When you’re lying awake in the dark there’s plenty of time to think, perhaps even to over-think. This Sunday morning – I don’t know the precise time – I found myself in a hotel room, eyes wide open, unable to sleep. Everything around me was silent, but I was still listening, just in case.
My partner and I were spending a night away from the children, just the two of us, as a special treat. At some point both of us had been woken by the sound of raised voices. I couldn’t work out what was happening at first. Two people in the next room, a man and a woman. The man was angry, the woman apologetic, fragments of back story echoing through the walls. Something about a fight in town. He’d been left without his phone or money. The police were mentioned, I’m not sure why. She’d returned to the hotel earlier, and he resented her for having done so. You left me for dead. She said sorry, tried to leave the room. He wouldn’t let her. She started to plead and that’s when we switched on the light.
It’s so easy to hear panic in someone’s voice. It’s the tone and the repetition. The same thing said over and over. It reminded me of when I’d been attacked ten years earlier, and the way I’d pleaded, repeatedly, hearing a voice that wasn’t mine and even then resenting how pathetic it sounded. My partner phoned reception, asked the man in charge to come and check on the adjoining room. The receptionist seemed to take such a long time to arrive – perhaps he was afraid, too. I wondered about phoning the police, about knocking on the door myself. Every possibility seemed equally counterproductive yet the rejection of each equally shameful. Then the receptionist was there. He stood outside the room, said the word “reception” and that seemed to be enough. The door opened, the first man said “fuck this” and left, storming down the corridor.
After that we turned out the light but neither of us slept. It felt unfinished. It was not our fight but their were echoes of fights and fears we’d witnessed before.
Snippets of things the man had said while his partner was pleading with him kept running round my head. He clearly saw himself to be the injured party. The more fear his partner had shown, the angrier he got. It was as though he saw her fear as a means of manipulation, a source of power equal to the physical strength he was using to stop her leaving. As though fear itself victimises the person who is causing it. It felt like a horribly familiar pattern, a playing out of the way in which male violence is justified by women being seen, not as inferior, but as all too equal. Women might be physically weaker, but they’re allegedly smarter, better with words, better at controlling others. From everything I could hear this woman’s fear was real but to the man causing it, it was just a weapon against him. Her pleas were a form of attack. I thought of men’s rights groups, of Fathers4Justice, of popular science books vaunting women’s superior communication skills… I thought of women having no voice because their calls for self-determination are constantly mistranslated into a ready-made assertions of power.
And then, because this all seemed terribly narrow, I thought about the broader culture of fear in which women live, the ways in which fear seeps into places where it doesn’t belong, and how this changes the perception and recognition of what it does to us. I thought of all the times I’ve been afraid and cried for help when the person I’ve been with hasn’t been the one who’s caused my fear. Times when I’ve been paranoid and it’s seemed to others that the person trying to stop me hurting myself was trying to hurt me. Times when I’ve been terrified of food and caused a scene in public and the person trying to encourage me to eat has been seen as an attacker. There are times when strangers have intervened to save me, needlessly. These things don’t happen any more but it doesn’t mean the fear wasn’t real or that there wasn’t a real basis for it. I hurt people who cared for me without meaning to because my fear had turned on them. I am ashamed of that, yet it was never about power, never about crying wolf. Fear is never manipulation. When you are feeling it it’s impossible to direct and stage-manage it. Sometimes it veers off in the wrong direction. If you are lucky, as I have been, you find people who still support you and, eventually, make you feel safe. On the other hand some people can only respond to misdirected fear with anger, thus becoming the very people they desperately claim not to be. I’m not sure any of this applied to the room next door to mine. All the same I think such things help to create a false narrative of female fear as inauthentic, a narrative that’s then repeated and abused all the more.
So I lay awake, listening and thinking through all this. Eventually, after an hour or so, I heard the man return to the room next door. The couple spoke again, in lower tones. After a while the bedroom door opened again. She said “I love you”. He said “you don’t understand what it means” and then his footsteps set off down the corridor again. I felt sorry for her and, without really wanting to, I also felt sorry for him. Then he muttered “fucking slag” and headed off down the stairs.