Caroline Cranshaw: How to survive someone who is intent on causing you harm

As a child and teenager, I was obsessed with true crime stories. Growing up in California, the thought of the Nightstalker, the Zodiac killer, the East Area Rapist (also known as the Golden State Killer – who incidentally was just caught, 31 years after his last crime), and the Hillside Strangler kept me up at night. Several local children were kidnapped and either murdered or never seen again. I read every true crime book I could get my hands on and would grill my best friend’s father, a homicide detective, on his cases and ask for tips to survive a killer.

I don’t know if my intuition was warning me on what was to come, or if it was just coincidence, but this obsession and hypervigilance saved my life on more than one occasion. I have survived three separate encounters with men who wanted to cause me serious harm, not completely without injury, but still with my life intact.

New Zealanders especially, tend to think that violent crime is rare and doesn't happen here but on average there are 25,000 violent crimes reported in public places a year in New Zealand, not to mention ones that are committed in homes and by partners. Police estimate that only 7 per cent of sexual assault cases are reported. As a therapist who sees victims of violent crime, only a handful of victims report it to the police and even less end up going to court.

Here is my advice on how to avoid being a target and survive someone who is intent on causing you harm.

Don't look like an easy target

On average, a violent criminal takes less than seven seconds to decide whether you're going to be his next victim or not. Within just a few seconds, they decipher whether you're going to be easy to rob, assault, kidnapped or do something even worse too. Sociologist Betty Grayson and Morris Stein conducted a study in 1981 on how violent criminals picked their next target. They set up a video camera in a busy New York neighbourhood and videotaped people walking by for three days.

They later showed the tape to prison inmates who were incarcerated for violent crime (assault, rape, armed robbery and murder) against people they did not know. They asked the inmates to rate the people walking by on a scale of one to ten, one being the ideal target and 10 being someone to avoid at all costs. When it came to choosing ideal victims to control and overpower, every inmate chose the same people. Surprisingly, their choices didn't seem to be based on age, gender or race and petite females were not automatically singled out.

 

The criminals made their decision based on nonverbal signals of insecurity and vulnerability, such as how they moved their feet, whether they swung their arms while walking, and the length of their stride. Walking slowly, taking short strides, or long strides and swinging your arms made you more likely to be a target as you are seen as either insecure and weak or awkward.

Walking with medium, fluid strides with arms swinging naturally and a straight posture and at the same pace as everyone else or faster was the most likely to put a would-be assailant off. No matter what your age or sex is, looking around, taking in your surroundings while walking with confidence gives off the signal you are athletic, energetic and most likely put up a fight.

Stay sober when out and stay with people you know and trust

This seems like obvious advice, but women are most likely to be preyed upon when they are under the influence. 50 per cent of all sexual assaults involve alcohol, by both the perpetrator and the victim. Do not accept drinks from strangers unless you watch the drink being poured or opened. Drink spiking is much more common than you think and a lot of what drugs are used are out of your system by the time the victim is tested. Date rape drugs mixed with alcohol also wipe your memory, so many victims don't remember what happened, they only know that they were assaulted.

Do not go to someone's house who you don't know, especially if you've been drinking. Tell people where you are going, and if you’re meeting someone new, tell your friends or family who they are and share your location with them on your phone. Let the person you're meeting for the first time know that you've done this. Predators do not want to get caught so if you let them know that people know where you are, and who you with, they are less likely to choose you as a victim.

Don't be polite

Women are taught to be nice, to smile, and that it's better to be uncomfortable rather than be rude. The biggest lesson I learned from my own experiences with predators, is not to be nice. Would-be abusers prey on the sympathies of women to try to get them to drop their guard. Do not trust needy strangers asking for help especially if no one else is around. Do not let people in your house, don't give directions, and don't be afraid to be impolite. It's better to be rude and alive, rather than polite and attacked.

Lock your doors and windows

Again, a very obvious tip but one that needs repeating. Violent offenders tend to be opportunists and look for easy ways to get in. Make sure your house is secure. If you are a female living alone, l recommend leaving men’s shoes by the door, getting some house alarm stickers or a security camera to deter criminals. 

Leave an abusive relationship as soon as possible

More than 80 per cent of women who are murdered are murdered by their partner. If you are in an abusive situation, get help now. Contact the police, get a protection order, tell your friends and family what is happening at the first sign of abuse. Abusive partners do not just change on their own. It takes therapy, family support, and consequences for the pattern of domestic violence to be changed. If your partner is abusive and refuses to get help, leave now. Things are not going to change unless your partner admits they have a problem and is open to getting help.

Trust your intuition 

If someone gives you the creeps, if you have a funny feeling - listen to your gut. I know from my own experience as well as working with survivors of crime, some part of us always knows that something is wrong or that someone can't be trusted. Do not ignore it. The police will never get mad at you if you call for help and need reassurance. That is why they are there. Your fear is an instinct trying to keep you safe, and your best chance of survival is to listen to it. There is no right way to deal with an attack, but trusting your gut and acting on what it tells you to do will help you survive.

The therapy I received after my traumas were terrible. My therapists had absolutely no idea what I had gone through and struggled to help me overcome it. I believe my experiences have made me the person I am today and helped put me on the path to becoming a therapist. Know that if you are a victim of abuse or violence, it is not your fault and try to find a therapist who understands what you have been through. I know from my own experience, you can survive unbelievable trauma and come out the other side stronger, more resilient than ever before.

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz. Listen to Caroline's new podcast WTF Stories & Advice.