In 2002, I decided to take an IMPACT self-defense class because I needed to feel physically powerful, capable of stopping a person who tried to attack me. I needed to know I could do something about my father’s too tight hugs and grabs and yelling. On a mat in a gym in a simulated rape scenario which began with me crying and ended with me kicking a would-be assailant harder than I ever knew I could, I learned the beauty of being scared and powerful at the same time.
I found strength in my hips, power in my arms and legs, the precision in my fingertips. I learned that I didn’t need any special athletic talent—only training—to find the holes in what an abuser says about how he intends to hurt me. Like every human body, the words abusers use to scare their intended victims are full of weak places. When I find the weak place I find the opportunity to change the story. But I don’t change it to a story of how good I am at hurting another person, because that wouldn’t change anything.
I am in a rape scenario, lying down on the mat, crying. The instructor, playing the role of a perpetrator, pins my arms. I don’t have to fight arms with arms. This is not a contest. Instead I take the tension out of my arms and wait for a flaw in his body’s logic. I know my hips and lower body will throw him off if he gets on top of me and if he doesn’t, there is a limit to how much he can hurt me with so much of his body occupied restraining my arms. The minute he moves, I move. He has to let go of my arms to proceed and when he does, I will find a vulnerable part of his body to strike.
Learning self-defense means not having to live on the terms of anyone who has hurt me. It’s story of the intelligence a woman’s body finds when she finally believes that not every man can overpower her just by virtue of being a man. The story is more than that, though, because before that class I was working to get distance from my father, but still enduring his hugs. Feeling my stomach in the back of my throat and wanting to turn my skin inside out to get away from him.
My sister’s college graduation fell between the third and fourth weeks of class and when I saw my father, my body found the posture I had learned to use at the sign of threat. Feet shoulder with apart, strong leg half a step back, hands in front of my body saying “stop.” When my father moved toward me for a hug, I said,
I’m not in a hugging mood
I hadn’t planned to do this, my body responded automatically.
he said, and started coughing or laughing, I wasn’t sure.
I’m not in a hugging mood
But I’m your father
He tried to move around me. He tried to talk me out of the line I’d drawn. I was scared, yet proud of how loud and decisive my voice remained. I looked at his eyes and saw vulnerability. Literally, because the eyes are a common target used in self-defense, but even more than that. Abusers are not all-powerful. They too are scared. They have lost kindness or empathy and want what they want so desperately that hurting other people to get it becomes increasingly possible. If they want someone close to them, they take away the choice to leave. Knowing how to apply strength to the vulnerable targets of someone’s body gives choice back to me.
It isn’t true to say that I stopped being scared of my father. I would no more stop being afraid of erupting volcanoes or falling rock. The change is this: after the class I became scared of my father the way a capable adult is scared of a driver speeding down the wrong side of a busy street. I was no longer afraid that I didn’t pacify him he would yell and his rageful words would obliterate me.
In the months that followed that class he yelled a lot—insistent phone calls demanding that I hear his version of the events that led my mother to seek an order of protection. I learned to hang up. I learned to erase messages. I learned to be steady and confident, not to give in every time he yelled, and eventually he yelled less.
I need to resist the temptation to declare myself the winner of some contest because the minute I do that I stop advocating for safety and start defending my ego. This is not about beating my father or anyone else. It’s about having a life that is not diminished by abuse.
The hours I spent in that basement gym elbowing the duct-taped helmeted instructor who was playing the role of a perpetrator gave me the confidence to know that I am every bit as capable when I’m afraid as I am when I’m calm. There is beauty in the ability to advocate for safety—first our own, then someone else’s—when we’re feeling fear because we feel fear when we stretch ourselves. We feel fear when we maintain integrity in the face of someone trying to undermine us. This is what it means to say, “stop” and “yes” at the same time.