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Doing the Dance: A Mother Reports on the Loss of Safety, Freedom, and Life in the Wake of the Sniper
by Katy Gerhard, MSW, LGSW

The sniper has been caught, but will there be new normal after 2 weeks of life under siege? The first five shots were fired near where I currently live, what I consider my normal driving area, of about five to seven miles from home. One of them was close enough for me to walk to from my childhood home here. One fatal shot was heard by my neighbor's friend as she came out of a local restaurant, and so I learned about it even before it reached the news. In the newspaper they have a map that shows where the shots were fired, marking them with black circles. In my area, several of these black dots touch other dots. Nothing usually disturbs my sleep, but for the last two weeks, I haven't had a night where I didn't wake up from a nightmare, or from the void, and find myself wide awake.

Our neighborhood consists of about 90 homes on a loop that backs to a large public park and creek. Heavily wooded, and perfect for dog walks, running, play, the parks are now almost totally empty, except for the police cars that visit and sometimes monitor the parking lot. Roads seem distinctly emptier, especially on weekends. I can park quite close to some buildings now. Normally my neighbors and I stand and chat, whether we meet near home, or at a store parking lot. Lately, I've sensed I would be worse than rude to hold a person in an open space, even with a brief hello. I don't call out to hurrying friends I spot outside. We hurtle past each other. And I've set up dog play dates in my back yard, rather than take my dog to the park. The dog is almost as antsy as my two children, Samuel age 16 and Rena age 9, who haven't had recess or physical education outside activity at school since early October.

The creek and woods are a sort of backdrop to almost everything I do, whether I drop my daughter at school, get gas, get groceries, go to the library. And the victim on the front of today's Washington Post, 10-16-02, was a 47-year-old white woman, which is what I am, and how I'd be noted if I were shot on my way home tonight. Sometimes I have to be outside, and I have to pray to feel confident that I can walk into my death if it's required of me. Mostly I fear for my two children and husband, who is a letter carrier and outside most of the day.

Almost everyone I know has changed some things to feel more safe. I'm now using a grocery store that has an underground garage, so I'm not outside when I shop. After doing the Tia Chi dance at the gas pumps, I have lined up another gas station in the center of town, and not near woods. I normally never break any laws, and twice lately I've parked in fire lanes, because I couldn't think of any other way to avoid crossing a parking lot with a clear view of the woods. And I've left the car doors unlocked, so that I could enter my car without even a second's delay. I've even told my daughter to walk in zig zag patterns when we've had to be out. And sometimes you have to be out -- the day of her birthday, we continued as normal, getting flowers, bakery, silly string at one toy store, balloons another place. I just told her to walk in fast zig zags. People were fearful, but nobody cancelled, not one of a dozen.

The secret service, FBI, and now the army are all helping the police. This level of cooperation is almost unheard of, as are the highway blockades around shooting sites. We received several memos from both our children's schools, written in haste, some simply broadcast over the PA when there wasn't time to Xerox them. One from the Superintendent of schools suggested that we try to focus on enjoying the beautiful things around us, even in this time of distress. Another one said to turn off the TV and radio at home, to spare our children. At first that was hard, but as the sniper has set his rhythm, I no longer feel a need to keep total tabs on his recent evil.

There's a problem with the rhythm thoug h-- when one or two days go by without a shot, my husband and I both feel a sense of growing anxiety. We aren't sadist voyeurs, but I know I feel I've bought 24 safer hours, as soon as somebody is shot. And this makes me disgusted with myself. At the end of 84 hours without a shot, my husband, cool as he is, was visibly distressed. And when he went out to bring home pizza from a local restaurant, he called from a lighted phone booth. Part of his ritual is that he always talks to our daughter, whenever he calls in, no matter how recently they've seen each other. This time she was clamoring for me to hand the phone down to her, and he said, "Yesno, don't give her the phone, I don't want to be out here in a lighted phone booth."

