The Bad Samaritan

I had such an unpleasant encounter in the book shop last week that it’s taken me a few days to reach the point of writing about it. In fact I’ve been very much in two minds as to whether to write about it at all. But I’ll give it a go because I might see it more clearly afterwards.

We’ve been shortstaffed in the shop for ages now so it wasn’t unusual for me to be alone when this happened. You are always alone when these sorts of things happen. I’d just finished the transaction with one customer who was picking up quite a lot of shopping bags, when a diminutive woman came in the door. She was in her late 50s or early 60s with a cloud of fluffy ginger hair and watery pale blue eyes that were on the verge of tears the entire time she was speaking to me. She drew attention to herself the moment she walked in, trying to help the other customer – a middle-aged and perfectly able-bodied woman who looked at her in some bewilderment – with her bags and the door. Once the customer had left she fixed me with her gaze and sighed very deeply. She had a breathy voice that was strangely insistent.

‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ she began. ‘You’re not going to want to hear this.’

And I knew in that moment she was perfectly correct. My heart sank and I wanted nothing more than to run away. I was surprised by my extreme reaction and gave myself a little shake. After all, it wasn’t like I was without practice in dealing with troubled people.

‘I don’t know who to turn to…I’m all on my own and I’m desperate, desperate….they’ve blackballed me, I think… yes, I’ve been medically blackballed.. they’re altering the doses behind my back. The doctors in Edinburgh and the doctors in London, they’re talking behind my back… and I am not a difficult patient, not at all… It’s bankrupt me, I need a lawyer but I can’t possibly afford one… I don’t have a permanent address. Can you imagine that? I’ve been forced to move from one place to another, I don’t even have a phone, and when I have a phone my hearing isn’t good… I can’t always hear the person on the other end…But I’m desperate…’

She pinned me with a frightening look. ‘I’m going to die you know.’

Immediately the thought popped into my mind to reply, well we’re all going to die. Wise Litlove suppressed it. Shush now, she said to me, you’ve got to figure out at least some of what’s going on here.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I don’t quite…?’

‘I thought Amnesty would be able to help me… but I understand they don’t take on individual cases? I need a lawyer but the legal fees…. I am quite desperate, I’ve tried everyone, everyone….’

‘Have you tried the Citizens Advice Bureau?’ I asked.

She gave an angry sigh, rubbing her hand across her teary eyes. ‘Of course I have,’ she said, her voice laden with bitter contempt. ‘What on earth do you think…..’ she pulled herself together again. ‘I just thought that you would know about Amnesty? What they could do for me?’

The correct answer here was that I was a volunteer in a book shop, not a representative of Amnesty. But she was pushing every button she could find, and one about knowing the right thing to do was a good choice on me. I instantly felt I ought to provide her with an answer, even though I had absolutely no idea still what the matter was or what she wanted.

‘I’m afraid I really don’t know that much about Amnesty,’ I said. I took a magazine off the stand on the counter. ‘Let me look up head office number for you.’

‘It’s on the wall behind you,’ she said, quick as a flash. I felt wrong-footed again. I rarely look at the wall behind me, but I supposed I should have known it was there. At this point the telephone began to ring. I knew who it was: it was one of the other volunteers who’d said she’d ring later in the morning about a book she was reading and wanted to recommend to me whose author and title she’d forgotten. ‘You’d better get that,’ my troublesome customer said to me.

I felt I was confused enough already. ‘No, that’s okay, I’m helping you at the moment,’ I said. Thankfully, the phone stopped ringing and I could think. ‘Do you want me to write down the number…?’

‘But I can’t hear well on the phone… I told you, and I don’t have a phone of my own and I can’t give a fixed address. I just thought you would know….I’m desperate. And I’m frightened, I’m so frightened.’

I thought I saw the light. ‘So you want me to ring up head office for you?’

Obviously I had said this too stridently. She took a step backwards. ‘Oh I didn’t mean to distress you… I don’t expect you to do anything. I’d do it myself if I had a phone… if I weren’t so afraid.’

