City dwellers are bombarded by stimuli during the course of a day, and must adapt to an almost overwhelming environment. This is especially true in New York City, where a person could encounter over 11,000 people on his lunch hour. In public, New Yorkers and urbanites in general learn to be selective about where they walk, and to whom they speak and listen.1 In so many situations, city dwellers must use their sharpened defense system, their antennae. This filtering system is part of an urban survival mechanism: it is an almost involuntary response to the overwhelming stimuli in the urban environment.2 This refined system of self-protection can be jarred or interrupted as a result of crime victimization. One way to keep it functioning is to recognize and incorporate into daily behavior different ways to avoid being victimized. The crime-victim narrative serves that function: it tell of ways that urbanites can protect themselves.
Each day in New York City, hundreds of incidents occur that could be the seed for a personal-experience story. But not every experience becomes the basis for a story that is remembered and retold. For example, stories told to a small circle of intimates are often too esoteric to share.3 Those that do have a larger audience often highlight unusual, extraordinary, incongruous, or humorous behavior. A narrative scholar, Livia Polyani, suggests that such shared stories can be reduced to terse cultural statements whose purpose is to send cultural messages from tellers to receivers.4 For example, crime-victim narratives remind us how violent the culture and the city can be. They are culture-specific statements about New York City and urban life in general.
The crime-victim story has several other functions, as well. For example, like other forms of folk narrative, these particularly frightening accounts of urban violence serve as cautionary tales.5 Their first purpose is to warn others about the dangerous streets of New York City. Their second purpose is didactic. They transmit a form of underground knowledge by imparting “street smarts.” The narrators tell of specific methods that others can adopt in order to avoid becoming a crime victim. Third, the stories have therapeutic value. They enable victims and others concerned about crime to cope with traumatic experiences by allowing them to express their anger in a culturally sanctioned way. And, finally, these stories function as a source of entertainment: they tell of Woody Allen-like figures besieged by an unidentified paranoia, a fear of meeting up with an assailant and inevitable victimization.
But the main purpose of the crime-victim narrative as a cautionary tale is to warn listeners about the dangers of city living. The victim, already initiated into the evils of city life, is warning the uninitiated. Listeners not only are being warned about what happens to victims, they are also being advised about how to behave. “Hey, make sure you sit in the car with the conductor!” “I wouldn’t walk through that park if I were you, pal.” “You should watch out for that drunk on the next corner. He’s really going nuts!” Explicit statements reinforce the advice implicit in the stories. Experience stands behind each piece of advice. As a result, each individual’s account of a crime-victim’s story symbolizes the possibilities of future dangerous encounters with crime. In other words, as is universally true with folk narrative, they provide guidelines for living.
One of the most common ways in which people speak about preventing crime victimization is by embedding safety tips into their stories. They provide advice on how not to become a victim—which is the second major function of these stories. Five of the most popular safety tips or crime-prevention skills are (1) have a good mental map of the city, (2) be inconspicuous, (3) learn some self-defense tactics, (4) avoid enclosed areas, and (5) cooperate with your assailant.
Lesson 1: Have a Good Mental Map of New York City
I spoke with many people who claimed that having a complete mental map of New York provided them with some protection against crime. But while many insisted on this tip, their knowledge of New York City was inconsistent. They claimed to know several Manhattan neighborhoods or outlying boroughs rather well; but commonly they lacked knowledge of neighborhoods other than their own and one or two more. And some people expressed a reluctance to visit new areas: “I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life,” said one twenty-eight-year-old woman, “and, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Bronx. Why go?” Midtown Manhattan, where many informants worked, was the exception. Most people knew the major areas and districts: the Garment Center, the Theater District, Wall Street, for example. That few informants had a good working knowledge of New York, even though they claimed that this was needed, was not surprising. Kevin Lynch, for example, discovered a similar pattern, while interviewing Bostonians. He realized that many Bostonians could find significant historical landmarks in downtown Boston, but like some of the people I spoke with, they were ignorant about surrounding neighborhoods.6
Knowledge of New York City also seemed to run across ethnic, occupational, and even racial lines. Most whites I spoke to knew little of Harlem, called it off limits, or used it, as in the example below, as a way to indicate a lack of knowledge:
I can remember one time—this is an incident that happened to me. . . . a violent thing. It was one summer, and I was going with this girl, and this was about ’65. I said, “Why don’t we take a bike drive to Harlem?” . . . we left about six o’clock at night. We rode down there, and I said, “It’s safe, don’t worry.” She said, “Well, you sure it’s safe?” I said, “Don’t worry.” So we rode down there, and we were on . . . where was it? I’d say in the 130s, and we’re riding . . . she was in back of me . . . and I was in front. And a bottle misses us by about five feet. It splatters, and we hear someone saying, “Get out of here, whitey. “ Something like that. So . . . we cut short our tour and headed up this wide street, you know, and out of Harlem as quickly as we could! . . . now, I wouldn’t even walk there. I would walk on the wide street side of Harlem but not the side streets. I’d be afraid. I wouldn’t be as afraid of 125th Street as I would be of Lenox Avenue [major crossroads]. (M-29)
In the above example, the informant, Robert Ross, uses the story as an example of what he considers to be his own ignorance. But he also does something else, which is common. He alters his subsequent behavior to avoid the side streets of Harlem.
