. . . . ENTER: the intruder . . . .
We all imagine he might come one night-
The man so angry, so full of hate,
Disturbed, defensive, deliberate distraught;
He might enter our lives with kisses, sweet words,
Or barge through our doors, violent- violating
Our homes, our bodies, our peace, our souls-
Ravaging, rampaging, ruining- rendering
Our lives devoid of sanity, of hope . . .
. . . . EXIT: the intruder. 1/1/93
By profession, I am a registered nurse practitioner specializing in anesthesia. In 1990, I also completed a BA in Cultural Anthropology. While pursuing my studies, I’d been enthralled by Margaret Mead’s research in American Samoa for her doctoral thesis in Anthropology. I’d also had the opportunity to meet her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, when she was a visiting lecturer at George Mason University. So when an advertisement appeared in our anesthesia journal in early 1992 seeking volunteers to work in American Samoa, I knew I had to respond! I wanted to experience Mead’s South Pacific paradise for myself!
Making it happen was no small task. I didn’t want to move out of my condo, so my son Michael agreed he would stay there and cover the expenses. I contacted LBJ Tropical Medical Center and told them of my interest, sending my resume and copies of licenses, etc. I also began looking into possible free-lance work to do after I returned. I told my boss about my plans, and to my surprise, he offered me a leave of absence instead. I happily accepted. Finally I was ready to go!
Dr. Sam met me at the airport on July 1, 1992. He told me I would be staying at the Rainmaker Hotel temporarily because a hurricane the previous year had damaged the volunteer apartments. The hotel was lovely; I settled in and began working the next day at the hospital, which was about a mile away. But by July 7th, I wrote in my diary, “I’m bored staying here!” So I visited the damaged area to assess the condition of my future “home.” The apartments were filthy but some were structurally intact. I chose one with a roof (!!!) and then went to speak to the head doctor of the hospital. I suggested I could clean up the place myself. He agreed, so the next day I moved my belongings and went to work!
For the next few days, I provided anesthesia services during the day under less than optimal conditions. Medications were in short supply, equipment was outdated and un-serviced. I had to be constantly alert for the types of problems I’d never encounter on the US continent. Evenings at “home” were just as challenging! The apartment was not air-conditioned and depended upon louvered windows (with no curtains) for air circulation. I had also quickly discovered my four- and eight-legged roomies! Roaches, rats and geckos had preceded me! I cleaned to discourage the roaches, repaired the cupboard bottoms which allowed constant access for the rats, and decided the geckos were my friends! So when I went to bed on July 11, 1992, I was exhausted!
[Diary entry referencing events of July 12, 1992, early AM]
“I was awakened from a sound sleep by the click of the door opening (outside door near my bedroom.) Still lying down, I looked and saw the shadow of a tall thin man at my bedroom doorway.”
Groggy confusion quickly gave way to pure terror. I screamed at him to get out, irrationally demanding to know who he was and what he wanted. As he slowly walked toward me, I sat up and wrapped myself in my bed sheet and grabbed my glasses. Then he plopped into the chair near my bed and said, “I just want to talk.” Right! Although it was quite dark in the room, I could see he was wearing only swim trunks. I demanded to know how he’d gotten in and he told me he’d broken in with his knife; then he reached for my cigarettes on the table and knocked over a glass of water at my bedside. It shattered on the floor. ….. Shorts. Knife. Broken glass….. No idiot would believe his intentions were to merely “talk” to me. My heart sank; I put my hand to my forehead wondering how I was going to get out of this alive. He asked, “what’s the matter?” “I’m tired,” I lied.
Over the next hour or so, my mind raced to accommodate the reality of my circumstances. Years before, I had taken a US Department of State class on how to deal with a hostage situation. The keys to safely surviving were: be calm and avoid escalating fear or anger in the situation; try to get the hostage-taker to see you as a person, not a target; above all, stay alert for any moment during which you might escape. So I talked, trying to get a feel for who he was, and to see if he was sober. I alternately raged, placated, cajoled and shamed him. My emotions sometimes got the better of me, and I spoke with anger and derision, backing off when he responded negatively. Several times I considered just getting up and walking out. But then I’d remember the knife and broken glass on my floor, and the possibility he might try to stop me- or worse, attack me. I’d be no match for him. Then:
“I’ve gotta pee. Where’s your bathroom?” he asked.
“Right across from the door you broke into!” I barked.
The time had come. I waited until he got through the bedroom doorway then said I needed to get some water. Carefully, I got out of bed at the foot, avoiding the shattered glass. He didn’t turn. I hurried toward my kitchen, opened the outside door and ran! The slamming door alerted him, but he couldn’t have had time to pee- he chased me! Thankfully I had enough of a head start toward (hopefully) inhabited apartments. He saw where I was going, then turned and ran the other way.
The person who responded to my door banging called hospital security, who chased down the intruder and called the police. They brought him in handcuffs so I could ID him. But he looked me in the face and said, “It was me.” I asked him why, and he said he’d seen me through the windows and I’d looked “nice.” He was taken to jail briefly then sentenced to be publicly shunned. Several days later, the Assistant Attorney General of American Samoa called to tell me about how shunning is used to shame people for certain crimes when no physical injury had taken place. He said it works very well in their culture, as public avoidance causes much shame. He also asked me to please stay for my promised three months, as Samoans depended on their volunteers for health care. I assured him I had no intention of leaving.
Local people and my friends and family were very concerned and supportive. The emotional toll wasn’t a burden I could have easily carried without their help. Yet there were just a few who asked, “What’s the big deal? He didn’t hurt you, so. . . ?” But of course pain is rarely only physical. The comments and attitudes of those few still haunt me, just as the sight of the intruder’s knife left behind near my chair haunts me. They are just a tiny glimpse of what the “Silence Breakers” must face.