It all began with a visit from a woman. She rang our doorbell. Diiiiiiiiing Dooooong. My widowed Bengali immigrant mother opened our large wooden door. It let out a small creak. Maybe a warning, like in a scary movie, the first mistake, never open your door to a stranger. A skinny white woman was standing at our doorway—blonde hair and blue eyes. She was carrying a petite Louis Vuitton purse which she held onto tightly.

“Hi, I’m part of a city committee that is raising awareness about safety precautions. You are aware that there is a serial killer at large?”

My mother looked at the woman, her expression blank.

 

***

 

In graduate school, I became obsessed with Amitav Ghosh, a Bengali writer who grew up in Calcutta and received his doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University. He didn’t become a traditional academic going on to teach at a University; instead, he became a novelist and essayist, writing beautiful and intelligent stories about the fall of empires, national upheaval, environmental changes and nonfiction essays that contemplate our geopolitical landscape. He wasn’t my only Bengali inspiration, there were others, like Jhumpa Lahiri, but Ghosh held a special place in my heart. His descriptions of Calcutta brought me back to my childhood. My emotional attachment to his novels exceeded those of many other South Asian writers I read and studied—his characters reminded me of my relatives, they were more real to me, grounded in my past and described in ways that other writers could only gesture towards.

 

***

 

It was May of 1985 when the doorbell rang and a white woman warned us about a serial killer. I was almost 8. We hadn’t been watching the news. We had travelled to India that winter to see Sai Baba, a man my mother followed—she believed he was a prophet. We were isolated, recovering from our travels, my mother already planning the next trip to India. The local news cycles didn’t hold in our reality.

The woman looked over at me and then my mother.

“Should we speak somewhere private? This may be too disturbing for a child.”

“No, no. It’s okay,” my mother responded.

The lady wasn’t wrong. It was too disturbing.

She told us about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. He was my introduction to extreme fear. My boogey man. But he was so very real. Not the fictional man behind the bushes. He was actual flesh and blood and he consumed people. The woman told us about his victims. How he was walking into people’s homes and shooting them in a face. Raping people of all ages. Killing folks who slept. Overpowering men who tried to protect their wives and children. He had no fear. He bludgeoned, raped, decapitated, butchered, stabbed, mutilated, sodomized and shot people. He inflicted every form of violence upon them. Richard Ramirez was like Freddy Krueger. He stole my sleep.

My mother was terrified too. We formed a bond through our mutual fear. A connection through waves of tension that kept us roused each night. Me holding her hand as we lay awake on her bed, our bodies curled up on her burgundy and black sheets. Two females, alone. The perfect prey.

That summer was a sleepless one. Ramirez was on a killing rampage, moving in and out of all the towns that bordered us: Glendale, Sierra Madre, Arcadia. He inspired crank calls. Heavy breathers. People who wanted to scare other people. I am coming for you next, or, I’m gonna rape your dead rotten corpse. Teenagers who really got a kick out of terrorizing other people.

My mother had a burgundy phone that matched her burgundy sheets. It sat on top of a wooden side table. Sliding doors lined the back of our home. Windows overflowed our house, gateways to our future murder. I hated all that glass, scared to look through it at night. We kept the curtains shut in her bedroom all the time, shielding us from where the Night Stalker could be lurking. When night came, all the curtains in the house would close. We took every precaution necessary, checking to see if all the doors and windows were locked. My mother walking over to each lock, unlocking and locking it, tugging at the handle of each glass door to make sure it didn’t slide open. We did this over and over throughout the night.

One day we heard on the news that Ramirez had stolen a white car. His killings were occurring almost nightly. When we went to bed, we were on high alert. Around midnight the burgundy phone rang. Both of us jumped out of bed as my mother reached over to answer it.

“Hello?”

We shared the line ear-to-ear, listened, waiting for an answer. There was nothing but deep deliberate breaths.

“Hello?” my mother said, again.

The breathing became even heavier.

One more time, “Hello?”

Again, nothing but forced breath. My mother hung up. At that very moment a car drove by. I felt all the hair on my body rise. We rushed to the kitchen to peer out the window, me holding my body behind the wall, next to it so only my nose could be seen by the outside world, if even. There was a white car driving up and down our cul de sac. Back and forth and back and forth. It must have done it five or six times. I knew it was him. He was searching for his next victims. For a moment, I was frozen. But then a sense of methodical urgency came over me. I walked towards the phone on the kitchen wall, one foot in front of the other, slowly, ready to call 911. It felt like forever as he ran his laps up and down our street. Eventually, he drove away. My mother took my hand and led me to the bedroom. We were shaking.

It was impossible to sleep. I spent that night curled up on the floor against the curtains that lined the glass doors of my mother’s bedroom. My hand gripping them, pulling them together tightly, pressing my eye against the opening so I could see outside. I was waiting for him. My mother on the bed, her hand near the burgundy phone in case I saw him so we could call the police. Every few minutes my mother would ask, “Rani, do you see him?”

We were vigilant and filled with anxiety. He never came.

We rented a cop for a week.  He slept on the floor next to our big wooden door. We still didn’t sleep.

Our seclusion was highlighted by the Night Stalker’s presence. No relatives to call us who weren’t far far away, no one to check in on us every day to see if we were still alive, no close community of friends or neighbors, just a rental cop that we could only afford for seven days. Ramirez exposed the most petrifying thing about our world—we were all alone.

