This is a very long and very true story that may be triggering to some readers but I had to write it. I’ve been carrying it inside of me for a long time now. Thanks in advance for listening.
I was still relatively new and unsettled into my apartment in the fall of 2009. My roommate and I had moved in together in the spring but I had spent the entire summer in Tanzania. It was a sparse and almost like a bare asylum. There was no furniture, no television, and nothing of any real value because both my roommate and I were broke-as-a-joke as were most of my early 20-something peers. My laptop computer was a 7 year old Frankenstein machine on its last limbs. It was held together with duct tape and cardboard and was composed of many jerry-rigged mechanical modifications I made to keep it barely functioning until I could afford a replacement. One glance made it clear: the only person in the world who could operate this device was the person who slapped all of the sex, atheism, and politically liberal stickers all over it. There was nothing to take.
I came home from work one day and unlocked the door as normal. What I found inside told a different story entirely. One of the hallway closets had been absolutely upended onto the floor but nothing else seemed obviously disturbed. There were a number of unsettling elements to my room, however. My underwear drawer was cracked open by just half an inch but I clearly remembered slamming it tightly shut in my rush to get to work on time. My mattress was at a slightly different angle than I remembered it. Despite all of these observations and a dark gnawing at my gut, I chalked everything up to my pair of unruly mischievous cats. There was nothing to steal and no sign of forced entry so I decided that I had to have been letting my imagination get the best of me. The alternative intruder theory was, quite frankly, too terrifying for me to even consider for too long.
I didn’t really consider the fact that every single interaction I had with the building handy man had always signaled giant red flags. This man always seemed friendly but the way he complimented and always looked for an excuse to touch my body in some way always made me want to take a shower. It felt scuzzy and wrong but I felt obligated to be polite because he was the building handy man, after all. I didn’t want to piss off the person who did all of the repairs to my apartment but I never liked the fact that he had keys to every single unit. Our property manager was an old man who was in the late stages of cancer and it was clear that he positively adored and doted upon our handy man who spent long hours listening to his stories and making him sandwiches. It was out in the open that he got this job by going out of his way to be kind to the property manager. His post entitled him to free rent. Our landlord lived off site and had little-to-nothing to do with the actual operation of the building he owned. He didn’t even live in the same city.
What I didn’t know that afternoon and for more than a month after the incident was the fact that I wasn’t alone. Apparently there was a handful of other women in the building who had experienced the same thing. A number of male tenants were having problems with credit fraud. My little apartment building actually accounted for a spike in our neighborhood crime rate but I had no idea. As far as I knew, my strange findings were mine and mine alone. It was easy for me to assume that what I was seeing before my own eyes was all in my head.
I wasn’t so lucky the second time my apartment was entered.
It was 3 AM on December 25, 2009. Some of my Twitter followers reading this blog know about the proceedings of this night because I live tweeted some of what was happening. There have been live tweeted abortions and births but somewhere in the Twitter archives you can find my tale of being burglarized. Before I get into that part of the story, allow me to lay down some more exposition.
At roughly 7PM that night I was out front of my apartment in a cocktail dress bound for a Christmas Eve party at a friend’s house just a few blocks away from me. Standing in the entryway was the handyman smoking a cigarette on the front stoop. I always hated our run in’s because of how dirty they always made me feel even though I couldn’t ever actually articulate why. He would tell me repeatedly how beautiful I was and just how much he wanted to have a girlfriend who looked just like me. He pulled invisible pieces of lint off my sweaters and tried to brush hair out of my face. It was always inappropriate and I was always firm about my physical boundaries but I was always gentle and polite about it. It wasn’t like he was actively raping me, he was just offering up compliments and awkwardly trying to flirt, right? Can’t blame a guy for trying, right? I wouldn’t want to come off as bitchy to the only guy who could come by and fix one of the many problems my apartment always seemed to have despite an on-site employee dedicated to fixing things.
