Body Odyssey Excerpt
When Terror Wants to Have Its Say
Ten of us sit on floor cushions around workshop leader Cherie McCoy. We are here in this home in an old St. Paul neighborhood to discover how attention to our bodies can help heal wounds of the psyche.
I am excited, curious, nervous. Nearly fifty years old, I’ve attended plenty of classes and workshops on personal development, yet I’m on edge. I don’t know quite what to expect from this Self Acceptance Training. I’m only here because I trust my friend who recommended I attend. As I wait for the workshop to begin, I’m aware of gnawing body troubles—back pain, shoulder tension, tight jaw—plus a collection of anxieties and fears. Nothing life-threatening, but often life-diminishing. They’re the reason I’m here. After having tried many ways to solve these problems, I hope Cherie can help me figure out what’s got me stuck. Yet, I question whether I should be here. Will I like these people? Will I be asked to do something weird? How will I manage to sit on the floor for two days?
Cherie’s size and smile remind me of a cherub. As she gets the workshop underway, she welcomes us in a voice as soothing as a kitten’s purr. She asks us to keep what we hear in the workshop confidential. Then she tells us that each person will get an hour or more of personal help from her in front of the group. First, though, we’ll each have about ten minutes to introduce ourselves and explain why we’re here.
One by one, stories of trouble unfold. An older woman tells of a strained relationship with her daughter. A mid-twenties man wants to figure out his calling. A balding, heavyset man is tired of feeling depressed. And so it goes around the circle. With each person, Cherie points out where the story rests in the person’s body.
Hannah, a tall, stiff-necked young woman, wants to be more accepting of her chronic pain. Cherie smiles maternally and says, “Hannah, check in with your body and see if you can feel where you carry the resistance to the pain.”
“I have this lump in my throat a lot of the time. It’s hard to swallow.”
“Is there something you’re having trouble swallowing?” Cherie asks tenderly, as if taking the woman into her arms.
Hannah starts to choke. “I’ve been swallowing my fear. I’ve been trying so hard to be brave.” The choking changes to sobbing. “I don’t know how long I can do this. The pain is so wearing.”
“Yes, the pain is wearing, and so is holding in all of the resistance to the pain—trying so hard to be brave. Let the tears come that want to come, and let all the fear be there.”
“It feels huge.”
“Yes. It is huge. That’s why you have a lump in your throat. Your fear is big and it wants to have a voice. It’s choking you to get your attention.”
Hannah’s face softens into a smile. The tears stop, she sits up straighter.
“I’ve been trying to be so positive, to visualize health, to stay strong.”
“You can be positive and strong and brave, and still feel the fear.”
Hannah takes a big breath and nods.
“Is there anything else for now?”
“We can do more with this later, if you want, Hannah.”
One by one over the next ninety minutes, the others in the circle introduce their stories and Cherie guides them through their troubled terrain. I am both stunned and entranced by how quickly she works with them to unravel the emotional tangles. By the time the person next to me makes her introduction, I’m barely listening. Instead I’m puzzling about how Cherie does this. Unlike other workshop leaders I’ve met, Cherie is not offering formulas for success or tips for overcoming obstacles. Rather, she unveils and welcomes obstacles as teachers. People seem to be shifting remarkably fast from pain to relief and even to acceptance. What’s happening seems strange, eerie, yet intriguing.
I realize it will be my turn soon; I grow increasingly nervous. I have no idea what I’ll say. Before coming, I had hoped to get some help with the panic attacks I had been experiencing for a number of years, but they seem too scary to mention now. I feel as if my story will fall apart if I try to tell it; as if I will fall apart.
Bam! A noise explodes behind me. I jump a half-inch off of my cushion, my hands fly in the air, and my head whirls around to see the source of the disturbance. A folded metal chair has fallen to the floor. My whole body begins to shudder.
As my neighbor continues with her introduction, I try to stop my jittery moves, so as not to be distracting, to politely wait my turn, to avoid being noticed. But the trembling intensifies. Confusion, shame, fear, and heat envelope me.
