By Katy Butler
THREE YEARS AGO, THE face of a 12-YEAR-OLD girl named Polly Klaas stared at me for weeks from “Missing” leaflets posted in stores and car windows all over my town. Days and then weeks earlier a man with a knife had walked into her family’s unlocked bungalow in the little town of Petaluma, California, 40 miles north of my home. In a back bedroom, he tied and gagged two of Polly’s friends, who were there for a slumber party, and took Polly away. Even though Polly’s divorced mother slept in another room, none of the girls so much as screamed. The story haunted me long after Polly’s body was found, not only because it showed how dangerous the world can be for women, but because so many of us go like lambs to the slaughter.
And so last spring, when I signed up for a course in self-defense and streetfighting designed primarily for women, I thought not only of Polly Klaas, but of friends who’ve been raped on the streets and in their homes. I thought of an afternoon five years ago, when I took a long walk down a deserted beach on the Mexican island of Cozumel and suddenly realized that a man had been quietly following me for miles. I told him to go away, and then shouted and flailed at him, but before I knew what he was doing, he grabbed my crotch and then slipped away into the bushes.
I knew I’d been lucky: women and girls are the primary victims of whole FBI categories of sexually motivated crime rape, spousal battery, stalking, certain forms of serial murder. Yet few of us know much about physically defending ourselves. More than 100,000 of us report being raped each year, and another 500,000, it is estimated, are raped but do not tell police. We often have more private, half-articulated fears that someday a muscular and impulsive boyfriend may go off the deep end and hit us, or that the nice-looking man at the local swimming pool who asks us out for coffee may turn out to be a nutcase or a stalker. Such fears have helped to shape our world. They are our lives’ background music.
Nothing in our socialization encourages us ever to think of fighting back. Many of us lost our carefree tomboy ways in early adolescence, giving up rough-housing and rowdy contact sports, just as many of our brothers enthusiastically joined high school wrestling, soccer, basketball or football teams. Folklore and even some policemen used to reinforce that message: for years, women were advised not to resist rape for fear of risking further harm, even though research now suggests the opposite. Psychologist Sarah Ullman, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, studied 274 rapes and attempted rapes that ended in criminal convictions in the early 1990s. She found that women who resisted were significantly less likely to experience a completed rape and were no more likely to be hurt or abused than nonresis-tant women.
So we live uneasily in a violent world, with the social freedom of men but without their physical strength. Many of my friends know they increase their risks simply by living their lives: they have left marriages, live alone, travel to strange cities on their own or go to the movies by themselves. (U.S. Department of Justice statistics indicate that single, divorced and widowed women account for 84.6 percent of the victims of rape.) Gone, too, are the pre-feminist days when a woman could feel protected as well as controlled if she was defined as the property of a socially or physically powerful man. The day is yet to come when a woman can feel protected by a social ethic of non-harming even if she belongs to no man. Sisterhood may be powerful, but in a world saturated with sexual assault, it is not powerful enough.
That may explain why, over the past 20 years, more than 22,000 women have taken self-defense and streetfighting courses with names like Model Mugging, Powerful Choices, Awakening the Warrior Within and Tigerlily’s Shock, Scream and Run. The first known such course was held in 1973, when a Harvard medical student and martial artist named Matt Thomas was horrified to learn that a woman friend had been raped, even though she held a black belt in karate. He put together a nuts-and-bolts training session called Model Mugging that has become a template for dozens of others. Calling these programs “self-defense” may be misleading. They do not merely teach women to avoid dark hallways, scream, run, rake their keys across a rapist’s face or pack Mace. They teach women how to gouge out eyes, inflict pain, knock someone out and leave an attacker pale and panting on the floor, or even maimed. Their hallmark is a form of in vivo flooding. After training in potentially lethal punches and kicks, each woman faces an initiatory ritual ordeal: brutal hand-to-hand combat with a padded and helmeted man playing the role of a rapist or mugger. Only when a woman strikes with enough force to temporarily disable an unarmored man does she “graduate” and the battle end.
The courses, many lasting for six weeks and costing from $400 to $750, caught on in the late 1980s, and word soon began trickling out that some women who had previously been victims of physical or sexual attacks found them not only practical but therapeutic; they were able to replay their most frightening memories, and win. Other women said the confidence they gained on the mat spilled over into other areas of their lives. The programs gained an underground reputation, amplified by articles in women’s magazines, as the Outward Bound of assertiveness training.
I hoped that the course I signed up for a $430 weekend workshop in Marin County called Awakening the Warrior Within would make me feel safer, and not only on the street. The previous winter, I had backed down on an important professional issue out of fear alone. In the aftermath, I felt demoralized. I turned to a friend who had recently reported her boss for sexual harassment; to my surprise, she recommended not more bureaucratic maneuvers, but streetfighting training. She had taken the workshop, she said, and now felt as if the experience of standing up for herself and winning had been encoded in her cells. The decision to confront her boss had grown directly out of this. “I’d given ground, and given ground and given ground,” she said, using a martial arts metaphor to describe how she had left earlier jobs and taken transfers to avoid harassment. “I decided not to give ground anymore.”
She struck a chord, and so I found myself on a Saturday morning in spring, sitting in a circle with 14 women and 2 men in a karate school in Novato, California, listening to a 53-year-old martial artist named Dawn Callan describe what she planned to teach us. “If you don’t know how to take care of yourself physically, it doesn’t matter what else you know,” she said. She was small and blonde, the former head of a Hollywood security agency, with black belts in two forms of karate that emphasize streetfighting. “If you can’t take responsibility for your physical safety, you’re always in a certain amount of fear, and that defines your life,” she went on. “This workshop is about renegotiating your relationship with fear.”
That was fine with me, and seemed to be fine with the rest of us: all women, except for Callan’s husband and co-trainer, Bob Bailey, and Rick, a likable former high school football player who sold advertising on the Internet (the training admits men, but primarily serves women.) Many of us were middle-aged and out of shape; one was massively fat. Five said they had been sexually abused as children. Linda, a personal trainer with a baby-doll voice, said she had come because she’d quit a university job after feeling physically threatened by a disgruntled college athlete. A soft-spoken widow in her late thirties, still grieving, said she had not worked since her husband’s death five years earlier. Another woman had come on the advice of her second husband, a policeman; she had survived 20 years of battering during her first marriage, before renting a U-haul and fleeing at night to another state. Another woman had grown up in Germany during the Second World War; she spoke two spare sentences honed over the years to both communicate and conceal. “Women are the spoils of war,” she said. “I saw things no child should see,”
Then we headed onto the mat.
We split into pairs along a mirrored wall for steadily escalating drills. Callan taught us to “own” a five-foot safety zone around our bodies kicking range and
we practiced keeping each other away by shouting “Stay Back!” (Now I understood the mistake I’d made on the Cozumel beach: I had let the interloper inside my safety zone.) We learned to let out a martial cry a deep “ho!” called a ki-yaii whenever we struck or were hit. For 10 hours, we pounded and kicked into thick foam cushions, covered in red vinyl, held up by our sparring partners. Callan marched up and down the mat like a Marine sergeant, calling out, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” The room echoed with our grunted ki-yaiis, punctuated by the girlish voices of two women who said “Sorry!” and “Excuse me!” at almost every turn. Sweat soaked our clothes. We tossed our sweatshirts off the mat. One woman crouched behind her red vinyl cushion, buffeted by her partner’s kicks, tears streaming down her face. It reminded her, she told us at lunchtime, of how she’d been hit by her alcoholic father.
My partner Julie a court reporter, recently separated, with two young children slammed into my cushion so hard it caught my ear and stung. My body flushed; I couldn’t wait to trade roles. When my turn came, I kicked into the mat, forgetting to point my foot, and crushed my toes painfully against each other. I remembered being 15, returning from the dentist after having my wisdom teeth removed and being groped in a parking-garage elevator by a shambling, ragged man. I’d turned and slapped him and with a look of infinite hurt and surprise, he’d punched me back. We flailed at each other until the door opened and he’d slunk away. I had started a fight without knowing if I could finish it. I’d been lucky not to have been more badly hurt. Was I learning more of the same? I found myself, briefly, in tears.
The immediate lessons Callan taught were simple: use surprise. Don’t give a potential attacker any information about where you live, who you live with, where you’re going. Lie. Be rude. Meet his energy, but don’t escalate. Don’t wait to be attacked: strike as soon as you “read intent.” Go for the vulnerable parts of the body: grab the balls, kick the knees, crush the windpipe, gouge out the eyes. The meta-lessons were something else again: Callan was giving me permission hell, commanding me to imagine really hurting someone. “What have you got?” she’d yell, as she put us into various holds, challenging us to find a free elbow or knee to jam into an intruder’s groin or voicebox if we were grabbed from behind or pinned half-asleep in our beds. She was challenging my belief that resistance would only get me into hotter water. The person with the strongest intent, she said, wins.
