Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Self Defense

The lights in the studio were cut. I stood in one darkened corner, then walked diagonally across the padded floor toward a man who approached me from the other end of the room. No one else was there. Every nerve in my body tingled with the anticipation of attack. He started a patter of trash talk that began with "Hey, baby, where you goin'?" and ended in four-letter obscenities. His wiry body advanced quickly, and I called up the tactics of self defense I'd been practicing for weeks. Let's call this a final exam. Let's say I flunked it miserably, right from the words "called up." It is an illusion, the idea that in a moment like this there is time to remind yourself of anything; your moves must be without thought, swift and accurate. The man approaching was the teacher of a scrappy "street style" self defense class offered in St. Louis in the spring of 1993. Since I'd been working for S.A.R.T., the Sexual Assault Response Team run out of the YWCA (see yesterday's post), I got to thinking naturally enough about my own ability for self defense. I don't know where I got the info for the class I signed up for, but for weeks I'd been practicing defense tactics. Some of them I still remember to this day, like the side-to-side rolling to destabilize someone who's knocked you to the ground and is sitting on top of you. Even better, you perform the three-pronged move (still standing, with someone behind you) of elbow-to-gut, fist-to-crotch, and then, when the attacker is doubling over in pain, elbow brought back up to crack the assailant under the chin. Then you run like hell. After a certain number of classes, we students felt we'd made good progress, felt ready to be tested, and therein lies the lesson: you're never ready. Never. The evening of the test, we waited in the outer reception area, where we could not see into the studio. One by one we were called in. I remember hearing the women who went before me; I could hear them struggling, fighting, screaming. It was definitely unsettling—it sounded pretty real—but it also felt informative somehow, though I'm not really sure what that means in this circumstance. I guess I told myself that having heard them, I had some idea of what to expect. I expected the approach, the trash-talk confrontation. I did not expect to be facing my teacher, certain he was the only other person in the room, and then be grabbed roughly from behind. Where had this second attacker come from? None of us had any idea of a door near the corner where we'd all been asked to start our walk across the studio. It was a dirty trick, but effective; it was as close to a real attack as could be managed in a controlled setting. And, as I said, my weeks of training were basically useless. I was disoriented and overtaken immediately. I can replay the scene like it was yesterday, except that, oddly, I also can't; it's devoid of detail—and that is not a function of passing years. Many whodunits exploit the unreliability of a witness's report; even, or especially, when the witness is the victim. It's just a different matter altogether to realize that you are the unreliable one, that if you had to describe the man in the shadows, you were likely to make mistakes. We all tried, and largely failed, to name the physical traits of this rigged perpetrator, before he came out to introduce himself to us. Even that evening, sitting in the vestibule with the incident fresh in my mind, the only things I remembered with clarity were the walk across the studio floor, the shock of a person behind me, and then my instructor's hand over my mouth when it was over, telling me not to say a word to anyone else.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds absolutely terrifying! I once took a similar course that was only a week long. But the "final exam" was given outdoors, in bright sunshine, in front of the whole class. I was still shaken, so I can't imagine... I would hope that we would all, in a real situation, do whatever we had to do get out of danger.