Taking Care of Ourselves

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff’s post on harassment got me to thinking about self defense in general, so I decided that today’s post should be a flash memoir about a time I defended myself on the street. This appeared in my collection Flashes of Illumination.

Flashes of IlluminationSalvation

The Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is noted for its booming nightlife, but get a block or so off Columbia Road and it becomes a quiet residential area. One night about 10 PM I was walking home alone through those deserted streets. Everyone else had already retired for the night; I saw neither other pedestrians nor even cars. The streetlights worked, but the light was filtered by the abundant trees and bushes in the well-kept yards.

About halfway home, I heard – or felt – someone behind me, and looked back to see a young man about three-quarters of a block away. Something about him bothered me – perhaps only his presence when no one else was around – so I picked up my pace.

A block later, as I was walking past a tall, thick hedge and so close to home that I could see the well-lit front steps of my apartment building in the distance, a man suddenly appeared in front of me: A large man, over six feet, with a husky build. I had no idea where he had come from.

He stood directly in front of me in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking my way. His hands were raised and in his right he held a small pocketknife, blade open. He mumbled something at me. I didn’t understand him, but I was sure about one thing: He meant me harm.

Time slowed down. I had all the time in the world to figure out what to do. I remembered the young man behind me. He might be in league with my attacker, so I couldn’t turn and run. The only safe place was on the other side of this large man. I had to get around him. He stood there, the front of his body completely open, and I thought,           “This man wants me to kick him in the groin.”

Back when this happened, I didn’t have a black belt. I didn’t even have a green belt yet. I was a raw beginner in the martial arts, with about a year of karate training and no particular gift for the art.

But I knew how to block and kick and punch, and I knew a target when I saw one.

So I flung my left arm up to block his right – in case he struck down with his little knife – and I kicked him straight in the groin. Not very hard – he didn’t fall down – but hard enough so that he hunched over and moved back.

That gave me enough room to get around him and I took advantage of it. I ran all out, faster than I’d ever run before, all the way to my front door. It was only when I was standing there under the bright entrance lights, panting for breath, my hands shaking as I fumbled for my keys, that I dared to look back. The man hadn’t followed.

I had saved myself.

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Taking Care of Ourselves — 9 Comments

  1. I am not into martial arts. But I took fencing for 4 years, casual bouts at a community center. Research for historical novels. But what I really learned was attitude. Striding onto the strip with confidence, scanning the area, measuring my opponent with my eyes. Sweet grey haired grandma, became a contender. I saw that in the eyes of the younger students. They might best me with height, strength, speed, and stamina, but I knew things.

    Attitude changed my life. When I attended WorldCon in Glasgow in ’05, I had to walk about 1 mile from hotel to convention through marginal neighborhoods. I carried a cane but rarely used it for anything but a reminder to center my balance after back surgery, as far as I was concerned it was a weapon. Teen boys hanging about in doorways with nothing to do but harass people never approached me. I heard reports from other con goers about cat calls and demands for money from these boys. They were looking for easy victims. I was not an easy victim.

    Be cautious. Be wary. But project an attitude that says I am not easy prey.

    • Phyl, that’s wonderful and that’s at the essence of what I always tell people about self defense: pay attention and project confidence. I don’t think people need to study martial arts to protect themselves, though martial arts training is good for giving you the skills of awareness and confidence. Obviously, as your example points out, people can pick of these skills in many ways.

  2. Years ago a friend of mine, with whom I had taken stage combat courses, was walking through her Brooklyn neighborhood with her room mate and a visiting friend. My friend is short and on the roundish side; her room mate and her friend (room mate female, friend male) were both unprepossessing. And they were confronted by a pair of young men who obviously thought they were pushovers.

    My friend, unthinking, went en garde, brandishing her umbrella. Her friends, with less training, fell back behind her, back to back in a clear sort of “circling the wagons” posture. And their would-be assailants: left.

    I was told years ago: the first thing you want to do is make yourself an unappealing target. Someone who looks like more trouble than they’re worth. And moving with confidence is a good start.

    • Another wonderful story. Hmm. Book idea: do an anthology people’s successful self defense adventures. What do people think? I’d like to emphasize that self defense doesn’t mean devoting your life to the martial arts. I mean, I’ve devoted my life to the martial arts, but that’s because I loved them and found them to be a good path to self awareness. I didn’t spend all those years just to learn self defense; as it says in my story, the basics I knew back when I was just starting out were all I needed.

      • First rule of self-defense: where possible, Don’t Be Stupid. I think I told my wandering-down-dark-alleys-in-a-Morroccan-city-trying-to-keep-the-woman-I-was-traveling-with-from-dying story. In that one, we got out of it by sheer luck.

      • I wonder how many self defense stories are “lucky we came out alive but whoa was I stupid.” At least mine is. Like Phyl, I studied fencing, and while I was traveling alone in Europe at age 20 I got harassed so much in the south that I bought myself a switchblade in Spain.

        I only used it once. A friend and I were hitchhiking through Europe. We learned the hard way that doing that in Germany and Austria, Holland and England was okay, but in France, it was not okay. Hitchhiking girls were targets.

        The first guy who picked us up drove out to a lane beyond the city and reached for me. I fought him off, and explained in my crappy French that no, we really didn’t want sex, just a ride. “But all Americans are sluts, it says so on TV!” Yes, well that’s TV.

        He dumped us there in the lane.

        We hiked back to the highway, at this point wanting to get to the Swiss border and away. Car after car of normal people passed us–then two guys stopped. They were from French Morocco they explained. We were too ignorant to know how women were viewed in that culture. The usual conversation transpired, “Where are you going?” “Do you want to stop for coffee?” “Is it true all American girls want sex?”

        I thought I was handling it okay until they switched to their language, and I sensed intent. Sure enough, the driver swerved off the road into some trees. This was not going to end well, so I pulled out my blade from the back seat, snapped it out, and stuck it under his ear. “Stop!” I screeched.

        He slammed on the brakes, my friend and I dived out the back doors of the car, and he roared away.

        Now, if he’d been smarter, he probably could have grabbed my hand, or if his friend had grabbed my hand, we would have been in a world of hurt with my own weapon. But they were caught by surprise, which was luck.

        I’ve told this story for years to kids, pointing out how stupid we were, and that in such situations, ignorance is never a defense.

        • I don’t think you were all that stupid. Keeping your head and taking an attacker by surprise are very effective tools. And if your fencing gave you some idea of what to do with a switchblade, it was maybe a good weapon for you to have. My general take on weapons is that they’re not a good idea unless you know how to handle them.

          You are right that it’s important to be aware of the cultural assumptions in play, so that you don’t take unnecessary risks. That brings up the question of how much women should be expected to constrain their lives due to the perception of others that they are fair game that is at the core of the current debate. One of the reasons I’m an advocate for learning about self defense — which, btw, has very little to do with fighting — is because I don’t want to limit my activities based on fear of men or to see other women do it, but I also don’t want any of us to be attacked. Also, I figure the more times a woman does something unexpected to a predator who thinks she’s easy prey, the more it changes the perception that women are targets.

          I’ll be writing about this some more.

          • I am totally with you–but I still feel that hitchhiking is problematical, especially getting into a car with a couple of guys who look like trouble.

            • I gave up hitchhiking years ago, and I eventually stopped picking up hitchhikers, though I’d probably still pick up a woman traveling alone, mostly because I’d worry about her.