Rewind – The Checklist of Fear

On rewind days, I bring you a post that has previously appeared at my other now-defunct blog, Right to Bleed. If you’ve read it before, skip on by, or go ahead and enjoy the rewind.

This one is from January 30th, 2009.

Every time I go into a bathroom stall in a public place, I am reminded of a warning I received from a now-forgotten source long, long ago. Don’t hang your purse on the hook on the door, because thieves  will reach over the door and steal your purse. I don’t know if this is still common advice; I haven’t heard it lately. Even in the face of the warning, I have never failed to hang my purse from the door. Even as I remember it every single time, I do not heed the warning. Regardless of not heeding it, though, it still takes up room in my brain. As do countless other warnings and tactics taught to me from nebulous sources over the years.

  • When walking down the street, be aware of whether any one is behind you.
  • Hold your keys in your hand to serve as a weapon if needed.
  • Don’t flash cash in public.
  • Have your keys out when you approach your car so you don’t have to fumble for them.
  • Lock your door as soon as you get into your car.
  • Lock your door at home and all your windows.
  • Don’t put your kid’s name on the back of their T-shirt, so kidnappers can’t fake familiarity.
  • When you set your purse down in a restaurant, put it on the floor with your foot through the strap so no one can snatch it.
  • When walking, wear your purse across your body or have your hand on the strap to prevent it from being snatched.
  • Don’t admit to a telemarketer that you’re home alone.
  • Shred your documents before throwing them away so your info can’t be pilfered from the trash.
  • Be constantly looking around you when at the ATM.
  • Never let your drink out of your sight or accept a drink from a stranger.
  • Visually confirm the presence of the condom, in case the guy has pulled the Alka-seltzer packet trick.
  • Count your pills from the pharmacist, in case they’ve swindled a few from you.
  • Put paper down on the seat of a public toilet lest you catch something horrible.
  • Don’t stand next to people on the subway or they’ll stab you with a hypodermic needle and give you AIDS.
  • Don’t sift through the trash or you’ll get stabbed with a discarded hypodermic needle and get AIDS.
  • Beware of Halloween candy that someone may have hidden a razor in.
  • Turn off every light, blow out the candle, and unplug everything  or your house will burn down.
  • Run back in three times to make sure.

I know all of these rules, and countless more, and remember them frequently, even the ones I don’t chose to adhere to. Is the world such a scary place that I must constantly remind myself of a gazillion little safety details? Of the millions of women, purses, and bathrooms, how many have actually fallen prey to the over-the-door-thief? How many purses have been saved by millions of us sweating this detail? And might those saved purses merely been stolen in some other manner? Does the dodge of one little crime actually prevent crime overall? Or are all of these little mantras simply the illusion of control? Do they serve to do good, or simply serve to make us all afraid and a little less free, a little more compliant and reserved than we might otherwise be?

Like many other cultural campaigns, each little warning seems innocuous. If you’re the person who gets swindled by a trash-rifling thief, shredding documents seems like an easy enough precaution. It doesn’t take much energy, right? It’s a little thing. Why not take this one small measure, if it might prevent a very big problem? But saving yourself from the perils of trash-riflers doesn’t do anything to protect you from over-the-door purse snatchers. So, it isn’t just one little thing that you must do to protect yourself. It’s countless, limitless bullet points that you must constantly be diligent about. And the chances that you will fall victim to the trash-thief OR the purse snatcher OR the home burgler OR the parking lot guy OR the drink-doser are still so tiny.

We’re told that the equation goes like this: You just have to do this one tiny thing to prevent this other huge thing. But I don’t think the statistics stack up that way. The reality is that you have to do this HUGE mental thing in order to prevent a probably-will-never happen. Plus, you get co-opted to be a criminal against yourself. Now not only is your pharmacist out to get you, YOU are out to get you. If your pharmacist doesn’t steal two pills from you, you will surely take up the slack by stealing away your own time, your peace, your faith in the goodness of the world, your relaxation, the very safety of your mind.

And once those little nuggets of cultural-wide fear-balm are in your brain, they’re hard to forget. I never put paper down on the toilet seat, never walk with my keys in hand, I take drinks from strangers, and I trust that the bank and my pharmacist haven’t shorted me. And yet these warnings cross my mind anyway, much as my mother’s voice looms up in my brain to convince me I’ve sinned, when I haven’t believed in sin for 15 years.

Fuck. That. Shit.

I wish I could start a global movement to ridicule people who pass off these little nuggets as must-haves for your daily itemized to-do list.

