Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Gorilla No One Sees

A couple of weeks ago, on an ordinary weekday, two things happened that convinced me that I now see things I never would have seen before.

A week before Christmas, I was standing at the customer service counter at Target, where I was returning a purchase. In my online-gift-ordering zeal, designed to prevent me from setting foot in any commercial establishment during the month of December, I ended up ordering the same gift twice. So here I was, returning one of them. Behind me, a long line of weary shoppers waited their turns.

As the young woman at the counter was completing my transaction, the phone rang. Reluctantly, she apologized and then picked up the phone. I waited as she helped the caller and answered his questions.

It was clear the caller was looking for someone who wasn’t currently on shift. I listened as the clerk tried, unsuccessfully, to wrap up the call. I then heard her say, “Well, maybe she’s working later tonight, let me check the schedule.”

She cupped a hand over the phone, apologized to me again, and ruffled through some papers looking for the schedule. She then turned to the cashier next to her and said, “This guy keeps calling for ____. He’s been calling over and over for the past week, trying to reach her. He’s very insistent.”

The red flag went up for me immediately and I began listening more intently. The sales clerk hesitated for a few more moments, unsure of what to do, when a store manager happened to walk up and she handed the call to him.

She completed my transaction and I hovered nearby for a moment, trying to hear what the manager was saying to this persistent caller. I was in the way, however, as other shopper’s needed to move through the line, so I headed out to my car.

But the more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. If someone needed assistance with an issue at the store, any employee could have helped him. He didn’t need to call over and over for the same woman. And if he knew her on a personal level, why not simply call her cell phone. Why was he calling her employer over and over on the busiest week of the year?

When I got back to the office, I sat down at my desk and thought about whether or not I should pick up the phone and call the store. I thought about the crowds in the store and how the last thing the manager needed was to be taking calls from a busybody concerned citizen. But I made the call anyway.

I explained that I worked for a domestic violence shelter, and I had just been at the store. I described the phone call I overhead and then expressed my concerns, specifically that staff was giving out personal information about employees in what could potentially be a DV or stalking situation.

The manager was polite but insistent that their policy was to never give out personal information about staff members. I hesitated, then suggested that perhaps staff could use a refresher, as sometimes customers can be demanding, that they may not recognize that this could be a safety issue.

I cringed through the entire phone call. I hate sticking my nose in anyone else’s business. After all, the caller may have been a creditor or just a clueless friend.

But what if he wasn’t? What if he called back again, and again? What if the manager happened to mention to the woman, when she did come in for her shift, that a stranger who overheard a phone conversation was concerned enough about her safety to call the store. Would it make a difference? I don’t know.

Later that evening, as I was leaving the shelter, I happened to notice a car in an empty lot next door. It was parked askew across several spaces, and pointed towards the front entrance to the shelter. I got in my car, dialed the non-emergency number for the police and asked them to drive by and check it out. Then I left to go home.

The police called me back later to let me know they had spoken with the vehicle owner, and as it turns out it was all very innocent. I thanked him for taking the time to look into it and get back to me.

* * *

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with gorillas and perception, let me explain. Did you know that every day, things happen all around us in plain sight, and we never notice them?

In a recently published study, radiologists were asked to look at five separate scans of patient’s lungs and look for abnormal nodules. Each scan had several such nodules. The last scan also had an image of a gorilla added to it, in the upper right corner. However, 83% of the radiologists did not notice the gorilla.




The study was designed to measure something called inattentional blindness, which is a psychological phenomenon characterized by the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object. Some things remain unseen because the brain is not expecting to see them.

The doctors were focused on looking for nodules, so they didn’t notice something as remarkable as a gorilla on a lung scan.

The truth is that our brains are constantly filtering out stimuli in our environment. It’s there, but we don’t see it, because our brains have deemed it non-essential or irrelevant. This is why, when we see a red Hyundai sedan on the lot, admire it for its uniqueness, purchase it and drive it around town, we suddenly notice that the world is full of red Hyundai sedans. They were always there. We just never noticed them before. They were never relevant until now.

Several years ago, I would not have noticed anything strange about the phone call at the store. I would have simply stood there, mildly annoyed that my transaction was held up. I would also probably think nothing of a car parked in an empty lot next to a DV shelter. I would not have seen any of these things because I would not have been trained to see them. Now? Now, I can’t not see them.

Abuse is not a rare phenomenon. One in every four women will experience some form of domestic violence. Consider how many women live in your neighborhood, or work in your office, or share the car with you on a crowded train, and think about that statistic. It’s happening all around us, silently, surreptitiously, outside of our perception.

If I were standing next to someone in a store who had arthritis or depression or autism or schizophrenia I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the signs and symptoms of those conditions. My brain isn’t trained to hone in on the warning signs. Just like the clerk at the store probably had no idea why she should question the motives of a persistent caller.

* * *

Two days ago I was sitting in the living room with my son, watching back-to-back episodes of Clean House. It is our guilty pleasure. We both sit aghast as the team walks into a new family’s home and the camera pans from one cluttered, unkempt room to the next. And then we both ooh and ahh at the end of the show when they reveal a transformed home.

We were not five minutes into the last episode when the red flags went up for me again. It was not simply the way the husband spoke down to his wife and referred to the home as his, nor the way he had claimed most of the house to himself and relegated her office to a small corner of one room. It was everything. The way he crossed his arms, his stare, his silence, his passive-aggressive comments, the tension in his face, the tone of his voice. And her. Her nervous laugh, her collapsed posture, her reassuring pats to his leg when he seemed irritated. Just everything.