I was hoarse by the time I drove home at the end of the day. During a partnered exercise, Callan had directed us to define for each other the words “victim” and “warrior.” Over and over again, we had completed sentences like “I act like a victim when . . .” and “I act like a warrior when . . . . “It had seemed a bit New Agey at the time, and I was disturbed to hear the word “victim” used like an insult. “Victim” isn’t a slur, I thought: so much victimization is beyond the control of the victim. But when I looked around my untidy house that night the phrase was engraved in my brain. I thought of the time I’d tripped over a phone cord and slammed my finger in a door, requiring a trip to the emergency room and six stitches. I act like a victim when I live in chaos and then get surprised when things go wrong. I act like a warrior when I am willing to take a little pain for something that matters, when I protect myself, when I act to protect those who need protection, when I don’t give up. I took a bath and got into bed. My body felt rubbery, light and relaxed, as though I’d exorcised gallons of fear and rage that had swirled through my bloodstream for months. I drifted to sleep dreaming of punches and strikes, the way a sailor’s body dreams of the rising and falling swells of the sea.
AT 3 P.M. ON Sunday, after hours of further practice, two men pushed open the karate studio’s door. Their knees and groins were padded; large and densely muscled, they carried black helmets that made them look like twin Darth Vaders. Robert Humphreys was a black man, a former movie stuntman, security guard and karate teacher who represented the type of attacker that many white women, rationally or not, fear most. Patrick Young tall, white and Irish, the son of a policeman, also the holder of a black belt fit the archetype of a muscular, demeaning boyfriend who could turn to violence. He swaggered onto the mat where we stood mutely in a circle. He told us about Richard Speck, who held 10 student nurses hostage in a Chicago apartment in the 1960s. Only one woman survived: after fruitlessly urging her fellow captives to unite and disarm him. she hid under the bed. The rest of the nurses went quietly with Speck, one by one, to another room, where he killed them. “The only difference between them and you was luck,” Young said, stalking the mat, looking each of us in the eye. “Society has taught you to be victims. Every single one of you.” He moved toward us; we tried to keep him at arms’ length, swirling the mat like herded sheep. Then Robert Humphreys jumped Rick, the Internet advertising salesman, from behind. Rick grunted. I gasped and fled the mat. Thank God, I thought, it’s not me.
Rick flailed and Humphreys dragged him down; then Rick turned white and furious. He went amok, kicking Humphreys’s groin and beating his black helmet with such force that Callan and her husband had to pull him off, yelling “Break! Break! Break!” The rest of us formed another circle on the mat, and Young walked among us, looking for a new victim. It was like a violent game of musical chairs: we all knew that before the game was over, somebody would be odd man out and would have to fight. Young picked out the woman who had spent much of the previous day crying about her alcoholic father. Before he could grab her, she stepped out of the circle and punched him in the head with the heel of her hand so hard that he went down.
While an assistant treated Young’s grazed temple with styptic, Humphreys stepped back onto the mat, black and menacing, swinging his helmet from one hand. He walked the circle. Our eyes met. I would have done almost anything to avoid that moment. I stood there, hands slack at my sides, thinking that maybe if I acted invisible, if I didn’t move, didn’t speak, he would go on to someone else. He hit me full in the face with the flat of his hand; I was as surprised as I had been when I was sexually grabbed in Cozumel. I gasped, moved forward, kicked his groin and jammed my elbow over and over into his helmeted face while Callan and her husband shouted at me to breathe and ki-yaii. I screamed out “Ho! Ho! Ho!” as I hit, until Humphreys staggered and almost crouched in front of me, his groin exposed. “Kick!” yelled Callan, and I did and he went down. I walked off the mat knowing he’d given me my final opening. “This is psychodrama,” I thought, “not combat. They’re letting me off easy.”
There were three rounds of combat, and each time Young and Humphreys held back less with us. Humphreys asked an overweight woman why she’d let herself go like that. “I wish you would go away,” she said softly. “I’m not going to go away,” he taunted until she turned and flew at him, energy shooting through her soft, massive body. Linda, the woman with the baby-doll voice, finally abandoned her chronic apologies. Her face went dark. Young grabbed her, carried her down the mat and shoved her against a wall before she got hold of herself, fought and won. (Later she discovered she’d broken three ribs.)
