Sunday I spent six hours in the company of sixteen other women learning how to beat up a very patient man in a padded suit.
It was fun.
Actually, it was more than fun, it was a little scary, slightly nerve-wracking, challenging, intense, fascinating, moving, and brought up a lot of stuff. During those six hours I found myself recalling all the small and large assaults in my past.
There was the old guy (well, I thought he was old--he was probably forty,) who operated the sandwich shop at the bus depot in Arlington where we changed busses from lexington to Cambridge. I used to come in there with my mother all the time. Once I came in there alone and he grabbed me and kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth. I was soshocked I didn't know how to respond. His wife was right there!
There was the hairdresser who cut my hair when I was a teenager and used to press his erections against my hand as I sat trapped in the chair, unsure and unwilling to believe that he was actually doing what it felt like he was doing.
There were the grown men who stopped their cars as I walked to junior high school and offered me rides.
There was the drunk guy in New Orleans who grabbed my breasts and squeezed them so hard and so fast as i walked down the street with my husband on one arm and my best friend on the other. He took his grab and then was gone, reeling off into the crowd, again, so quickly I couldn't react.
There were the two times I was mugged when I lived in Miami, when my handbag was grabbed right off my shoulder.
There were innumerable comments and offers and stares as I walked around the cities where I have lived. There was the boss at the Haitian Refugee Center who kept offering to come over my house and keep me company in the evenings.
There was the naked guy outside the window who stood there quietly masturbating, while I paced inside with a cast-iron skillet in my hand waiting for the cops to show up.
There was a rape.
I don't think I'm unusual in this regard. I think most women run more or less the same gauntlet, depending on where they live, how their physicality is read by others, and how good their boundaries are.
I had no boundaries. That's a tough way to launch into the world. It probably helped make me a poet, the membrane was so thin, and it certainly led to a lot of adventures, but if I had a daughter, I'd try to teach her more self-protection than I had. It would pain me to do so, but I would teach her that there are in fact bad people in the world and it would behoove her to watch out for them.
I was moved by the courage of the other women in the class. There were some tears. Only a few women cried. I think no one wanted to be "that person" who was going to be the identified victim reliving her trauma. We were all there because we wanted to be tougher, after all. But merely to be there, and to acknowledge what we had been through--and to hear, between the lines of what was said, all that was left unsaid...There was a box of Kleenex that got passed around. There were women who could hardly say "No!" much less shout it forcefully as we were instructed to. There were tiny women for whom the guy in the big padded suit with the huge helmet was truly an intimidating figure.
I was less intimidated by him than I had feared I would be. The first time he "mugged" me--grabbed me from behind--and I felt his arms close around his waist, felt him lift me off the ground and bring me down, I thought, "Oh! It's just a guy." There was something familiar in the strength of those arms. I twisted my body into position and kicked him in the head as hard as I could.
I was fascinated by the theory behind the teaching; since any assault will produce "an adremalized state," their aim was to put us into that state as they imprinted the moves into our bodyminds. The hope is, that if we are ever assaulted in the future, the training will come up automatically; we will fight instead of freezing in fear.
There is a delicate tightrope the teachers walk between getting our adremaline up and creating in us the confidence and self-worth needed to fight off an attacker. They are careful not to re-traumatize sensitive women but flashbacks and some disassociation are inevitable. This material is radioactive.
I personally was not so aware of feeling traumatized (typical--I usually go numb in the face of any difficult emotion.) But I found I was spacey and had a hard time memorizing even simple sequences. So many layers of my brain, body and psyche were being worked on all at once, it was overwhelming.
I liked the instructors and felt safe in their hands, including the male "attacker," who was probably the hardest working person there. If we felt exshausted fighting him, imagine how he must have felt, receiving repeated kicks and punches from sixteen women to the head and groin. (Granted, you could find guys in San Francisco who would pay good money for that kind of treatment, but I got the feeling his motives were more noble.) Occasionally he took off his big helmet to help us re-position our legs or scooch our bodies into better alignment in order to deliver a more powerful kick.
I could tell I was properly adremalized because for the life of me I could not remember three simple commands. At the end of each fight we were told to shout and enact: "Look!" "Assess!" "No!" before running off the mat to a chorus of other women shouting "Get help!" Not difficult. Yet each time I fought, as soon as the guy grabbed me I found everything we had just practiced flew out of my head and I just wanted to tear his head off. After I'd knocked him out I would just stand there unable to remember the simplest thing.
I, um, learned that I have quite a fund of innate aggression to draw upon should I ever need to. I guess that's a good thing.
I learned that I really enjoyed the knee to the groin move. "Run right through him!" our teacher coached, and I did, I ran right through the space where the attacker had been standing. No, I exploded right through the space. The other women cheered wildly. I've been applauded before, but never for fighting, never for acting aggressive, unladylike, and not nice.
Of course I have no idea how any of this would work in a reali-life situation. I hope I never have to find out. (Okay, most of me hopes that. there is a small James Bond-esque part of me that hopes that some idiot is dumb enough to attack me so that I can beat the living daylights out of him and save a whole planeload full of terrified passengers and then the President will offer me the Medal of Valor which I will turn down in order to make a political point. Yes, i do have those fantasies.)
It's a good feeling to be learning the skills. It's good just to have overcome my initial fear and resistance to taking the class at all. The hardest part was signing up for the class and driving myself there. I just wanted to stay home with C peacefully reading the Sunday paper and drinking coffee.
I had seen a friend's graduation from a similar class about twelve years ago. She was quite tough and strong and they put two assailants on her. My heart was in my mouth as I watched her fight them off. "Not me," I remember thinking at the time. "This looks too hard."
It took all these years, but I'm finally doing it, right on time. I was afraid I'd be the oldest woman in the class. I'm not. There's a woman there who is 62 years old and training for a mini-triatholon. There are also younger women in the class who have injuries and vulnerabilities; youth does not convey invincibility. I was afraid I wouldn't have the strength or stamina to make it through six hours of training. I do. (Although I was exhausted when I crawled home and into a hot bath which C had already drawn for me; I am the luckiest of women.)
It's amazing to me how he's encouraging me in this foray into power--that he likes the idea of me being physically confident and capable of defending myself. This goes against all my old conditioning and I love that. I'll be doing it next Sunday and the one after that, and the one after that. I like to fight. Who knew? At least, I like to fight in a controlled environment where nobody, including me, gets hurt. I don't see a boxing career in my future.
Most of my friends are taking or have taken Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Comminication. How strange that I'm finding an exploration of my own capacity for hysical violence to be so liberating. How moved I am at the idea of all the women in my class-especially the little ones, the scared ones, the ones who don't have much of their own voice yet--fighting off potential attackers, fighting hard. How visceral this empowerment of women goes, deep into the body.