Monday, January 05, 2009


This is not the most cheerful of topics, but I recently had a scare and it made me think about what steps we take to be safe on a daily basis and how I can/should teach my daughter about being brave but careful in a world that is not always a safe place.

The two of us were home alone one night. My daughter was in her room sleeping and I was poring over some documents related to yet another committee task, when I heard a strange sound from the back of the house. I could think of various reasonable explanations for the sound, so I ignored it for a while, but eventually, as the sound continued, I got curious and looked out an upstairs window that overlooks the back of the house.

A large man I had never seen before was hurling himself again and again at the back porch door. The door was locked, but a large part of the door is comprised of glass.

I called 911 and the operator and the police responded rapidly. The operator insisted on keeping me on the line until the police came, and she kept talking to me as the man continued to hurl himself against the door. I provided a description of him; first question: race; second question: clothing; third question: age; fourth question: height. The police came quickly, confronted and restrained the man, asked me whether I had ever seen him before (I had not), and took him away.

It turns out that my daughter had awakened and heard my urgent conversation with the 911 operator and heard the man slamming himself into the door. She stayed in her room, calmly waiting for me to come and tell her what was going on. When I went to check on her and found her awake, we talked about what had happened, and she was more curious about it than scared or anxious.

I am glad that she was not terrified or upset, but I also want her to understand the importance of taking basic steps to be safe. Ideally, these basic steps will be minimally intrusive in our lives, but nevertheless effective. Locking doors and windows is a basic step that doesn't interfere with most people's daily lives too much, but what beyond that should we do to be safe in routine situations?

In 2007, I wrote about how the campus police told me I should keep my office door closed at all times, even during the day, but I have ignored this advice. During the day, my door is open most of the time that I am in my office. If I work in my office at night, however, I close the door, even if the building is supposed to be locked.

In fact, the building doors are not always locked when they are supposed to be. There used to be a problem of students leaving the door propped open for friends, but this problem has entirely disappeared owing to the ubiquity of cell phones and ease of communication. Now if the door is unlocked when it is not supposed to be, it is a mistake by the people who are supposed to lock the doors at a particular time. There is a phone number one can supposedly call and report problems such as this, but I have never found it to be a particularly effective or rewarding experience to call this number late at night.

Working late at the office requires walking through campus at night. I could call for a security escort to walk with me, but I never do. My main reason for not taking advantage of this option is that I do not want the inconvenience of calling and waiting for someone to come to my building, but I suppose another reason involves my somewhat delusional reluctance to believe that my immediate environs are so unsafe that I can't walk alone across a well-lighted area of campus alone at night.

Perhaps I am making the wrong decisions about my personal security. Perhaps I should sit in my office with the door closed at all times until someone knocks and identifies themselves to my satisfaction. Perhaps I should install a webcam and/or retina scanner to screen visitors, including the department chair.

Or maybe it's OK to have my office door open during the day, but I shouldn't work in my office at night and/or walk alone on campus at night.

Or maybe it's (mostly) OK to walk alone on campus at night as long as I stay in well lighted areas and keep my phone on and at hand (as I do).

Or not. Random scary things can happen, even in one's own home. Even so, I don't want to live in fear, and I don't want my daughter to be fearful either. It's just a matter of finding the right amount of caution to take in our daily lives. It seems, however, that the right amount may only be right until something happens.


The Bear Maiden said...

Wow. The incident in your home is a little scary. And somehow more scary than the idea of you walking across campus grounds at night. I agree with you about refusing to live in fear. I refuse to. Recently I took on some teenagers on a subway because I refused to be intimidated by them. It was sort of a calculated risk; you never know who's crazy enough to mess with you. But that day I just didn't want to be mentally beaten down by a bunch of rebellious kids.

Lately, I restarted my training, long neglected, in the martial arts. No, I'm no Bruce Lee, but the little bit of real-world self-defense I've learned has already done amazing things for me. But I grew up in a "rough" neighborhood. I learned early about coming home late at night alone, using my keys as spikes in a closed fist just in case... I pause for a moment of internal silence when I teach my young son to be aware of his surroundings, what to do in an emergency. But I think telling him those things means he won't be afraid.

But be careful out there...

Anonymous said...

OMG. Glad the nutjob didn't get in! I am glad you are both ok, safe and sound. I hope you have an alarm system.

I have used an on-campus "escort service" and felt completely weird about it but there was a missing female student at my last campus and it turned out that she was abducted just off campus riding her bike in broad daylight and killed (they found her body in the woods). I've actually seen "FBI Files" show about her story and I never would have believed it happened in what I thought was a 'safe little town.'

Seriously, don't take any chances walking to your car or being in your building if no one else is around.

EliRabett said...

As with many of life's situations there is not one single correct answer. You can gain confidence from the fact that you handled this situation correctly, but not certainty.

Walking across campus is another such question. The best answer probably requires knowing where your campus is, how isolated the walkways are and more. It is a balancing act.

Kim said...

Maybe you and your daughter could take a women's self-defense class together? The one I took in graduate school discussed verbal ways of dealing with conflicts as well as physical ones. (And the assertiveness part of the class was great practice for being a woman in science.)

BrightStar (B*) said...

How scary! I'm glad that the police arrived in a timely fashion and you're all right.

Wanna Be Mother said...

You might want to carry pepper spray with your keys and keep them handy as you walk across campus. My friend fought off a guy with a knife using pepper spray.

Anonymous said...

The incident was very scary? Do you live in a safe area, and this was an isolated incident? Why was the crazy man slamming himself in the door? I have to admit that once, when I lived in an apartment, I tried to use my key in order to unlock the door of a different apartment, being convinced it's my apartment. But that's my ADD I guess. Luckily nobody called the police:)

You shouldn't be in the office at night. I think we academics have the freedom to work from home. I always work from home at night, never go into the office. I have just one child, he is now first grade and he is not making lots of noise or demands. I wrote many grants this way.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Wow, FSP...I usually lurk, but I am so frightened by your post that I had to say I am so glad you are all right and the crazy dude did not get in.

I have said this before, but I'll say it again - your daughter sounds like a real gem. Nice job :).

Anonymous said...

Keep a heavy stick-like object nearby. I like my kumdo (the martial art of Korean sword fighting) practice sword for this purpose. The kooks who hang out under the railroad tracks in town never bother me when I've got the sword. Possibly, they think I'm a bigger kook...especially if I'm in my uniform.

In all seriousness, you might consider a self defense class. I've learned how to get out of a choke-hold, a headlock, a bear hug, and how to disarm a stabber.

Anonymous said...

I think about this issue a lot since I am a grad student in biological sciences and have to travel often, by myself, for fieldwork, workshops, or conferences. How often should we submit to the "what if" fears when our research demands it? It's not always an option to work from home, with a security system, or even inside...there are always going to be cases where experiments have to be done in early morning hours, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you live in the us, and a fairly reasoanble state... get a gun.

It is like having a fire extinguisher, you will proably never need it, but it will make you feel (and be, in an unfortunate situation) more secure.

It is the ultimate field-leveler for physically weak persons (i.e. small men and most women).

Sadly in my country carrying is illegal...

Anonymous said...

Glad you and your daughter stayed calm and that everything went well.

@Anonymous above
The problem with carrying a gun is that women who shoot in self-defense (or even fight back without a gun) get arrested and often go to jail. For some reason, juries think you are guilty of something if you are attacked and victim blaming commences. (Why were you walking alone at night? Why were you dressed like that? Etc.)

Convicted of murder
Charged with assault
Five Reasons Why "Teach Women Self-Defense" Isn't a Solution

Ioana said...

FSP, you say that the incident makes you reconsider whether your level of precaution is adequate. That is a very natural reaction. However, the fact that something bad happened (even if you were somewhat hurt, which fortunately was not the case) does not show that you're not taking enough precautions. The optimal level of precautionary behavior is the one that equalizes marginal costs and benefits. And surely no one wants to stay at home because crossing the street is too dangerous! So typically we are not maximally investing in precautionary behaviors and that is actually optimal. It is also a natural consequence that we should expect the odd incident to happen since our behavior does not guarantee 100% safety.

daisy mae said...

i'm glad both you and your daughter are safe. being a single, female grad student (in the life sciences, ergo MANY late nights in the lab or up at home....) i did/do the following:

1) got a dog. hands down the best protection at home that i've ever had.

