There are two good reasons to sign up for self defense: Because you’ve had your boundaries crossed before, or because you’re afraid they’re about to be. Chances are, both things are true. I have never been mugged on a dark street corner or raped or beaten. I had been kissed and pushed and pressed. I’d had a homecoming date who wouldn’t leave my room, so I slept in another bed. I wouldn’t have seen myself as the victim of assault, but then again, I couldn’t really see myself at all.
But there’s always a first time, and I figured I’d better be ready. I like to plan ahead. You think that sounds like a real downer, but in fact, Model Mugging self defense, in the basement of Temple Beth-El in Brookline is one of the most positive places you might hope to find yourself.
A sparse room that smelled like dust and rubber, with a few gymnastics mats thrown in the middle of the room. We were a room full of women, some who’d suffered more than others, and some who were just more afraid. But it was a room full of fighters, whether they knew it yet or not. They were all there because they decided enough was enough, and they wanted no more trouble. They wanted to ward it off, like a stray hungry dog coming down the street toward you.
Back then, in the late 90s, the course cost a couple hundred bucks, a fee my father gladly paid, as he’d pay any amount to reduce the worry you live with when you have three daughters in their 20s roaming around a major metropolitan area. I chose this particular course because of a book I read when I was recovering from shoulder surgery, The Gift of Fear, written by a man who made a career sniffing out trouble the way a shark sensing a single drop of blood in several metric tons of water.
In it, he told a gut wrenching story about a woman who accepted help carrying her groceries, in her door, up the stairs, and by then it was too late, and the man had dispensed with the groceries and all but threatened to murder her. He blasted music so no one would here, but she got free, and followed him like a shadow down the hall. When he hung a right to the kitchen to retrieve a knife, she slipped out the door, stark naked, to freedom. What would that be like, I thought, to sprint out of your home, free of anything, anything at all.
That story haunted me — still does — and I thought, no one is ever carrying my groceries but me. The author talked about intuition and gut checks and how to smell a storm coming, the way squirrels and goats and deer will turn tail at a moment’s notice and head for higher ground.
In the class, male volunteers, perhaps working out some issues of their own, get fully armed in five-inch padding, head to toe and stand in for the evil in the world accepting physical punishment on its behalf.
I had for a few summers between semesters taken up Tae Kwon Do, but a lotta good that did. You can’t take someone down with a roundhouse kick and I really dare you to try. It’s a martial art form, not a street-wise survival tactic. And unless someone came at me with a thin plank of wood that I could split in half with one hand (which I could and had, by the way), I was going to be in big trouble.
My two younger sisters and I took tae kwon do together, and went out with Roy, one of the younger instructors, for frozen yogurt every week. Except one week I went alone, and after Roy bought me a chocolate vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles, he told me I was pretty and leaned in to kiss me with his big cold lips in the front seat of his car. I stayed very still, like prey, ready to dart as soon as I could. This man was a blackbelt. A lot of good a roundhouse kick would do me then.
I finished six weeks of training with Model Mugging, having fought off multiple assailants on made-up street corners, even used learned to throw an attacker off me with a simple thrust of the hips in another scenario called “Bedroom at night.” During the graduation, you showed off all your skills in one shining hour, where one by one, a small tense audience watched their daughters and sisters and wives kick and punch a series of dirty-talking assailants, creepy stalkers, full-on rapists in a string of made-up scenarios where we all emerged the winners and the attackers laid on their backs, life less. It’s a fantasy come true—you take one bad guy out after another, you take back your power, and you learn to scream at the top your lungs, a battle cry, without feeling one bit ashamed.
There was an awkward moment where my mother and sisters had to watch as an instructor dressed like a duct-taped gumby ordered me onto all fours, and I bided my time until I saw my opening—(Wait, wait, my coach said, whispering to me like an angel from the side. Look for the targets. Ignore everything else.) Then—NOW!—in one swift maneuver, I flipped onto one side, drew my leg up and released it like an arrow straight to his head, knocking him senseless.
And as the timid audience got used to watching their loved ones pursued and attacked, they became fighters themselves, and what started as a well-behaved self defense demonstration turned into a fight club, with everyone stamping and shouting from the sidelines, feeding a collective need to let it out, let it out, let it out.
They say after you graduate Model Mugging, you’ll probably never need to use what you learned. And in truth, I haven’t. Not in midtown at night, not on a narrow street in the East Village, a homeless man asleep under a sheaf of cardboard. I look around, searching faces for a sign of threat. I dare you. There’s a way you carry yourself when you learn to fight, land a punch, use your voice, that has a way of warding off trouble, like a spell. The world is a different place when you can hold your body like a bow, drawn and poised and ready.