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The Vine: June 4, 2014

Submitted by on June 4, 2014 – 3:04 PM21 Comments


Something happened to me today, I am so ashamed of myself, right now I don't know how I will ever forgive what I did.

I live in a semi-nice neighborhood, but we are a funnel for a trail that has a lot of inebriates. Today, when I was very busy with other things, the doorbell rang. Usually I ignore it, but my husband was home, yelling for me to answer (he was in the bathroom) and I went to the door. A younger girl was there, looking very like other women who have come to our house requesting money. She tried to talk to me, but I was trying to keep my dogs inside, all the while saying, "I am very busy, I can't talk right now!" Then she said she had been raped. I know I sound absolutely cynical when I say, women in the past have come to my door asking for money — because they have been abused. When I say, "I will call the police!", they take off. I said, "You need to call the police," and when she tried to talk further, I shut her down and closed the door.

It turns out, she is a neighbor I have never seen before. I want to say she is about 19 or 20, and after I shut the door, I looked out the window and saw her crying on the curb. I realized I must have misjudged the situation, and when I went out, her mother, who I did recognize, was walking up my drive. I fully expected her to blast me, but instead she said her daughter had been raped several nights ago, and was going around to the neighbors, warning them that there might be gang retaliation. They live right across from us, so she wanted to warn us about potential danger.

To say I felt like an absolute and total shit is an understatement. I went out and apologized, I tried to express how out of line I was. She was very kind and accepted my apology.

I feel in a way I am looking for confirmation that it was a weird situation. Who sends their daughter out to the neighbors, alone-telling them she was raped? But more than anything, I need to figure out how I can live with myself, to be so cruel to a young girl at the door. I feel like in one day, I found out I was a totally different person than I thought I was.

One more thing, and I want to say "in my defense" but I feel I don't deserve that consideration — due to my upbringing, I am so averse to any kind of drama. I don't want myself, or my family (I have a daughter), to be dragged into any kind of drama-filled or unsafe situations.

I honestly don't know what I am asking for here — except an honest critique of how other people would have handled the situation. I feel this has made me take a hard look at myself, and I don't like what I see. How do you live with something you are so ashamed of doing?


Dear M,

You're being way too hard on yourself. You'd never seen the girl before; you've gotten burned before by randoms ringing the bell and asking for money with tall tales; and the actual story sounds highly hinky to me in the second place. "Gang retaliation"? This isn't to say nothing happened to the girl, but there's so much missing information between "a mother and daughter are going door-to-door to inform the neighbors she was assaulted" and "…for their safety in the event of drive-bys" that I kind of don't know where to start. Retaliation against whom? Is this relevant to the neighborhood in the sense of a marauding felon threatening the area? Why wouldn't a leaflet have sufficed? Were the police called?

All that by way of saying that this is highly irregular, and if the mother accepted your apology, you need to forgive yourself and let it go. Telling the girl to call the cops and closing the door does not make you the asshole in a Biblical allegory who stepped around the Good Samaritan to go to a shoe sale, or failed to set a plate for Jesus. It makes you a woman who lives in a city, in an area where troubled scammers try to get what they can with bullshit stories, and as a citizen who is repeatedly and highly outraged by the Veterans' Administration's various spectacular fuck-ups, I used to struggle with the same thing when I was thousand-yard-staring the fourth guy in twenty blocks to claim he just needed a couple bucks for the subway to get to the 23rd Street VA, because I'd carry my Uncle J the whole way there from Brooklyn if he wanted, but most of these guys never even did a push-up. You know? No judgments; it's hard out there. But you can't believe everyone, it's not smart.

You handled it fine. I work at home, so I can't just open the door to every Jehovah's Witness and college student trying to get me to donate to the Sierra Club; I don't open the door to anyone I don't know or who isn't wearing a branded uniform, period, so you're already nicer than I am. When you realized the neighbor wasn't asking for money, but was actually a neighbor and was trying to pass along information, you apologized to her mother and she accepted it. I think the more important question is WHY this is bothering you so much — why you're punishing yourself to this degree for what reads to me as an appropriate and practical response to the situation. What anxiety is this tapping into for you? What else is going on in your life? Any crises at work or with the fam that have you questioning your moral instincts?

Now and then, it's good to get gut-checked with something like this; it's good to think about how you want to be in certain situations, and mull over how you might try to do better or differently next time. It's especially good if you're modeling behavior for a child, so you can contemplate how to talk to her about this incident or what you want her to take from your reactions. But you have to ease up on yourself. That story sounds like a load at first, to me anyway. The readers might beg to differ, but I think it's better and safer to obey your instincts; you can apologize later if you have to.

