I had an experience last week that I didn’t want to share at first, but I feel like I’m ready to talk about it and unpack what happened.
I was in a hurry to get to school when I made a stop at a local business in Tyrone for a quick lunch. When I got back to my car, I don’t know what I saw first—It could have been (and probably was) the man standing beside the passenger side window looking into the vehicle. But what I remember most was the two or three-year-old in the backseat of the four-door, ordinary-looking car.
It was like the moment that you spot the little girl in red in “Schindler’s List.” That little girl—the only burst of color in the film—embodies innocence and oblivion like nothing I’ve ever seen before—until I saw the child in the back of the car. It was parked across from me, with a man leering into passenger side window. His words were as loud as his pounding fists beating on the car and yelling at the woman in the driver’s seat. This was all noticed by me: holding my school lunch and running late for class.
I volunteer at a women’s resource center in Centre County, a place for families experiencing violence who are in need of support. I’ve imagined myself in this position a hundred times before. I’ve taken calls from women in crisis and listened to their stories just as though I was in the room with them. I’ve heard about the bystander effect (when individuals ignore someone in need because there are others present to witness and react to the situation) and I’ve always written it off as something that is beyond my understanding. I couldn’t begin to comprehend why an individual would be apathetic to the needs of others, and why this apathy grows as the number of other bystanders increases. In that moment, though, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl in the backseat. I felt like breaking eye contact would have sent her spiraling back into her crumbling world with pounding noises and shouting voices. It wasn’t necessarily fear that I felt in her gaze: it was a numbness that reached out for me and asked me to take its hand. I didn’t think it at the time, but looking back, that must have been the bystander effect.
I got back into my car, all the while keeping the numbness at bay, and watched the pounding and yelling continue. I couldn’t see the woman in the front seat, but I knew that I had to know how she was feeling before I did anything else. I moved my car a few feet until I was looking at all three people. The pounding man took a couple steps away from the car at the same time that the little girl and the woman seemingly froze in time. I watched them as they watched my car inch slowly from the right to the left. Their heads turned like I was the plane crashing into the towers or the Titanic swallowed up by the sea. I knew at that moment that I was the solution and the demise, the help or the harm. I continued driving, all the while knowing that the second I crossed beyond my line of vision, the scene would resume and time would restart.
When I got to the end of the lane, a decision had to be made. I found myself at a literal and figurative fork in the road. If I turned back to the highway, I had a lot of the same options as if I turned left to re-enter the parking lot. I could still call the police, I could still contact the business, I could still say that I was doing something. And looking back, I don’t know that I had enough time to really make the distinction or rationalize my options. But I turned back toward the business, now behind the scene, and allowed my car to idle behind the frozen child, the now screaming and crying woman, and the man who was prying open the driver’s door: his once pounding fists now extended into gripping fingers, dragging her out by her arms. Both parties looked up at me, I caught the woman’s eye, and I did nothing else. I made my stand, quietly and passively, in my car behind the glass. Then I reached into my pocket and dialed 411.
If you’re reading this and thinking that I made a typo just now, I’ll repeat that the number I dialed began with a “4” and not a “9.” The difference between the numbers, as many know, is that 911 is the number that will alert the police, fire department, and/or ambulance services for an emergency. Many people might agree that this situation called for police action. 411, on the other hand, is an operating service intended to reach businesses or residences. This is a choice that I’ve replayed in my head a lot since last week. I asked the operator to connect me to the business and I asked that an employee be sent out to check on the situation. When the employee hung up with me, I slowly made another trip around the front of the car. The abuser was off to the side and the woman gave me another glance as I left the scene. When I called the business back five minutes later, I was informed that by the time the employee arrived, the one making noise was gone and the woman in the car was crying and declining the police. But the child in the back was not mentioned.
I didn’t ask. There are a lot of things I could have done that day. And I’ve thought about the choices I made and didn’t make many, many times since the encounter. If there’s anything I did right, it was letting the man know that I was watching. It showed the woman that I knew what was happening and didn’t ignore the signs of domestic violence. All of these things were validations that what he was doing—the pounding, the yelling, the yanking, the grabbing—were unacceptable and inappropriate. And if it made him think for even a second that he needed to evaluate the location and manner in which he confronted her, it was enough.
If that was their “safe exchange” place for their child, I hope I showed her that she picked a place in a town where domestic violence will not be tolerated, accepted, or ignored. Other than the employee, I was the only person who reached out to her in that moment. I can’t say whether or not the scene was witnessed by anyone else, but I can only hope that if anyone else had seen what I did, they would have intervened. If they are together, I hope she knows I gave her control and a choice where she seemingly had neither. I let her decide whether or not she wanted to involve the police—because leaving is the most dangerous time for victims, and maybe this wasn’t a safe time for her to make that choice. The employee involved in this situation gave her that same control—a decision that despite its silent nature said more than taking away her choice ever could.
I hope she knows that I accept and support her decision to leave or to stay. I hope that if the police are ever involved, they accept and support her as well. I hope that the employee from that situation might read this and that it might give her consolation that even though she made a decision that she might never learn the consequences of, it’s a decision that I’ve come to accept and stand behind. Above all else, I hope this sparks a discussion about how we as a community react to situations like the one I described above, in addition to many others. Whatever the response may be, it can be argued that it’s better to do something than say nothing at all. Because we can’t begin to be a community and society for victims until we start holding abusers accountable. And even though I didn’t confront the man or say anything to the woman, I hope that for one minute I was convincing enough for the both of them.
-Spring 2014/Internship at The Daily Herald