit. Coming to my parents with the problem, I was stunned by my father’s response:
“When are you going to stop being such a good girl?” In my memory, he was practically spitting. “And start being a smart woman?”
That was a pattern I began to recognize. One that had, in fact, already cost me. To keep the peace, I had learned to accept what scared me without complaint. To quell my anxiety, I had taught myself that if I only worked harder — and kept quiet — I could maintain some kind of equilibrium. The illusion that I had control was so seductive that I never realized its downside. That when things went awry, I was to blame. My own version of victim-blaming, this had cost me long before that mugging. Long before, even, my father’s sharp retort.
As a freshman in college, during my first months on my own, I had been assaulted by a classmate. But I didn’t tell the resident adviser who theoretically supervised us both. I kept it from my parents and most of my friends as well. Until recently, in fact, I had trouble calling the assault what it was. Instead, I blamed myself. For being “stupid.” For being vulnerable.
Some of this was the times. In the ′80s, such assaults were still called “date rape” and considered a different, lesser kind of assault. But in retrospect, I see my own particular vulnerabilities at play as a “good girl,” if not yet a “smart woman.”
Years later, I’ve worked through most of these issues — in part through my writing. I’ve asked myself the questions: Would I have become a different person if I had acted out more? If I had complained? Would I still be writing about crime, even imaginary ones? Would I still be asking what makes a victim?