I found I was getting very impatient with the fear thing. I leant towards her, put a finger very gently on her arm and said, ‘If you need help then this is not the time to be afraid. You just have to ask for it. I’ll ring up for you.’

It was a relief, frankly, to be doing something. I was concerned that I would never get her out of the shop and I’d be stuck in this nightmare forever. It was also a relief to find a competent woman on the other end of the line. All the time she was talking to me, my troublesome customer was talking at me too. It was very disconcerting. Finally she started waving her hands about, holding them out for the phone. I passed it over, gave her a pen and a pad to write on and tried to regain my equilibrium.

The thing was, she could be in genuine trouble. There could easily be some serious injustice in her situation. But at the same time, I was feeling increasingly played. She was sharp enough when she wanted to be and she was extremely manipulative. Every time I’d gone to make a suggestion, she had been talking over the top of me or brushing it away. Essentially, I knew she fell into the category of emotionally unbalanced people who, when it comes down to it, cannot bear to have their victimhood taken away from them. Or, I reminded myself, who have met with disappointment and resistence so many times they can’t quite believe in any other response.

She put the phone down and looked at me a tad defiantly. ‘I can’t always hear voices on the phone but I just happened to be able to hear hers… I’ll pay for the call.’

‘No really,’ I said. ‘It was for Amnesty business, so that’s fine.’

She had written another number down on the pad I’d given her. ‘So can I call this one…?’

Why didn’t I just let her? I suppose I felt it had all been going on so long and I couldn’t shake off my misgivings about the whole conversation. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘While it’s fine to use the phone for Amnesty business, I don’t think I could allow you to use it for other calls.’

The phone started up ringing again.

‘You’d better get that,’ she said.

When I picked it up, it was the other volunteer, giving me the name and title of the book. I took them down, undoubtedly sounding odd but unable to explain why and my colleague ended the call abruptly, probably offended.

‘You know,’ began my troublesome customer, ‘I’d really rather you didn’t talk to me as if I were silly. It’s very rude of you. This is something that’s very, very difficult for me to talk about.’

Now I knew the situation was really getting to me. I felt dangerously as if I might cry myself. I wanted her out of the shop, this minute.

‘I’m really sorry if that’s how it sounded,’ I said. ‘That wasn’t at all my intention.’

‘I’ll pay for the call.’

‘No really, it’s not necessary. Well,’ I so wanted her gone. ‘Good luck with your problem, I hope you find an answer.’

For some reason this incensed her more than anything else I’d said. In a spurt of fury she wrestled a pound coin out of her purse, slammed it down on the counter and stalked out of the door.

Once she’d gone, I found I was shaking. For the rest of the day, I felt I was wearing her on me, her suppressed rage, her resentment. It reminded me why it was such a relief sometimes not to be working study support any more. So few people who ask for help actually want help. They want confirmation that the world is a bad, friendless place, that their fears and anxieties are well founded, that they can do no more than they have done, and most of all they want a punch bag for all the emotions that result.

A friend of mine who is also a counsellor put a slightly different but more useful spin on it. ‘When you see someone giving off victim vibes, you want to get out of there and fast,’ she said. ‘Victims set up a triangle, with themselves at one apex, a rescuer at another and a persecutor at the third. What does that tell you?’

‘That the rescuer and the persecutor very easily become the same person,’ I said. This had been exactly my experience in the shop. From the moment I had begun to help her, I could feel myself poised on the brink of becoming the enemy.

But of course I still wonder what I could have done differently. And I wonder what her situation actually was and whether she is in as much trouble as she claimed to be. Cravenly, I hope most of all that she will not start to haunt the shop so that I am forced to find out.


37 thoughts on “The Bad Samaritan

  1. How very horrible, and how very manipulative she sounds. And how contagious fear can be (although I have a feeling, thinking about your counsellor friend’s triangle analysis, that people like her actually like causing fear in others – probably unconsciously – : it’ll have given her a sense of power and/or justification for persecuting/feeling persecuted and it might also be a way of redirecting her own fear). But I hope she doesn’t come back to your shop although if I were you I’d arm myself (interesting metaphor …) with the most useful address(es) I could think of and suggest she go there. I’d say I wasn’t Amnesty/CAB/the local pro-bono clinic or even the local library but they might be able to help (and I think I’d take the Amnesty poster down!).