I was in a long-term relationship once with someone whom I could never please. Every other thing I did was wrong in some way or another. Something I wore. A certain look I would get. This phrase or that. A habit. My likes and dislikes. In an effort to keep the peace, I went through mental gymnastics trying to remember everything I was supposed to do or not do. I thought of this as (cue ominous inner voice) THE CHECKLIST. Do this. Don’t do that. Say this. Don’t say that. Wear this. Don’t wear that. If you have any experience in or around dysfunctional relationships, I’m sure you’re not surprised when I say that my efforts to adhere to the ever-growing checklist had absolutely no effect on the stability of our relationship. Not only was he always disapproving, it was always something NEW. My checklist did not live up to its supposed ability to prevent what I feared. For a long time, though, I took each new infraction as evidence not of my flawed reasoning, but of the necessity of adding yet another thing to the list.

I think the typical admonishments of ways to keep ourselves safe fall into this same trap. We have a dysfunctional relationship with life and with the rest of the world. We have THE CHECKLIST – a constantly growing list of ways to act or not act that will supposedly keep us safe. And when we hear of a way in which someone was harmed, we don’t just say, “That sucks and shit happens.” Nope, we add something to the list. Someone is diligent about hand washing, but gets sick from the salad they ate the night they cooked chicken? OH MY GOD, you have to make sure to use different cutting boards when cooking! You wash your hands and use different cutting boards but got sick from your chicken anyway? OH MY GOD, you need a thermometer to make sure your chicken reaches the necessary temperature! You wash your hands, use different cutting boards, and cook your chicken thoroughly, but your morning eggs make you sick instead? OH MY GOD, don’t you know you can’t store your eggs in the door of the refrigerator?!?!?!

You diligently keep your purse in your lap in the bathroom, but it gets stolen off your seat in the diner? Add to the list that you need to loop your feet through the strap. Keep it close in the bathroom and in the diner, but get it yanked off your arm on the street? Keep your hand tight around the strap next time. Get it stolen by a kid who runs by and cuts the strap, slipping it from your grasp? You’re not sure what you did wrong, but as soon as you figure it out, you’ll add it to the list!

Holy shit! Life is an abusive partner, constantly letting you know how it’s all your fault, and you’re the insecure participant, constantly agreeing and adding stuff to the checklist. Sooner or later, you’re going to get it right, your checklist will be complete, and then nothing bad will ever happen to you. When bad stuff happens to other people, it will be because their checklist was inferior.

Or not.

These days, in my relationships, I do what I can to banish the checklist. If a partner of mine says they’d rather I did or didn’t do something, I try to evaluate how I actually feel about it. Sometimes I agree or it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t matter whether I do or don’t do it in the future. Sometimes I don’t want to change the thing, and I have to make myself keep doing it or not doing it, in an effort to battle my own tendency to checklist the preferences of others. I think it would be worthwhile to consider the requests we make of partners before ever even mentioning them, though. Once you state a criticism of someone, they can’t un-hear it, and it can be hard not to add it to a list.

In life, I also try to avoid the checklist. Putting paper down on the toilet seat? Seriously?! What exactly is going to happen to me if I don’t? Someone in a discussion group once proclaimed that they didn’t want their vagina coming into contact with a potentially infected surface. She got the resounding reply of, “Um, if you’re vagina is involved with the seat, you’re doing it wrong. Back to Bathroom 101 with you.” Paper on the toilet seat is right out. Shredding my documents before they go in the  trash is right out. If someone wants to rob me, I’m sure they can succeed. If they don’t get my info from my trash, I’m sure there’s another way that I haven’t yet added to my list. Better to not make that list! I’m not going to jump through hoops to prevent that crime. Do I cook my chicken all the way through? Yeah. Although once I was having this similar conversation while cooking and to make a point about what I am or am not afraid of, I licked the raw chicken. Trust me, there are reasons not to lick a raw chicken that don’t involve whatever it is you’re supposed to catch from it. Ew.

Like with the relationship requests, it’s hard to un-hear these little safety admonishments that are blithely tossed about. This whole rant started because I’ve never put my purse anywhere BUT the hook on the door, yet tonight I’m sitting there in the bathroom of a restaurant staring at the hook, aware that I’m violating some rule I don’t even remember specifically hearing. I realized that I’m in a dysfunctional relationship with public fucking bathrooms. This is why I want to start the ridicule campaign. I wish it was unpopular to spout safety nuggets without actually considering the worthwhile-ness of your cause. Next time you hear someone tell you not to hang your purse on the hook in the bathroom, laugh at them and tell them they’re an idiot. Or surreptitiously sneak into the bathroom after them and steal their purse from underneath the next stall, because that shit would be funny.

Remember to bring a box cutter, in case they’re a foot looper.


  1. JP says

    Great read. As the proud son of an over protective mother, despite by best attempts at raising her better, I couldn’t agree more with this post.