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  • Maria says:

    It WAS a weird situation–not one you could have been prepared for. It also happened at a bad time–you were trying to settle the dogs and had no help. Had you been able to talk to her for even another minute, you would have seen she wasn't asking to come in or to have you do anything else. But you could not, not really, in that moment.

    I think you wrote in while it was still very fresh and upsetting, because you needed to debrief. You are NOT on par with somebody who refused somebody assistance in a time of crisis.

    Also, healthy people don't want to get sucked into matters that do not concern them. Don't beat yourself up about that.

    This family put you on the spot, and just so very weirdly. Like Sars said, a flyer would have done the job if she was willing to out herself. The gang retaliation thing doesn't fly with me, but if there is more happening in the area than drunks walking by that is good to know. In any case, it isn't possible to know what the family was thinking by making the rounds; the girl didn't sound like she was in any shape for it.

    Don't beat yourself up. You aren't a bad person. You just had a freaky weird thing happen to you.

  • Megan says:

    You aren't a bad person. I'm 99% sure my reaction would have been exactly the same as yours. I have also lived in transitional neighborhoods, and I am always suspicious when the doorbell rings and I'm not expecting anyone. I totally agree with everything Sars and Maria said, especially Maria's comment about how you probably wrote this while it was fresh. Try to cut yourself some slack, this was a weird situation. I don't think it reflects poorly on your character at all.

  • Georgia says:

    I struggle with a lot of guilt, too, so I understand where you're coming from, but I think this sums up why you don't need to feel guilty: "after I shut the door, I looked out the window and saw her crying on the curb. I realized I must have misjudged the situation." You immediately tried to rectify an [possible, since the story does sound off] error in judgement that was based on your past experiences. A lot of people might've seen the girl crying and STILL not given a shit, so, be easy on yourself.

  • Cora says:

    There are two separate things going on here: one is the very, very odd situation, which you found yourself questioning both in the moment, and then afterwards; and then how you feel about your reaction. The latter has already been addressed: you did nothing wrong. Let's say the woman really had just been raped, and in her confusion, just came to your door. You said, "You need to call the police." That might well have been exactly what she needed to hear, to pull her out of her shock and realize for herself what she needed to do.

    But I'm with you and Sars: this is beyond weird. I doubt the mother sent her daughter out alone. I think the daughter is disturbed, went out on her own, then her mom went looking for her and felt she had to say something to get her daughter out of there, and "gang retaliation" was as good as anything else to blame it on. Or, it might be true — but still, this isn't the way to go about notifying your neighbors.

    Maybe you feel guilty because you're thinking along the same lines, and you want to save the daughter somehow. Okay. Then be prepared for the next time you see her: be nice, ask if her if she's gotten some help (if that feels right; if it feels like prying, well, you know). I think that for you to actually do something, like this kind of prep for if/when you see her again, will help you move through it, because it's constructive instead of self-punishing.

  • Angharad says:

    I agree with what everyone else is saying: you really weren't in the wrong here, and you're being entirely too hard on yourself. With that said, I'm guessing that you're very empathetic in general and you probably try to treat people the way you'd want to be treated. And in this girl's case, if her story is accurate, you wouldn't want someone shutting the door in your face after you'd been assaulted. Dealing with that dichotomy – the way you treat someone and the way you'd want to be treated if the situation was reversed – is something everyone deals with. You do the best you can with your instincts and previous experiences. You can't treat everyone as though they have the best of intentions, unless you're willing to get burned a lot.

    It really sounds like you have a good heart. You immediately addressed the situation when you felt you had acted incorrectly. I'll also point out that this woman didn't ring your doorbell looking for you to act, she was informing you of something that had occurred previously. If she had shown up visibly injured and needing assistance, would your reaction have been the same? Or would you have called the police and tried to help her? I'm guessing the latter. Give yourself a break on this one.

  • EMT says:

    I think it's great that you are using this weird situation as a learning tool. But if you want to make sure come out of this feeling better about your ability to deal with future situations, I suggest either learning a skill or getting involved (or both). If you choose the latter, perhaps join (or start) a community watch. If the former, I suggest a first responder course or a crisis management seminar–something that will help you stay calm, get at the truth of a situation, and give you a protocol for calling for help. And remember, she didn't show up bruised or bleeding. If she had looked hurt you would have responded differently.

    Also, I would also consider getting some training for the dogs. How can you deal with what comes to your door if you're wrestling with an off-leash Cerberus?

  • M (not the LW) says:

    Expecting ourselves to react perfectly all the time, is setting ourselves up for a fall. Use the information you have now to act as you see fit, and hope for the best if there is a next time.

