Thursday, April 16, 2009

Violent Reckoning

I put together this first draft of an essay for a class this morning. Next week I will conference with my professor and discuss its strengths and weaknesses, but I wanted to get some feedback from another audience first.

Violent Reckoning

The doorframe was broken. It lay in pieces on the living room floor. The deadbolt was exposed. The computer from the office was missing, the back door left ajar. Upstairs in the loft, my thirteen-year-old sister, Jessie, was hiding behind the futon. Alone and frightened, she hadn’t moved for hours. Violence had entered our home.

On March 18, 2009 a car crashed into a ditch alongside a gravel road just half a mile from my home. The driver was inebriated. He stumbled down our driveway as my sister watched from the window. She locked the doors and hid while he broke into our home. A few hours later Jerrod Altevogt was taken into custody for burglary and attempted sexual assault of a woman he had been with. He never knew my sister was in the house.

The night of the break-in I was in Tennessee, far from my home in rural Nebraska, but I felt violated when my mother called me with the news. Home is sacred, the place I want to be safest from the world, but Jerrod proved it was not invincible. Calloused hands breached my sanctuary with evil intent. Crime statistics took on a name, a face, a story.

Violence is no longer what happens to anybody other than me. I and my family are not immune. Criminal headlines in the news are not so easily set aside. In small ways I have felt the victims’ pain, lived their fear. At the very least, I live with the understanding that there is little preventing their story from becoming my own.

My sister knows this reality too. As she hid behind the futon, panic and confusion assaulting her heart, all she could do was send up a silent prayer of desperation. Please God, don’t let anything bad happen to me. Even when the intruder left, the silence hung dead and threatening around her until my mother came home. For hours and days following, her mind replayed the scenario over and over like the sound of a skipping CD. She imagined what could have happened, what it would have been like to be found, to be the victim of a sexual assault.

I know my sister’s fear. It came to haunt me when I was only fifteen. The sheriff called to warn my parents. The authorities had picked up a man named Brian for stalking a female college student, and he mentioned my name during the interrogation. But they let him go for lack of sufficient charges, something I couldn’t understand. Why were men like him allowed to roam the streets and violate my sense of innocence and safety? Like my sister I replayed scenarios over and over in my mind: where he would find me, when he would take me, how he would use my body to satisfy his erotic pleasure, and whether or not I would live to carry his child. The threat never materialized, but the fear of his intent violated something more fragile than my body.

It has been years since I have seen or heard of my alleged stocker, and the deadbolt on the front door has been fixed, but my sister and I both carry the scars of our fear. I can’t leave windows uncovered at night because I imagine Brian’s eyes watching me. Jessie cannot pass over the bridge Jerrod crossed to get to our home without remembering the night she watched him come. Every time a car follows me for more than a few blocks at night, my heart races until I watch it turn off the road. Jessie doesn’t walk into the office without realizing that Jerrod once stood there. The immediate danger is past, but the experience remains to make us question: How do we live in a world pervaded by violence, a world that threatens our safety?

I could cling to hate as if it were a life preserver, but would it keep me from drowning? Will my fury speed the work of justice? Will it do anything to solve the problems of violence? Will it protect me from a second intrusion?

I am haunted by the faces of violence, by the hate and fear that drives them. I wonder at the depth of pain that could cause one human being to violate another. I wonder about Jerrod Altevogt and try to imagine his life. Was he so lost and without a home that he was so desperate to break into my own? What did his mother feel as she held him to her chest as a child? What does she think now? Did she ever bother to hold him at all?

Cynthia James picked up the paper on March 19, 2009 and read the article concerning Jerrod’s arrest. She remembered a day twenty-four years earlier when a woman showed up at her church with an infant in her arms, asking for money to buy diapers. The pastor gave Cynthia the woman’s name: Altevogt. Cynthia took a package of diapers to her subsidized housing apartment building. Altevogt’s name and face were seared in Cynthia’s memory when the door opened and, in an instant, the look on Altevogt’s face went from ‘who’s here?’ to absolute anger. She wanted something other than the diapers.

I can only speculate about what went on within Jerrod’s low-income home, but I cannot help but conjecture that Jerrod was born into a home with a mother who cared more for herself than the needs of her child. He was raised to take what he wanted by a mother who tried to work the system. His home was not a safe place. Could he know what he was stealing from my sister and me as he broke into ours?

Breaking down our door and stealing from our home were not the actions of a victim; they were the actions of a man who made a choice. No matter what his past or his home, Jerrod Altevogt is responsible for the decisions he made. I do not support misconstrued victimization, but I also believe in the power of compassion to heal broken lives. Justice does not require hate.

I don’t know how to coexist with violence, but I know that hate makes a sorry companion. I don’t know what to do when my safety is threatened or what to tell my sister when she faces the same, but I know what to tell her not to do. I tell her not to live in fear. Otherwise violence has won. I tell her to walk across the bridge and go into the office, to remember and learn to live beyond the memories. When I finish telling my sister, I tell myself. I close my blinds and muster the courage to drive through the dark. Injustice will not dictate my life.


linda68701 said...

What more did Shirley want? Did she confront? Just give out of grace? Inquiring minds want to know. Great article, I like how you tied the two events together. I like your conclusion, also. Can't wait to see you when you get back.

Danielle said...

Actually, correction... it wasn't Shirley, it was her mother, but I didn't know her name and didn't have the energy to create one... oops. Need to change that.

linda68701 said...

Ok, I appreciate the correction, but you said "she wanted something other than the diapers". What did she want? .

Danielle said...

The money. I don't know what happened afterwards, if she ended up taking the diapers or not. I used all the info Shirley was able to pass on to me from her mother.