National Post

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Saturday, October 23, 1999

Taking a walk on the wild side
Or whether or not we should fear being afraid
Christie Blatchford
National Post

So here's the thing. Twice in recent months I have read of women who have been so unnerved by their experiences with men, either past or anticipated, that they have significantly changed their lives to make room for the fear.

One was written in the midst of the hunt for a serial sexual predator in Toronto by my twentysomething National Post colleague, Rebecca Eckler, a splendid young woman who is gorgeous, funny and smart; the other came last week, in The Globe and Mail, by Elizabeth Nickson, who seems from her picture equally gorgeous and by references in the piece somewhat older, perhaps in her 30s, and who appears to have been prompted by her acquiring of the latest in a series of stalkers.

As I remember Rebecca's piece, it centred on the way she lived, not just as a result of the then-in-the-news predator, but also more generally; she detailed the precautions she routinely takes in order to protect herself. What I really remember is the jumpiness that fairly leapt off the page. When I read it, and I Iive in the same part of downtown as Rebecca, I was struck by how differently we move about the same streets on which we occasionally meet.

Ms. Nickson's column was specific to the effects of a quarter-century of being stalked, how she doesn't wear short skirts or drive the fast cars she loves (so as not to draw attention to herself) and starts at the sound of her jangling (unlisted) phone and is as apt as not to react with alarm to unannounced visitors. Fundamentally, Ms. Nickson said, the fact of stalkers speaks to a loss of civility, a disconnect she said, which "unaddressed makes our streets unsafe and half our population live in a simmering semi-conscious fear of the other. Is that okay with you?"

Hell no, it wouldn't be, but as part of the half which purportedly lives in a perpetual cringe, I don't buy the starting premise.

Ms. Nickson said she adores men, her heart gone early and permanently to the male sex by dint of having two wonderful brothers; Rebecca I know from a week we spent on assignment together in Calgary last summer likes them -- and they, I can vouch from having seen their little faces light up upon her arrival anywhere, like her back.

So what gives? Are they missing the boat or am I? I don't know the answer, but the question reminds me of the discussions I used to have years ago with other women about the merits of employment equity. We don't need this sort of thing, I would say; we can do it on our own. Nonsense, my colleagues would reply: Not everyone is like you; not everyone has been so lucky.

There was a measure of truth in what they said, in that early on in my newspapering career, I was blessed to arrive, a sports-loving girl writer, at a time when every newspaper in North America wanted a girly byline in their sports pages and when the managing editor of The Globe and Mail, Clark Davey, was a lovely guy who gave me the nod at a big-time column.

I, in other words, was the happy recipient of an unformed, unnamed little affirmative action plan; I had a mentor before the wretched word grew up to become a verb.

But there was truth in my argument, too, in that I didn't know (and still don't) of a single worthy woman who had been held back in my business because of her sex, and reasonably could have argued that hitting the glass ceiling was a euphemism for what happens when you swing from the proverbial chandelier at the office Christmas party.

So had I, have I, I wondered, merely been similarly lucky in my dealings with men?

Maybe yes. I am not and never have been a looker like Rebecca or Ms. Nickson, perhaps my swimmer's shoulders, combined with a tragic lack of waist and a head the size of a melon, have combined to save me the excesses of poor male behaviour all these years. Perhaps my natural aggressiveness, exemplified in the way I walk (at the pace of a race-walker, though without the hip rolling, for I am Protestant and we do not acknowledge that there are hips) and drive (fast and furious) and talk (ditto, but with profanity), make it clear I'm no easy target for rapists, stalkers, louts et al.

But maybe no. My appearance, while occasionally alarming, has yet to outright frighten small children. I've had a pair of husbands and enough boyfriends. Kind-hearted (albeit visually impaired) men have whistled at me, or enough in my general direction that I can fool myself that they have.

Yet only twice in my life have unwanted passes come my way (once, from a bull moose of a boy who chased me into the woods, the other, from an aged newspaper executive who, I believe now, must have mistaken me for someone else, and who grabbed my ass in the newsroom and upon whom I extracted a vicious revenge by writing about it, twice now if you count this). Otherwise, I can't think of a time when a man I know has abused me (physically, verbally or emotionally) or treated me badly; nor has a stranger ever inflicted anything of the sort upon me. I have had not a single stalker, even when, at my former newspaper, they were so all the rage that two women of my acquaintance were driven to invent them.

And though I have once in a great while been frightened in my own city, it has never been because I'm a woman, because of something I was wearing or doing, but rather because I was afraid I might be recognized as a reporter and targeted because of something I had written. When I see men on the street, I assume not only that they mean me no harm, but also that, given the required degree of either myopia or beneficence, they might well want to join me in a bourbon. It's worked out pretty decently, too.

Bottom line? Women should not go gentle into that good night, but whatever else, they should at least go.

Copyright Southam Inc.