    A few things jumped out at me:
    1) An aversion to "drama" can lead people to disregard their instincts and available information. There is real drama in life, good and bad. Falling in love, having a baby, being raped, being scared, are all dramatic things. Healthy boundaries are more helpful than avoidance of every difficult situation. The Gift of Fear has it's flaws but de Becker is great at lists you can follow and encouraging using instincts and developing those instincts.

    2) On a very basic note, please don't ever feel you have to open a door, or answer the phone. You are as important as the people knocking or calling. I hope your husband can understand that, though I have come across men who don't take or understand the precautions women take in the world.

    3) Your area has a sexual assault survivors non-profit. They will welcome a donation, if you think that doing something tangible will help you. Money that goes to paying the electric bill isn't glamorous, but it is vital and helpful.

  • Kat From Jersey says:

    I agree totally with Sars and others. Looking at the situation, I most likely would have done the exact same thing. It's a sad situation, but I think you handled it as best you could with the information you had at the time.

    In addition, due to the area you live in and the transient population, you probably have to be even more aware of scams and such. Who's to say that the girl wasn't a decoy, and by keeping your attention at the front door, an accomplice could have been trying to get in your back door to rob you? I hate to think the worst of people that I don't know, but I live in a nice town, and read about these types of scams going on in my area al the time.

    Don't beat yourself up about it. Think of it as a learning experience, and move on. Believe me, I'm still red in the face and kicking myself about things I did or didn't do 30+ years ago. It doesn't do anyone any good.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    You weren't wrong. It's not like you yelled get off my lawn, filthy slut; you offered to call the police.

    And that might still be a good idea. Talk to your local precinct about what went down, what the girl and her mother told you, ask if there is indeed gang activity in the area. Mind, I'm not saying to set the police on this family's scent–they can't do anything about the rape if the girl doesn't want to report it–but they also can't do anything about increasing patrols or other safety measures if there's no paper trail of increased violence. Filing a report isn't a bad idea, at all.

  • Jo says:

    I'm not sure I would have done anything differently either. Even in my neighborhood, which is relatively safe — no one ever comes to my door except Mormons and the neighbor kid asking to get the ball he threw over the fence — I probably would have acted the same way. I *might* have called the police myself, but that's the only difference.

    The whole situation is funky. I obviously don't expect all rape victims to act the same way, but it seems weird that a woman who just experienced a violent gang rape a few days before would want to walk around discussing it with the entire neighborhood. I guess, in theory, if it was a stranger rape, she would want to warn people, but if she called the police, it would be in the newspaper, and people would get warning that way. I sure wouldn't feel safe walking around the neighborhood by myself talking about an experience like that.

    If she had come to your door bleeding with her clothes torn like it just happened, you would probably have acted differently, but you didn't have any clues that this was real. You're being too hard on yourself under the circumstances.

  • Jo says:

    Can't edit my comment. I see now that I misread "gang retaliation" as the woman having been gang raped (which might still be true). In any case, my response would be the same.

  • Sharon says:

    I would have done the exact same thing and furthermore, the mother / daughter were in the wrong. If there was a possible issue with gang retaliation or any reason for people in the neighborhood to feel unsafe, the correct way to handle it would have been to either have the cops go door to door issuing warnings, or to have the cops or some type of community organization post notices in the area.

  • Dukebdc says:

    I echo the others: cut yourself some slack. I opened your letter expecting to hear you had hit someone with your car while drunk driving and left the scene, not that you reacted abruptly to a stranger at your door who wasn't explicity asking for help and had a story that was difficult to understand.

    And since you are genuinely concerned about sending the right message to your daughter, I'll throw out the old hypothetical – if she daughter came to you with exactly the same scenario in your letter, would you tell her it is hard to forgive her for her actions?

  • Jen S. 2.0 says:

    I feel you. When someone is truly in trouble, we want to try to help, and you feel like you were given cues that someone was in trouble, and instead of helping, you told her you were busy and shut the door.

    But I will say that based on what you've said, you weren't cruel; you were more abrupt out of concern for your own safety. You had reason to be wary, considering that others have come to your door asking for help they likely did not need. It's not cruel to tell someone to call the police when a crime has been committed; it's what they should do. You also recognized that the way they were going about this was odd; as mentioned upthread, a flyer or a police action would have been WAY more useful and accepted. You had a limited amount of information, and although indeed you may have been abrupt about it, you did what you could with the information you had.

    You don't have to do this at all, and it might be getting WAY more involved than you want to, but if you felt like you really want to do something specific for the young lady, you could write her a note expressing your concern for her wellbeing. But don't make it about you. That is, don't do it because it might make you feel better; do it because it might make her feel better.

  • Julie says:

    M, I agree with Sars and the others here. Cora's comment particularly struck a chord with me–I also wondered if the mother's story was even the truth. There's something highly odd about the whole situation, and I think you handled the whole thing just fine given the circumstances.

