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(Parts one and two)

The young man who robbed me was 24 years old. When he was arrested, his arms were both covered with needle-tracks. He was addicted to injectable cocaine. The police officer who had asked me in the very beginning if I thought he was on drugs at the time of the robbery believed I was probably mistaken when I said no.

The officer said that if the burglar had not been on drugs at the time, he would — in all likelihood — have been much more desperate and my life would have been in much greater danger.

After a thorough investigation, the police determined that this young man was responsible for up to 300 break-and-enters over the preceding year. It was pretty much a full-time job for him.

His method of operation was, apparently, much the same in each robbery. He would knock on a door — it was pretty easy at our house as the outside door did not lock and it opened into a little porch where the inside locked door was not visible from the sidewalk — and if he didn’t get a response, he would find a way in. (If he did get a response, he would name someone he was looking for and would be most apologetic when told that there was no one there of that name.)

I had been feeling guilty about that key which we always left on top of the electric box in that little front porch. The police officer told me it wasn’t a good thing to do and we should stop doing it but he assured me that the burglar would have got into the house anyway. If the key hadn’t been there, he would have broken in.

Once in, he would — presumably on his own — locate the garbage bags and then methodically rob the house. When he had everything he wanted — this always amazes me — he would call a taxi and leave with the garbage bag over his shoulder.

Leaving our house, he didn’t call a taxi but he walked up the street and caught a cab at the taxi-stand on the corner. When I try to picture this whole scene, I can imagine that he didn’t look out of place: there’s a laundromat in the next block from our place and it was not unusual to see young people walking along Clyde St. with a full garbage bag slung over a shoulder.

In all those 300 break-and-enters, I was the only person he ever encountered.

I sometimes wonder how he felt, upstairs in our house, when he heard the front door open that day. After all, I could have been anyone: a bunch of big guys, a parent with a gaggle of hungry kids, a housekeeping service. Surely he spent a few anxious minutes until he discerned — with relief, no doubt — that it was a lone female.

From the police point of view, this was a very significant arrest — 300 break-and-enters solved in one fell swoop. I was very important to them and they were careful to keep me in the loop. I can’t remember now whether I actually talked to anyone in the Crown Prosecutor’s office but I had sessions with the police going over the evidence and the testimony that I would give as the Crown’s only witness.

I didn’t look forward to it but it seemed inevitable.

The details of what happened in the next few weeks are now lost to me but eventually, I phoned someone — the police or the Crown Prosecutor’s office — and asked what was happening. I was dealt with quite impersonally and summarily and I was told that there would be no trial, that the burglar had pled guilty to seven counts of break-and-enter, one count of armed robbery and one count of forcible confinement. The person I spoke to didn’t know any more than that.

Somewhere, in my completely disorganized files, there’s a small newspaper clipping that appeared a few weeks after that conversation. It was under “Court briefs” and it described — briefly — the robbery and the guilty plea. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

It was the first time I had ever seen his name.

(There’s still more to come.)

Part 4

(Continued from here)

The details of the actual robbery are as clear in my mind as if I had been invisible and watching it all from an observational perch. This is probably because I told the story often in the first few days after it happened but also because I think some kind of specialized scrutinizing function had been activated in my brain.

I remember thinking, tied up in the bathroom, “If I survive this, I will have to describe very carefully exactly what happened.”

But the events that followed are not nearly as clear and as well-organized in my mind. I remember and can recount mostly everything that happened but it might not be in the right order.

The police and Dan arrived very quickly after they’d been called. The media (following their trusty police scanners) arrived also — a couple of reporters, at least one TV camera — but I declined to see them.

The officer who was in charge sat with me at the table and asked me to tell him what had happened. He was polite and respectful. He stopped me from time to time and interjected a question. He asked me to go back over some details that I’d already covered. He remarked that I was very calm.

He asked me to describe the burglar — and then later, asked me again, rephrasing his question.

Later that same day, another officer asked me many of the same questions and they also asked me to write an account of what had happened.

It was clear to me that they were trying to see if my details would be consistent and to rule out the possibility that I was involved in the crime or that I knew the burglar. I was not offended by this and I quite understood why they were doing it.

When they felt reassured that I was not a partner in the crime, their attitudes noticeably changed and the senior officer — the one who had questioned me first — thanked me for my co-operation.

He asked me if I had the impression that the burglar was on drugs. I told him I didn’t think so.