    • says

      @JP I’ve got some over-protecive parents in my history, too – that’s likely where a lot of these came from, even if I don’t remember. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for stopping by! :-)

  2. Graham B says

    This is wonderful. What I find interesting are the parallels between this idea on a personal level and the current security paranoia worsening in the UK and the States in particular. The TSA also has THE CHECKLIST – “a constantly growing list of ways to act or not act that will supposedly keep us safe”.

    • says

      @Graham I completely agree! The TSA definitely has THE CHECKLIST – starting with nail clippers and ending up with the absurdity we have now. What a mess.

  3. Olivia says

    As a former reporter in politically unstable parts of the world, I definitely have an internal checklist of fear. Some of your “ridicule points” are even on my personal checklist (“Be aware of who is behind you”), and I have even more ridiculous stuff on my checklist too (“Never take an unflattering picture of dictators. That includes pictures of pictures of dictators that are randomly present in the background. Always make sure his head is not missing, or yours might be!”). Another one is, “always carry a knife, just in case. Sure, it will mainly be used to clean your nails, but you never know.”

    The most important item on my personal safety checklist is one that is largely forgotten in modern society, and actually makes a lot of the points on your “rules to ridicule” list redundant. It’s this – always trust your intuition. Never ignore that voice of fear coming from deep inside you – rather than from funny rules – because it is probably right.

    • says

      @Olivia I don’t mind so much rules that come from specific experience or that apply to a specific setting. Watching your back in an unstable area makes sense to me… it just doesn’t make sense to watch your back in the parking lot at the mall. Never take unflattering pictures of dictators might have no meaning now that you’re not a political reporter anymore, but at least it HAD relevance to your real life. And “always carry a knife” is just good advice! :-) That one would bother me if someone were advising it from a fear-based position, but from a preparation-based position, it’s fairly useful advice. A knife is good for cleaning your nails, cutting rope/twine, preparing food, digging… AND stabbing people if necessary. I don’t mind that kind of thing. It seems a FAR cry from looking for razors in Halloween candy.

  4. Olivia says

    One thing that just occurred to me as I was reading this: “Or are all of these little mantras simply the illusion of control? Do they serve to do good, or simply serve to make us all afraid and a little less free, a little more compliant and reserved than we might otherwise be?”

    Perhaps there’s another option still – these mantras might serve to blame the victim if a crime took place. Purse stolen? Well, why didn’t you take better care of it!?

    Talking about stealing… I am totally stealing your idea. Watch out for my checklist of fear – pregnancy and birth edition :).

    BTW, happy new year!

  5. Sarah says

    Love it! It is word for word of what I remember hearing from my mom. Honestly, I am not going to sit with my purse or sit it on the floor. They are both unattractive choices. I personally liked to keep an eye on my purse on the hook and then fixate on how I am going to chase after the purse thief with my pants around my feet.

    • says

      @Sarah Thanks for that imagery! That’s what I’m going to do from now on when I’m looking at my purse on that hook. I’m going to imagine me running after the thief half naked. :-)

  6. says

    I might just be naive, but I don’t do this. I very seldom think about something stealing my purse, so I just sit it or hang it wherever. I very seldom think that a strange wants to hurt me, so I don’t check to see if anyone is behind me or looking at me. I just figure everyone walking on the same road as me has some place to be in that direction. I never see myself as a target. I mean logically I guess I could be, but so far I have never had anything stolen, or been attacked or conned, so I mostly just figure I will worry about it when it happens.

    I do have one question. How do handguns fit into this? You say you would not keep a knife because of fear of attack, but don’t you keep guns for that reason? Or maybe just Joshua does?

    • says

      I don’t think you’re naive. You’re free of all this worrying and concern without it actually increasing your risk much at all (if at all!)

      In an earlier comment reply to Olivia, I said, “And ‘always carry a knife’ is just good advice! :-) That one would bother me if someone were advising it from a fear-based position, but from a preparation-based position, it’s fairly useful advice. A knife is good for cleaning your nails, cutting rope/twine, preparing food, digging… AND stabbing people if necessary. I don’t mind that kind of thing. It seems a FAR cry from looking for razors in Halloween candy.”

      That applies to my thoughts about guns. I’ve decided not to carry a gun with me, because it’s over my line of how I think I can safely handle guns, and because I’m not much of a carry-things-with-me kind of person. I like having guns in the house, and I think of it like a useful tool to have on hand. I have fire extinguishers, a stocked medicine cabinet, and stored water, too. Those things don’t take up a lot of worry room in my brain. They are “preparedness” instead of “snippets of anxiety-inducing bad advice”. Does that make sense?

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