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This week's problem:

Returning by train from an early-evening opera, Sally noticed a man staring at her. She walked home, aware that someone was following her; as she put her key in the lock, she was attacked. Her screams alerted a neighbour, who prevented a sexual assault. She's 50, terrified to go out and her confidence is shot. How can she cope?

Sally may, in future, wear necklaces of personal alarms, knuckledusters of car keys, carry her umbrella like a spear and use all the other paraphernalia that makes up a female armoury. But if she feels like a jelly inside, her street-life's still going to be a misery. She needs confidence, which she can't get until she's got this attack out of her system first.

Talking about it helps. She should button-hole people in bus queues, tell the story to her family again and again and again ... and the terror will lessen in the telling. She may feel, like lots of victims, that she "asked for" the attack. It's hard to fight that irrational conviction but, taken to its logical conclusion, if she can't help believing, wrongly, that the attack was her fault, then she has to take responsibility for her own rescue, too.

Can she turn fear into anger? A letter to her attacker, preferably starting "Dear loathsome pile of shit" or, more politely, "Dear coward", can help to get out of the victim mode.

Doing something to him could help, too. As he's not around to berate, she can only do something to him in her heart, either good or evil. Personally, I'd cast a spell on him. She can construct her own guttering candle, assemble whatever spell-like ingredients she wishes, from dew-drops to hairs of a cat, and as for words, anything from "May you never sleep easy at night" to "May anguish dog you for the rest of your days" are quite good enough. (Don't laugh. The sexual attacker performed a violent act under cover of darkness; Sally would only be trying to sneak up on him and get her own back under cover of the darkness of the psyche.)

But if she wishes to do good, Sally should remember the healing power of forgiveness, which would release her from the bitterness and hurt she feels. And again give her a glowing power of which she could, rightly, be proud.

Sally could go to her local self-defence classes, for the techniques will give her confidence that might, by the firmness of her step and the chin-up tilt of her head, make her less vulnerable to attack again.

But she must remember that it is incredibly rare for women to be attacked by strangers, and the chances of it happening again are statistically low. She should also remember that if she stays at home she's handing over her power to her attacker.

Perhaps it might help her to know that, if she can get herself tramping those streets at night again, she's not just doing something for herself; she's doing something for all of us.

readers' responses

When I was 12 years old, a man in a car stopped me on the pretext of asking directions, and said obscene things, which I barely understood. I ran away. Seven years later, a man exposed himself to me while I was walking alone in the country. Neither of these experiences approaches Sally's in gravity, but both left me frightened and, for a while, bitter towards men. As I have matured, I've come to realise more fully my rights as an adult woman, and to accept my own responsibility in holding on to them.

I have the right to walk and travel freely as I choose, without a male bodyguard. I have the right to face whatever risks there may be in life, as men do, while taking reasonable precautions. And I will not allow any crazy, ill-adjusted man to take those rights away from me. So, Sally, don't stay indoors. It's very unlikely that man will approach you again: he was probably more frightened by the experience than you were. You are not the guilty one. Take courage, and don't stop going to the opera. Gillian Metherington, W Sussex

It took me a long time to recover from an attack that took place in my home. I sold my flat and moved back to my father's. At first I couldn't stay on my own at night so would arrange for friends to stay when necessary. I was frightened about going out during the day, let alone at night. I tried to find positive outlets for the knowledge and experience that I had unwillingly gained and for the anger I felt. I was interviewed for a police training video on the handling of rape cases. I talked to people about what had happened and, in some cases, radically changed their views on rape. Gradually I regained my confidence.

The anxieties you feel now will decrease over time. Initially you will be nervous when you go out, but take things slowly. You have been through a shocking experience. Arrange for friends to drop you off or take taxis if possible, but get on with your life. Just do whatever is necessary and possible to increase your sense of confidence and security. You will find that it becomes easier.

Anon, London

As a victim of an indiscriminate acid attack near my home in Leeds six years ago, I have every sympathy with the lady attacked by a stranger and her feelings about it now. However, the only way to deal with this is to put it into perspective. Attacks like hers, or mine, are very rare, and it is important to go out and face the world and not to withdraw, otherwise your life will be miserable. The sooner you go out the better, and do it in a positive way as you will only attract more attention if you appear nervous.

I did my own reconstruction a week after my attack, and sported livid scars for nearly a year (although these eventually turned white and are now nearly unnoticeable). It would have been far too easy to have taken a long time off work, to not go out and literally fester. But here I am, six years later, aged 33 - a changed, but stronger and more experienced person.

Julia Featherstone, Bradford

Sally must fight back and not be intimidated. Here are some survival tips for her and for all women. Try to alert someone to your time of arrival home. Book a cab if necessary to meet you. Carry an alarm and have it ready at all times. Take defence lessons - a useful tip is two fingers or keys in the eyes. Choose a train seat that no one can get to from behind, and check where the alarm is, so you can reach it easily. If you get left alone with a dubious character, then change carriages; if necessary get in the carriage nearest to the driver so that you could knock on his door - as I once did.

Pamela Bailey, London

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband died four years ago. Despite trying, we never managed to have children. And, though better able to cope than I was, I'm still privately heartbroken. My problem is that my parents have decided to celebrate their golden wedding on the eve of the anniversary of my husband's death. This isn't the actual day of their anniversary, but they say they can't change it because of a variety of factors. The sight of my married brothers and sisters with their children, who I love very much, will only rub salt into my wound on this day; not to mention the knowledge that I'll never have another wedding anniversary with my husband, let alone a golden one.

My parents are frail and naturally this date means a lot to them. They know I mind, but believe I'll cope because I always have. I'm keen to remain close to my family - though my siblings think I should have "got over it" by now - but I don't think I can cope this time. Half of me can't understand how my parents can do this to me; half feels guilty for letting my emotions come before their celebration. If I don't go they'll be very upset and I'll regret it. I feel utterly torn. What do other bereaved people feel? Also, what do others who have their golden weddings this year feel?

Yours sincerely, Tessa All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Dept, Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.