Unwitting Prey-How My Split Second Instincts Saved Me From My Attacker

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He targeted me the moment I sat down. Did I look like easy prey as I was rushing to work? Unaware of him at first, I sat down and took out my phone to listen to music on the way uptown.

As the express five train left the hustle of Manhattan on that beautiful summer day and moved above ground I noticed how empty the train was. Thinking how strange this was for an 8am morning commute, I counted just three people, including myself, in my subway car.

Everything seemed quieter than usual. A tall man with a white shirt and black shorts who was sitting across from me stood up, preparing to get off of the train as we approached the next stop. I watched his bright white sneakers move towards the exit, but a second later something inexplicably seemed not quite right, he had veered off in the most imperceptible way. His sneakers now pointed ever so slightly at me and at that moment I knew, somehow I just knew that he was going to do something to me.

In the millisecond between realizing this and his body lunging at me, I tightened my grip on my bag and leaned over, my shoulders and body hunched forward in a self-protective position. He charged at me, aggressively grabbing my bag and trying to rip it off of my body. I fought back, my hands clamped down on my purse straps with iron clad fists, refusing to relinquish it as he continued to forcefully pull at my bag. In that moment, as we engaged in this bitter fight, everything just stood still. The subway seemed to freeze, the lights, the noise, the song that was still playing on my phone, the bright sunshine outside, all of it was just frozen.

Seconds later, I was abruptly jolted back to reality. The tall, angry mystery man and I were still battling and with my heart racing and fists still clenched, a voice in my head kept saying “just hold on.” Then the lights, sunshine and subway noise instantly came back, the conductor calling out the next stop in that garbled, you can never really understand what they are saying kind of way. The wheels coming to a slow screeching stop as we approached the next station. He had to decide, how long will he stay there and try to rob me? Will he escalate and hit me? Will he run away?

He must have decided, with the next subway stop so close, that it was risky to keep battling with me since more people will likely be getting on the train, “STOP” I screamed at the top of my lungs. The only other person in that subway car, a man who had been sitting at the other end, looked up and finally saw what was happening and began screaming at this aggressive, unknown man. The train stopped at that second and the doors swung open and he flew out like a speeding bullet disappearing into the hot summer air.

“Asshole” I screamed as he sped away. He disappeared into the crowded subway platform, faster than I could even process what had just happened. The next wave of people got on, filling up the subway car as the humid air drifted on to the train.

I sat, frozen, for the rest of the ride to work, almost missing my stop, with my body still hunched forward over my bag. The moment replaying over and over again as I sat in disbelief.

And I wondered, what would I do if the subway ever stood still like that again?

When I told my family and friends what had happened some were alarmed and said “what if he had a gun or if he punched you?” Yes, all of that could have happened, but in that adrenaline filled, fight or flight moment, when someone lunged at me, aggressively pulling my body forward so he could rob me, my first reaction was to fight back.

It was my instincts (those fleeting feelings that all of us, myself included, have at some point dismissed as “I am just being paranoid or non-sensical”) that seemed to whisper to me (and this time I couldn’t ignore that whisper) in that split second when I saw his shoes turned slightly in my direction, tipping me off that something about this man was amiss. 

When it comes to listening to these momentary instincts we are often skeptical of this type of quick insight because we have been conditioned to believe that it is more effective to deliberate and collect information in order to make sound decisions and react appropriately to our surroundings. The belief that things are invalid or unreliable when they appear in an inexplicable, spur of the moment way, may explain why we are often so willing to dismiss these intuitive signs. Things that we can’t explain convincingly with logic, science or facts often end up being disregarded as erroneous.

Believing in our split second intuition in times of distress also forces us to acknowledge a terrifying reality, that danger or some form of heightened stress may be imminent and our reflexive response is often to discredit or downplay that feeling. As much as we see crime on the news and know that violence is prevalent in our culture, we often try to reassure ourselves that it is less likely that these things will ever happen to us, we feel an unspoken sense of trust in the universe that we will somehow stay safe and when we are confronted with something that shatters that illusion, we may inadvertently undermine it. Believing my instincts that day allowed me to fend off my attacker; a man who expected to overpower and blindside me with his aggression. 

While it is true that in most facets of our lives (work, school) weighted analysis does lead us to the right conclusion, but in matters of safety or possible danger these electric quick signals are exactly what we need to listen to. The very nature that they tend to be quick and seemingly come out of nowhere should lend them more credence, not less. It is our split second instincts, that appear in different scenarios, that often act as our own personal warning system and we must trust ourselves enough to pause and listen.

There is no factual explanation as to why a random man’s white sneakers, turning ever so slightly in my direction as he exited the train, tipped me off to his intentions, they just did. It was as if those shoes were revealing to me that “we are not supposed to be facing you and something is about to happen.”

I will never ignore those short-lived “whispers” again, especially in those moments when I least expect something to happen.

Moments like that beautiful, sunny, summer day on the uptown train.


20 thoughts on “Unwitting Prey-How My Split Second Instincts Saved Me From My Attacker

  1. Really loved your article: It reminded me of an experience once at work where I was working in a storage area across from our office, and adjacent to a kitchen.

    A young man wandered in seeming lost saying he needed a application for work. “You are in the wrong place,” I let him know.

    He asked me for a drink I’d water. So, I gave it to him and continued working (my back was turned away from him). All the sudden my intuition sensed that finishing his water had taken a second or three too long to drink.

    When I turned, he had his pants down and then he cornered me and was approaching me. Like you , I was assertive. I directed him to, “get out of here!”, reached over to a phone hanging on the wall next to me, and dialed the operator as I kept asserting, “Get out of Here!”

    He ran out. I don’t know what his intentions were, but like you I am surprised that I picked up on something alarming. And really it was just sending a couple seconds that seemed too long. My reaction also surprised me.

    Did you notice after your experience that you were hyper sensitive to men approaching you on or off the subway? This kid was clean cut , sincere, and seemed very nice. There wasn’t anything obviously weird or. odd looking about him. So, it left me, for a time, a little PTSD. In time, that has faded, but I will always trust my instincts.

    Another note: As women, we are conditioned to be nice. So, not opening a door for someone who knocks, or handing out cell phone to someone in need of making a call seems rude. I never open my door or roll down my window to someone I don’t know. I lock my door when panhandlers are standing on the street with a sign, or even a nice looking man. At first this seemed a little rude (I was afraid they would feel bad and that I don’t trust them). I don’t. Now, I would never get myself in a position where I am alone with someone I don’t know, let alone turn my back. Safety First.

    And, I am not sure I would have hung into my purse (who knows), but positioning yourself NOT as a victim and in control certainly worked to your advantage. I believe it did for my situation too.

    Lovely Article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your experience. I am so glad you got the instinct that he was taking just a little to long with his water. I agree, after these types of things you can feel the impact for a long time. I always felt uncomfortable afterwards if someone got to close to me on the train and I would remember those white sneakers. It is also very true that we do not need to worry if we are being “friendly” or “polite” in every scenario. If someone makes us uncomfortable then we have to do whatever we need to do to feel safer. Our safety always comes first. Thanks again for sharing!

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  2. Such a scary situation to be in. But, trusting your instinct and fighting back is so important because that’s what the attacker isn’t expecting!

    Liked by 1 person

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