He was introspective so I thought that I could sneak by him with minimal conversation but as I descended the steps where he sat he reached out to touch me and initiated another unwelcome conversation. “The property manager just passed away,” he said, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be working here.” I offered him my condolences and commented that I was aware that he had been close to our manager. He remarked on my beautiful outfit and asked me where I was headed and I answered him without hesitation. “It’s just a party at a friend’s house but I can’t stay long because I have to be at work in the morning. I always work Christmas at the homeless shelter where my office is located.” Then he asked me for a hug. I told him that it would have to be a quick hug because I was in a hurry. I felt as though I owed him a hug in the wake of the death of our manager.
I scurried off to the party happy to be free of his clutches and didn’t give the encounter a second thought.
I got home no later than 10PM and hopped into my newly constructed bed by 11. My project for the weeks prior had been to construct my own bed and it had just been completed. There were still tools strewn all over my room. There was a large drill on the floor, a saw by my dresser, and a hammer on my nightstand along with nails and screws strewn about the place like decoration. My roommate was out of town with her family for the holiday and I was alone and naked in my bed.
I was roused from my sleep to the sound of a key in the door. In my sleepy haze I assumed it was my roommate coming home until my eyes suddenly opened wide. There was no way that it could be my roommate. I listened carefully; the key in the lock sounded unfamiliar with the nuances of the mechanism. It didn’t know the right way to jiggle the key the way either my roommate or I knew after lots of repetitive practice with its stickiness. Moreover, she was far away. All at once it felt as if my body temperature had dropped to freezing temperatures and I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, I was dripped with terror at what might be on the other side about to come inside. I kept trying to tell myself that this was all a dream, it wasn’t real, there was no one at the door, and I was imagining this sound. It would all go away if I could just wake up.
When the door did finally open I shut my eyes. They opened up to the silhouette of a man standing at the foot of my bed staring at me. I wish I were a better writer, I wish I could describe what the shock of this felt like. I wanted to cry or scream or do anything but I couldn’t. I turned my head away from the image still hoping I could just make it or myself disappear. It was very dark in my room but out of the corner of my eye I could see the digits of my alarm clock illuminate the hammer that was resting on my nightstand.
I reached my trembling arm out to it and the second that my fingers made contact with the wooden handle it felt as though a switch flipped in my brain and my stream of conscious thought came to an immediate halt. The point of view for my memory of the next few minutes changes from 1st person to 3rd. It was like watching myself take action rather than actually experiencing anything first hand.
I went to throw the hammer as hard as I could at the strange man looming at the edge of my bed watching me. I used to play softball and I even did some pitching. I felt confident I could hurl it right at his head but halfway into my throw I changed my mind. I did not know whether or not the man who broke into my apartment was armed but I knew that if I missed I would be arming him with the only weapon in my immediate reach. I held onto to the hammer with all of my might but my windup to the toss had been fierce and my body flew forward in the direction of my aim. I tumbled right at him and he jumped back.
A lot of people recommend Gavin Becker’s book, The Gift Of Fear, as the go to assault prevention bible. I have read this book and it’s got fantastic information in it but in this instance I was particularly aided by the works of FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood. Hazelwood is not the most progressive writer you’ll ever encounter but I always appreciated his take on rape and assault prevention tips for women. As a profiler, Hazelwood identified the different varieties of serial rapists and killers. He was one of the few voices that ever said out loud that there is very little advice you can actually offer to a victim when they are actually in the moment of an impending threat against their body because some perpetrators will more seriously harm or even kill you if you fight back and there are other kinds of perpetrators who will more seriously harm or even kill you if you don’t fight back and a victim only has a few seconds to make a guess as to what kind of a person they’re facing. Moreover, the victim is going to be in the middle of intense fear and panic that make rational thinking and analysis very difficult.
I hadn’t intended to lunge right at the strange man in my apartment. If anything, I wanted to remain as far away from him as possible but when he jumped away from me my brain made a decision: keep lunging and fighting with everything you have in you because this guy is relying on fear paralysis. I didn’t know what his intentions were but it was more than obvious that I was in very real fucking danger. It was like being overcome with an ancient Babylonian war goddess. I started yelling every crazy thing that came into my head. “MOTHERFUCKER! I will eat ALL OF YOUR EYEBALLS! Who THE FUCK ARE YOU! I’m going to make pasta WITH YOUR BLOOD AND INTESTINE!” I was 5’2, rabid, and naked with a hammer but nothing that I was going or saying was under my conscious control. I don’t know where it came from at all.
