On Violence: Accepting What I Could (and Couldn’t) Have Done

As the tens of readers of this blog are no doubt sick of being reminded, I was the victim of a violent assault about a year ago in Washington, DC. It’s impossible for me to give you any meaningful explanation of the psychological aftermath of such an event in any brief form. But one particular mental scar that I presume is common among victims of violence is the nagging question of what I could have done differently. Could I have avoided it? Did I bring it upon myself?

Perhaps most resonating and sensitive to me as a male is whether I could have fought back.

Somewhere down this way, the scene of the crime.

It’s an absurd question, really, because I know that I could not have. I was snuck up on from behind and hit extremely hard on the back of my head, which knocked me straight to the ground, after which I was pummeled mercilessly by two assailants whose faces I never saw. My neocortex knows there was nothing to be done but survive. My lizard brain, and a small handful of males in my life who I presume are well-meaning, tell me otherwise.

Hero-of-the-blog Sam Harris recently wrote an incredible essay on our responses to and preparations for violence, and as he does in all other subjects which he tackles, he offers stark, clear warnings and advice. The theme? “True self-defense is based not on techniques but on principles.”

Harris mainly focuses on preventable violence, or situations in which there are options (whether to follow the instructions to get in one’s car from a parking lot mugger, for example). But in a paragraph relevant to my own story, he reminds me to shut out the voices of macho egotism espoused by my self-critical R-complex and some “traditional” males in my life, some of whom have suggested that had I only been trained in martial arts, I could have neutralized the attack (with my own emphasis):

Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a “fight.” Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively,without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.

No one has spelled this out for me so clearly as Harris has, and I must say, it gives me some comfort, though I imagine many men would dismiss this in a huff.

I was also glad to read some of what Harris had to say about not allowing yourself to be placed in a vulnerable position in the first place:

You are under no obligation, for instance, to give a stranger who has rung your doorbell, or decided to stand unusually close to you on the street, the benefit of the doubt. If a man who makes you uncomfortable steps onto an elevator with you, step off. If a man approaches you while you are sitting in your car and something about him doesn’t seem right, you don’t need to roll down your window and have a conversation. Victims of crime often sense that something is wrong in the first moments of encountering their attackers but feel too socially inhibited to create the necessary distance and escape.

At my current retail workplace, I have begun to practice this with less and less feeling of apology. When a person enters the store and immediately approaches me too closely, I make a broad step back to create distance and frankly also to communicate that this degree of physical nearness is unnecessary (we can talk about what they need without being close enough to hug) and simply not going to be an option. In other words, in case their intentions are not benign, I’m not going to give them the advantage of proximity.

I may be behaving in a paranoid manner, and I accept that. But after what I’ve gone through, I just don’t see a reason to give everyone, as Harris says, the benefit if the doubt. I’m not a dick about it (I hope), but I’m not willing any longer to be a patsy either.

The Attack

On the evening of October 26, I was returning home from my second day of training at my new part-time job. I was in the midst of a transition; in my last week at my desk job as a communications manager at a nonprofit and moving to working weekends and some nights so I could be a stay-at-home daddy. On this day, a Tuesday, I had worked a normal day at my old job, and gone straight to train at my new job.

I traveled home by Metro to the Stadium-Armory stop, arriving around 11:00 PM. As I ascended the escalator from the station, I could hear a lot of activity at the bus stop at the top of the stairs. A lot of people were being loud and rowdy, a lot of laughing and shouting. It made me nervous, not so much because I was afraid of being harmed, but I had a kind of flashback-to-middle-school feeling, that a group of rowdy young people would choose me as a target for mockery. It’s an old instinct that I’ve never been able to shake.

I moved briskly past the group and began the walk to my home. I felt more and more vulnerable, so I quickened my pace. I had my backpack on my back and hung my hooded sweatshirt by the hood on my head, not wearing it but simply letting it dangle off my head.

