Last night Tim & I attended a launch party in St Kilda at a beautiful venue right on the water. We pulled into the car park early, and we were amazed at our good luck to have found such a spectacular view of the sun as it set over the water. We were ten minutes early so we decided to stand at the water’s edge and check out the view.
The only other person around was a woman in her 50s or 60s, dressed beautifully in “resort wear” and a straw hat and looking out to sea. When she heard us approaching she turned and gave me a radiant smile. She said something, but I was too far away to hear her. I smiled back as I walked towards where she was standing.
I said hello.
“Isn’t it just wonderful”, she replied warmly, shaking her head with a smile, “the way that pedophiles are allowed to just walk amongst the rest of us?”
She looked me dead in the eye, still smiling with her entire face, just like Quentin Bryce. I thought for sure I had misheard her. I’m sorry, what did you say?
“Isn’t it terrific that pedophiles are just walking around, free to go wherever they please? And how do you feel about the fact that this man… that you’re with… is having sex with children?”
Now, just a minute…
I was caught completely off guard. Barely 20 seconds had passed since we got out of the car, and at this point we were still walking in the direction of the water and had yet to reach where she was standing. The woman’s words were clear, deliberate and delivered without faltering. And although she was referring to Tim, she never looked at him – she just held my gaze and her broad, warm smile.
I admit, I was speechless. In fact, I was pretty sure that she was half-way through a joke or a story that wasn’t going to be very funny. And besides, she was a beautiful and normal looking woman – like somebody’s mum, or a teacher or maybe a doctor. She was certainly not homeless or unloved or uncultured. Why was this person – this smiling, civilised person – saying these words?
She spoke again, still smiling, but with just a touch of sing-song hatred in her tone.
“What’s the matter? Can’t your stupid female brain make your mouth work?”
Without waiting for a response she turned on her heels, and slowly – with perfect posture – walked away. She never looked back, and for an entire minute I stood there, watching her, my mouth gaping.
Tim basically missed the entire exchange, because of the wind and the distractions on his phone.
Now, I don’t know about you but I don’t live my life as though I might encounter an unpleasant person at any moment, and I don’t prepare myself for spontaneous confrontations. I certainly didn’t expect one from somebody who seemed so normal in every sense – in her physical appearance, her clothing, her facial expressions and body language. Her anger at Tim, at me was illogical and so misplaced and it shocked me.
And when the shock wore off? I was angry. Angry at the woman for accusing somebody that I cared about of something so horrendous. Angry that she was blaming me and telling me that I was stupid.
Mostly? I was angry that I was silent. For the rest of the night my brain ran through all of the responses that I could have given her – logic that would discredit all of her accusations. Cutting remarks that would have pressed her buttons the way she pressed mine. I was seething with fury at my inability to respond in the moment and the disempowerment I felt.
Of course, it didn’t take me long to realise that this woman – this attractive, well-spoken and clearly educated woman – was suffering from some sort of mental illness. A healthy person couldn’t have jumped to the conclusion that she did, not in a matter of seconds. They wouldn’t have delivered those words to me with such a pleasant expression, or even at all.
And as soon as I understood that, I was deeply ashamed of myself. Not for my actions, but for the assumptions I made about a person just because she looked so normal. What did I think that an irrational and confrontational person should look like? Why should her grooming and expensive clothes spare her from a mental disease? And why did I allow myself to feel so much anger towards her, when she’s so obviously suffering from a condition beyond her control?
Because here’s the thing: if this woman had been dressed in dirty jeans, if she’d smelled bad or if she was missing some teeth, I’d have felt more comfortable in that situation. I’d have shrugged off her rant without giving her words any space in my thoughts. Yesterday’s experience taught me a lot about my own prejudices, and I suppose it’s re-wired my brain a little to better understand the world.
The fact is, this woman – this attractive, educated, well-spoken woman – she is somebody’s mum. Maybe once a teacher or a doctor or a concert pianist. Everything about her confidence and body language told me that she has people who care about her, and they’re probably trying their very best to protect her (and the strangers she meets) from situations like the one she found herself in yesterday.
Three years ago I was grocery shopping, and there was a woman ahead of me pushing a cart. Her son was sitting in the cart eating from a box of cereal that hadn’t been paid for yet, and he was at least ten years old. ”What a horrible kid”, I thought to myself. ”What’s wrong with HER, pushing around a ten year old kid? Why is he being such a lazy brat? What sort of mother would just push him around like that?”
And of course, those thoughts were followed by that classic declaration of the young and childless. ”I will never be THAT mother.”
I overtook the boy and his mum, and as I passed I noticed how handsome the little boy was. He had incredible deep brown eyes and perfect freckles on his nose.”That kid will break so many hearts someday”, I thought. And as I reached the end of the aisle I heard a tremendous crash behind me.
I turned to see the boy convulsing wildly, thrashing his arms and hurling all of their groceries from the cart and onto the ground. He screamed and began to yell and cry, ”Muuuuum… Muuuuum!” and I swear that woman almost crawled into that cart herself in order to comfort him. He was distressed and terrified, hitting his head on the side of the shopping cart and shaking, and his mother… she looked as though she was doing this for the third time that day. In less than 20 seconds she’d talked him down from the ledge and was holding her weeping boy in her arms.
All she needed was some groceries for dinner. She had probably hoped that a ride in the cart and the cereal in his hands would buy her enough time to get what she needed.
That was the day that I thought I learned my lesson about judging people based on their appearance. About what is “normal”, and what battles are being faced by the stranger right next to you.
Perhaps I was due for a reminder.