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How I Lost My Courage

Fearful Fascination, photograph by Jake Phlieger

When I was a young child a little girl called Fiona Harvey was kidnapped from the same town where I lived. Parents of that town – my parents, my friends’ parents – clamped down on our freedom out of concern for our safety and taught us about “stranger danger” – as well they should have. I still walked home from school almost every single day, but things had changed.

My fears grew slowly. I travelled to the UK and felt able to take risks I wouldn’t have dared to in the place where I grew up. I lost more innocence, not because I took those risks, but because others felt entitled to abuse my naivety simply because I had it. I took a lot of supposedly far bigger risks that had no negative consequences for me at all. Travelling by myself overnight on a train to see Dublin, Stratford-upon-Avon, London… some of the highlights of my trip to the UK. I took myself out to dinner in Dublin and then walked maybe a mile by myself, late at night, across the city, to find a particular pub I’d read about, where I then had a drink and a conversation with a lovely Scottish couple and a pleasant young man from Cork. Right place, right time? I certainly hadn’t been as safe at our next-door neighbour’s house, or in my parents’ home with bars on the windows and dead-bolts on the doors.

Each incident of harassment, each creepy feeling, each uncomfortable experience weighed me down, until I reached a point where I would spend most of a day in a state of panic because it was necessary to leave the house to buy a loaf of bread. I was lucky that things changed for me when I became pregnant – Relaxin is an incredible hormone, and, true to its name, it relaxed me enough for me to let go of impending agoraphobia and feel safe enough.

It angers me, though, that we are all only just “safe enough”. Sometimes, without being aware of it, we may be standing only an inch from someone who has no respect for other human beings. Buying a loaf of bread should be easy, something you don’t even have to think about. Until a man follows you from the bakery to your car in broad daylight while you’re handicapped by the toddler you’re carrying on your hip.

I feel overwhelmed when I read news about cases like Daniel Morcombe and Jill Meagher, and more recently Jyoti Singh Pandey. I’m a head-in-sand type of person. My response is usually to dive into reading or writing fiction that makes me feel that it is possible to be invincible, to defend oneself, to outwit the villains. I’ve been told I should write more realistic fiction, that it is dangerous for children to believe in magic and happy endings because they might wish for a faery or sorcerer or magic wand instead of calling for help. I don’t know the right answer to this. I think childhood and innocence vanish so quickly – maybe a little fantasy and happiness is worth the risk.

Many years ago, one of my favourite TV shows was Charmed – three modern-day witches who took on demons without even breaking a nail. Imagine not having to consider crossing the road because someone dodgy is loitering on a corner you need to pass. Imagine being able to cast up a shield or hold up your hand and push away an attacker with a pulse of energy. Imagine what you could do with your life if you were not afraid of anything.

It’s so wonderful to dare. It’s so wonderful to approach life without the negative intentions of other people even crossing one’s mind. I wish that all children could retain that sense of invincibility.

Meanwhile, here’s something you can do to help:

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