After the police left, we looked around the house. I probably wasn’t thinking this way then but later, I thought: this is what I would have found if I’d lunched out that day and arrived home at suppertime.

The china cabinet was as I’d last seen it — all the doors and the drawer open, the silver gone. The stereo equipment was gone. The desk drawers and the drawers of a small antique washstand in the front hall were open and ransacked, their contents spilled out on to the floor.

Upstairs, it was more of the same. Both our jewellery boxes were gone. Dan’s had contained cufflinks, tie pins and clips. He also lost a valuable ring set with an emerald. Mine held mostly costume jewellery but my late mother’s engagement and wedding rings were in there as well as a couple of other pieces that I’d inherited and that were of strong sentimental value.

Dan had cancelled all the credit cards while I was with the police. After we checked everything out, we called a locksmith — as far as we knew, the burglar had taken our key with him. And then we started making lists with descriptions and approximate value of everything that was gone.

I had never been a brave or adventurous person but I had always enjoyed my own company. For a long time after the robbery, however, I was not able to stay in the house alone. I will never be able to repay the friends and family members who came to stay with me — day after day — and often watch as I did nothing but pace the floor.

I was afraid. I soon realized that my fear was not focussed on the burglary — or even on the burglar — but had branched out into many other areas of my life. I was afraid of random men on the streets, in the supermarket, in the movie theatre. I was now irrationally afraid of getting cancer; I was afraid of fire or of the propane tanks exploding; I was afraid of driving if even one snowflake had fallen. I couldn’t sleep, of course.

I was referred to a psychologist and I went to see her once a week. I talked a lot there and I’m sure it helped but I’m also sure that the passage of time — a lot of time — is what really helped me regain some trust in the people out there.

Within the next couple of months, the police called me and asked if I’d come down to the station and help them out. They took me into a small room which had counters around three sides. Spread out on the counters was what I can only call the detritus of a great number of break-and-enters.

I found it indescribably sad. There were earrings and necklaces, watches and bracelets, drivers’ licences, library, health, membership and other cards of the kind that populate most wallets. There were even letters and small documents. The officers told me that they thought they knew who had robbed me and they had staked out the place where he was staying on garbage night — and they’d confiscated his garbage bags. Nothing there was mine. Mine would have been long gone in an earlier garbage pick-up.

Not long after this, the police called again and asked if they could meet me at my office. There was another development. There were two officers. I could see they were very excited. They had brought head-and-shoulder photos of a dozen people, based on my description.

They asked me to sit at my desk and said they would lay the photos before me, one at a time. They said I shouldn’t say anything until all the pictures were in place. When they laid the last one down, they stood back and said, “Is he there?”

I pointed to him and they could barely contain themselves. They asked if I were sure, and I was.

They arrested him shortly after that. While they were questioning him, they asked, “What happened on Clyde St.?” They told me he put his head down into his hands and said, “Oh God, I never should have done that to that lady.”

(More to come … soon, I promise.)

Part 3

On January 9, 1989, I walked home for lunch in downtown Halifax. It was unusual for me to go home for lunch. I was a magazine editor and there were always lots of people (writers!) who wanted to have lunch with me. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I had eaten out that day.

I unlocked the front door, went in and tossed my coat on the couch. I was immediately struck by the fact that I was not greeted by three cats. They had their own door/tunnel leading from the first floor bathroom window out to the deck but none of them liked the cold — and it was a cold day.

I went into the dining room and saw the doors to the china cabinet were standing open and my mother’s silver flatwear had been placed in my own suitcase, which was open on the floor.

While I stood trying to register what this meant, I heard someone coming down the stairs. I knew immediately that there was a burglar in the house. I stood still — there was nowhere I could go. I had always heard that people who did break-and-enters didn’t want to confront anyone and I imagined that he would rush down the stairs and straight out the front door, happy to be out of there.

But he came around the corner to where I was standing and he had a knife in his hand. He laid the knife against the side of my face and said, “Don’t try anything and you won’t get hurt.”

He went through my purse — there was a reasonable amount of cash in there which was unusual but probably a good thing — and while he was occupied, I was memorizing his appearance without appearing to be doing so. I was very calm. I asked him how he got in. He said, “I found the key you left on top of the electric box.”

He took my wedding ring off my finger. It was quite a spectacular ring — a wide, gold, open-work band with five small diamonds — that had been made especially for me.

He then grabbed a straw basket that I’d brought from Spain and cut the rope handles off. He tied my hands behind my back, wrapped the scarf I’d been wearing around my mouth and led me into the bathroom.