2) when i'm in the lab at night i close the shades on the windows, and lock the lab.

3) before it gets dark, i move my car to the front of the building - it's a straight shot in plain view of security cameras from the front door to my car

4) i always look under my car and in the back seats before i get in, then lock the doors and start the car and get the hell out of there. i heard once that women are most "vulnerable" when they first get in a car because we don't lock the doors, and we sit there and "do stuff" (check voicemail, balance the checkbook, etc).

5) i always call someone when i leave the building, and tell them when i'll be home - and then call them from home.

6) no matter where i am or how "safe" i feel, i walk quickly (i.e. with purpose), looking straight ahead, and confidently...

i hope you find a combination of things that work for you and your family without feeling paranoid.

Candid Engineer said...

FSP, I am glad that you are your daughter are okay. Scary situation. Both you and your daughter reacted very well.

Do what comforts you. If you don't feel comfortable going to work at night, then don't go. If you do- then why say home based on some arbitrary standard of 'what is safe'?

Although I don't know if taking a defense course is necessarily the answer to your concerns, I will say that I took one in college, and really appreciated the sense of empowerment it gave me, as well as a lot of interesting knowledge about human physiology.

Female Science Professor said...

I like working in my office at night. I do it by choice. I get a lot done, it is very quiet, and I have all my Science Stuff there.

Anonymous said...

FSP, so glad that you and your daughter are safe. That is indeed scary. It sounds like you both handled the situation extraordinarily well.

My main issue with escort services, (besides the fact that they *really* need to come up with a better name for them...)is that those I know who have called the number have had to wait a very long time for a very disgruntled security officer to appear, making it clear that he was rather put out that someone actually called the number. At least at my University, since this service is rarely used, they aren't exactly happy to jump up and race to your office when called.

However, my university did offer, randomly, a free woman's self-defense class a few years ago, which I took. To my surprise, much of what I learned was actually very helpful. I'm sure the value of such a course depends a lot on the instructor, but if you (or your daughter) have such an opportunity I'd highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

God, that happened to me when I was 16, except I was the guy breaking down the door of another townhouse. I thought it was my townhouse since they all look the same, and after my key didn't work, I started hitting the door and slamming myself against it because I was sure my sister did something to it and wasn't letting me in on purpose. Stupid little brat.

I'm soooo glad the nice people who opened the door didn't have a gun. Or that they didn't call the cops actually. It was so embarrassing I still remember it today. Somehow everyone found out about it and it made it a little traumatic at that age.

Still, I'm also glad that you and your daughter are safe. But please don't automatically shoot people breaking down doors right away. Give them a second first to see if it's a real psycho, or if it's just an idiot. Calling the cops is a good alternative. In fact, looking back at it, if the cops had come, that would be better for me back then than getting shot.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Yikes. I'm so glad that everything turned out ok. You have good nerves to be able to place the call rather than panicking and freezing, as so many people might have done.

And isn't it fascinating that the first question 911 asked was race? I would have thought "height/weight" or clothing would be just as useful to them. But no, straight for the skin..

Unknown said...

Wow I m so glad you're OK.

As far as taking other precautions to feel safe, I second Daisy Mae. Get a dog!

My dog is about 60lbs, solid black, with stick-up ears like a German shepherd. He comes to the door (which has a window in it) any time there is activity near it. He looks scary, and though to my knowledge, we have never had anyone try to break into the house, I believe that seeing him staring at them on the other side of the door would be ample deterrent.

He is also my running buddy. There is a great running trail near my house, and although I have NEVER heard of anyone being accosted there, it still creeps me out to run there alone when it's dark. So I take DangerDog with me. I have only ever once worried about my safety under these was when DangerDog barked at a large man walking toward us on the running trail. DangerDog never barks at people. This concerned me enough that I decided I would cross the street and abbreviate my run in order to get home under the most direct and well-lit route possible. Turns out I didn't have to. The guy heard him bark, took one look and crossed the street himself and continued on his way (away from me).

