One Friday night, about a year before I finished my thesis, a man tried to break into the room where I was sleeping. This happened in Franschhoek, a small town in the Cape winelands where I was a panellist at the annual literary festival.
I was staying in a little guest cottage in the garden of a larger house. My room was pretty much one big bed and a generous bathroom, which had a shower and a bath. This detail is important because when I woke up to an unfamiliar noise at three in the morning, the first thing I thought was that a bird – or maybe a rat – had somehow gotten into the room and was eating the special Harry and Meghan cupcakes that were currently lying in the (empty) bathtub in anticipation of the royal wedding which was taking place that weekend.
The cupcakes, together with a few royal petit fours and cookies, had been hand-delivered from Cape Town by my friend, former state prosecutor and member of parliament, Glynnis Breytenbach, who was also speaking at the festival, about the book we had written together. The noise sounded almost like someone was walking and breathing in the bathtub.
It was so nonsensical that I dismissed it at first. But the sound persisted. And eventually I got up to look in the bath, as much as I was able to see at three in the morning without my glasses, and saw that there was nothing there, except the cupcakes in their stripy cardboard box, which had not somehow magically developed feet.
The noises came again. And the second time I went to look, I noticed the bathroom blind was moving as if there was a very strong wind outside. Except there was no wind. And then I saw that, behind the blind, was a man. A man who was already more than halfway into my room, his arms and his body worked through a tiny window that, thank God, was just a little too small and a little too high to make it easy for him. He was panting with exertion. That was what I had heard. That, and the sound of the blind tapping against the windowsill and the vase on the stand beneath it.
In that first moment of terrifying awareness and denial, there was a split second where this man breaking in through the window in my room was both impossible and inescapable. Impossible because this couldn’t happen to me. Because I was strong. Important. Powerful.
And, at the same time, it was very definitely happening to me. And part of that felt inevitable almost. The part of my brain that was going, Ah, yes. Of course this is going to happen to you. You want to be the expert in femicide, how else did you think it was going to go?
And that same part of my brain was also telling me that either I was going to die in that small room, or I was going to have to fight for my life. And that was also terrifying.
I have a second dan in karate and spent many years of my life learning how to fight, including a stint as a boxer. But I’m a martial artist, not a fantasist. I know that the average adult male is almost always going to be stronger than me. Fighting is a last resort, not a first choice. Plus, at three in the morning, in a tiny space that was not my own and basically blind as a bat without my glasses, what came to mind was flight.
What I needed to do was get out of the room that the man was trying to get into. And to do that, I needed to unlock the door using the key that was now three feet away on the stand next to my bed. Which meant I needed enough time to make my way back to my bed, find the key, and somehow get it to work in the unfamiliar door, all before the man could finish making his way in through the window.
I did the second thing my mind told me to do, which was to scream for help, as loud as I could.
I screamed Help.
I screamed Help me.
I screamed, Help me, there’s someone in my room.
I screamed it again and again.
And thank God, someone answered me. In the cottage next door to me was author Rehana Rossouw and journalist Julia Grey. My screams woke them up, and bless them (truly), because they answered immediately. I could hear them calling back to me, even while I carried on screaming.
Who’s in your room?
And, most important of all. We’re coming.
The moment I heard someone say that they were coming, I knew I would be okay. I knew that there was nothing inevitable about what was happening, except my survival.
And then, suddenly, Julia and Rehana were there, and I had managed to unlock the door. And the man who was already nearly in my room had run away, leaving a pair of grassy shoe marks on the ledge of the window outside. Incredibly, the police arrested him several hours later.
But here is the thing. In my head, for a long time afterwards, I kept flipping the memory of it over and over again on a loop. Because, you see, I knew this story. I knew it so well. I knew this story because I had read tens of other stories just like it.
‘. . . gained entry through a bathroom window . . .’
Men didn’t break into tiny guest cottages at night thinking they were empty, and they could steal the complimentary toiletries. The man who had broken into my room had almost certainly done so knowing someone was sleeping there, done so because someone was sleeping there. And because, in all probability, the person sleeping in the room would be a woman.
So I knew how these stories began, and I also knew how they ended. They ended with sentences like:
‘. . . found in her bathtub . . .’
‘. . . found on her bed . . .’
‘. . . raped and stabbed . . .’
There were a lot of possible endings, even if they hadn’t happened to me. And it was these possibilities, probabilities, that played over and over in my mind for months afterward. This horrific femicide bingo.
Through the window.
Through the door.
Through the roof.
Walking to school. Walking from school.
Going to work.
Going to a shebeen.
Walking home from the shebeen.
Next to the train tracks.
In a graveyard.
In an open plot.
In the bushes.
On the side of the road.
In between shacks.
In her own house.
In her mother’s house.
In a hospital.
In a police station.
With a gun. With a knife. With a stick. With a sharp object. With a blunt object. With a pillow. With the victim’s underwear. With his hands. With a rock. With matches.
None of these bad things had happened to me – the man climbing into my room had not, ultimately, succeeded. I was lucky not just in the big picture but in the small picture. The night before my incident, another female author at the same festival had been mugged walking home, hit in the face with a brick. All I got was a giant fright, and a temporarily lost voice (I had screamed so loudly that I couldn’t speak for days after).
Even though none of these bad things had happened to me, I was still terrified. Part of me is still terrified. The part that knows, there but for the grace of God went I.
I had and still have a residual adrenalin response from the incident. I suppose that it is just regular post-traumatic stress, but it is intensely, physically uncomfortable when it happens, because my body is so cued for danger that it’s primed to go from zero to a million in less than the space of a heartbeat. It’s been triggered when I was working in Buenos Aires, two months after the incident, convinced that someone was climbing onto the balcony of my fifth-floor hotel room. It happened a year later when a young man started running away from the security guards on my street and tried to run into my open driveway, and towards my car.
It happens when someone approaches me too fast from a blindspot, or when a car brakes and reverses suddenly on a street where I am standing. My mind tumbles back into that statistical mode that says, Of course. And this is the worst part. Because it does happen, every day.
This is an extract from Femicide in South Africa by Nechama Brodie, Kwela Books.
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