Law in Contemporary Society

A Story About Fear

-- By VanWheel - 16 Feb 2012

The Story

I was walking home one night when I heard screaming.

It was dark, probably later than I should have been out, but I’d never heard someone scream like that before. So I ran toward the sound, the screaming louder and louder until I rounded a corner and there, parked against the street, was a car. The interior lights were dim but illuminated well the struggling figures of a man and the woman he was trying to strangle in his passenger seat. A crowd was forming as I jogged up, and I watched, stunned, as four other men, mostly valets from nearby businesses, opened the door of the car and tried to pull the man out.

They managed, with difficulty, to drag him into the street, holding him as he lunged repeatedly toward the open car door. He was clearly intoxicated, his face red and spluttering, while the woman in the car, his wife I presumed, sobbed and shrieked curses at him. After a while, he seemed to calm down, breathing hard and nodding his head as the men spoke to him. When he seemed back in control, three of them left to return to work.

The moment they were out of sight, he shoved past the last man and dove back into the car, attacking his wife. She wailed as he hit her again and again in the face. He was yelling at her, pulling back and swinging repeatedly, pausing only to throw off the woman’s one remaining protector. The man kept trying to grab the husband’s arm, shouting at deaf ears, before he stepped back, as if realizing he couldn’t do it alone. He took off to go find help.

For a moment I simply watched.

I wanted to go forward, to say something, but from the back of my mind came a thought: would it be ok if I stepped in? I was in a foreign country, one whose cultural standards were different from ours, and I felt the briefest fear that any actions I could take to help her would be unacceptable.

But then I looked at her face; even from a dozen feet away I could see that she was bleeding, and she’d stopped screaming.

I stared around at all the people on the sidewalk, dozens of people, watching silently as he beat her, and a hard ball lodged in my throat. I would later recognize it as shame.

It was at that moment that I ran in, screaming for him to stop.


My roommates who heard the story the next day insisted that it was a story about courage. To be sure, there was a fair measure of that: the courage of the men who tried to stop him initially, the courage of the woman who fought back and survived, and even my own eventual courage in running in the middle to try to save her. But this isn’t really a story about courage; it’s a story about fear. It’s a story about the shame and pain that comes from splitting.

In that moment before I moved to help her, when I gazed around at all the silent onlookers and realized I was one of them, I became suddenly aware of my own split, of being both the scared little girl who wouldn’t step out of line and the woman being beaten in front of a crowd, and I hated myself. I hated the part of me that cared more about whether what I was doing was acceptable than whether it was right, and I feel that no risk of injury or public condemnation could ever have been worse than having to face that part of myself in the mirror every day.

Every time I think of that moment, where I considered whether a woman’s life was worth my reputation and comfort, I feel helplessly torn. On the one hand, that moment said something absolutely horrendous about me; on the other hand, my reaction to it told me that deep down there was genuine courage, if I could only hold onto it long enough to make it mean something.


When John Brown said that he’d acted because he sympathized with the man in bondage, because he could not complacently be free while others were in chains, I think he acknowledged an instinct we all have, whether we bury it deep or embrace it. For all our questioning of his motives in class, I admire him, because if nothing else, there is a man, as far as I know, who had the courage and insight never to split. I’m guessing that brings a peace of mind few of us will ever truly feel. I, for one, often find myself thinking that everything I’m so concerned about now—the money, the debt, the status—will mean very little to me when I’m old and on death’s door.

A friend said to me recently that she always thought it funny when people started a sentence with, “If I die,” because, honestly, where’s the “if”? We are all going to die one day, there are no “ifs” about it, and the only real question is how we are going to feel about ourselves in the moments before we do.

Yes, this is what I had in mind when I suggested a draft from another self-state. I'm interested, and you possibly may be too, why the part of you that criticizes splitting and sees courage as integrity is also concerned with the meaning of life at the moment of death. The woman in the car is one image of the injustice we mobilize our courage to confront, but the specific nature of the image in relation to the idea of death as the moment we give meaning to life would bear some further thought.

The goal, as I'm sure you understood, is to find a way to stand in the space between these two states, to see them both as real and enduring, important, capable parts of you, not needing to be resolved into a winner and a loser, or a right one and a wrong one, but as collaborators in the making of your life. A lawyer's life. Not the life of an office worker with a law license gathering dust on someone else's shelf.


Webs Webs

r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:55 - IanSullivan
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