I watched it and thought: domestic violence. Could I be wrong? I hope so. Perhaps my experiences have also skewed my perception so that I see danger where there is none. But I’d be willing to bet I was not wrong.

I’d be willing to bet a handsome sum that I was right.






17 comments:

  1. Great post Kristin - we need more eyes like yours. So easy to miss those things that tell us far more about the real state of affairs but we ignore as they are as 'obvious' as the nose on our faces.

    LCM x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think we all see things that others don't. It just depends on our history and experiences. I'm sure there is a lot I miss that you or someone else would pick up on (like...wetsuits).

      Delete
  2. I see this stuff too. It comes from having been through it and also having worked in social work/counselling for so long. Like you sometimes I wonder if I am reading too much into things but then I think about my past and I wish someone had read “too much” into my situation and said something that might have helped me get out of that situation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly, Bri. I imagine a lot of women discount what is happening to them because it's not real to anyone else but them, so they doubt themselves. x

      Delete
  3. I think in some instances our experiences skew our perceptions. I distrust any overly flowery language or heartfelt sentiment. The more "sincere" someone tries to be, the more I disbelieve them. Especially if they do this thing with their eyes that makes them look like my father.
    However, I do believe that sometimes - often times, this prejudice has helped me avoid liars and I have been proven right every time I have decided to ignore my instincts.
    Better safe than sorry and all that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting you say 'trying to be sincere'. To me that is something very different from actually being sincere, and you are right to mistrust it. x

      Delete
  4. You are brave to step in when you sense "danger". You have the intimate knowledge of such things and it is always right to mention it to someone. You can/will or already have made a difference in someone's life. Continue to do the right thing regardless of what others may think. Peace.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Following your instincts rarely leads to trouble and even more rarely leads to regret. I think you did the right thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wish more young women/girls would heed their intuition. It's such a valuable asset and we are not taught to develop and honor it.

      Delete
  6. This is such an excellent and interesting post. You did the right things making the phone calls and thats not easy to do. I hope you were wrong but if you were right then at least you tried to do something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Sarah. I hope I was wrong, too.

      Delete
  7. I saw a bank robbery... I watched a man leave a bank after robbing it (I actually didn't know for a fact he robbed the bank but I had a large suspicion that someone running from a bank who got into his car and sped off had done just that). I was driving up to the bank at the time. I saw the man and got the license plate number. Seconds later I looked over to see someone from inside the bank come over and lock the door from the inside. I left the parking lot driving away and went to the phone to call a friend who told me to go back and tell them what I saw. I would like to believe that I helped them apprehend the guy (stupid idea robbing banks if you ask me but it happens frequently). Anyhow I missed quite a few details although I did get the license plate number and was aware this guys behavior (running from the bank was odd) when I saw it. I called the bank and they had me come in and give a detail of what I saw. The FBI was there. They guy basically said it's one of those crimes that happens a lot and he seemed very blasé about it. While he didn't think my coming forward was all the helpful (at least he acted that way) the bank was very grateful. Since that time I have been more aware of people and behavior. I know now to get an idea when something is off on height, clothing, size of a person and I find myself checking license plate numbers when things seems odd (not all that often thankfully). We the citizenry can help each other.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Separate comment more on topic. It pains me to watch friends, friends of my daughters, women in general who allow themselves to be treated badly by their male partners, manipulated mostly. I wonder if I get the whole story. I have spoken up a number of times and hear most often "that is how it is". The fears they share of being alone if they leave the scene of the relationship, their fear that they would have nowhere to go, the doubts they have that they have caused the problem. I wonder if I do enough? Standing by them, reminding them that they are worthy of so much more, sometimes even blasting them with anger for putting up with it and not moving along to find their future. In the case of my daughter's friends both 18... I am saddened that they are beginning the trek so young. In their situations I have made it clear to my daughter that if she tells me of abuse I will tell their parents. It is walking a fine line because I need to keep in mind that this could put my daughter in the middle. In one case I know the parent has been a abusive relationship... single mother so it's not all that surprising her child would walk that line as well.

      Delete
    2. Wait...you gave them a license plate number and they weren't grateful?! What more did they want you to do? Personally apprehend the guy?

      As far as your friends and daughters friends, I think the statistic is that on average, a woman leaves an abusive relationship seven times before leaving for good. A little astounding, but what it demonstrates is that leaving is a complex, emotional and often scary/dangerous thing to do. The fact that you express your concern for their safety and well-being will go far. Regardless of whether they take action now, they will remember that. You are planting a seed that may take time to germinate. x

      Delete
  8. You have a radar for things now that you never did before. Well done for calling the store and calling the police about the car. Peace of mind for you at least. I wish more and more people had the instinct to make those calls. Imagine if it only saved one life? Worth it. And what did you have to lose by making them? Discomfort for a moment? I believe DV is more prevalent than 'we' (as society) think it is. Having watched a family member go through it twice, I am now a bit like you with picking up on warning signs and body language etc (though clearly a first hand experience would make one even more attuned on a cellular/gut level - so I'm not comparing me to you at all). And as for the last situation - the tv show - well I'd be willing to bet a handsome sum you were right too.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Your experiences have made you hypersensitive to indicators that would not bother the average person. I am the same.

    ReplyDelete

Mmmm, comments - nom, nom, nom, nom!

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails