Single Dads and TerroristsBy Sharon Harrigan
February 13, 2015
Before the Boston Marathon bombers were identified, my friend Genevieve said a prayer: “Please don’t let them be Muslims.” She is married to a Muslim man from Morocco. When they lived in America shortly after the World Trade Center bombing in 2001, he was routinely pulled aside by security officers because he “looked like a terrorist.” Now they live in Paris, and they hope that the recent shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo won’t cause another wave of anti-Muslim hysteria.
I hope so, too. But I know how easy it is to imagine the worst in people, once the idea that they’re dangerous is planted in our heads. It can happen to any of us. It happened to me.
A couple weeks ago, my eleven-year-old daughter Ella climbed into our minivan, and I started driving to her friend A’s house. “Thank you for being so cool,” Ella said. “Most parents wouldn’t let their kids spend the night with a family they’ve never met.”
Her kudos backfired. I almost turned the car around. Told I was doing something outside the norm, I asked myself, why would other parents be suspicious of a sixth-grade sleepover? Would they be afraid they were handing their daughter over to a drug dealer or sexual predator? Should I be afraid, too?
A’s father, F, had called a few days earlier. I had thought nothing of it at the time. Now I started to wonder how he got our number, since Ella said A never asked for it. Suddenly I was on the alert.
I found the house, set back from the street and half sunken underground. (What was he trying to hide?) I couldn’t see the number, so asked a boy wandering across the lawn, “Is this A’s house?” He just nodded. (Why was he afraid to talk?) A large scuffy man in rumpled pyjama pants lunged towards us. (Was this A’s father?) “Don’t worry,” F said, pointing to his t-shirt. “I’m not a Hokies fan.” (Why did he think I would worry? Should I?)
He led us across his deck, cluttered with a motorcycle and overflowing bins of trash. We walked on the stained carpet of his living room, and he apologized for the mess, saying, “I’m a single dad.” (Why did he withhold that information on the phone?) Inside, invisible dogs barked, presumably somewhere in a cage. (What else did he do with that cage?) F introduced us to a man and woman at his kitchen table, explaining, “I’m a hairdresser,” (That’s the best lie he could come up with? I would have guessed a truck driver.) The ponytailed mountain man nodding his head in greeting had surely not been intimate with a pair of scissors in years. The thirty-something woman who lowered her scalp to show a few graying roots seemed too eager to prove she had legitimate business here.
My phone rang. With our son out of town, my husband and I had decided to take advantage of the sleepover and see a movie. “Meet you in ten minutes?” James said.
I kissed Ella good-bye, then called James in the car. “I don’t know if we should leave her there all night. We can’t be sure she’s safe.” I could hear the shrill in my voice. I didn’t care. This was our daughter.
“She’s fine,” he said. “She does this all the time.”
I listed all the evidence I’d gathered against F. The cramped house, his unkempt clothes, the caged animals, missing mom, the “customers” in his kitchen. (“Believe me,” I said, “they weren’t really there for hair.”). All arbitrary, really. If we look for it, we can probably find evidence against anybody. I am no domestic goddess. I work at home, and like F, was a single parent once, too. James could have pointed out my hypocrisy. Instead, he just said, “I’ll call Ella and ask to talk privately. I’ll tell her if she’s uncomfortable, we’ll take her home, even at three in the morning.”
“What’d she say?” I asked when he called me back.
“She’s fine. I could almost hear her rolling her eyes on the phone.”
At the movies, I squirmed. “You sure she’s OK?”
In the dark, I could almost see James roll his eyes, too.
As I write this, I’m rolling my eyes at myself. Normally, I take pride in avoiding the hive mind. I let my son walk to the school bus long before many parents allowed their children to cross the street by themselves. Ella has stayed home, occasionally, by herself, as early as age nine, even at night. She walks the dog in the dark and rides her bike to her friends’ houses. When we lived in Paris, she bought our bread, negotiating busy streets and brusque shopkeepers on her own.
But the night of the sleepover, I wasn’t my normal self. I wasn’t thinking.
Or maybe I was thinking, too fast. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that most of us use “fast” thinking most of the time, responding in instinctive and emotional ways that are often irrational. Fast thinking comes easily and often relies on stereotypes (all hairdressers are well groomed; all scruffy men must be truck drivers) and assumptions (such as messiness is the opposite of godliness). By contrast, “slow” thinking is deliberate and logical.
