When you're ten years old and wearing a new paisley-patterned pastel bikini, the top cinched, sophisticatedly you imagine, with a yellow ribbon, and you have your blanket spread out on the grass of the Cathkin Braes, over the hill from where everyone else has clustered together, and your dad's transistor radio, borrowed for the afternoon without his knowledge, is lying snugly in its brown leather carrying case, blasting out your favorite songs—when all of this is true, you just know it's going to be a great afternoon. This is how I found myself one sunny day in July in the middle of a Glasgow summer. The Cathkin Braes lay behind the tower blocks of flats (inspired by Le Corbusier but hopelessly inadequate to withstand the damp Scottish weather) where we had moved to start a new life when I was 5. The hills were steeped in history; it was from the ridge I sat on that Mary Queen of Scots had watched her troops lose the Battle of Langside, and with it all her hopes of claiming the English throne. I loved these hills, and loved to have them all to myself the better to indulge my sense of difference from the worker bees around me. I had climbed higher into the braes than anyone else ever bothered to do. I could hear the families gathered on the slopes below, hear their games of football, yells of laughter, and occasional screams from a baby. I wanted nothing to do with any of them.
I kicked off my new sandals, removed my shorts, and settled with a book I wanted to finish that day. I also had a sketch pad with me and imagined I would read for an hour or so and then draw some flowers. I'd just turned a page or two in the novel when I became aware that someone was watching me from behind. I sat up, turned, and saw a lanky man, short haired, ruddy in the way Scottish men sometimes are, ambling from the woods. Something in the certainty of his step told me he was heading for me, not just accidentally passing where I was. I watched him advance, noting the moustache, the slight bag of the trousers, the general air of purpose that enveloped him. He came and sat at the edge of the blanket and made a little chitchat about the day and how he wondered if I knew which bus he should take to get back into the center of town. I couldn't really tell how old he was—he looked oldish as everyone over 18 does to a 10-year-old. He became very still and I could feel gooseflesh rise on my arms and thighs; his gaze was disturbing and in the stillness it crystallized for me that he was observing me in an unnatural way and that he liked what he saw. Instinctively I knew that something was really not right. With a calmness that came from God knows where and that completely belied the panic I was starting to feel, I moved onto my knees and started to gather my things together. He smiled as he watched this, and I said, politely I thought, "I have to go home now, but there are a lot of people just over there, grown-ups and dads, and they'll know which bus you need." He smiled again, then reached into his trouser pocket and asked, "If I gave you this two shillings, would you agree to be my girlfriend?" Everything cartoons suggest about fear now became my reality—I moved in slow-mo, my heart thumped, my words wouldn't come out. All I knew was that I needed to run very fast and right then. I clutched what I could and made to bolt, which is when he grabbed my ankle and twisted it so hard I guessed he'd just broken it.
We fought and struggled as he part-threw, part-dragged me toward the cover of the woods. I remember feeling tired at some point in this battle, tempted to just be very still and stop resisting, which was only leading to more force coming down on me. I let my muscles slacken for a second and then a huge rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins and I exploded into a frenzy of clawing and blow-throwing. I was a good fighter, a dirty fighter, my skills honed on the Glasgow playground, where girls swung a fist in each other's direction with hardly a thought. Eventually I did kick free and as I ran I saw and heard nothing. I must have run through the families picnicking on the lower hills, but I don't remember, and I don't remember crossing the grassy slopes, or the pain from the damaged ankle, or the chunks of hair that had been pulled out, or any of the other injuries. I do remember my bare feet hitting the concrete of the parking lot that sat in front of our apartments, and a surge of hope as I looked up and saw my mother waving from our 17th-floor balcony. She'd gone out to water her tomato plants, and as she saw me running helter-skelter, looking completely deranged, she wondered if I'd ever remember to be tidy and not to look, as she liked to describe me, "like you've been dragged through a hedge backward." When I reached her, the first thing I said was that I'd lost one of my new sandals, then the sobs came and I told her about the man.
Of course, the next scene involves the police and my dad petting my hand and my mother unable to resist saying, "You should never have gone off by yourself." That's one lesson I could have learned from the incident, and it's certainly the one that most fairy tales and parables endorse, but I didn't. Not even when I was told that my assailant was believed to be Scotland's most notorious serial killer, a character known as Bible John who terrorized women in the late 1960s, picking them up at the East End Barrowland Ballroom, asking them to be his girlfriend, then strangling, raping, and discarding them. He has never been caught, and to the best of my knowledge, I'm the only girl who ever got away.
So what did I learn? I suppose if I had to boil it down, I would say I learned to trust what Daniel Goleman would call emotional intelligence. I learned that when alarm bells are ringing, you should listen to them and act, that you should case out your surroundings and wonder if it's a good idea to be there, and that you should trust adrenaline to be your friend. But I didn't learn fear, because the central fact for me was that I survived, and with the knowledge that danger is real came the certainty that courage is, too. For a few years after the attack, and before I was told that the police believed Bible John was the assailant, I would imagine I saw the guy in all kinds of locations. I'd report these to my father—"I think he's working at that new Chinese takeout," I'd say. And my dad would nod and say, "You do," and put on his shoes and head out to check.
He'd often come home and say something like "It's not him. That's Sam White's son, he's only three years older than you." That my dad went each time filled me with an immense sense of safety and control, and after a few years, the sightings stopped and I realized I wouldn't really be able to draw his portrait if I was asked to. I'd been left with a belief in vigilance, and this is, I suppose, the final, mixed lesson of the incident. I notice a lot—how many people are in a room, where the doors are, what the mood is—to the extent that for a while I honestly thought my destiny was to be a spy. It would be really fine with me now and then to turn this habit off and be less vigilant on my way through the world. It's a bit tiring, you know? On the other hand, that vigilance has allowed me to feel very sure of myself, physically, and very confident that I could survive whatever came my way. I'd say that, in a way I'm hard pressed to define, the attack left me feeling safer than I might otherwise have done. When I came across Joseph Conrad's thoughts about how we project our vulnerabilities into the world and signal to others how we can be hurt, I was very taken with his whole theory, and reassured by it, too. I realized that I've chosen to interpret the event as proof that I'm not open to attack, I'm the lucky girl, the one who gets away.
Elaina Richardson left Scotland in 1982. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, December 9, 2013