He stammered out a pathetic and desperate, “Don’t worry, I’m the police,” as turned to flee from me. I chased him out of my room, out of my apartment, and down the hallway until he turned the corner to run down the stairs. I double-backed into my apartment and grabbed a phone to call 911. Every window in my apartment has a direct view of either the two entrances to my building. As the phone rang I saw him jump into a car the was double parked right by the building entryway and I watched him speed off into the night.
When the dispatcher picked up, the first thing I did was wish her a merry Christmas before I gave her my account of what happened. I was eerily calm and rational for the whole call. I even remembered to mention that he claimed to be an officer of the law. I concluded the call and then immediately dialed my landlord and left a 3 minute enraged voicemail dictating that I did not give one fuck about the fact that it was 3AM on Christmas, he had better fucking come out to my apartment personally to change all of the locks. Then everything snapped back into 1st person again.
I made another call to my roommate who answered and I informed her with some fear in my voice about what happened. All of my fear returned. I started placing heavy objects in front of my door and kept wondering aloud why the police hadn’t arrived. That’s when I started tweeting. It just wanted to feel less alone in any way that I could. I am still grateful to the people who saw my tweets and responded with great care and concern. I received phone calls from people who were just willing to stay on the line with me for the 30 minutes it took for law enforcement to finally arrive.
One of the first things the attending officer asked me was whether or not the person who broke in was my handy man and he used his full name. I couldn’t see his face at all in the darkness but I had heard his voice and it was an unmistakable match for my handyman. This is when I heard for the first time that a large number of people in my building had been broken into and that it had been happening for months. This is when I heard, for the first time, that a single mother on my floor had come home on 3 separate occasions to find her apartment ransacked. This is when I heard for the first time that my landlord knew all of this had been happening and knew that every single finger pointed at the handy man.
I felt like throwing up but instead I joked with the officers. “I heard the key in the door and I knew it wasn’t Santa Claus because I have a chimney.” I even apologized for having them come all the way out to my house on Christmas.
When they left, I even made an attempt at trying to get a few hours of sleep before heading off to work at 9AM. I kept telling myself to remain calm and to “act normal” as if acting on any of my emotions in front of any witnesses would make me a weak and hysterical victim. I felt very strongly that it was my job to keep my shit together and not let any of this affect me. I wasn’t going to let it affect me. I was going to go to work, I was going to briefly attend a small kinky holiday party, and then I was going to appear as scheduled on the Sexploration With Monica show. If I did all of these things then everything would be OK.
I did go to work and I gave it 100%. I told people what had happened but I always made it a point to give a light-hearted account. I told people that he must have been coming to burglarize me and didn’t expect to find me home. I really genuinely wanted to believe that he intended no harm and that my presence alone was enough to spook him. Even as I said it, I knew it couldn’t be true. He knew from our conversation at 7PM that night that I was going to be home after attending a holiday cocktail party. He knew also that my roommate was not home. Finally, he knew that no one at all was going to be home on Christmas Day. If his intention had been purely about taking my Ikea cutlery and maybe some bath towels from my sparse and nearly empty apartment, then it would have been much more logical for him to wait all of 6 hours.
My landlord did come out personally to change my locks but it took until the day after Christmas to do so. I turned down offers from caring and considerate people to put me up for a few nights or to even come over and stay with me in my apartment until the locks were changed. My brain felt so incredibly warped by what had happened that the very idea of someone taking care of me made me feel even more like a helpless prey animal. I was committed to being as strong as steel. I was going to spend the night in my own apartment alone and I was going to force myself not to be afraid to do so. Showing any sign of weakness or dependency on anyone else made all of my anxieties come to life. I shelved all of my own emotions to make this just another one of life’s nuisances. It didn’t kill me, it didn’t maim me, it did not physically hurt me so I should be able to just pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep on going.