 

***

 

Of Amitav Ghosh’s nonfiction work, one essay in particular moved me deeply, “The Greatest Sorrow.” In it, he writes about the evolution of modern violence, how new forms of horror have come to fill our collective imagination; events such as 9/11 have been incorporated into our consciousness, they’ve become normalized. We’ve seen the twin towers fall so many times that it’s no longer shocking. So many mass shootings have made them commonplace. This means the next horrific act of violence can only exceed what came before, that it will be worse, something unthinkable, because it is outside the realm of lived experience. Ghosh submits to the fact that the future is completely unknowable and utterly inscrutable, yet he urges us to tell stories. To know our histories. To always historicize. He ends the essay with part of a poem by Michael Ondaatje titled, “The Story.”

With all the swerves of history

I cannot imagine your future. . . .

I no longer guess a future.

And do not know how we end

nor where.

Though I know a story about maps, for you

I read these lines over and over, comprehending them in all their wisdom, knowing so deeply their accuracy. At some point during the course of my time as a graduate student, I realized my infatuation with Ghosh’s work didn’t just come from sharing the same ethnicity as him or from pure admiration. It also stemmed from how different his beliefs were from my mother’s, how his argument was in such stark contrast to my mother’s obsession with knowing and controlling the future. How markedly different she was from him and him from her, despite their shared history.

My mother’s difference from Ghosh manifested in her travels to India to meet astrologers and holy men, such as the trip we took right before our summer of The Night Stalker. My mother was riveted by the idea that she could predict everything through various metaphysical and spiritual avenues.  You see, Ghosh’s submission to history and the future was something my mother couldn’t stand for. She charged towards the future like a child, unknowing but filled with determination.

I was not much different from her in this respect. My love for Ghosh’s essay might have come from a desire to be like him, to submit like him, but it is also precisely because I couldn’t.

 

***

 

On August 31, 1985, Ramirez was captured in East LA. He was identified by a group of residents who beat him senselessly (or with all the sense in the world). They were screaming, “El Maton!  El Maton!” The cops had to rescue him.

In the end, the Night Stalker was just a man who could get beaten up by a crowd. He was human.

The entire city breathed a sigh of relief, but the aftershocks of his presence remained. My mother and I would always check the locks of our sliding doors, over and over throughout each night. We would always leave a light on. Always the burgundy phone would be just within my mother’s reach. She installed a security system in our home.

Ramirez’s effect on me wasn’t just the nightly regime of safety precautions or an introduction to insomnia. What the Night Stalker really did was teach me to pray. And I did, every night, as I lay down to sleep.

I didn’t pray for my soul. I was way more specific than that.

Dear God, please don’t let anyone come and kill us. Dear God, please don’t let anyone rape or rob us. Dear God, please don’t let there be a fire in our house. Dear God, let Dida [1]be safe. Dear God, please don’t let there be a flood or mudslide. Dear God, please don’t let there be an earthquake.

I enumerated every possible terrible thing I could think of and asked for it not to happen. I laid out every fear in hopes that if I imagined it in the form of prayer, I could prevent it. Of course, my preoccupation with the future wasn’t something Ramirez gave me. He may have given me prayer and an awareness of my isolated existence, but it was my mother who taught me to try and control the future, to try and predict it, all the while knowing it was impossible.

 

***

 

I still try to imagine every horrible thing that could happen in hopes that imagining it will prevent it. I count things as if it will predict good luck. I cannot shake the compulsion to try and prevent the horrific possibilities the future holds—the death of a loved one, my husband or dog, a friend or even myself. When my husband leaves for work in the morning, when he goes outside to walk our dogs or shovel the sidewalk, I say the same words each time, “Please be safe.” I say them as if they are a safety mechanism, something that will ensure that he, my only remaining family, will be exactly what I ask him to be—safe. That I will not become a widow, like my mother. Still, every month, I pull out Incendiary Circumstances, gently removing it from my bookshelf, careful not to tear a page or break its spine. I turn to “The Greatest Sorrow” and read. A monthly prayer. I linger with Ghosh’s words, trying to take them all in, tracing each sentence with my finger, underlining them with my pencil, pausing at every word. I absorb them but they do not hold.

[1] Bengali for mother’s mother.

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RANI NEUTILLis a former academic whose writing has appeared in Salon and The New York Times Book Review. She is working on a transnational memoir about fractured identity and falling in and out of love with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother. She is a student in the Memoir Incubator at Grub St. in Boston.

8 responses to “Richard Ramirez Taught Me to Pray”

  1. Joelle Renstrom says:

    What a wonderful essay! We all react so differently to what we can’t control (namely, the future) and I love seeing how outside influences affected the author and her mother’s reckoning with those forces. Descriptive, urgent writing, thoughtfully braided. Well done!

  2. Seema Reza says:

    This is so beautiful.

  3. Farida Reza says:

    Extremely well-written. Looking forward to a book or perhaps memoirs from Rani. Such a gifted writer.

  4. Karen Tiefenwerth says:

    This was riveting! I do hope there’s a memoir coming. The environment of fear is now part of our oxygen and you portray both a mother who was predisposed toward fear, and a cherished writer who had figured out a different perspective. Fighting against crippling fear is one of the bravest of human endeavors.

  5. gillian whittle says:

    This is wonderful. These feelings that we all know, so beautifully articulated.

  6. Carolyn Hunt says:

    The writer’s observations about fear- of loss, of the future, of forces we cannot know or control- are timely and timeless. My heart aches for the brave little girl, alone with her mother. She is all of us.

    She’s all grown up now and has a lot more to teach us. I hope she will.

  7. Rani says:

    thank you all for your lovely kind words, and for taking the time to read mine.

  8. Julie Melton says:

    This has amazing insight and resonance for others It made me think about my only analogous, though not similar, childhood fear when I was 9. I thought my father might go to jail during the McCarthy period. He had joined and then quit the CP during the 30s and talked openly with the congressional committee about his experience(why he quit!) , but refused to give the names of other people. He could have been cited for contempt of congress, but they backed down when confronted with courage.

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