An exercise sometimes used in counselling is “The Unsent Letter”. Wrting such a letter can help when something has happened that feels unfinished or unresolved. Recently I realised that a robbery I experienced some years ago still has that unresolved quality. Here is my own unsent letter to the young man who robbed me. (Please note, if you have been subjected to a street attack, that this material may trigger painful memories.)
To my mugger
I’m not sure why the incident came into my mind this week. It’s 12 years or so since you grabbed me and shoved me down an alley, aiming to rob me. Succeeding in that.
Perhaps I was reminded by the low early evening December light. Perhaps it was that I happened to be walking past that run down part of the town. You must have been disappointed with your meagre haul: a brick of a phone. Some stationary. A few pounds in my purse. Bank cards that I’d immediately ring and cancel.
But maybe the point of the mugging wasn’t really about getting stuff. Maybe it was about having the nerve to do it. I wish I could ask you.
I was half way down the alley, when I heard running footsteps behind me. And before I could even turn and look, you grabbed me and slammed me against the wall. You were trying to tug the bag from my back, while I hung on to it. I was shocked, yes of course. But mostly I was angry.
And I remember your face close to mine, hissing at me to let go. What a beautiful young face you had. Almond eyes, coffee coloured skin, sculpted lips. How old were you then? Later, the police asked me to estimate and I said no more than 18, but you were probably younger. I think that’s part of what made me so angry! How dared you rob me! Me, old enough to be your mother!!
We wrestled. You raised the knife that I hadn’t even realised you were holding, up to my cheek. You said “I’ll cut you if you don’t give it to me”. Anger made me reckless though. I still held on.
Later, in my home, where two police officers accompanied me, to drink tea and take my statement, they asked what happened next. I told them what I said. I said, “You’ll have to cut me then, because I’m not giving it to you”.
And then, in the safety of my kitchen, without anger to fuel me, I felt a surge of terror. What a stupid thing to say to someone holding a knife to your cheek! I remember actually feeling dizzy and sick at that point.
In my white privilege, my grasp of what motivated you is limited to speculations that feel trite and patronising. And it is hard to write this, knowing I may well come across as a smug do-gooder.
But part of why I need to write this letter is to say thank you.. Thank you for not cutting me. I was never particularly brave about pain. So thank you, for having more sense than I did. For not calling my bluff. For allowing me to call yours.
You shoved me to the ground and prized the bag away. I chased you, but the moment it took me to get back on my feet gave you enough time, a few seconds, to disappear. I got to the end of the alley way and there was no trace of you. Just houses. And I knew you must have gone inside somewhere. That I wouldn’t ever catch you.
Remembering this, I thought of all the questions that stay with me. Are you OK? Why did you do it? Did you do that often? I hope not.
Was it a stupid dare? Did you go on to more criminal activity? Have you stopped now? I hope so.
You are either dead or an adult now, perhaps in your 30s. Do you have kids? Do you have a son? Did you get some education? A proper job? Something fulfilling to care about?
A young black guy in the dodgy part of town tries his hand at robbery. Seen it in a dozen TV shows and movies. And as I imagine the different possible outcomes for you, I realise how my imagination is limited by stereotypes. I want to think of you overcoming the odds to become a teacher, or a social worker, a loving Dad, a musician perhaps, someone who plays football, or video games with your mates and your kids. But those are my fantasies, borrowed from those same TV shows.
I’m not a religious person, I don’t pray. But this letter is like a prayer, maybe. Or a wish. Or a hope. I know you have forgotten me. But just in case prayers and wishes really do work: here’s mine. I wish you a Happy Christmas