“Cognitive mapping,” often discussed by environmental psychologists and urban sociologists, includes knowing an area well and having a map of the area in one’s head.7 Cognitive maps allow people to find their way and provide individuals with a sense of security and safety. They remind people that their environment can be trusted and depended on:
When I come home from work, late at night, even if I’m lucky enough to park my car right in front of my apartment building, I have my keys in my hand. I know the streets well. I know every house on the street, but I still have those keys in my hand.8
Sociologists Robert LeJeune and Nicolas Alex, when interviewing mugging victims, discovered that victims felt safer once on home territory. Victims were often surprised that they were vulnerable to crime in areas that they used daily and presumed safe.9 Many of the stories I collected here had that same familiar ring. “Can you imagine, being mugged in your own elevator?” said an elderly woman who had lived in the same apartment building for over forty years without incident.
Nevertheless, people I spoke with claimed that having a good cognitive map of an area was a deterrent to victimization. As a result of hearing about a crime incident, or being victimized themselves, many people indicated that they had significantly altered their cognitive maps and took additional precautions to afford themselves an added sense of security. For example, it is not uncommon for a woman to move to a new apartment or new neighborhood after a rape.10 And some women seemed more wary of particular subway stations where several rapes had occurred. In order to feel more secure, some, like Irene Whitefield, a secretary and part-time actress, made up their own “superstitions” or guideposts and personalized their individual cognitive maps:
I’ve been walking home lately. We’ve been having our rehearsals in the Pan Am building. I would get out about ten, ten-thirty, and I would be walking home alone. And that really got to me. I walked straight down Fifth Avenue and over to Sixteenth Street. I was a little tense because it was so deserted down here. It’s funny, because you make up your own superstitions. My halfway street is Twenty-ninth Street. There’s a reader’s advisor on that block that’s open to about one o’clock. It’s the only thing that is open for about fifteen to twenty blocks. Once you get past Thirty-fourth street. . . . So I thought, Gee, if anything happens, I could run to the reader’s advisor and say, “Forget about telling my fortune! Call the police!11
In the crime-victim stories themselves, mental mapping is a prominent feature. Informants are quick to include the time and place of a victimization, thus enhancing the mental map of the listeners and sharpening their conceptual view of the city. It also allows them to judge which areas the narrators assume are safe and which are dangerous. The narrators use the story as a didactic tool to exert their influence on their audience. They try to persuade the listeners—the potential victims—to avoid what the tellers perceive as threatening territory. That is, they are asking others to change their perceptual maps of New York City, based on the narrator’s personal experiences or those of others. Whether that advice is heeded, and over what period of time, is difficult to discern.
