When I was 13 my cousin I were walking along the county highway that stood in for a town center in our little suburb outside of Philly. From a McDonald's to a 7-11, to a bowling alley, it had it all. In the McDonald's parking lot we saw a woman cornered in a phone booth by a large, angry man. A small crowd of twenty-somethings sat comfortably nearby on parking bumpers as if they were watching Shakespeare in the Park.
I don't remember my cousin and I saying anything to each other. I think we probably exchanged a glance, and agreed without words that it was just right to approach. For all of my father's faults, my parents were equals, and always taught me that just about the worst thing a man could be was abusive to a woman. My cousin was raised by a single mother, his father the victim of gun violence. One way or another we were both sympathetic.
I remember trying to stay very calm, and saying something banal like, "what's going on?," consciously slowing my breath and trying to seem emotionally detached. She insisted she was okay, but her face was panicked and frozen into a wide-eyed, grotesque grin straining against itself. He refused to make eye contact, staying fixed on her, and rarely talked directly to us, except to say, "she's fine." Several times he addressed us indirectly by threatening her: "See what you're making me do? Don't make me kick their asses!"
The thing I remember most clearly is telling him, "I don't think she wants you to do this." But that just seemed to make him grow angrier with her and more focused in his rage.
We looked to their friends seated nearby as if to say, "why aren't you doing anything about this." There were three other couples, and to a person they all laughed. One of the men casually said, "they do this all the time. They'll be fine."
But "they" weren't doing this. He was, and their friends were complicit. She was as alone as anyone can be. Between the abuser and the so-called friends, it was as if my cousin and I were being naive, and this is what grown-ups do. We knew that was bullshit, but we were kids. I can't imagine what it was like for her. The only people in the world who seemed to be on her side and to take the threats seriously were a couple of slacker kids in heavy metal t-shirts.
We stood there awhile not sure what to do, as she begged us to leave and assured us that it would be okay. Since we were in the McDonald's parking lot, we walked inside and told a woman at the counter what was happening just outside. We asked her to call the police. She assured us she'd keep an eye on the situation till the cops arrived. I don't remember looking at the phone booth again. The last thing I remember as we walked on down the road was the woman from McDonald's standing outside, keeping watch from a distance. She was our last link to the scene, like we passed the baton and had faith it would find its way to the finish.
We didn't have cell phones back then, and I was only 13, so I didn't know what else to do. What I do know is that a lot of people thought that was normal, even those closest to them.
I think we probably talked ourselves into believing that the police arrived and everything worked out, but in hindsight that's pretty doubtful. They may have arrived in time, but I no longer have any confidence they would have done or said the right things.
And I'm not sure things haven't changed much in a quarter century.
I'm lucky (I guess) that opportunities to stand up against abuse have been relatively few in my life. But in the end the most important probably came in my six years as a public school teacher, when the seeds of abuse were sprouting and seemingly innocuous: boys-will-be-boys bullshit; "innocent" teasing; negatively-charged, gendered language; and homophobia, the other side of misogyny's coin.
With the same dispassionate tone I would use in explaining the moods and tenses of Latin verbs, I'd question or correct the postures and language of students. I never made a lesson out of it, but I always took the time to let a student hear why he was wrong or how what he'd said was hurtful. And not because I was on a mission, or because I was better person than anyone else.
Somebody got to me early and taught to me to think of women as people and to think critically about my assumptions and those of my culture. Even so, it took me 37 years to shed a lot of inherited bullshit and fully embrace feminism.
I have a lot of hope that my sons will do better than I have.