After my neighbor finishes, there is silence. Cherie turns her soft eyes toward me. The whole group is watching. My eyes dart about; my gaze drops to the floor. I know my voice will tremble if I try to speak. I don’t know what’s happening to me or what to say.
Cherie speaks. “It looks like there might be something going on with you, Pat.”
I try to make my jaw work. All I can do is shudder and nod.
“Would you like to talk about it?” She pauses. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Somehow Cherie’s permission not to speak allows me to do so, though my lips barely part: “I just got scared when that chair fell over,” I say, as if that would explain my obvious terror.
“What was it about that chair falling that was so frightening?”
“I don’t know. I can’t figure out why it’s bothering me so much. I can’t stop shaking.” The palsied tremors embarrass me.
“It’s okay for you to be shaking here. We can try to find out what the shaking is about, if that’s all right with you.”
I nod, though I feel unsure.
“Did it remind you of something?”
My father lies in a coffin. I am eight and I am curious to see the bullet hole in his forehead. But it’s not there.
The man gets in behind the wheel of my car and pushes me over to the passenger’s side. It is dark, yet I see a glint of light on the gun pointing toward me.
“It sounded like a gunshot,” I say.
“Do you have some memory of a gunshot?”
“Well, not of a gunshot really. But two memories of guns came to mind when the chair fell. Maybe it has something to do with one of those.” The possibility seems very farfetched.
“What were they?” Cherie’s tone of voice is permissive, offering an invitation I know I can decline safely. But I respond because I don’t know what else to do. Mostly my thoughts race, garbled. I am trying to will my shaking to stop; it won’t. I am half curled over as I speak, trying to disappear.
“One was my father shooting himself when I was a kid. I didn’t see that actually happen, but when I think of a gun, that’s what I think of. There was also the gun that was pointed at me when I was kidnapped and held hostage a few years ago.”
Within the first few minutes of my turn, I have spilled out into this group of strangers the two worst nightmares of my life. Something about Cherie’s presence, her voice, her kindness hints at a distant open gate in the tortuous prison that encamps me. I trust her — but only barely — to get me out safely, to stop the terror. At the moment, she seems like my only hope. I desperately need to trust someone.
“Which of these incidents with guns do you think this is about?”
“Would you like to work on that?” Cherie’s inviting smile offers the same assurance I’ve just seen open the way for others in the group.
“I don’t know if I have any choice,” I say, succumbing to her tender solicitation with a voice still shaky but tinged with laughter. It’s a relief to drop the self-control that has failed to hide my untidy feelings and make light of my strange behaviors.
As the others have done, I move over and sit directly in front of Cherie.
“Tell us what happened,” she says, and after a long exhale, settles back to listen.
Drowsy after a long evening’s work, I yawn deeply as I drive into the alley behind my house in a northern section of Minneapolis. Moments later, I park my red station wagon in the dark garage, scoop up my tote bag, and swing open the car door, eager to head inside the house and get under the covers. I skip the usual cautious glance into the rearview mirror to make sure I’m alone before getting out.
The glance would have been too late anyway. As I turn to place my feet on the garage floor, a large figure in a long black coat lunges at me. I am jolted wide awake. Unclear words come at me from a male voice. I am terrified. I think, Rape! I draw back and raise my feet to fend him off, yelling, “No! No!”
“Be quiet or I’ll shoot you!” he demands. Only now do I see a piece of shiny black metal pointing my way. I get quiet quickly.
“I just want a ride to Brooklyn Center,” he announces firmly, yet with a tone of reassurance. I am reassured. Brooklyn Center is a nearby suburb, maybe ten minutes away. If that’s all he wants, I can handle that. Mainly to calm myself, I put the keys back in the ignition and reassure him, “Okay, just get in,” I say, “and I’ll take you to Brooklyn Center.” But he’s not interested in my directions.
“Just get over. Get over!” He pushes his way into the driver’s seat.
I hurriedly move as far over as I can, trembling as I press myself against the door on the passenger’s side.
“Give me the keys.”
I’m shaking so badly that I can barely respond, but wanting to get this over with in a hurry, I search for a voice and words.