Lesson 2: Be Inconspicuous
During the course of my interviewing, people constantly reiterated the importance of street smarts: of being aware of one’s surroundings, and being able to react to potentially dangerous situations. Some informants, particularly women, devised their own folk methods of self-protection. Kate Whitefield said:
I decided my main rule of thumb is that if I’m walking down a street I’m not familiar with and if it’s totally deserted, and somebody is making a point to come near me, then it doesn’t look too good. If anybody gets close enough, say within arm’s reach, friend or foe, they’re going to get bopped with my bag. Then I’m taking off.12
Other women had different tactics, such as carrying scissors, cans of mace, or umbrellas. Like Kate, several women assumed that they could use their pocketbooks as weapons; in fact, one woman, after being assaulted on the street, carried a can of condensed soup in her purse for over a year!13 If informants thought they were in danger, for example, if they were being followed, they relied on more practical tactics than soup cans. They might crisscross the street several times, or walk past their homes, duck into a store or restaurant, and call for help. Many women I spoke to also avoided late-night subway rides in favor of expensive taxis, or avoided the subway altogether. Others rely on their own intuition, their “sixth sense,” if they suspect danger:
My friend Arthur calls me up. . . . He says, “Mary, there’s a guy running around your neighborhood.” He started describing him. He says, “Be careful. Don’t go to the laundry room unless there’s people there. I know it’s easy to go there alone, but make sure that there’s somebody there with you.” So I go to tell this to another girl who lives in my building, and I started describing him. She said, “Sure, chubby, black hair, beard.” I was looking at her, and I said, “I didn’t say all this yet.” She says, “I know who you are talking about. He was in our laundry room.” I said, “Ellen, are you okay?” She said, “Mary, you know how you get vibrations from people. . . . He walked into our laundry room . . . and I was folding up laundry, and I just got bad vibrations from this guy. And I just walked out. I went upstairs to get my husband. I told my husband what happened, and he started laughing, thinking I was paranoid. The whole bit. She said, “Well, your laundry is downstairs. I’m not going down there unless you come with me.” (R-7)
Included in these lessons about avoiding urban crime was one consistent warning: be inconspicuous and you can avoid being a target. For example, one suggestion was to dress inconspicuously in public, referred to by one narrator as “melting in with the crowd.” In the city environment, especially in New York City where fashion is so esteemed, dress is certainly a distinctive marker. Some people that I spoke to had elaborate explanations for using their appearance as a weapon against victimization. One young man wanted to “appear tough” and told me he wore leather jackets Brando-style.14 But more common was an explanation such as Ellen Schwartz’s:
I walk home from the subway early in the morning. The other morning I came home at two o’clock in the morning. I was the only woman and the only white on the entire Seventh Avenue IRT subway. And the object is to look as tough as you can and to put it on in an odd way. . . . I try to avoid wearing skirts on the subway, even though I like wearing skirts and looking feminine and pretty. You have to look ugly. You’ve got to look mean, and you’ve got to look poor. And you’ve got to look inconspicuous. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles—wrapping her face up in bandages so she won’t have to get disturbed on the moors. That’s the way you have to travel late at night in New York. Otherwise, you’re a prisoner in your own house.15
Lyn Lofland, in A World of Strangers, comments on the role that appearance has played in both the preindustrial city and the modern urban center. According to Lofland, in preindustrial cities, where public space had multiple uses and where city activities were spatially integrated, an individual’s appearance was crucial. People were “type-cast” by their clothes; identified according to a particular class or occupation. However, the people in the modern city are not as easy to distinguish.16 The modern city, especially New York City, is known for its heterogeneity. And since outward appearance is not always a distinguishing characteristic of identification, it is difficult to tell the offenders from the victims.
