Am I a Monster?
Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair
Now, I will start this with the understanding that no, I am not truly a monster. However, the things I am seeing daily and doing nothing about, cause me to consider why it is that I do nothing.
As a prosecutor working in the downtown area of city with a high crime and poverty rate, I expect to see certain unpleasant aspects of life. It starts with my morning commute. On my daily drive to work, depending on the route I take, I routinely see homeless people. But it doesn’t end there. I see clearly mentally ill people wandering the streets, drug deals, prostitutes or likely sexually trafficked women, uncared for animals and streets littered with trash and who knows what else. I once saw a man in the act of defecating openly on the sidewalk.
I am very fortunate to be able to park in a gated employee parking lot. This provides much security walking to and from the office. From outside my office window, it can, at times, sound like a combat zone — regular emergency sirens blaring, heavy construction noise, occasional fights breaking out on the streets, a car crash or, sadly, someone even being hit by a car racing down the street — are routine background commotion.
On several occasions, whether coming or going from the office, I have seen a human being just lying on the side of the street. I don’t know if they were dead or alive, sick or asleep, but they certainly seemed to need help. I do not stop or pull over to see what I can do to help. What kind of a person does this? Ok, so there was one time when a woman was walking down the street with no top on. Literally, her breasts were exposed, and she was only wearing shorts. I did stop, and I handed her a towel from the trunk of my car. She looked at me strangely but accepted the towel. I asked her if she needed help and she said no. I got back in my car and drove away.
It turns out there has been research done on the concept of lacking empathy in certain circumstances. Some science suggests that it is our hormones made in the hypothalamus that involve human trust, bond formation, generosity and empathy (Scientific American, Empathy and Disgust Do Battle in the Brain, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, June 15, 2013). The research in this article also suggests that at times, our hormones can also suppress our trust and caring abilities given the circumstances. There is a “thinking” part of the empathy reaction, which could explain the battle between assisting someone and fearing the outcome. This makes sense to me.
In an increasingly violent society, we hear so many stories of a “Good Samaritan” who was attacked by a transient or person on the street while they were trying to intervene or help someone else being assaulted. It’s hard to know if it is a safe situation to place yourself in. I am still haunted by the recent story of the poor woman in New York just sitting waiting for her subway when a man approached her and smeared feces in her face for no reason. Or the 70-year-old nurse in Los Angeles who was murdered by a random attack while waiting for her bus. And then there are the ambush scams, where someone appears alone and pretends to be in need and then several others emerge to rob and assault the helper.
I know for certain that I do not lack empathy for people in general. I do not know their stories, how they got there or the battles that rage in their heads. I am also not “disgusted” by people merely because they are homeless. I just don’t like what I see, am concerned for my own safety and feel helpless. When I saw the women with no top on, as a fellow woman, I felt I should help her cover up. I did not feel terribly threatened by her. Would I have approached a naked man on the street? No.
Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair of the Women Prosecutors Section.