He sat me down on the john and tied my hands to the large pipe that runs vertically behind a toilet. He went out and closed the door.

He came back in about a minute. He’d left his knife on the sink, just inches from my face. I was now able to give an excellent description of both him and his weapon. He grabbed it, said, “I forgot this,” and went out again.

I sat there quietly and listened to him continue to rob the house, all around me. The detail that makes me smile in the telling of all this is that while I was sitting there, FurFace, the middle cat, the friendliest and most loving cat, came in through the kitty door and expressed delight at seeing me. She jumped up on my lap and settled in and began to purr happily. She seemed not to mind — or to notice — that my hands were tied behind my back.

The burglar came back and asked me through the door where he would find the garbage bags. I told him they were in the drawer nearest to the stove; he said, “thanks.”

He returned once more to tell me he was leaving and told me not to scream. I had no intention of screaming.

I sat there quietly for awhile. I was afraid it might be a trick, that maybe he was really standing outside the door, waiting to see what I would do. I guessed it was now about 1:30 p.m. and I wasn’t expecting Dan, my husband, to be home until mid-evening as he had an after-work meeting. I thought FurFace and I might be in for a long afternoon.

Eventually, I began to work away at the ropes behind me. I managed to get out of the one that was tied to the pipe and I dumped FurFace and got up. (It’s an unimportant detail but I looked at myself in the mirror and I was the colour of chalk. I had never seen a face that colour and I wondered what my blood pressure was.)

I went out into the hall and saw the front doors wide open onto the sidewalk. I went around to the back where our tenants’ entrance was and I kicked on the door. They were shocked when I told them what had happened — they had been there the whole time. At one point, one of them had said, hearing unusual noises upstairs, “Those cats are very active today!”

They cut the rope and freed my hands. They called the police and I called Dan and we sat and waited.

(To be continued …)

Part 2

Back when second-wave feminism was a new and exciting movement, we used the word “patriarchy” unabashedly, not at all self-conscious about naming the structures that were deliberately designed and kept in place always to the advantage of one segment of society. “It’s a man’s world” was no joke and it was the premise we had all grown up with.

It came with another word: entitlement. Entitlement was so deeply embedded that to even suggest — never mind demand — changes that would bring those outside the advantaged group some measure of equality was met with fearful hostility.

It was as if some people gaining a few rights meant that others had to lose some — as if there were only so many rights to go around.

There has been a backlash against some of the strong language we used as feminists in the ’70s. Nowadays, patriarchy is mostly used — condescendingly — in speaking of Afghanistan or other cultures that we need to demonise and look down on.

But in our own society, patriarchy hasn’t gone anywhere. Physical and sexual violence against women and children — up to and including murder — continues unabated. Popular culture is rife with images and stories that exploit the sexuality of young people. Planeloads of North American and European men still fly off to Southeast Asia where they have made specific arrangments to have sex with children — children as young as six.

Catholic priests live in the heart of the patriarchy. Why would it be shocking to anyone that they too are swept along in the privileged belief that adult males are entitled to act out their sexual urges no matter the hurt and broken lives they leave in their wake?

Of course it is a horrible betrayal of trust to be raped by your priest — as it is to be raped by your father, your stepfather, uncle, brother, Boy Scout leader, hockey coach. Yes, some are worse than others although comparing betrayals doesn’t seem wise to me. But this rampant abuse is all rooted in the same place and it has shaped the society we live in.

Men no longer “own” women and children but in large swaths of the world — and in too many religions — men still seek to control the minds and bodies of women and children, both those they know and those they don’t know.

During my reading on this subject, I came across a website called Male Survivor. It’s the kind of website I usually avoid because I expect it to be heavy on men’s rights and feminist bashing. But this website has neither. Instead, it pays tribute to the feminist movement and urges those who are working on child abuse issues to take a lesson from rape crisis centres and other feminist organizations.

For years, professionals grappled unsuccessfully with how to understand and prevent the physical battering of a woman by her husband or partner. The standard question asked by the professional focused on the (female) victim: “Why doesn’t she leave?” That question was based on numerous theoretical models and treatment interventions designed to resolve the problems of battering by treating the “victim’s pathology.” However, advocates of battered women, many of whom had been physically assaulted themselves, eventually confronted the professional establishment and posed an important re-framing of the question. Quite simply, by shifting the focus from the victim to the (male) perpetrator, the primary question then became: “Why does he hit?”

