On Her Own

Lessons Learned from Helen Jones on Acid Attacks

Acid attacks are terrifying: someone runs up and splashes a liquid on your face and suddenly, all you can feel is searing pain. At best, the chemical burns are mild and simply hurt. At worst, they blind and permanently disfigure you. They are most often the result of random violence, or specifically targeted at women who have “misbehaved” in some way relating to relationships or sex, although those are far from the only reasons that acid attacks occur. Fortunately, they’re relatively rare, especially inside the United States. Unfortunately, one happened just a few weeks ago here in my home Philadelphia region.

Helen Jones, 61 years old and on her way to work in the early morning, saw and dismissed a man standing near home while she was heading to her car. She ignored him, but when he asked ‘if she was good,’ she looked up to respond and was hit in the face with acid. Ms. Jones may never see again. She didn’t recognize her attacker and doesn’t have a clear description of him, so we may never know why he did it, and he may never face justice for what he did. We can be sure to learn lessons from Ms. Jones’ experience, though.

Because there was no known motive for the attacker targeting Ms. Jones, it’s being considered a completely random attack. One of the theories is that the man must be mentally ill, as there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to do such a horrible thing. As Dr. William Aprill often reminded us, though, most people with true mental illness are non-violent and those that are, tend to be violent against their caretakers. Just because we don’t understand why a person acts terribly doesn’t mean they’re clinically crazy. It simply means we don’t understand their particular brand of twisted logic or the strange things that they find rewarding. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re doing it because they think it’s a moral imperative or because they think it’s funny. The end result is the same for us. It’s certainly scarier to know that an attacker might not have anything “wrong” with them in a way that we can see and diagnose (however accurate that may be). And yet, that’s exactly how it be sometimes. Our best defense is to worry less about the why and more about the how not to get hurt.

I don’t know if Ms. Jones’ spidey sense went off when she saw someone strange nearby when she went outside that morning. It’s okay if it didn’t. Many people walk through life with a difficult-to-trip spidey sense and are perfectly safe anyway. However, fine-tuning our suspicions can help keep us safer. If we expect a quiet, empty street and someone is there, perhaps they deserve a second look and a continued look. Then, no matter how clean-cut and innocent they may seem, perhaps they deserve to be kept at a distance by circling around them or even by death-glaring or asking them to step out of your way. It might even be worthwhile to pretend to have forgotten something and to go back inside for a few minutes. Being late to work isn’t ideal, but if it doesn’t look or feel right out there, it could still be a better choice. It’s not always a practical one, though, and you might not be able to maintain a six or eight yards between you and the stranger. In those cases, continuing to watch them as well as you can will help. So will staging a pepper spray in your hand. Are they foolproof ways of staying safe? Sorry, no. I can’t make any guarantees about any strategy. Frankly, anyone who tries is selling you snake oil. But heightening your attention and being prepared with a tool like pepper spray will give you a better chance.

Even when you do everything right to try to avoid danger, sometimes danger finds you anyway. Knowing how to respond, especially to potentially resulting injuries is really important so that damage isn’t more than it has to be. That’s why so many personal safety advocates recommend learning about bleeding control through the use of tourniquets and related techniques. For an acid attack? The best immediate treatment is removing any contaminated clothing or jewelry that can be safely removed, and immediately flushing all affected areas with as much water as possible. If the acid is in a powder form, it can be brushed away with another piece of clothing. If it’s gotten into the eyes, you can run clean water across the eyes as much as can be tolerated. You may need to wear gloves or avoid too much touching to protect yourself from burns, and the patient should also be encouraged to not rub their eyes or touch their face or other affected areas as they can cause even greater injury to themselves. Obviously, get emergency medical services on their way as soon as possible, as hospital treatment will be necessary.

None of this is to say that Ms. Jones did anything wrong at all. That fault lies entirely with her attacker. Her experience, however, sadly warns us that acid attacks happen and they can happen in the United States. They’re especially horrific because of their results, but protecting ourselves against them takes a similar shape to protecting ourselves against any other type of attack, with just a little bit of extra knowledge needed for the potential aftereffects. While that’s not something I wish any of us are reminded to learn because of someone’s suffering, preventing another person from becoming another reminder seems like one good outcome to me.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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