Only a handful of paces from the Metro stop, I heard a pair of very fast footfalls behind me, and before I even had a chance to wonder why someone would be running, before I had a chance to be frightened by it, I had been struck a powerful and painful blow to my head. I was being attacked.

Two people had snuck up behind me, run at me, and began beating me, severely, brutally, mostly about my head and face. They shouted things at me, peppered with curses of various kinds, but I couldn’t make out specific sentences or commands because of the blows to my head. I began to make out something about giving them my items (I had my iPhone and wallet on me), and tried to aquiesce. But even as I attempted to speak, just to shout “okay” in order to let them know they could have my items, they kept hitting me.

At one point, I managed to stagger to a standing position, I presumed to give them my wallet and phone. But no, the moment I stood, they continued to hit me. As I was knocked down a second time, and fell upon the palms of my hands, my wallet, phone, and keys simply fell out of my pockets and on to the ground. I was given a few more blows, and my attackers grabbed my items and ran off. I never saw their faces. I presume that was intentional.

I was seized with desperation to get home. I was in pain, yes, but my head was ringing, and I felt wetness all over me. I tried to stand, and could not even make it to a crouch, and fell again to my palms. I tried again, got a little closer to standing, but my legs were not ready, and I fell again. On my third attempt, I managed to stand and “walk,” but it wasn’t much of a walk. I blundered a few steps, and careened into a fence off to my left, collapsing again. Finally, I stood and managed to begin walking home, slow but determined, moaning, dizzy, and wet. All I knew was that my nose was bleeding.

It was late. After laboring up the steps to the front of our house, I pathetically slapped the door and called out for my wife, in a voice that sounded more like a ghostly version of myself, a half-moan, half-sob. My hand smeared blood on the white door as I struck it.

Luckily, Jessica awoke fairly quickly and opened the door. Of course, she was terrified by what she saw. She would later tell me that I resembled something out of a horror movie; I was covered in blood, my face mashed and distorted. I think I groaned something akin to “I was mugged.” I stumbled into the living room and sat on the floor, moaning as the pain began to make itself known, and the reality of what had happened began to sink in. Fear was taking hold.

My baby boy Toby was still blessedly asleep in his room upstairs.

Jessica wasted no time and called 911, then rushed to our neighbor’s door. She awakened them (and their collection of big, loud dogs) and asked one of them to come to our house to tend to Toby once the ambulance arrived to cart us away. Jessica at some point after that contacted our friends Ryan and Brooke, who we knew far better than our most excellent neighbors, and had cared for Toby before, and asked them to come and relieve our neighbors and take over Toby-sitting duties. They did not let us down.

Paramedics arrived, as did police but I never saw them. I was put on a stretcher, and put on the ambulance, but Jess was not. I started asking after Toby, not knowing what had been arranged, and one paramedic filled me in. They removed my wedding ring, they scissored my pants and shirt looking for wounds — I later learned that they thought I might have been stabbed (I was not). I asked if I was going to be okay, and, oddly, they would not tell me. I think that’s because they didn’t know.

The ambulance began to pull away with Jess still outside. This was because she was taking care of other important business; flagging down police, Ryan and Brooke, and somewhat miraculously, identifying the attackers.

It seems that police were close enough to the scene when Jess called 911 that they were able to pick out two people who seemed “not right.” As soon as the police’s lights were put on them, they dropped a phone, wallet, and keys and ran — though to no avail, as the police caught them. Jess was brought over to the scene of the attack — secretly — to confirm that the items they dropped were indeed mine. So, yes, folks, if you can believe it, they caught the attackers and I got my stuff back that night. (Just a couple of days ago, I found out that my attackers plead guilty to felony assault with significant injury and felony robbery, and will be sentenced in February.)

Meanwhile, at the hospital, I was being treated. It was chaos from my perspective; I rarely had any good idea of what was being done to me, though a few things I do recall; x-rays, a CT scan, and most painful of all, stitches in my head. At my more lucid moments, I tried to make jokes, and then I would panic or confess to being terrified of what was happening to me. The hospital staff, on the whole, was wonderful and kind.