It goes on to say, ” the abuse of children cannot be adequately addressed without acknowledging the fundamental political and social dimensions that govern our society. Existing social norms create a climate that fosters physical and sexual abuse of children.”

To suggest that priestly celibacy is the problem implies that child sexual abuse doesn’t exist in all other segments of society — most notably in families.

The problem is patriarchy and its upholding of the social norms of adult male entitlement and the often not-very-subtle subjugation of women and children.

I recommend much of the material in Male Survivor. I also recommend this column, written by my friend, Ralph Surette.

There is an episode of Seinfeld (yes, I am a Seinfeld trivia expert) in which Kramer, signing up for an AIDS walk, refuses to wear the AIDS ribbon.

Ribbons have become such a cliché. Maybe they were a cliché from the beginning, starting with Tony Orlando and Dawn and Tie A Yellow Ribbon

I’m with Kramer. I won’t wear a ribbon — not yellow (support the troops); not white/purple (against violence against women); not white (against pornography); not red (against AIDS); not rainbow (support gay rights) — not any of the 77 official colours that represent (mostly) every disease you can think of and quite a few causes as well.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast Cancer’s colour is pink. I don’t wear that one either.

I have never been comfortable with all the pink — ribbons, teddy bears, jewellery — surrounding breast cancer, second only to lung cancer as a cause of cancer deaths in women. I find it way too cutesy for my taste.

I was also not the first person to feel a little put off when I discovered that Breast Cancer Awareness Month was started by a drug company that sells breast cancer drugs and the pink ribbon was originated by Estée Lauder cosmetics. It has turned into a huge marketing ploy and has successfully shifted the emphasis away from discovering the cause of breast cancer to — purportedly — looking for a cure.

I appreciated this article on the subject and noticed immediately when I opened it that all the Google ads that were generated were for breast-cancer-related pink stuff — to buy. And there was a “Breast Cancer Store” too!

I hasten to add that I am all in favour of people gathering together in support of one another in whatever kind of group and activity that works for them. It’s also important, however, to understand that great profits are being made from the pink campaign by companies which would stand to lose a lot if more resources were poured into looking for the cause rather than the cure for breast cancer — and all the other cancers.

Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc., has been well-reviewed. This Maclean’s interview with her offers a lot of insight into her book and her views on this subject and should give everyone something to think about.

On the eve of her 80th birthday, the late Doris Anderson was interviewed by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers. “You don’t look eighty!” said Shelagh, predictably. And Doris, not heeding my fervent wish, replied, in that incomparable voice, “Shelagh, I don’t feel eighty.”

Why would such a small thing bother me so much? First of all, because it doesn’t make sense.

It was feminist Gloria Steinem who, on being told she didn’t look 50, famously proclaimed, “This is what fifty looks like.” With a slight variation, this could have been Doris’ answer also: This is what 80 looks like.

As for “feeling eighty” — anyone who becomes 80 has never been 80 before so it’s safe to say she/he has no idea what being 80 feels like.

It just irritates me, okay? What Shelagh is saying is, “Doris, you don’t look like what I thought eighty would look like.” Doris could have said, “Shelagh, I didn’t know eighty would feel like this.”

I can remember my late father, closer to 80 than 70, snapping at the 50-year-old driver in the car ahead who doesn’t move fast enough when the light changes, “Come on, old fellow, it’s not going to get any greener.”

In all these cases, it’s perception that’s being discussed.

I can be guilty of this as well. A few days ago, I read a short item about James Gandolfini, better known as Tony Soprano. In passing, it noted that Gandolfini’s idol, the person in his profession that he looks up to, is John Travolta.

My response to this was, what???

Gandolfini seems like the kind of guy who’s always been 48 — which he is. And Travolta … well, John Travolta will, on some level, always be Vinnie Barbarino. (He’s 55 going on 20.)

Age is arbitrary. It matters to some people; it doesn’t matter to others. Some people will always be young, others are born old. For some reason, people are supposed to be proud if they’re young, embarrassed if they’re old.

I rage against people who think this way. I am ambitious and energetic. I’m always thinking of my next big project; I’m still the kind of person who finishes something and thinks, “That’ll look good on my résumé.”

Someone had the nerve to ask me recently, “Don’t you hate aging?” I said, “I’d rather be aging than dead” — not original but satisfying.

Mostly, I look back and enjoy all I’ve been in my life and I look ahead in anticipation of all I’m yet to be — and yes, I’m a lot better at so much of it now than I was then.

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