    • You’re quite right that surprising things can be contagious. I certainly felt I’d ‘caught’ her emotions during the encounter. It’s a good idea to have a directory of helpful addresses. The shop is located in the rough end of town and we often get people wander in off the street who are not interested in books. It would be very good to be ‘armed’! (It’s a reasonable word!) Thank you for the lovely comment, Angela.

  2. Sounds awful Victoria – many, many sympathies. Unfortunately, people like this seem to be able to sense a nice person like you and take advantage of their good nature. I can imagine the response she’d’ve got at the local supermarket or burger bar. You did nothing wrong here and if she comes back again I’d call the local social services to come and give her some assistance…

    • I did wish I were carrying an extra twenty pounds of muscle! Or something intimidating like a beard…. Social services is a good idea – I’ll look their number up. Bless you for the sympathy.

  3. And this is why no one should ever be left alone in a situation where they can be put in this position. However difficult the staffing problems might be you are too vulnerable when there is no one else around. This woman wasn’t armed in anyway but she could well have been and was certainly unstable enough to have done some damage. Sorry to be on my soapbox but I have known someone to be stabbed in a similar situation and what you have said here fills me with apprehension for you. The Bears are very worried and want you to promise not to be on your own again.

    • We are supposed to always be in pairs, but Mondays have suffered so much from my friend the manager being off long term. But I can’t have you and the Bears worried. I’ll definitely report back what happened and make sure I’m not on my own again (I really don’t fancy it!).

  4. Wow, sounds like you got a little crazy on ya.

    Impersonal is effective. It might be hard to pull off; but you send out the vibe that you’re just doing a job, and aren’t able to offer any special assistance or favours. If you don’t offer any personal, most people will do their business and go. It is a hard way to be when it feels like you should do more.

    But with crazy, you can’t. And crazy comes in many colours: my brother is nice as you please til he’s off his meds and trying to burn your house down; my grandma, sweet as pie til senility made her a mean, paranoid, delusional, and obviously defensive pot of chaos. The public is like children in their wee years, who haven’t got a grasp on how the world works, so everything they need is a REALLY BIG DEAL!

    As they say in your neck of the woods,”Keep calm” and all that. But remain impersonal.

    Your first mistake was offering her a choice. Just force a request and respond only to that, not what you think someone might need.

    Either they make it clear what they need, so you can assist them; or they move on.

    You cannot foresee what imbalance will need or do, and suddenly you’re on a roller coaster of frustration, and sometimes fear depending on their volatility.

    Or…she might have just been a selfish, bossy a-hole. That you can never fix.

    If you could boil it down, it would be to help, but don’t care.

    • You’re quite right she was a bit crazy, and also that such a person is very difficult to help in the normal scheme of things. I do wish I didn’t care – we’re animals at basis and being able to exude indifference is a very powerful strategy. Somehow I seem always to get dragged in… should definitely think about ways to avoid that in the future! Perhaps I should doctor one of those ‘Keep Calm’ posters to say ‘I’ll keep calm if you only ask me about books’…. 🙂

      • Excellent idea! I tend to be like you, I just want to help. But something that helped was working with my sister in her bar, talk about needy people on a tilt! My sister is one of the most generous people I know and she’s always laughing at how gullible I am, especially since I’m such a pessimistic cynic. She says you have to be indifferent on the outside for the sake of efficiency. She worked 21 hour days an still didn’t have enough time, so the nickel and dime minutes that people took from her because they “needed” something had to be kept to a minimum; and being impersonal seemed to be a good strategy. Everyone got what they wanted and situations didn’t escalate. Some did, but those were going to blow no matter what.

  5. I really felt for you. I think you handled it really well. Sometimes the only thing to do with people like this is ask them what they want to do. They don’t like it, but mostly they back off, when they realise that they can’t, as you point out, manipulate you. And if they get worse, then you have to leave.

