Victim and Valkyrie

March 28, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

New York -- WHEN the elevator door was finally opened it looked as though a bottle of cranberry juice had broken, on the walls, the floor, a scream of red. But it was blood. Blood where he slit her throat, blood where he broke her jaw, blood where he knocked out her front teeth.

It was only after he had done all that that he told her to take off her clothes.

He's still out there somewhere, the man who brutally beat a 23-year-old woman visiting New York from Eastern Europe, a woman who had come to live for a year with her sister, an actress, to study English.

He is tall, perhaps 6 feet 2 inches, a black man with high cheekbones, a widow's peak and almond eyes. He was very smooth when he entered the building in upper Manhattan not far from the field where the Columbia team plays football. He made small talk in the lobby, pleasant and unthreatening, so she got into the elevator with him.

And then.

A neighbor caught a glimpse of the man as he was fleeing; from that and from the woman's description, he believes he saw the same man in the apartment building some weeks after the January assault, in the laundry room with a solitary woman.

There has begun a backlash against feminism, a backlash that teaches that there has been too much emphasis on the belief, bad for women and men alike, that to be a woman is to be beleaguered and under attack.

Those who deride what has been labeled victim feminism insist that the point of the women's movement is to make women feel powerful, strong, in control of their own lives, and not to cast men as the enemy.

With this goal no one can disagree. But such Valkyrie feminism coexists uneasily with the facts of our lives, lives in which their scars are the price some women pay simply for being female.

Rape was the only serious type of violent crime that went up in New York City last year. Roughly one in four women seen in America's hospital emergency rooms has been injured by a husband or boyfriend.

In Runner's World magazine this month a woman wrote an essay about her new-found ability to run after dark. She'd taken back the night by taking in a large dog and taking him with her when she ran.

"I finally know what it's like to be 6-2 with a voice like John Wayne and the bravado to match," Victoria Brehm writes exultantly.

What she requires to feel that is not inner strength, but the gender equivalent of a guide dog, as though being a woman is a physical handicap.

The challenge lies somewhere between victim and Valkyrie, in growing in strength and sureness despite the dangers, of not living with paranoia even though someone may be out to get you. But no one should ever discount the reason women can so easily see themselves as victims. It is because, by any statistical measure, they so often are.

The sister of the assault victim is greatly shaken by the aftermath of the crime. In the beginning the police were conscientious about investigating the assault, which might also have been a rape had the attacker not been interrupted. But as time went by, said the victim's sister, she felt that that was changing.

"I keep hearing that it's a war here, day and night, with drugs," she says. "So you worry that maybe when one woman is beaten up they will put it on the hook."

The man who chatted up, then beat and cut her sister did his considerable damage in under 10 minutes. Who knows what he may accomplish if next time he has a little more leisure? Who wonders at any woman in that neighborhood who thinks of herself, day and night, as a potential victim?

Or any woman hearing her story? Or any woman?

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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