People think I’m crazy or I’m paranoid. On the other hand, they are not doing what I am doing. I’m not a prisoner in my own house. I go anywhere I damn please, BUT with precaution. So when the weather is cool enough, I’ll usually wear flat shoes, good for running and kicking. If it is really winter, I’ll wear a down jacket that makes my shoulders look really big. Then you can’t tell how petite and slight I really am. You stand there, you see, and you can stand with your arms pronated. It makes your shoulders look bigger. That’s a masculine stance . . . to turn your arms out. . . . You’re standing there with your arms pronated, and your feet are sort of planted. And don’t look anybody in the eye. . . . don’t make eye contact with anybody. . . . This is the 2:00 A.M. routine.17
The folk belief that dress and appearance are tied to victimization was reinforced while I was conducting fieldwork in 1981. During that time, the wearing of gold chains became popular. Wearing flashy jewelry defies the “rule” of appearing inconspicuous and makes the fashionable New Yorker an easy target for a street mugger. The New York City subway becomes the contemporary counterpart of the Hollywood western and its stage coach robbery scene:
The only other story I knew that I was witness to was in the subway. I was riding the subway—the RR local—home, and the train itself was different. Most of the subway windows are tilted when you open them. This subway train had happened to have windows which came down like regular windows. And it wasn’t crowded, but every seat was taken. And these two young boys came in. It was summer. It was hot. They weren’t wearing shirts. They were wearing cut-off jeans. Cut off at the thigh. They came in, walked up and down in the car. I guess they must have been looking at the people. They went to the doorway. And then the train stopped, and they got out. From where I was sitting, I saw them standing there, and I thought it was very odd. After all, if they did get out, why aren’t they walking out the exit. But just before the train started, one of them LEAPED into the air, catapulting himself about halfway in through an open window. And all I could think of at the time was that he was going to fall over the girl. If he made a mistake, why didn’t he go back into the train? What kind of way is that to enter a train, sliding through a window? But actually, what he did was grab the chain, so that he must have been canvassing when they were walking up and down the train to see who was a likely victim. And she was sitting under this open window. But she had this long hair, and it got tangled up in her hair. And with the first pull . . . she reached up and grabbed it. . . . His timing was perfect, because he jumped up in the train just before the train moved on, and he had only a moment to grab it. And she fooled him, because she had to jump back, or he would have been carried away by the moving train. Of course she was hysterical, and of course her neck was burned. . . . She was with her friend or her husband, who tried to console her. And he looked at her and said, “What do you want me to do?” (M-77)
A friend of mine realized that he was getting set up on the subway. He has a very flashy watch. . . . He saw these two dudes sitting across from him. One of them pointed at his own wrist. My friend realized that he was probably going to get hit when he left the subway. So he got out at the next subway stop, and he walked very close to the subway. They did stand up and follow him. And just as the doors were about to close, he jumped in and took off and continued his ride. I think he said the guys were left standing there outside and cursing. (M-51)
The narratives above underscore the didactic role that these stories play. Each warns about the suddenness of being a victim. As a result of these common victimizations, many people I spoke with, particularly women, no longer wear jewelry; of if they do, they conceal it. One woman commented, “What a shame. I used to wear jewelry for sentimental reasons; now I’m too frightened to do even that.”
Lesson 3: Learn Some Self-Defense Tactics
Informants spoke of other ways they thought they could defend themselves against crime, especially in public. Suggestions included wearing money belts, carrying no money at all, carrying only credit cards, or doing without a pocketbook. One woman pinned dollar bills to her clothes; one man stuck some bills in his sock. Others cited avoidance as their self-defense tactic. For example, some avoided subway lines, office buildings, or certain public places, such as Central Park. Most of the people I spoke with were constantly on the alert for any unexpected danger. This is one tenet of being street smart, as the following example suggests:
The other day I was walking in Brooklyn. I went to my girlfriend’s house. And I was walking down the block. And my girlfriend was living in a neighborhood like this. And this man opens his blade and he starts laughing at me. And I looked at him. I was a little scared because I had a little child with me. So I picked up the child, and I started walking fast. But you know, I realized that if you argue to try to get brave, it’s gonna lead to trouble. If you could avoid things, why not? (M-67)
Maria Diaz, who gave me the advice above, included a clear message: Learn how to protect yourself by minimizing interaction in a tense situation. Many tellers of other narratives imparted this urban folk knowledge. For Susan Roberts, a single woman traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, being street smart is important:
Well, last night I was at a friend’s house in the city on the West Side. There was a whole group of people there, and we were all playing Scrabble. I really had to get home at eleven o’clock. Everyone had to stop what they were doing, walk me to the train because she [the hostess] was too afraid to walk me to the train and come back by herself. It was now like a group activity. They walked me to the train and waited until the train came. . . . Instead of getting off at a local stop and walking to my apartment [in Brooklyn], I got off at the express [stop], where I knew I could get a taxicab. Then, I am going out of my way for safety. I mean, everything is extra time and extra money. I had to take a taxi home.18
Susan Roberts mentioned what many other informants emphasized: street smarts take extra time, and sometimes extra money. Being street smart means planning ahead. An important way that these urban crime stories are put to use is by providing listeners with concrete guidelines for the future: they tell listeners how to protect themselves.
