SafetyOctober 3, 2010
Growing up in the small city of Corner Brook, we were safe. Of course, there was a different kind of danger humming beneath family structures, through the halls of our high schools. But we were free from any tangible, named fear. Doors were never locked, games were played outside well past dark and the woods were a place where you could be comfortably alone. Then in 1982, a 20-year old local woman went missing from her job at a gas station. She had been abducted, raped and murdered with a hammer and screwdriver. In the days that lay between the discovery of her remains, and the arrest of her killers, we Corner Brook girls learned a lifestyle of fear that we had never imagined. We had to come home from school right away. We had keys strung around our necks. We quickend our pace at the sound of a man’s footsteps on the street behind us. The devastating thing was that her younger sister was one of us – a student at our school. This brought the tragedy crashing through our imaginations in full color. This wasn’t other people. This was in the classroom, sitting next to us.
I’ve been remembering that time these days as I’ve been following the case of another murdered woman with roots near my hometown. I didn’t know Anne Marie Shirran whose remains were recently found after she went missing in July. There is something in her curls and clear eyes that I recognize, though, and her story has been haunting me. How does a woman slip through the normalcy of everyday life and become a news story? How many seconds does it take for a situation to turn black? At what point should we start to scream?
I’ve always been unfailingly polite. Growing up in Corner Brook, we learned to be friendly and to have manners. If you were rude to someone, they probably knew your parents, and so there were always consequences to not being on your best behaviour. Mostly this has been a helpful trait to have had ingrained in me. Still, there are moments, blacker moments, where I continue to be polite in the face of things starting to turn wrong. There are moments where I should be screaming, and instead I smile. The lessons in keeping my body and soul safe didn’t take. For after the 1984 convictions of the killers of Marilyn Newman, our community let out a collective exhale, and we went back to believing in the basic good of people’s hearts and the infrequency of horror.
In my early twenties, I spent a summer in London. I went on a student work abroad program and got a job in a nightclub. As a small-town girl in a big city, I made many mistakes. One mistake boiled my London experience down to a few critical moments when everything could have turned black. I usually took a taxi to my door when coming home from work at 3 or 4 am. This one night, I got out at a convenience store around the corner to pick up a snack. As I exited the store and began to walk, a young man asked me if I had a light for his cigarette. At this point, I should have screamed. I should have run back to the store. I knew that. Yet, I politely answered that I didn’t smoke, and kept walking towards my place. He walked next to me, engaging me in conversation – did I want to buy some drugs? Did I have any money he could borrow? Could he come to my place to light his cigarette on my stove? At this point I was terrified, yet I kept walking and talking, coming up with reasonable excuses why this man couldn’t come into where I lived. When I reached my street turnoff, I hesitated. Should I make a run for my door? Then he would know where I lived. Should I just keep walking in the hopes of him giving up? In those few seconds he grabbed me from behind. He stuck his hand in my pocket and took out the tips I had made that night. Then he ran. I should have been running the opposite way. Instead, I stood on the corner, shaking and doubled over. He didnt hurt me. He just wanted my money. Yet I had been pressed up against possiblilty of violence and I hadn’t fought it at all. I had been polite.
Anne Marie may have been murdered by her boyfriend. He has been charged. And I’ve been looking at her news photos trying to understand the nature of safety and violence of all kinds. I’m 40 now, and would never let a stranger do what was done that London night. No stranger would ever be allowed to get that close to me again without a fight. Still, though, there are times in my life when the bottom drops out of a moment, when someone behaves as they shouldn’t. Still, the good little Corner Brook girl in me accepts the moment with a smile. Perhaps it is the nature of a small-town heart or maybe just something that runs through the blood of all women.
Anne Marie is sitting close to me these days. There is one photo in particular that I like. In it, she has a mysterious look on her face, like she’s thinking of a secret only she knows. Her face is intelligent, reflective and soft. In that moment, she is safe. Had she known her fate, would she have loved less? Put fences around her heart?
I know that I don’t want my safety to cost me my smile. I want to understand, forgive and grant second chances. To board up my heart would betray the Newfoundlander I am and will always be. Anne Marie, though, has taught me a lesson I won’t forget again.