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Screaming Wolf


A woman is screaming somewhere in my neighborhood.

“Shrieking, really,” I hear myself edit even as I type that first line, since screaming connotes actual fear, danger, or perhaps anger, and in most cases when I hear a scream echo off my neighbors’ walls, there’s none of that going on, at least not to any serious level. At least I think not. Not that I can tell. I hope.

This is, apparently, one of the facts of life of living close together with many other humans. People often talk about going to the suburbs or the country for privacy, and I think generally that’s assumed to mean to keep their own lives private. But I think the actual driving force is to keep from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s lives. Of course this is a flip side of what many of us urbanites love about less isolated living: the chance encounters on the sidewalk, the people watching, the sense of community, the eyes on the street. Aside from shudderingly loud bass, I’m generally OK with, even fond of, scraps of sound from a busy street in the background. Aside from bass and screaming, that is.

The phenomenon of a woman or girl screaming with unknown level of actual distress manifests itself in my earshot several times a week, and sometimes, especially in summer when my windows are open and school is out, several times a day. Reflexively, I always find myself trying to assess if this one is “real,” if there’s something I should be reacting to, listening for something elusive in the timbre or the words, if there are any that will tell me what’s happening. Often it’s school kids play fighting. Often it’s arguments that really are just verbal. Often it seems to be excitement, surprise, drunkenness. Often I have no bloody clue what it is. For my own sanity, I triage. Something so far away that I would have no hope of identifying, I tune out. Anything punctuated by a giggle loses my interest. If I can see out my window and the screamer doesn’t show any other signs of needing help, I turn away. On the other hand, if I see something obviously wrong, my hand goes to straight to the phone.

Of course, as in the rest of life, most incidences fall in the gray area. And since the main response available to me, from within my home at least, is calling the police, which I consider fairly extreme, I find myself defaulting to ignoring. If I’m still on the fence when it stops, I let it go. Until I hear a story of another domestic violence murder or violent mugging passersby/neighbors didn’t notice, and then I steel myself to be a better citizen.

It’s not surprising that this leads to my being slightly resentful of people who scream at the drop of a hat. When I was a kid of the age to start wandering my neighborhood on my own, I was taught in no uncertain terms that I was never to scream unless I actually needed help. It was a rule that I took deeply to heart, but I imagine this only ever did my parents a moderate amount of good since it was not one enforced on the other kids on my block. Voices are individually distinguishable. Shrieks less so.

I was bemoaning this state of affairs recently to my husband, who, as someone of a size to consider it his responsibility to physically intervene in abusive situations if he happens upon them, was quite sympathetic. But he brought up an interesting conversation he’d had once with an ex- girlfriend in which he was expressing frustration that women watered down what is essentially a powerful defensive weapon—a loud, carrying scream—with casual use. She mused in return that it was sort of a shame that women had this power and then were told never to use it.

This argument gave me pause. On first blush it kind of seems like an expose of yet another double standard women are expected to live up to. I’ve actually noted to myself when thinking about my own safety that I don’t actually know what it’s like to scream at the absolute top of my lungs as if I were in danger. I’m never in a place where it’s acceptable to test it out, let alone to just do it for thrill. I have, in certain contexts—singing with 75 other people against a deafening thunderstorm, marching in very large protests, demanding an encore as part of a large audience—pushed the limits of my volume. But it’s not quite the same, especially because I can never hear myself.

On the other hand, I also haven’t, since middle school at least, felt the “power” of kneeing a guy in the crotch, and I consider that appropriate. We expect people with more upper-body strength than I have to abstain from experiencing the power of punching people in the head, at least outside of carefully monitored situations.

Screaming wolf may not immediately cause the kind of pain that physical violence does, but if it means people at large are slower to help someone who is in trouble, I would argue that it could be said to be doing significant harm.

If I end up needing primal scream therapy, so be it, but I think for now I’ll stick to using the power of my voice in ways that won’t send someone’s else hand nervously to the speed dial.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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