Lesson 4: Avoiding Enclosed Areas
Many informants spoke of isolated and enclosed areas such as subway cars, apartment- and office-building elevators, stairwells, vestibules, and public restrooms as generally unsafe areas. The lesson in their stories is obvious: avoid entrapment if you want to avoid being victimized. Some informants, including Bernadette Potter and Daniel Miller, whose narratives appear below, seemed particularly frustrated by this axiom, since the subway was their only means of transportation, and such common advice was problematic. Almost all the people I spoke to told of events happening on the subway: teenagers harassing older people, unsavory panhandlers, holdups. During an interview, Bernadette commented:
There are some [subway] stops that are very long. They go from point A to point B, and they’ll take three, four, maybe five minutes to get there because they have to go under tunnels . . . especially when you are going from borough to borough. Those stops tend to be long. And there have been a lot of robberies inside subway cars. . . . You’re almost trapped, when you think about it. If you think about it in that way, you’re trapped in that one car. And there are people who started to rob people, especially in those trains.19
The following narrative certainly underscores her point. The story involves a man attending a professional conference in New York City. He and his friend, a tourist, decided to take a trip on the Staten Island ferry. Their short subway ride turned into one of the most frightening experiences of his life:
I met a woman there [at the convention], and we just had to get away from the round of interviews. . . . We decided to go to Staten Island and take the ferry to get away. It was after work hours but not terribly late, six o’clock. We took the subway to South Ferry, and we were all dressed up. We must have looked like a wealthy couple. We were all dressed up for our interviews. The subway makes a circle around New York’s periphery. It’s sharply banked. All of the stations are on one side; all the doors are open on one side for five or six stations running. Being in New York, where I have all my survival skills, I always sit on one of the cars next to the conductor, knowing that the conductor has to walk back and forth to open the doors. So we sat in one of these places.
Two guys came in, and they already figured out that the conductor wouldn’t be in for the next six stations—came in, and they took a look at us. Immediately, I knew what we were in for. They came back with their guns. They were both obviously stoned, high on something or other. One of them was trying to be very comical. “Excuse me, but we are going to rob you. We would like all your money, please. Please take off your wristwatches, please.” The other guy had a gun to my head. He was obviously more jumpy: “Come on, or we’ll blow your fucking head off!” That was the refrain. “Now, will you kindly take off your jacket so I can search the inside pocket,” and “We’ll blow your fucking heads off!” They found that neither of us had wristwatches. They opened my wallet, found a bunch of credit cards, looked at them. Between us we had $4.17. I said, “Excuse me, we are going to a job interview. We only look fancy, but we are really both poor.” And the other guy said, “Good, so we’ll blow your fucking head off! Are you sure you ain’t holding out on me?” He took off my coat, ripped off the side pockets, ripped out all the lining to make sure that I didn’t have a secret money belt. Took off my belt and simply walked off with my belt when he found it wasn’t a money belt. And again, the guy said, “We are going to leave the train now. Sit, keep seated, don’t call out until you have reached one more station.” So the two of them disappeared. (M-55)
In addition to subway cars, elevators were trigger zones that informants considered dangerous. One victim who was attacked with a knife in an elevator said that she knew she “had made a big mistake” when she got into the elevator with her attacker. Others are less suspecting:
A friend of mine bought a newspaper one evening. And as he was walking home—as he was just ready to come into the house—there were a few boys waiting in the lobby which he didn’t see. But once they got into the elevator, then they pounced on him. They beat him up very badly. They didn’t want anything, they just wanted to beat him up. (M-11)
In the following example, Ellen Axelrod was caught off guard, like most victims, while standing in her apartment-building vestibule. After all, an apartment vestibule may seem like “safe” territory because of its familiarity:
It was a Sunday evening about six-thirty . . . in January about three or four years ago in the house I’m living in now. I came in the house, and I was very tired. I had been at a meeting all day long. So, I was carrying my pocket-book, and I had some pockets with lots of papers and stuff, and I didn’t get my key out ahead of time. And I got into the vestibule part, you know, before the door with the lock. And I was dragging myself along. I wasn’t paying attention to such stuff, and my pocketbook and all that I was carrying just dumped out all over the stairs. And I said, “Oh shit!” And I moved over slowly. And it was in the winter, so there weren’t a lot of people around me, and I wasn’t swift. . . . I took my time. I was looking at my papers, and I looked at my key. But I was just about collected when I heard somebody rush in through the door. And he had his hand in his pockets like this as if he had a gun [gestures]. . . . “I don’t want to hurt you. Just give me the money.” And again, I was calm while it was happening. But then I was furious, so I ran out the door chasing him. I was mad because I had papers in there. He had gotten everything, the checkbook. I didn’t have any charge cards at the time—but I had a driver’s license, registration, and all that, plus it was the first time I had bought a real leather pocketbook. I had spent fifty bucks. It was a week old. I was so pissed. If he had just taken the cash . . . I think I had about sixty bucks in there. But he got everything. So I was just so pissed. Anyway, I went upstairs and called the police. Not because I thought they would catch him, but because it had all my identification in there, and I wanted to get it all on record. . . . Nothing was ever found. But, I didn’t lose anything more than sixty bucks, because he never cashed any checks. (M-85)
