Years ago, before I was a wife, before I was a mother of three precious jewels, before I was an active participant in a family business, before I entered elective service, I was a member of the second class of trained counselors of a group of women and a handful of men who sought to address sexual assaults in Cumberland County.
    We were a small but committed band, and like many fledgling nonprofits and volunteer organizations, records were kept under members’ beds or in trunks of cars. Money was not much of an issue since we had none.
    Our entire focus was on providing assistance to the people who turned up in one local emergency room or another reporting a sexual assault.
    {mosimage}Like counselors of all sorts, we took calls and responded when “beeped” by an ER. We held hands with sexual assault victims as they underwent invasive medical exams, and we tried to provide support as they came to terms with their experiences, and in the rare instances they had to face their perpetrators in court we were there.
    I even testified in a case in which the sexual assault victim shot and killed the assailant, her live-in sweetie, an act for which she served prison time.
    The time for me to consider moving on came when taking calls became a burden for my young and growing family. What tipped me over the edge, though, were two different and unrelated 15-year-old sexual assault victims who seemed to feel that whatever had happened to them — and in both cases it was abnormal and criminal — was their lot in life.
    They were resigned, but I was stunned by their acceptances of what had happened to them and then angry about it.       
    I hope they got that way later.
    All of which has me thinking about the disappearances and deaths of young women and mothers, who were in so many ways just like millions of other young women and mothers throughout our country.
The body of Meghan Touma was found decomposing in a Fayetteville hotel room.
    Holly Wimunc’s apartment was found smoldering by coworkers who came looking for her when she did not turn up at her job. Investigators located Holly’s physical remains in the remote North Carolina outpost of Sneads Ferry, not far from her estranged husband’s military assignment at Camp Lejeune.
    Her estranged husband has been charged in her death, and another soldier has been charged with helping to set fire to her apartment.
    And then there is Nancy Cooper, a woman with the same name as one of my longtime Fayetteville walking buddies.
    The Cary Nancy Cooper reportedly went for a jog on a recent Saturday morning, leaving her husband and two children at home. When she did not return as expected, a friend reported to law enforcement authorities that she was missing. Volunteers searched for her along her running paths, but several days later, their worst fears were realized. Cooper’s body was discovered near a planned residential subdivision.
It is a wicked reality that strangers do sometimes assault and even kill other people, and that is a terrifying thought to all of us. News accounts of such crimes, solved and unsolved, grab our attention and haunt our thoughts.
    My experience as a sexual assault counselor and my longtime observations of news tell me, though, that such assaults and murders occur more often between people who know each other than between people who do not. Many times, those involved have formed the kinds of intense, even intimate, relationships that can generate strong, uncontrolled emotions.
    My experience as a human being has taught me that over time nature has equipped us mortals with inner sensors, a sort of early warning system. It kicks in when we encounter other people, and it allows us to feel comfortable in their presence or to be wary around them. We have all had this experience whether in our work place, at school or perhaps in a social setting. Some people we want to spend time with and others we can hardly get away from fast enough.
    During training for sexual assault counselors, we learned to trust our instincts. We learned that if a situation feels off-kilter in any way, it probably is. We learned that if you feel someone is even vaguely menacing or threatening, he or she may well be. We learned that if a situation feels uneasy to you, the best course is to get out of it as soon as possible.
    Over the years, several of the people I counseled told me they felt off balance during the time before they were attacked but most took no action. We have no way to know what the women who are now dead thought, but we may well hear what they said to others at some point.
    My advice to my own children and to all of us, women and men, is to pay attention to and follow our instincts about other people even if we do not fully understand them.
    Life can, indeed, be crazy scary.

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