  • Jen says:

    Sars asks, "What anxiety is this tapping into for you?" and I think the answer might be here…

    "Due to my upbringing, I am so averse to any kind of drama. I don't want myself, or my family (I have a daughter), to be dragged into any kind of drama-filled or unsafe situations."

    Maybe the LW feels like she disbelieved a version of herself from years ago. Just a guess.

  • M (not the LW) says:

    I like your theory, Jen who posted at 8:56. It gave me something to think about.

    Trailing the discussion, I want to add that lots of nice normal people don't depend on the police and won't report many things that are legally crimes (for all sorts of reasons, varying from trauma being personal to ethical objections). Knowing neighbors and the neighborhood, and local organizations, are the preferred way to stay safer and informed.
    There is a chance that the door-knocker and mom want to be involved with the legal system and cops as much as I do. That is, not at all. Though I guess it's better if the girl is a liar, then she wasn't raped.

    My point is that, possibly in a transitional neighborhood, depending on city resources isn't the best idea. If there is a neighborhood watch, that's worth investigating. Talking to people around you about your experiences and see what you share.

  • M (OLW) says:

    First of all, I wanted to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments. As Maria mentioned, I wrote this a few hours after it happened-and I was very upset.

    I must admit, I was nervous to read the comments, even though I felt like whatever anyone had to say-I did need to hear. So to read that the consensus seems to be I reacted in a fairly normal fashion, that is very reassuring to me. It was just such a weird, unexpected thing to happen, and I won't lie-I have a very hard time letting go of instances where I feel I acted badly. I really struggle with it, and it is something I need to work on.

    Jen-I think you hit the nail on the head-and I never thought about it till I read your comment. My mother was an physically abusive alcoholic, and my older sister once called the police after a really bad episode. The police basically patted us on the head, and told us to get over it. That was 35 years ago-but I still remember that feeling of helplessness.

    Once again, thank you all very much.

  • Mary says:

    Letter Writer, I agree with everyone else that you reacted fairly normally in a weird and confusing situation.

    The only new thing I have to add is that if you find yourself in a similarly confusing situation in the future, the question, "What do you need from me?" can be helpful. If someone's giving you a long and confusing spiel and you can't tell whether it's true, made-up, a scam or just someone who is confused and frightened and unsure what to do next, then asking what they need can help them cut to the point. I think in this case you might have felt a lot clearer about the situation depending on whether the woman had asked for money, asked to use your phone, just looked completely confused and bewildered, or told you that she was there to warn you about something. But it can be really useful to help you take control of the conversation. (Also works with chuggers, telemarketers and cold-callers with long and tedious scripts and warm-ups.)

    Bear in mind, though, that asking it doesn't oblige you to help someone. You can still say, "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that," whether it's money or a bed for the night or something more abstract, or offer other solutions like asking for help from the authorities.

  • Erin W says:

    I have one of these stories too. I was in my early twenties, at a professional conference in Chicago and thus in a hotel room alone. It was the middle of the night and someone in the hall was sobbing. Every now and then they'd say "Hello?" and I vividly remember one "Why isn't anyone coming out?"

    The thing seemed incredibly fishy to me. "Someone help me!" would have been natural, wouldn't it? Also, we were in a hotel, so why didn't they just go down to the lobby?

    I called the front desk and told them what was happening, and eventually I fell into anxious sleep, and I don't know how things resolved, whether the crier was found or whether there actually was a crisis. All I knew was that in my vulnerable position (what felt very vulnerable due to my age and not being comfortable in a big city yet), I had no business opening the door to investigate.

    This was ten years ago, though, and I still think about it, and there is still a nagging thought that someone was hurt and desperately needed attention at that moment, and I couldn't give it. But I also don't have any horror stories about being robbed at gunpoint, or abducted from a hotel room in Chicago.

    Anyway, my point is that you didn't do anything wrong, M; you know your own neighborhood and what kind of caution is required, and you protected yourself and your family. You weren't the Seinfeld gang recording a mugging and cracking jokes about it, if that's what worried you.

  • Amanda says:

    M, I just want to add that I used to question my own "goodness" a lot, in the same way you did here. "What does it mean about who I am that I reacted the way I did?" What I've come to learn is that a single reaction to a single incident is never a marker for how "good" we are.

    We can't be expected to respond courageously and selflessly and gracefully to a new experience when it catches us offguard. What we can do, and what it sounds like you have already done, is reflect back on how we reacted and what we wish we had done differently. The next time you're faced with a situation in which someone asks you for help, you will probably respond differently — even if it's only to pause for a minute so you can gauge whether or not the person seems to be sincere or is trying to put one over on you.

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