Lesson 5: Cooperate with Your Assailant
Ellen commented about how she was in the vestibule area, an enclosed place, right before the assailant rushed in. She also included another common safety tactic about how not to become a physically injured victim: cooperate with the assailant. Ellen and others consistently spoke of how foolish it is to antagonize an assailant. Since street mugging, for example, is often an impetuous act on the part of the offender, and targets are often chosen at random, victims have no advance warning.20 Most informants I interviewed claimed that they were unsuspecting and caught in a random circumstance. Maria recalled the following incident thirteen years after its occurrence:
I was in the elevator with a friend of mine. I was very young. I was about ten years old at the time I was being mugged. My teenage years were spent in Puerto Rico. When I was in New York, in elementary school, I used to go to my aunt’s place and take the elevator. We were very calm and relaxed. We were talking. We bought some cake, and I had a bag [pocketbook]. It was Sunday. I was dressed up, and my friend was dressed up nice. And this guy comes into the elevator and puts a blade on us. But my friend didn’t see it, and I caught it first. “Look! Look!” My girlfriend wasn’t aware of what was happening, and then she saw the blade, and she started to scream hysterically. I mean SCREAMING HYSTERICALLY. Then I wanted to find out what he wanted. I see the blade, and he keeps going like this [motions with hand], and he’s getting nervous and she’s screaming so much. He’s getting nervous. See, he might go crazy and start cutting me up! She’s screaming, and I’m nervous. My legs feel shaky. But I’m trying to find out what he wants so he could leave me alone. So I tell her to be quiet. He keeps going like this [motions], so, maybe, he wants my bag, and he takes it. So then he’s still going like this [motion with hand]. He wants something. He keeps going like this with his blade. I wonder what he wants. The cake was on the floor, so I gave it to him. So then he’s supposed to beat it, right? So I said, “Here, take this. Here’s some cake.” I wanted to give him anything. I just wanted him to leave us alone. My girlfriend was urinating on herself. She did it on herself. She ruined her stockings. She was really scared. It was funny, you know, because I handed the guy the cake, and he said, “No, I’m not hungry.” And he left. He went with two pocketbooks. I didn’t have much money. I had about three dollars. But my girlfriend felt bad because she had about forty dollars in her pocketbook. She had a new leather bag. But I’m not the type to carry money, because I know so many things happen in New York. When I go shopping, I don’t even carry money. I carry credit cards. I have credit cards now in every store. . . . But you NEVER think about it until it actually happens. (M-48)
The story above tells how some people react to danger and how helpless they feel when caught in a dangerous situation. Certainly, those in jeopardy must quickly assess the situation: whether rape victims should fight off their attackers or acquiesce to their demands is an unresolved question. Many victims editorialize about their actions: “I was so angry, I ran after her, which was a stupid thing to do!” said one elderly lady after being viciously attacked by a young woman in her building elevator. Anger was a common response to victimization, but according to the people I interviewed, revenge was not. In the example below, the teller speaks of the helplessness that many victims feel after being personally threatened, especially if they do cooperate. In this instance, there seemed little that the victim could do but accept her fate:
Oh, I’ll give you a better one than that. Two friends of mine are coming home in a cab from a business dinner, my friend and his sister. They are in a taxicab. It’s in the middle of the summer. The windows are open. The cab driver stops for a red light. Now they are passengers. They’re inside there riding. My friend had her pocketbook on her lap. [They] stopped at a crosswalk for a red light. All of a sudden, through the open window an arm comes through the open window, shoves her sister, grabs the pocketbook, and runs. This is through an open window! What do you do? Absolutely nothing. . . . Her sister [the teller’s friend] was horrified because her sister and the cab driver got out of the cab and chased the guy. She was sitting there quivering, and her sister—the idiot—is running out there to chase the guy! (M-72)
