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.