When we allow ourselves time to analyze a situation, we might see, for example, that the hairdresser/client relationship is based on long-standing loyalty, and people who know each other well may dispense with the formality of dressing and cleaning up. We might notice, too, the tone of voice a father uses with his daughter: gentle, affectionate, and sweet. We might decide the way F smiles at A’s delight when Ella arrives is evidence that the night will pass well.
Which it did.
The morning after the sleepover, Ella said, “It was awesome. You worry too much.”
She forgot her toiletry bag, so James texted F to ask if we could pick it up. “We’re leaving for church,” he texted back.
“And you doubted him,” James said to me. I gave a sheepish nod. He shot me an I-told-you-so look.
“Although . . .” he started. “Just because someone goes to church doesn’t mean he’s above suspicion.”
“People used to think so,” I said. “Before all those sex scandals with priests.”
Maybe “church equals safety” is an example of fast thinking, too. Maybe that’s not so different from “motorcycle-driving, messy housekeeping, dog-crating, pajama pants-wearing single dad equals danger.” Or, more to the point these days: “Muslim equals terrorist.”
I close my eyes and drop my head. Please don’t let Parisians think too fast. On the other side of the world, across the ocean from me, I can almost hear my friend Genevieve saying the same prayer.
The imagination of a writer is a double-edged sword. We can find a narrative in near everyone and in everything around us. Plane. Death from above. Neighbor. Potential serial killer. Potential drug dealer. With a meth lab in his basement. With some connection to Waynesboro.
Granted, events can shape this and make our minds grasp for the worst possible scenario.
For example, last March, someone who used to live in my house (15 years ago) called a national suicide hotline and said they were armed with a pistol and shotgun, locked in my downstairs bathroom, and were going to commit suicide. They gave my address.
I work from home (thankfully not that day) and have two small children.
The police showed up at my house and surrounded it with automatic weapons and tried to bust in. My dog went ape shit which woke up one of my neighbors who works third shift and, because of him, the police stopped trying to kick down my door.
(They asked my neighbor if he knew such and such who called and he said, “They moved to Kentucky 15 years ago.” Which is where they ended up, after the fact, tracing the suicide hotline call from.)
If the police had gotten in, they probably would have shot and killed my dog because she would have attacked them. And what if I had been home? What if my kids had been home, one peeking through the downstairs window with the police engaged on my house, assuming that some armed, suicidal person was there? What if they thought my son’s tiny one year old fingers threw the miniblinds was a gun being poked out at them, taking aim? What if my wife had been home and answered the door?
Do I live in New York City or Los Angeles? No. I live in your backyard, Charlottesville.
What if this suicidal woman does this again — gives the address of my house, a house she hasn’t lived in in over 15 years, and the same thing happens with the Albemarle County police? I think about this all the time and it sends my stomach upside down.
Sounds crazy, right? Because it is. But it’s also true, which is why I have a saved voicemail about the entire incident on my phone from the police sergeant. So, my mind thinks about this sometimes and I get paranoid about it even though I’m not a paranoid person. Because the event shaped me. Like 9/11 shaped people to be suspicious. Like the brain shapes our thoughts when we see a single dad and a sleepover and think the worst because we see it on the news or on the front-page of MSN. Because it does happen. Somewhere. To someone. The same way, my brother-in-law’s family was murdered by some mentally insane nut job in Appomattox a few years ago.
When really the most diabolical aspect of these people and situations shouldn’t be anymore than, “Don’t worry, I’m not a Hokies fan,” uttered while in Hooville.
But it’s not. And it’s unfortunate.
Are we programmed to think this way or is there a legitimate reason to think this way?
Both most likely.
The good news is that, according to a TED talk I recently listened to, we are living in the least violent time in history.
Despite what the news says. What our brains say.
Hello from Charlottesville.
Oh gosh, Jeffrey, I only just saw this comment today! My apologies for not responding sooner. First of all–thanks for reading! Second–thanks for such a thoughtful response. Third–how cool that you live in Charlottesville, too!
I’m glad to hear that we live in historically not-dangerous times. It’s easy to get caught up in fear, anyway.
And what a horrible freakish thing to happen to you–having someone give your address to the police. Thank goodness all those horrible things that you predict might have happened if anyone was home, didn’t happen. Historically safe, maybe. Sometimes totally scary? Absolutely.
Hope to run into you at some local writerly event.