Crime victims do suffer to varying degrees from violation and stress reactions. Crime victims I spoke to experienced these reactions less frequently and less severely in attacks on property than in acts of bodily harm, such as rape. Minimizing the resulting personal agony, fear, and anxiety is difficult. In these situations, victims are suddenly frightened and are caught totally off guard. Their adrenalin starts to pump, their hands may shake, their thinking may be foggy and confused, all a result of being caught unaware and defenseless. Adults usually pride themselves on controlling their actions, but a sudden confrontation with an offender momentarily changes their status and quickly robs them of their personal autonomy. Quite suddenly, they are under the control of another person, often an armed and powerful one. Cooperation is essential. In other words, as crime-victim specialists Morton Bard and Dawn Sangrey write: “Crimes that involve personal confrontation threaten autonomy much more directly. In any face-to-face encounter with a criminal the victim is painfully aware that his or her survival is on the line. Whether the threat is stated or implied, the loss of autonomy is absolute—the victim surrenders control on pain of death.”21
The above-mentioned safety tips—have a good cognitive map, look inconspicuous, use some self-defense techniques, avoid enclosed areas, and avoid antagonizing an assailant—are all ways to attempt to maintain control over one’s territory. They provide urbanites with some sense of security. Not only do the tips and the stories themselves provide insight into how people react to victimization, they also indicate ways for people to take their safety into their own hands.
Personal-experience narratives, such as the ones about crime discussed here, provide a way for individuals to be in the limelight. After all, the experience itself may be common but not for the victim. Telling a traumatic or exciting story of encountering danger or death can be a way to garner praise, attention, or short-lived notoriety. The teller’s status is elevated, especially when the victim/teller speaks of how heroically he or she acted during the time of danger, which may not actually be the case.22 In my experience, it seemed that victims were often able to acknowledge their lack of power and their submissiveness during the incident. One of the reasons for telling these personal-experience stories is so that victims can appear victorious over situations they could not control. Individuals seeking to gain power over the experience through words are simply retelling a structured narrative. Relating their role in the story is a way for them to bring the danger under control and reclaim their self-esteem.
Recounting the incident rather than repressing it can be helpful in dealing with its aftermath. Thus, storytelling itself is a mark of survival. For example, rape crisis centers establish an environment in which victims can speak without fear, recrimination, or blame and in an atmosphere of support. By telling their stories, by ordering the events and placing them in perspective, rape victims and others affected by crime can resolve the trauma of their experiences. Telling the story becomes therapeutic.
The victim often goes through several stages in overcoming a crime victimization, similar to the stages of accepting death outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, acceptance, and resolution.23 While collecting these stories, I interviewed people who were in various stages as a result of victimization. For example, some were at the point of denying the experience and questioning its validity. It was not uncommon to hear, “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me!” Others, though only a handful, harbored feelings of hostility and revenge toward the criminals, which for some continued over a period of years. One rape victim said, “I’ll kill him if I ever see him again!”
Because crime-victim experiences are so rampant, and because these narratives are so often heard—as testimonials, as eyewitness accounts, as shared personal-experience stories—their retelling has power. Such stories are the common fare of several occupational groups—policemen, lawyers, medical and mental-health professionals, newscasters, and ministers, to name a few. Our culture values “getting it off your chest” and the idea that sharing the experience can afford relief to the victims and those affected by crime. The widespread popularity and growth of support groups for victims of all types and experiences would attest to this notion. Crime-victim stories not only are told because they function as a coping mechanism to deal with traumatic events (as with other types of personal-experience narratives); they also provide a way in which victims can garner support and empathy from listeners, and reduce their feelings of isolation. Listeners may offer supportive responses such as, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” or “Yes, I know what you’re going through.”24 Such support is one reason that stories are often told in a competitive way, each person trying to top another’s experience. The message to the victim is that others have gone through similar incidents that are also disturbing and horrendous. They allow tellers to cope and to deal with these events by providing vehicles for them to express their rage and hostility toward offenders, and even give voice to their fantasies of revenge in a culturally acceptable way. As mentioned in the Introduction, narrators of crime-victim stories could be both sullen and depressed when sharing their experiences. However, there were several times when they exploded into robust laughter, laughing at themselves, the antics of the offender, or the nature of the situation. In relation to crime victims, laughter and jocular word play have three main uses: (1) to express anxiety about reestablishing one’s sense of the world as a safe and dependable place to live, (2) to help the victim regain his or her sense of autonomy, and (3) to distance oneself from the emotional pain of the violation that the experience has incurred. All three purposes help victims cope with the trauma of the event.