    • Oh thank you. I felt that every time I tried to get her to be specific about what she wanted, she backed off or got mad – which should tell me something, right? It’s feeling you’re being manipulated that’s the most uncomfortable part. You don’t expect it in a bookshop!

  6. Lord, how unpleasant. I’m completely sympathetic. When I volunteered on the crisis intervention phone line, there were some callers who were like this — you knew straight away that they were trying to manipulate you, keep you on the phone as long as possible even when the call had reached a natural end. It’s lousy because there’s no outcome you can feel good about — if you let them manipulate you, you feel duped; and if you set appropriate boundaries you feel like a jerk. (At least I always did.)

    • Yes, what you describe is exactly how my situation played out. Did I know you worked a crisis intervention line? That’s such a good thing to do and so helpful to the people who really need it. Good for you! But boo to the unbalanced ones who took advantage. I can imagine all too well.

  7. Sounds awful. But it’s certainly true that you should never have been left alone in the shop to cope with it. You obviously did the best you could under impossible circumstances but poor you!

    • I guess I’ve been lucky up until now – mostly the shop is really quiet over Monday lunchtime, which has been the time I’ve usually been left to hold the fort. I must say I don’t much fancy being alone behind the desk again! Thank you for the lovely comment, Harriet.

  8. I would have no idea what to do in a situation like the one you describe. I wonder, having seen your picture in the Shiny New Books photo, if some people, at least, feel more comfortable trying to manipulate someone who isn’t too physically intimidating. I am the tallest of a line of women who look formidable, and I’ve never been put in that kind of situation. Of course, that’s also because I spend so much of my life in the ivory tower.

    • I definitely wished I packed a few pounds more muscle! I think you’re right – it was an animal encounter, all instinct and uncontained emotion, and probably my relative smallness did not count in my favour. I like the thought of you as an Amazon! 🙂

  9. Ah the joys of being in a public service position! There is nothing you could have done differently that would have made a difference so don’t beat yourself up about it. I’ve been yelled at and cursed at and cried at and asked to do things by clearly unstable people enough to know that sometimes there really is nothing you can do and feeling bad about it doesn’t help you or anyone. Shake it off and do something nice for yourself to help you let it go 🙂

    • Oh yeah…. of course, in your librarian position you would have that same problem. This is obviously a sign of my advancing age – back in my Waterstone’s days, the most awkward obstacles I had to negotiate were unwanted romantic suitors – now I get the crazies! Lol!

      • Romantic suitors usually approach me on public transit these days. Though I did have a student from the school of business as me out on a date about a month ago. He was a very nice young man. Big ego boost but Bookman and I had a good giggle over it that night. 🙂

  10. What a horribly unsettling encounter. I hope writing about it has helped make you feel better. It’s very hard to see how you could have improved the way you handled it given the circumstances. Much sympathy.

    • It was the same friend who told me about the victim triangle who suggested I write about it or draw something. Given I am the last person you’d want to be partnered with for pictionary, I opted for narrative! It does usually make me feel better to get it out of my head – and having such lovely blog friends. Your comments never fail to cheer me up. 🙂

  11. It sounds a confusing a disturbing circumstance you found yourself in. I’m not sure how you might have handled it better as no matter what you did the woman would have been unhappy. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If she had been in the right frame of mind she would have realized your kindness.

    • What a nice comment – you speak good sense! She definitely did not seem like someone I could make happy. Reading your comment also makes me see how much I wanted her to be reasonable – which really wasn’t going to happen, was it? Hmm, interesting.

  12. It doesn’t sound as if there was genuine pain, it rather sounds as if she was really a nutter and off her meds. But an unpleasant situation for you, that’s for sure. I’m a magnet for disturbed people but I usually get rid of them easily – only I was never trapped in a place like that with one of them. You couldn’t escape. Very unpleasant. Honestly, I would just forget it. Hopefully she won’t come back.
    Anyhow – you’ve got a great contribution for the books Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.