The kind of funny thing about having a dog like mine for security purposes is that although he appears intimidating, he would most likely "attack" another person by trying to lick them to death. He's a big lovey goof-ball.

But the creeps don't know that, and that's why it works.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad your daughter and you are OK.

About walking outside at night: How about singing. Singing while walking. It doesn't matter if you have talent. Indeed, try to sound a little off. It's a little bit protective just like carrying a martial arts sword (as does Anonymous 1/05/2009 02:38:00 PM).

I have been known to sing while walking down the middle of a street (not sidewalk) and I felt untouchable because of my aberrant behavior.

Anonymous said...

"I have been known to sing while walking down the middle of a street (not sidewalk) and I felt untouchable because of my aberrant behavior."

The key is to be a little off. I once followed someone who was singing on the street for a block or two, I think it was Amazing Grace. She was very talented (but I made sure to make it look like I wasn't following her on purpose) and I couldn't resist listening. Also it was in the middle of the day and there were other people, some of them also stopping to listen. I think it was for the purpose of singing though, because she would often stop in order to sound better. I also really appreciated a small guy in a nice suit waiting for a bus in a really bad part of town at night, who took out his violin and played a concerto until the bus came.

These days, I'd probably just go home and listen to the original on YouTube. Plus, those moments don't happen to me anymore. Nobody does weird things on the street in this college town. Except rob you at gunpoint at 1 a.m. Or pull you off your bike as you're riding past, beat you, and take your wallet. I never knew how dangerous this place was until I started getting campus crime alerts.

Unknown said...

My suggestion for working late is to get a safety whistle. When you are walking anywhere at night, have the whistle in one hand and your cell phone in the other hand, NOT in your bag or pocket.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm glad you're safe, too. Balance is the important thing; you don't want to be a prisoner of fear.

Having a gun is a bad idea for most people - because most people aren't killers. They can't bring themselves to use it fast enough and generally can't kill the person they're shooting at even if they can. All they do is, in the classic trope, make the guy mad. Things can escalate very quickly.

A cop once advised me to buy a pump-action shotgun for home protection: you don't have to be good, you can shoot in the general direction, you can shoot through a door (much easier than shooting at a *real* person), and in fact, just chambering the round makes a very distinctive sound that scares people away.

For walkers, pepper spray, mace, a whistle - and a dog, excellent - are much better for most people.

butterflywings said...

I feel it is important to point out that:
1. Men are more likely to be violently attacked by strangers (e.g. if walking alone late at night) than women are.
2. The guy didn't know a woman and young girl were alone in the house. I have only been broken into once, and they thought no-one was in as I was working upstairs in my room. As soon as they realised, they fled (I hid in my room until I was sure they had gone, armed with a can of deodorant - as mace alternative!)

But they might not have fled.
So people are putting themselves in more danger by making it look like no-one is in.

Most burglars look for somewhere they think is empty.

(I don't think anyone breaks into places with intent to rape. For one, they don't know that they won't find a man. Also, see 3.)

3. Stranger assault/ rape (either by break-in or when walking at night) is a * TINY * TINY * proportion of all rape and sexual assault.
Most are committed by someone known to the victim.
Statistically a woman is more likely to be assaulted by a partner, date, 'friend', colleague etc.
(so working late with a male colleague is far more risky than doing so entirely alone. I wouldn't unless I knew the guy well - and even then,
Yes, nice, normal seeming men rape! (*some*).

A lot of women live in fear, because we are told that if we go out alone at night, we're asking for it. Or maybe more subtly than that, but why does the media concentrate on what is actually a small proportion of attacks? keep women in their place. And so victims can be blamed for not being vigilant enough - why did she walk alone at night? Why did she work late? etc.

Sorry if this seems a feminist rant - just questioning why so many women live in fear.

And no FSP, I don't think there is anything you *should* have done differently - this is another thing, that women always question themselves and blame themselves.

As someone above pointed out, bad stuff happens. The aim of precautions is not that it never does, or we'd all never leave our homes. The thing is that you acted sensibly to minimise the harm done.