Clearly, the crime-victim stories not only fulfill the three functions mentioned above, but they also display a particular type of urban humor, like that found in the social comedy of performers such as Rodney Danger-field, Robert Klein, David Steinbrenner, and particularly Woody Allen. Allen, a raconteur of the foibles of urban life, often uses New York City as the backdrop for his films. In most of these films, he reveals himself to be an anxious urban misfit, victimized by people, by crime, and by love relationships. Audiences identify with the Allen character; they recognize those aspects of contemporary life he so poignantly ridicules. Allen’s humor recognizes that anxiety is the most significant and shared feature of urban life, and it constantly exposes his fears (and ours) about crime and violence, parental authority, ethnic intolerance, hypochondria, success, sex, and relationships. Allen reminds us about our own self-doubts, fears, and weaknesses, and our ability to deal with modern life in a major metropolis.25 His jokes about using several locks to bolt his apartment shut, or his squeamishness about and fear of being attacked at night in the streets are common urban folk attitudes. He projects these shared urban fears in his films in the same way New Yorkers do when they tell crime-victim stories. By laughing with Allen, and by laughing with narrators, we recognize our own human weaknesses. By laughing at the situation, we attempt to distance and control it. And instead of letting crime overwhelm us, we recognize that others have experienced and suffered, as well. As a result, we can attempt to reestablish the world as we knew it before the victimization—acceptably safe, dependable, trustworthy.
The people I spoke with were amused by stories in which the criminal appeared stupid or foolish. The story that first comes to mind is one mentioned previously, about the rapist who accepted from the victim a personal check made out to his name. Stories that were told in a jocular way pale once in print. But they do seem to provide tellers with some sense of superiority. These tales, like numskull stories, highlight the stupidity of the criminal who is able to start a crime but not smart enough to execute it successfully. In this form of humor, victims and tellers seem to triumph over the weakness and stupidity of their offenders.
Humor comes in many varieties (political, ethnic, black, gallows), addresses several human situations, and is used differently in different groups, structures, and types. But regardless of its use, humor works only when it is an expression of the collective experience of the participants and receives response only from those who have common concerns. The common concerns here include victimization, assault, and paranoia, which present a kind of urban humor. Humor here works as a safety valve to express the fears and anxieties about living in such a frenetic environment as New York City. By laughing at the criminals, tellers and their audience can say, “Look at that fool! He’s trying to break the law, and he’s too stupid to figure out how to do it!” By laughing at the offender, the victim is no longer psychologically submitting to his or her control or authority. And by laughing, victims can emotionally distance themselves from the victim experiences in general. A reversal of roles can occur, one of the bases of all comedy. The criminal becomes the weakling; the victim becomes triumphant. In other words, by finding some comedy in the situation, tellers are able to objectify the experience and reduce some of the emotional trauma that often accompanies victimization, allowing them to cope with the event itself.26 Finding humor in these stories about violence, pain, and suffering was not all that surprising. Laughter itself, as Norman Cousins has discussed, has therapeutic value, allowing people to reconnect with others and reminding them of a shared sense of what makes people human.27
Generally speaking, one of the main reasons that victims share these stories about urban life is the desire to tell and warn others how not to become a crime victim. Many times their advice, as we have here, is direct; that is, they use the narrative itself as a warning device. Sometimes, their clues about protection are more subtle and are embedded within the story and deduced by the listeners. But whether implicitly or explicitly, tellers impart a form of folk knowledge—street smarts. In addition, these stories teach about the dangers of the urban world. They function as a psychological safety valve, permitting tellers and victims to objectify their experiences by finding some humor in them. And by telling their stories, victims can start to regain their sense of autonomy, so often robbed from them during victimization.