The handy man used a tenant protection law to remain in the building unless there was a formal state-supported eviction. Despite the numerous police reports and all of the obvious evidence that the only possible suspect for all of these crimes was the handy man nothing was pursued. When I called the police department to follow up on my report I was told that because I could not visually identify my perpetrator that all of the other evidence was circumstantial. The eviction process of the handy man was also hindered by a wrongful termination claim he had made. He alleged that he was being falsely accused of a crime with no hard evidence. The fact that the D.A. was not pursuing the case was an asset for him.
The worst thing about living in the same building as the man who broke into my apartment was the fact that I kept running into him in the worst places. I run into him in the elevator or the dark and gloomy garage and never out in the open or in the sunlight. The landlord finally offered him an off-the-record deal where he would receive $1000 to just move out and go away. After he left, there was a major lock change operation in the building because he never actually surrendered any of the keys. The landlord replaced everything except for the very expensive elevator key system. A month after the handyman moved out of the building there was another break in on the 1st floor and the landlord finally coughed up the money to replace the last remaining lock.
I did very well in my goal of remaining outwardly calm and “reasonable” about what happened. To date I haven’t had nightmares about what happened, I’m not paranoid about being broken into again, I don’t have any signs of trauma. What I do wake up in the middle of the night thinking about is just how willing I was to be quiet and not make a fuss about what happened. What did it get me? The man who broke into my apartment TWICE was never formally charged with a crime, the police didn’t feel any sense of obligation to follow up with me and I had to call them, my landlord didn’t feel it would be totally necessary to change the expensive locks, and he even paid the repeat perpetrator to go away. I received neither compensation or justice.
I could have pursued civil charges but those aren’t helpful with someone who deals strictly in cash without a paper trail. Maybe I could have even taken my landlord to court. Whenever I mention anything like that I am quickly reminded that “I wasn’t actually hurt,” and that “being litigious is about revenge.” I get the sense that I should be just be grateful that nothing really bad happened. I wish that I hadn’t been so committed to being “reasonable” about things. I wish that the warpath I started in my bedroom at 3AM on December 25, 2009 kept going in some way. I wish I had knocked on every single door in my building. I wish I had been adamant and insistent with my landlord about the locks. I wish I had screamed bloody murder at the district attorney.
Every time those thoughts entered my head I turned them down. I live in one of the most violent cities in America. I understand that the police department where I live is in over their head in unsolved murders, rapes, and violent assaults. A citizen who successfully fended off a perpetrator without any material or physical damage to show for it doesn’t make the priority list.
I’m not comfortable thinking I wasn’t hurt or that I should be grateful. I don’t want to live in a world where I should be grateful that a man with a key to my apartment only got as far as leering at me in my own bedroom at 3AM. I don’t want to live in a world where a man who does that is paid $1,000 dollars for his troubles. I don’t want to live in a world where the inconvenience and cost of changing an elevator lock comes before the people it shields. I don’t want to live in a world where being “reasonable” about something like this is the expected norm and not an exception. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to study and research ways to protect myself in my home. I already live in a world where I am expected to be tactical about walking 5 blocks to my corner store to buy a carton of milk.
Because of the body I was born with I am expected to be a soldier first and a person second. I don’t get to take time to stop and smell the roses because I have to be constantly scanning my environment for anything that makes me vulnerable. God forbid I want to listen to my music when I’m walking through my neighborhood or city because that would be “stupid” of me. I am told that I should always arm myself when I leave my house. I am told that I should study martial arts. I am told that I should always travel in a pack or with a body guard. On top of all of this, I’ll also get the request from random strangers on the street to smile for them.
I have received criticism for using the phrase “rape culture.” Let me put it this way: I have been involuntarily drafted to fight a war and the only way for me to completely dodge it would be to seal myself into an impenetrable fortress and never have contact with the world ever again. There are no borders I can cross and receive asylum, there is no option to declare myself a conscientious objector to this war. I’m not fucking grateful that the man who broke into my apartment did not rape or kill me. I’m angry that so many people see something like this as just something that can be expected as part of the natural order. I’m outraged by the racism and sexism behind a common rebuttal to my story that I should have expected that something like this would happen I “choose” to live in Oakland, CA.
Most of all I am angry that I will never again in my life feel 100% safe and secure inside of my own locked home inside of another locked building.