Jess got to the hospital and spent hours waiting to be able to see me, contacting friends and relatives, and talking with detectives.

Eventually, Jess was allowed to see me. It was the first time she’d seen me since I had been carted away hours before. As she entered the trauma unit where I lay, I said to her, “I have an idea: why don’t we move?”

I’ve recounted in previous posts some of the physical damage I took, but to be specific, my head and face were quite mashed up. I had a fracture in my right orbital bone (the bone just below my eye, the top of my cheek), a gash in my scalp, and the right side of my face was swollen to an absurd degree. My right eye was mostly closed and the eyeball was half-covered in red. I could not close my jaw or open it very wide (and still can’t), and a facial nerve was damaged in the attack, causing some of my upper teeth to go numb (and they still are). In general, my entire head and face, but particularly my scalp and mask area (eyes and nose) were covered in painful bruises.

From the several falls, my hands and wrists were damaged. The muscles in my hands and fingers were shocked and hurt for weeks with sharp pain. Two bones in both my wrists impacted into cartilage as well; for some reason my left wrist got the worst of that, and is in a cast today. The right wrist is also damaged, though not as badly, though I had already been undergoing weeks of physical therapy for tendonitis and carpal tunnel related problems in that wrist before the attack, so all of that work was thrown out the window.

For weeks, I could not chew, I could not lift a glass of water. I could not really be hugged. I could not hold my boy, or
let him near my head (as he likes to show affection by smacking me in the face). When I finally allowed myself to look at myself in the mirror, two days after the attack, I was shocked — I looked far worse than I had expected. I was, in general, something of a wreck, as you might imagine. But every day I have gotten a little better.

Obviously, I am psychologically affected. Suffice it to say, I am more afraid, more skittish, less trusting. I feel more vulnerable, and I feel that my family is more vulnerable, then ever in my life. I still relive the attack, the walk home, several times a day. Sometimes it’s clinical, or just a distant narrative. Other times it feels like it’s happening all over again. I find myself locked in morbid fantasies of further similar attacks — what if my boy is with me when I’m attacked? What if I can’t get in touch with anyone? What if they go for my wife? Earlier on the same day of my attack, a rock had been thrown at our door, breaking its glass, while our nanny was with our son. I’m told this is a way of “casing” a house for alarms or dogs. That only adds to my fear.

I have never had a high opinion of my species, and the attack served to exemplify its worst and best aspects. The two who attacked me made me feel worse about my fellow humans than I ever had before — not to mention the large group of people at the bus stop who watched all of it take place and did nothing to stop it — but the people who came to my aid, both professionally and friends in the moment, reminded me of the heights of goodness of which we’re capable. Both stay with me, the low and the high.

I have been blessed with support. People have helped us with babysitting, with expenses, with meals, you name it. Our family, friends, neighbors, and even people we’ve never met came out swinging the second they were needed, and there are too many to name. I am so grateful for these people.

I don’t feel “lucky” as many have said I should. It usually goes something like “You’re lucky you survived” or “You’re lucky they didn’t have a knife” or something like that. I understand the sentiment, but no, I’m not lucky. If I’m “lucky they didn’t have a knife,” that assumes a world in which the zero-point, the point of normalcy, is to be severely beaten by two anonymous thugs and then stabbed. Only then are you “lucky” not to be stabbed. Though I suppose it’s a good thing that my attackers were caught and convicted, I don’t feel triumphant. I know they will likely only come out of prison worse than when they went in. There is little vindication in this.

But I am glad. I am so deeply glad to be alive. I am so glad I did survive. Yesterday I celebrated my 33rd birthday, alive, intact, mobile, able to slowly gnaw through a pizza, hug my wife, and cuddle my baby boy. We’re moving out of DC this month to live a more peaceful, more fulfilling life in Maine.

I’m optimistic. I’m getting better. I have a long, long way to go, and many more wounds to heal. But I’m so glad to still be around.