On a clear night in May 1992, my boyfriend and I were held up at gunpoint and perhaps almost killed because we didn’t have any money. This all took place not two blocks from my boyfriend’s parents’ home, in a fairly quiet neighborhood of Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. We had just come from dropping a friend off at her house because it was unsafe to walk alone at night. As we turned the corner back to our street, three men appeared: one holding a gun, one who would go on to punch my boyfriend repeatedly in the face knocking out his front tooth, and one who watched it all with an almost childlike amazement.
It would be hard not to recognize this experience as one of the most significant ones of my adult life. It was the first time I really understood I could die, the first time I experienced that people whom I had done no harm could have such power, such devastating control over my life. And it was the first time I really faced fear in the face, as I talked with my would-be killer. A man, probably high on drugs, probably more confused than evil, a man whose gun on my head was the only thing between my being and not being.
Years later, as I worked through all of this, I remembered a time when I ran away from my father. My dad was a very loving man–when he died the obituary reported, correctly, that his greatest joy in life was his three children. But my father also had a temper, built perhaps of his own fears, his own distances. To escape my father hitting me during one of his rages, I would run to the bathroom, lock the door, and scream to him as he banged on it how I was sure he would not want to beat his beautiful, little daughter black and blue.
After the mugging, I felt the same kind of collapse I used to feel as a kid. It took all my strength to stand up the enemy, and afterwards there was simply nothing left. But I also realized that in the frightening moments of defending myself against my father, I learned a life-saving fact. I had a voice.
That clear May night in Chicago, the day I could have died, I drew on some basic instinct. To connect with the enemy. To show we have a common ground, a common world. He could no less kill me than kill his sister.
I can’t say what saved us. Whether it was my negotiating with the gunman or the car that came up the street at a crucial time. But my voice established a connection that helped me, not just that night, but also in the many nightmared-filled ones that followed. What helped me heal was the belief that beneath the fear, the anger, the stupidity, there is—there must be— a common ground.
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