The summer my husband and I moved back to Oakland from Pennsylvania, there was a rapist on the loose in the East Bay. In June we set ourselves up in a cramped apartment on College Avenue; in July the attacks began. The guy’s gimmick was that he wore masks as he raped Alameda County women from Hayward to Berkeley — and not just plain ole’ ski masks. In August, just after midnight, he wrenched a woman off her bike on Telegraph Avenue and assaulted her wearing a monkey mask; a few days later, he nabbed another woman, this time wearing an elephant mask. He was getting off on the publicity, experts said. At least, I thought.

I was fresh out of grad school and feeling destabilized. For three years I had longed to be back in California but now that we were here I was at a loss. Theoretically I was now a more educated, empowered person, officially recognized as a “master.” But what did my MFA qualify me to do, exactly – especially if I didn’t feel particularly drawn to academic life? My husband had found a good job, and he spent his days acclimating to his coworkers and accounting duties. As for me, I decided to try to freelance and write a book (about what, I hadn’t a clue). So when my husband went to work at his new job, I stayed in our new apartment, staring into space or at a blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike.

When it didn’t — which was often — I walked the neighborhoods behind College Avenue, alternately delighted and repulsed by the sunny bursting beauty of wealthy California homes. I had read quite a bit of Joan Didion during my stint in Pennsylvania, specifically Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a series of essays she’d written about her experiences in Southern California in the 1960s. Her descriptions of the landscape were saturated with heat and glaring color and shadows that implied at most corruption and at least decay. I was in Northern California, but Didion’s images seemed to apply, casting an additional, surreal haze over my readjustment to life in Oakland. That summer everything seemed both lush and dry — full of promise or doom, I wasn’t sure. I projected the inner amalgam of anxiety and hope about what was next in my life and my career onto the immediate world around me: A blooming purple jacaranda tree or a spray of bright orange bird-of-paradise were ominous reminders of how uncertain and dangerous life was, rather than tribute to its abundance.

Needless to say, a man preying on women and dehumanizing the act even more by hiding behind animal masks drove me a little crazy. At night I often couldn’t sleep, and I sat at the table in our tiny sliver of a kitchen, the streetlights illuminating my journal, writing angry letters to this man, the police, the governor until I was so exhausted I fell into bed.

Sometimes I’d get hungry for more open space than College Avenue and its neighborhoods, and I’d make my way to one of the nearby regional parks. I was afraid to go to those parks alone but I didn’t have any close friends as of yet and I would be damned if some rapist would dictate my freedom. So I walked the dirt paths at Redwood or Sibley or Tilden or Huckleberry, trying to relax and let nature soothe me but more often seething with fear and anger. It was on these walks that I developed what I called scream therapy.

The walks would start off okay, the redwood-scented air warm on my face. Yet often by the time I’d been out for about twenty or thirty minutes my anxiety would reach a fever pitch and I’d have to release it. I learned to do this by yelling as loudly as I could — from my diaphragm, not my chest. Good thing I rarely saw other people in the trails.

“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME, ASSHOLE!” I’d shout as I traversed a long, empty stretch of trail. “LEAVE ME ALONE!” I’d bellow toward a bank of trees. “NO!” I’d scream as I crested a hill. Sometimes I just yelled, starting with a low growl and experimenting with how forceful I could get, mouth and chest open, before my voice wavered toward that shallow register that told me my breathing had moved from belly to ribcage. I’d take a few deep breaths to reset myself and try again. When I arrived back at the park’s front gate, I’d be sweaty and shaking, but somehow calmer as well.

That September police arrested a former felon and track coach at a Catholic all-girls school who was eventually charged with four of the 14 sexual attacks that had been reported since mid-July — and suspected responsible for the rest. When his San Leandro apartment was searched, police found newspaper clippings about the rapes, blood-splattered clothing, black-knit caps and a woman’s wallet.

I was so relieved the apparent perp had been caught that I cried for a while and some of the tension I’d been carrying around left my body. But the haze of anxiety that had descended when I’d returned to California stayed with me for months, fed as it was by my own unease about my purpose in life. When I got stuck in that feeling I’d try to take some of those deep breaths and talk gently to myself. At least now, Kate, I’d say, at least now you know how to scream.

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About Kate

Things are weird in the wide world -- and like everyone else, most days I'm used to it. But to shake things up for myself, I like to notice and write about stuff that strikes me as both beautiful and strange, fascinating and repulsive, sweet and sour -- like how the steamy, stinky air that comes up from the BART vents at 16th Street Mission reminds me of being twenty-two, apparently immortal, and in love.

8 responses »

  1. Ratka says:

    Wow, powerful.
    Thank you. Those trees have seen a lot.
    RatkaMira

  2. Thanks for this Kate. You reminded me of the time after my then partner of 12 and 1/2 years and I split, the sweet dog Gracie died and I lost my job. I was a living Christmas letter. I was living in Oakland and traversing the Bay bridge heading into the city for networking, interviews, community yoga at Laughing Lotus. I had so much welling grief and loss and crazy anger and unwraveling unraveling unraveling. On the approach from the San Francisco side to Oakland -going into that cave-ish tunnelish long thrumming ride across the bay I would begin to bellow and sob and scream and yell–like a wild woman. I was keening in motion–keening in the belly of the whale. I would keen and keen while the bowels of the bridge seemed to absorb and echo the resounding yawp of my life’s turning. I would yell and sob until I was laughing and then the bridge would spit me back out on the other side and the bright east bay sun would dry me off. It was an important bellowing time.
    There is a lot to be angry/sad/bereft about. so good to know and learn how to work with the geography of our lives to move it through.

  3. What an intense, visual tour through a terrifying period in your life – but one which you owned and took by the horns. For some reason, Whitman’s words about sounding his “barbaric YAWP” come to mind. The primordial scream in the forest. What a better place to find your voice. And your blog is a wonderful place to share it. Thanks for visiting my FB page and cluing me into your terrific wordsmithing. BTW, is your MFA in Creative Writing?

    • Kate says:

      Hi Christy: Thanks for checking out my blog and for your comment! Appreciate it. Yep, the MFA was in creative nonfiction…ah, what a lovely ride that was! ;)

  4. One of my most vivid, recurring dreams is the opposite of what you describe in the woods. Me, opening my mouth to scream, and nothing coming out. I sometimes wonder what would happen if such a terrifying event occurred in real life. Would I scream? Would there be any sound? Thanks for sharing such a personal memory, and reminding me that looking over my shoulder is nothing to be ashamed of.

    • Kate says:

      Hi Stacie: Thanks for reading and for your comment. I’ve had dreams like that, too…part of why it felt so good to let loose in the woods!

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