Monday, July 26, 2010

Home invaders

The new Criminal Bill allowing householders to use force to defend themselves and their property seems in many ways to unnecessary in as much as the current law already allows that option IF the householder has no way to retreat from the threat of violence.
I thought it would be interesting to ask people how they reacted when confronted by an intruder in their home. As the trauma psychologist I interviewed in the piece confirms, most of us are frozen to the spot, but it is very difficult to predict how you would behave in such a situation.

From last Saturday's news Review section in the Irish Indepedent:

Waking up to find a strange man standing at the end of the bed is a hellish scenario. It happened to mum-of-one Liz McGonigal -- and, six years on, she still remembers it in distressing detail.

Liz, a PR consultant, was sleeping in the spare room, having just returned home from a stint in hospital. She woke from a fitful sleep at around 5am to see the shape of a man standing at the bedroom door, a few feet from the bed where she lay. She wondered for a moment if it was her husband, Martin, coming to check on her.

"But I knew in the back of my head that it wasn't," she says. "I wasn't entirely with it but it didn't feel right. The person didn't move, they were completely motionless."

Luckily for Liz, she dozed off again, only realising the Dublin city-centre apartment had been burgled when she and her husband rose that morning. Valuable items such as her engagement ring and camera were gone but more shocking was what had been left behind: A kitchen knife had been placed on the coffee table.

"Would he have used it if he had been challenged?" Liz wonders now. "He scaled three floors to get to our apartment -- he shinned up the drainpipe.

"When the police checked for prints, they found his full handprint on the right-hand top of the bedroom door. I found that incredibly chilling."

The fears that we entertain about what would happen if someone threatened us in our homes -- and what we might do about it -- have again come to the fore with the publication of a new Criminal Justice Bill. The bill makes new provision for homeowners to use "reasonable force" to defend themselves against intruders.

But for Liz, the real damage was in the aftermath of that nightmarish experience. "I wasn't hurt but for a long time afterwards I couldn't sleep properly if my husband was away from home for the night," she says.

Maeve Ryan, co-ordinator of the National Crime Victims Helpline, says that the fallout from such "minor" incidents can actually be more difficult to deal with than the crime itself.

"The most common feeling we hear about from people who call our helpline is of vulnerability," she says. "Home is the place you are meant to feel safe and that has been violated, so people can spend a long time afterwards lying awake at night, every little noise magnified."

Even though Liz and her husband moved from the apartment, the anxiety was harder to escape. "You just don't feel safe," she says.

"Here's something that might sound silly: for a time I wouldn't put on the house alarm when I was at home alone because I was terrified what would happen if it ever went off."

A frightening experience at the hands of an intruder some years back still inspires journalist Myles McWeeney to religiously secure all his doors and windows before he goes to bed at night. Again, it was that most terrifying of scenarios -- waking up to a shadowy presence in the bedroom -- that played out in his south Dublin home.

"I had heard a noise and thought it was my wife having a bad dream," recalls Myles.

"When I turned to her, I realised she was still asleep. It was very dark but I could tell there was someone at the end of the bed."

His reaction to the intruder was instantaneous and, as Myles admits, a pure gut response. He yelled and and the would-be burglar took flight.

"He turned tail, luckily," says Myles. "I followed him out. I wasn't even thinking. You're in your bedroom, there's nowhere else to go. It's as if you're at the back of a cage."

The intruder had broken in through a tiny window in the utility room, so narrow that he had apparently stripped down to his T-shirt to wriggle through, leaving a jacket and shirt behind.

Most frightening still was what could have happened. "He had left two syringes filled with blood around the house, presumably intending to use them as a weapon," says Myles. "I am so aware now of how vulnerable we can be in our own home."

Myles and Liz are not on their own. Last year's eircom Phonewatch burglary report found that home invasion is the security issue of most concern to Irish people (46pc cited it as their greatest fear). Perhaps the concern is justified. Eight out of 10 robberies took place in 2009 while people were at home -- suggesting, says the report, "that burglars are not deterred by home occupancy when selecting their target".

Consultant psychologist Owen Connolly specialises in the treatment of traumatic stress at his clinic in Stillorgan, Dublin. The trauma a person can suffer as a result of having their home invaded is similar to that suffered by someone involved in a car crash or even attacked on the street.

"It is the interpretation the brain makes of the event," he says. "The literal reaction the brain can have is 'I'm going to die'. The body prepares itself for the worst eventuality. The heart and lungs get a rush of blood when the central nervous system kicks in and the blood supply to the stomach can be restricted.

"What engages is that 'fight or flight' instinct."

This adrenaline-filled reaction is not always logical but in essence the nervous system overrules the head. Oliver*, a businessman from Co Roscommon, explains his reaction to the attempted robbery of his car in this context.

"I woke up when I heard the car start up outside at five in the morning," he says. "I don't remember how I got there but the next thing I was chasing them down the street in the nude. They stopped the car, I opened the door and grabbed the keys from the ignition."

The would-be thief threatened to stab Oliver with a screwdriver but Oliver punched him and he ran away. "I later found his glasses, which I'd knocked off. I must have been half-asleep at the time and hadn't the time to think. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't have done that."

It's not just men who can be overwhelmed by the instinct to fight back. When Margaret* was a student nurse working nights, she would often find herself alone during the daytime in her shared rented flat.

One afternoon, as she stood at the kitchen table cutting a sandwich, a man started to squeeze through the open kitchen window.

"I don't know who got the bigger fright," she says. "He didn't expect me to be standing there and of course I had the knife in my hand. I started yelling that I would 'effing kill' him and he ran off. It wasn't bravery. I couldn't stop shaking for the rest of the day."

The most common reaction to such a threat, says Connolly, is to freeze.

"The brain tells them, 'If I stay quiet and say nothing, I will survive this'," he says.

"I was dealing with a client who was held hostage for five hours and he went into completely calm mode. That probably saved his bacon. But as soon as his attacker was arrested, he fell apart.

"That person was recently released from prison and the poor man was brought back to the way he felt the first day he was attacked. We talk about putting someone away for a few years for a crime, but the person who was attacked is left with a lifelong sentence of fear that can live on."

Not all people are traumatised by these experiences, thankfully. "But those who are need to know that their reaction is a valid one, and that they should seek counselling to help," says Connolly.

Maeve Ryan says that her volunteer's experience is that many people who call their helpline feel better just for having spoken about how they have been affected by what might be considered a "petty" crime.

"We send out a leaflet to them that reassures them that the stress, the vulnerability and inability to relax in their home are normal effects and they can recover," she says. "They just have to know that they are not going mad."

*Names have been changed on request

The National Crime Victims' Helpline offers confidential support to victims of crime in Ireland. Ring 1850 211 407, email or send a text to 085 1337711 and a volunteer will ring you back as soon as possible. A comprehensive list of regional support service for victims of crime is listed on


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