“I think they’re in the ignition.” It is too dark to see. I start to open my door so the light will come on and reveal where they are. But I’m stopped by his abruptly raised weapon and a barked order, “Don’t try anything!” His sharp reaction is my first clue he is terrified, too. But I have no time to absorb it.
“Where are the lights?” The question is a demand. “Turn them on!” I recoil at the idea of reaching across him to pull out the light knob, but he insists. As my hand and arm extend, he doesn’t touch me. I’m relieved. I can see now the keys are indeed in place.
Using his left hand to point the weapon toward me and his right hand to grasp the wheel, he eases the car out of the garage and into the alley. I struggle in the brief silence to clear up the massive disorientation I’m feeling. If this turns into rape, what do I do? Barely able to concentrate, I scan my memory for any tips I may have heard about how to handle rape, including moves I learned in a self-defense class ten years earlier. What little I remember seems irrelevant in a car with a gun so close.
I had spent the evening working with a friend on a writing project about the divine spark that lives in each person and how to rely on that for guidance in all matters. I had come away feeling spiritually uplifted and strong. Now, underneath the trembling, I resurrect that feeling and pray. “Dear God, I’ve never had to deal with rape before. I don’t know how to handle this. Show me what to do. This is in your hands.” Despite the fierce trembling, I now know I’ll be all right, no matter what happens.
“I just want a ride to Brooklyn Center,” the man cuts into my thoughts. I want to believe him. I do believe him.
He seems unsure where to turn at the end of the alley, so I begin giving him directions, quietly, politely, wanting to keep him calm, wanting to calm myself. But he turns the opposite way. Obviously, this ride to “Brooklyn Center” is going to take some detours.
He begins questioning me.
“Are you married?”
“Where is your husband?”
My answers are brief and truthful. It seems dangerous to give him the personal information he asks for, yet I’m not used to lying and I don’t want to take any chances on getting tripped up.
“When is the last time you had sex?”
So this is how it’s going to start. I push myself more tightly against the door, cowering and shaking like a cornered cub.
“I don’t want to discuss that.” I surprise myself by my boldness.
He surprises me. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to rape you.”
I want to believe him, but his questioning has alarmed me. Yet, temporarily relieved, I blurt out, “Thank you.”
Until now, I’ve been afraid to look at him, but I realize I’ll want to be able to identify him later. I start to turn my head his way.
“Look the other way,” he snaps, raising his weapon again. In the dark garage, I had only gotten a glimpse of his dark brown face, stocking cap, long black coat. His voice sounds youthful, his accent Southern. He is forceful each time he issues an order but otherwise conversational and even sometimes polite.
“How much money you got?”
“I don’t know. About twenty dollars.”
“I think so. I’m not sure.” It’s true I’m not sure. If I turn out to be wrong, I don’t want him to think I lied. He might get even more edgy with the gun. I’d better win his trust if I hope to get out of this alive.
We ride slowly down Fremont Avenue. There is little traffic at eleven o’clock at night. He tells me to take out my purse, then asks, “You don’t have a gun in there, do you?” He sounds nervous, suspicious, but he makes no abrupt move this time and does not raise his voice. I realize for the first time that he is afraid of me. I wonder how I can reassure him and find a way to trust him at the same time—find some common ground. Is he basically a good person despite what he’s doing now? What if I’m honest, decent, caring—will he react the same way? I’m looking desperately for that divine spark.
I count out twelve dollars.
“Are you sure that’s all?” he asks more than once, but by now he seems almost sheepish about questioning my word. I show him there is a little change. I’m too nervous to count it.
There is silence as he continues driving. I am shaking, both from fear and from the cold of the wintry night. At last he pulls into a parking lot of an apartment building. He turns off the motor and the lights. Will there be rape after all?
“May I have the money now?” His politeness seems ironic, but strangely sincere.
I hand it to him, being careful not to touch him.
“Thank you.” He adds, “Can you write me a check?”
I tighten up. Twelve dollars I can afford to lose, but a large sum would greatly strain my limited resources. I don’t answer. He says nothing, starts the car, and drives out of the lot.