    • Oh lol! Your last comment cracked me up! Like you, I have had a tendency to attract the nutters in the past, but most were more harmless than this one, or I should say less disturbing. I really DO hope she doesn’t come back! I think I might go and hide out the back in the storage space if she does….

  13. Litlove, the woman was clearly unstable. Not unlike people who stand on street corners and yell at passersby. You tried to help her, but she was off-kilter and there was nothing you could do about that. Oddly I had a similar (but more benign) experience shopping for garden plants the other day. I had a lot in my cart and let the lady behind me go ahead since she only had a deck chair in hers. She started talking to me about how she used to garden until her husband died and left her without insurance because he hated her and so she lost her house and was now destitute and living in a dumpy apartment and she can’t eat two weeks out of every month because the welfare check was inadequate and her kids are rotten and refuse to help her. I suggested she might make contact with a local church that has a food pantry. “Oh, I did and they’ve written me off. They refuse to speak to me anymore.” Errr…I wonder why? I thought I’d keep to myself the question, “If you can’t eat, should you be buying that deck chair?”, as discretion took over – and then it was my turn at the cash register – thank heaven. Don’t fret over the encounter. Trust me, she wasn’t really looking for answers.

    • Oh yes! That was a lot like my experience, exactly that sort of muddled, uncontained, victim-speak stuff, none of it seeming to make any kind of sense. Crikey, it’s scary to think what percentage of the world is off their rocker isn’t it? Next time, I really hope I’m able to pay and leave…. Thank you for the solidarity!

  14. You are far too nice. You actually gave her the benefit of the doubt, which is honestly much more than most people would have done I assure you. As someone who has worked in bookshops (in our downtown which is always full of interesting characters) and someone who takes public transportation I am also a complete magnet for needy people. They can sense who is going to be nice and listen–but what can you do. It sounds like you handled it well–I think I might have been reaching for the phone to call security. Unfortunately people like that tend to fall between the cracks–it is very sad really, but I guess all you can do is try and listen and not get too entangled with them.

    • What is it about bookshops? You’d think they would be the last places to attract that sort of person (she most certainly didn’t want a book!). Well, I can imagine that you are also someone who looks kind and approachable and gets approached too much. You remind me never to get on a bus… 🙂 Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually carry shields around – Roman centurions had all the luck!

  15. You’ve gone several extra miles already, Litlove. You were in a position that’s really tough, only person in the store and all that. I can imagine this could be quite a troubling episode. Hope now you’re feeling better about it and no, never think of yourself as a ‘bad Samaritan’.

    • I do feel better about it now, thank you, Arti. Writing about it helped, and all the lovely comments helped even more. I really don’t want to be in that situation again if I can avoid it…. so the next part is trying to figure out how to avoid manning the shop alone. I did feel cornered.

  16. Thanks for posting your horror story. Between the observation about the victim triangulation and all these wonderful comments, I’ve been better able to make sense of similar situations that have cropped up at my public library.

  17. You cannot possibly call yourself a bad samaritan – you really went out of your way to help the woman when most people would have been trying to edge her out of the door as quickly as possible! You did all you could. And sadly whatever you gave, she just wanted more, and in fact it wasn’t what she really needed anyway (which was some form of psychiatric help I should imagine). I don’t think she’ll be back – as you observed, you have probably now become one of the persecutors in her mind. But, more hopefully, perhaps she will find the help she needs.

    I hope your colleagues act on this story and ensure that nobody is left alone in the shop again. And I hope you feel much better about it.

  18. I so wish I could volunteer to help out at the shop but it’s a bit of a commute.
    And your comment “So few people who ask for help actually want help. They want confirmation that the world is a bad, friendless place, that their fears and anxieties are well founded, that they can do no more than they have done, and most of all they want a punch bag for all the emotions that result.” makes me sad.
    I am reading a book about how to talk with teenagers – brain structure/emotions, etc – and it is about everyone having a strategy to handle all sorts of situations. This story and the comments have provided terrific insight into ideas of how to handle the unwanted unhelpable shop customer, yes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s