My daughter Rena, age nine, had to reluctantly surrender her safety patrol belt last week. Her school system had cancelled outside patrol duty, but worried that bright yellow belts could make a child an attractive target to a sniper. Likewise, I ruled against wearing a new bright yellow fleece vest from the birthday. Later that night, well after dark, I went to pick her up from a play date and was surprised the other mother was so relaxed she didn't even know where our girls were. There is a wide range of normal reactions to stress, and she was far on the other end, toward unconcern. I found the girls, after some searching, in plain sight. They were playing sniper, each clothed entirely in black including watch caps, one rolled up against the wheels of her mother's car, my own girl a bare ten feet from me. And I knew then how utterly foolish it was for me to be even bothering to visually check into the adjacent woods.

Nobody was shot at my daughter's elementary school, but as I drove up on the third day of this string of atrocities, I found myself suspicious of everyone. After I drove my station wagon up to the area directly next to the cafeteria truck dock, and had dropped my daughter off at the very door to her daycare, I did something stupid and uncharacteristic.

I approached two newsmen somewhat aggressively (this wasn't coming from intelligence, just instinct) demanding what they were doing. Just like on tv, the man without the camera shook my hand through the window and said a hearty, "Hi I'm Brian from Channel Seven, and the police weren't too sure about us either." I knew, they'd driven down the one way street, the wrong way, to look them over.

This is awful to live with, and as I write, this has been awful for 14 days. But awful's been going on for 13 months. First 9/11, and then the anthrax contamination that had my postal carrier husband walking his route with a bottle of cipro antibiotics in his pocket, and a number of tragic incidents where local children were fatally struck by cars. We were better prepared to deal with this in some ways, both emotionally and logistically. Emotionally, we responded more quickly and confidentially, and left work with less self-debate.

Now I am on a list serve from my children's schools, so on the first day, I had the code blue announcement within minutes of the schools locking their doors. I immediately left my work in DC, to wait for my son at high school, which has 3,400 students, and is adjacent to highway access. Finding him in that crowd was difficult, even though the office had been kind enough to tell him where I wanted to meet him. I was almost in tears by the end of 20 minutes after the bell, talking to another boy who was supposed to meet his mother inside the school, but couldn't find her.

The first thing I did was tell my son he wouldn't be picking his sister up at her school until this was over. Bad enough that he had to be on the street once, coming home by bus. But I wasn't going to have him doing a walk to and from Rena's school too. That gave me a moment's relief, but then I had to think of my daughter -- her classroom is in one of 5 trailers that back to the woods. Locking the door doesn't make them more secure, particularly. I kept her home one day, and arranged other mothers to pick her up. I called the principal to ask for more security. The principal had kept the learning cottage (trailer) kids in the halls for 2 days, but no learning was taking place, and it was pretty awful for kids and teachers. She was sorry but sympathetic. She freely admitted that she too had been doing the gas station dance, where we fill our gas tanks while keeping in constant motion, hoping to gain a margin of safety. And just this morning I saw a woman doing the dance while she waited for a bus. She was wearing heels too, and that's something I've seen less of this past two weeks. That, and people walking while blithely talking into cell phones.

I thought I might be a bit more paranoid than most, but my friend Ellen, recently back from living in Johannesburg in South Africa, went even a little further than calling the principal. She personally walked through those woods, thinking as a sniper might, and checking for lines of vision. But then again, her husband had been shot through the neck by a hijacker (and by a miracle lived) ten years back.

Now everything is flipped. Now I feel I've reached safety when I get to the subway. Twelve months ago, I was sure the subway was where anthrax would be next released. And darkness is safer than being out in an open, well lighted area at night. For the families of those already killed, there will be no return to normal. And as I talk to my friends here, I don't think we're going to look back on this period of voluntary confinement as another blizzard of '96 freak. I fear this may be the new normal.

Katy Gerhard, MSW, LGSW, is a writer and social worker living in the MD/VA/DC area.


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