“I’m going to tell you what will happen if you try to tell the police anything about this,” he says, “or if I hear that anybody comes around asking about this, if this even shows up in the paper. I know your car. I know your license number. I know where you live. I will come back and kill you. Even if they arrest me, they won’t give me more than a fine and I’ll be out right away and I’ll come back and I’ll kill you.”
I know he’s right. I know he could terrorize me for months or years. I’d never feel safe. The trembling intensifies.
“Now, I’m not a bad person,” he says, trying to soften the effects of his threats. “I’m only asking for fifty dollars. I’m not like some guys who would ask for a hundred or two hundred dollars or everything you got. A lot of guys would rape you, too, but I’m not going to do that.”
He pauses. “How much do you have in the bank?” I had just balanced my account earlier in the day and had more than six hundred dollars.
“About three hundred dollars, I think,” I say. I’m lying. Something in me refuses to give him everything I have.
“Will fifty dollars hurt you very much?” he asks, sounding genuinely concerned. “I just need fifty dollars for some transportation, so I can get around town and get a job,” he explains. He sounds like a boy, wanting me to think well of him so I’ll help him out.
After more driving, he stops in another parking lot and asks me to write him a fifty-dollar check. My hands shake so badly from fear and from the cold that it takes several attempts to open my checkbook. I write in large jagged scribbles.
“What’s your name?” I ask, wondering how to fill in the “Pay to….”
“Larry Washington,” he says, after repeating the earlier threats if I report him. Then he asks me where there’s a bank that’s open so he can cash the check.
“I don’t think there’s a bank open at this hour.” I am stunned by his naïvete.
He seems surprised. I tell him he can cash it the next day, but he’s convinced I’ll call the police before he can do so. I reassure him that I won’t call. I just want to end this whole ordeal and go home. I’m ready to pay fifty dollars for that privilege, but he’s not buying it.
I decide on another tactic. Byerly’s, a supermarket just outside the neighborhood, usually cashes checks easily, so I suggest we go there. When we arrive, he stops the car in the middle of the store’s large, almost empty parking lot. As he prepares himself to go inside, he orders me to stay in the car. He threatens me again. He knows my car, knows where I live. He will find me and kill me and my husband. I am convinced. Besides, I remember that my phone number is on the check. Yes, he certainly could make my life miserable for years to come. I don’t see a ready way to escape. There is no place to run to. Nearby stores are closed for the night. Even if I dashed across the parking lot, I reason, he could see me through the store’s large glass doors and come back out to chase me. I’m sure he or his bullet could reach me. The risk seems too high.
“You need to look as sharp as possible,” I say. Despite the threats, despite my fears, there is something about this young man that has awakened a maternal caring in me. Maybe it’s the way he seems just as scared as I am. Maybe it’s his periodic politeness or his youth. Maybe I’m convinced that indeed the fifty dollars will be his ticket to finding a job and becoming a responsible citizen so he won’t think he has to do this again. He has said several times that he’d “never done this before.” I’m suddenly aware of how dull-witted he is (after all, he actually revealed his name to me and knew little about such basics as when banks close) and how powerless he must feel that he has come to rely on a gun for basic survival. For my sake and for his, I want him to succeed in cashing the check. It will be my ticket home and his means to pursue a job. In my mind, I try to wish away the gun and the threats and imagine just giving him the money as a gift.
At this point, things become almost comical. It occurs to me that a late-night, cash-checking request by a young black man in this suburban supermarket for mostly affluent whites might not be easily honored. So, I become his coach.
“Comb your hair so you look nice. Act friendly. Try to look like you’re a very responsible, trustworthy person,” I advise him, like I might prepare my own son for a job interview. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him taking off his long black coat, straightening his cap and his clothes. We become a team now, out to accomplish a joint mission, each doing what we have to do to protect ourselves in the process. He walks toward the store entrance. I am too cold and shaky to even consider jumping out of the car. I turn to watch him, a thin young man trying to walk tall. Where were the elders who should have shepherded this child into proper manhood?
He comes back quickly, sounding despondent. “They won’t cash second-party checks.”