Humphreys’s first slap in my face had taught me that there are times and places when I cannot hide. On the second and third rounds, I attacked as Callan advised as soon as I read intent. The first time I did fine, until Humphreys said, “Stop! Stop!” in a low voice, and like a dummy I obeyed. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!” yelled Dawn, and I realized I had been totally suck-ered. I can’t remember exactly what I did next, only that I struck and kicked over and over again. Each time, I struck what Callan and Bailey judged were decisive blows and I came off the mat exhilarated, satisfied and deliciously tired. I knew they were no longer letting me off easy.
That evening, my buttocks ached from kicking. Dark round bruises dotted the bone-blades of my forearms and one temple hurt. I was hoarse and it hurt to breathe deeply. Three weeks later, all of us got together again for a follow-up evening in a meeting room at a local motel. Several women reported significant changes: the young widow had decided to apply for a job, and a counselor said she was setting clearer limits with her daughter. Baby-doll Linda, the personal trainer, seemed to be avoiding situations she sensed were dangerous: she had decided to stop going to the home of a woman client with connections to organized crime.
Another woman had cut her hair and no longer took extensive phone messages for her roommate as though she was a personal secretary.
The changes I experienced were also subtle. Skeptical of ascribing too much transformative power to a weekend workshop, I’m waiting to see if they stick. For what it’s worth, here they are. Since that weekend, I’ve found, paradoxically, that I court danger less. Taking unnecessary risks, I now think, is acting like a victim. I’m less likely to walk alone down dark alleys, and more likely to lock my car at night. I seem more willing to endure physical pain and discomfort without pulling back: I swim more wholeheartedly in the mornings, pulling through the water until my shoulders ache, kicking in a way that now involves my whole backbone. A friend says I walk more freely. I’m less afraid of dealing with professional criticism or attack, and more eager to confront it head-on. The workshop has even affected my relationship with my boyfriend, who has a black belt in karate. When I first phoned him, glowing with exhilaration after the workshop was over, he was so blatantly skeptical that we had a tremendous argument. Since then, we’ve done a little friendly rough-housing; I’ve shown him what I was taught and he thinks I may well have learned to protect myself, I feel less of the underground physical fear that has sometimes kept me from being assertive or expressive with men.
Dawn Callan believes that people who have taken the training are less likely to attract attack. Out of 3,000 trainees, she says, she knows of only 8 that have faced physical violence. All, she says, successfully got away. One of them was Alan Ostmann, a man in his late thirties who was jogging in a strange neighborhood while on vacation. Four young men blocked his way, forcing him to stop; they asked him for money and said something about taking his shoes. Ostmann “read intent,” took the initiative, kicked the closest youth in the groin and then in the head and shoved him into a pile of trash. The young man’s three companions stared open-mouthed and then ran away.
Another victor was 48-year-old Dianne Ross, a San Francisco woman who has limited use of her arms and legs as a result of severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She limps and cannot flex her hands or bend her knees. Three years after taking the training, she was walking home in North Beach at twilight when someone grabbed her from behind, picked her up and carried her, seemingly helpless, into an alley.
“He was not expecting any resistance,” Ross subsequently told a reporter for a local newspaper called The Pacific Sun. “All of a sudden I saw Dawn’s face, and she’s yelling, What have you got? And I turned and saw his hand right by my face and I reached over and bit his finger as hard as I could. And he screamed and put me down and ran away.” When I read her story, I thought that Callan may have been right after all when she said that the one with the strongest intent wins.
In the months since that brutal, exhausting and exhilarating weekend, my bruises have disappeared, and so has the adrenaline high that delighted me immediately afterward. But many of my fears now seem less global. I am more likely to fear specific concrete things (a libel suit, perhaps) rather than a global fear of not being able to make a living. I think through practical ways of protecting myself. On the street, I’m less afraid of appearing rude; I’m no longer embarrassed to turn around when I hear a sudden noise behind me on a dark city street. I don’t leave phone cords dangling all over my house. In dodgy situations, I don’t let strangers get within fingertip range.
I’m a little less controlled by what people think of me, a little less afraid of being “rude” when someone tries to overstep my limits. It may be horrible to admit that we live in a world so dangerous that thousands of women are willing to undergo such brutal ordeals to learn to protect themselves. But women who want to walk on deserted beaches alone or move freely in cities may well be living in a fool’s paradise if they don’t. “Cowards die many times before their death,” Shakespeare said through the character of Julius Caesar. “The valiant never taste of death but once.” My own version goes something like this: I would rather be grossly terrified during one weekend workshop than spend a thousand terrified days and nights in my home and on the street.
©1996 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.