Conquering Street Fear
A Self-Defense Course Worked For Me
One Monday morning last September, I had just stepped off the subway train at Forty-Second Street in Manhattan when suddenly I heard bloodcurdling screams. In the well-lit corridor I go through twice a day, a woman was being attacked. She was face-down on the ground and a man was standing over her; I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but whatever it was, it obviously hurt. As I stood there, frozen, hundreds of people walked around the assault as if a crime weren’t taking place. The woman continued screaming even after her attacker fled. “Everyone stared at me!” she shrieked over and over. “No one would help me!” At that moment, I thought I’d never feel truly safe in New York City again.
I became convinced that, sooner or later, something similar was going to happen to me — and when it did, no one would help me, either. I felt constant anxiety. Every morning I woke up to find myself lying on my stomach with my fists clenched, red half-moons in my palms where my fingernails had bitten in. I knew something had to change. I couldn’t go on like that.
I decided to take a self-defense course called Model Mugging, which uses realistic assault scenarios to teach women how to knock out single, unarmed assailants (the type that most often attacks women).
Thursday, November 8, 5:45 P.M.
The course was held in the gymnasium of Public School 158 on New York’s Upper East Side. There were mats on the floor and several women were lounging around. They didn’t look like fighters. One of the instructors came over with a big smile. “Hi, I’m Laine,” she said. She gave me a name tag and told me to put on knee and elbow pads. This worried me; I was hoping that we wouldn’t actually be attacked on our first day. I was so scared I couldn’t smile at anyone. Soon the other instructors and assistants introduced themselves — Sarah, Carol, Erika, and two men: Janusz and Julio. Janusz and Julio were about my height — five feet, five inches—and, to me, looked too wimpy to play the role of “muggers.”
At 6:00 sharp, Sarah called the class to the mat. There were fifteen of us. We began with some warm-ups, then we learned how to “center” ourselves — adopting a protective stance with elbows in, hands up, our weight on the balls of our feet. (Learning how to become “centered” is the basis of every defensive move taught in the course. It’s a signal to both you and your attacker that you’re physically and emotionally ready for a confrontation.) We practiced this technique over and over.
Next we learned our first defensive moves: the elbow strike (aimed at the attacker’s nose or chin); the eye strike; the knee to groin; the side-thrust kick. Sarah told us to yell “No!” with each move; this, she said, would make our strikes more powerful and would keep us from holding our breath and overtiring ourselves during a fight.
After we learned these moves, Sarah told us to sit in a circle, knee to knee, and tell why we had enrolled in the course. I was shocked and saddened to learn that all but three or four of my classmates had been sexually or physically abused as a child. My own reasons for taking the class seemed so trivial.
Sarah then separated us into two groups; a pad was placed in front of a padded pole and, one by one, we each did three side-thrust kicks, yelling “No!” with each strike. Laine told those of us waiting our turn to yell with the woman kicking. “That support is very important,” she said, adding that several graduates who were attacked after taking Model Mugging reported that, as they fought off their attackers, they heard the cheering of their classmates in their heads.
I was at the end of the line. I dreaded doing the move; I have always hated to get up in front of people. Then my turn came, and I dropped into side-thrust kick position. “No! No! No!” I shouted, kicking the hell out of the pad. I got up feeling exhilarated and surprised at myself. It was at this point that I began to realize the extent of the anger I had inside me — anger at always feeling like a victim.
We were now ready for our first confrontation. We were to handle it verbally, centering ourselves and using authoritative words and body language to make the potential mugger go away without a physical fight. Janusz put on what looked like a wrestling mask and stood at one end of the mat while Sarah stood at the other end to demonstrate. As soon as Janusz put the mask on, I realized I had been very wrong about him: He was terrifying. He looked like Jason in Friday the 13th.
Janusz walked toward Sarah and she immediately centered herself. “Stop!” she said. “Back off!” He continued walking and Sarah held her ground. “I said, move back!” Janusz paused, then he nodded and walked away and the “mugging” was over.
I was the first to go. It seemed easy, but once I was on the mat, Janusz’s appearance made me so nervous that my whole body started shaking and I had a fit of the giggles — my usual nervous reaction. My mind went blank. I wanted to get out of there. Finally, after letting Janusz get much too close, I squeaked, “Stop!” Sarah told me to try again, and somehow I did it. “Stop. I said stop!” Janusz nodded and walked away. “Yeah!” Sarah shouted. “That was very convincing!” I was relieved it was over. After everyone went through the “mugging,” Janusz put on his full pads, including the huge helmet that Julio had designed for the course. Janusz’s transformation was immediate and terrifying — he looked like a science fiction monster. “When I take this mask off, lam Janusz,” he said. “When I have it on, I am Stone. I am not your instructor. I will not help you. I will try to hurt you.” I believed him.
It was time for our first physical mugging. This one was choreographed; after “Stone” threw us on the mat we were to do an eye strike (“Eyes!”), an elbow strike to the face (“Elbow!”) and three knees to the groin (“No! No! No!”). Sarah or Laine would be or the mat with us, yelling against openings and blowing the whistle when Stone signaled that a knockout blow had been delivered.
I was the next to the last to go, so I had to watch each woman’s face when Stone grabbed her from behind. Finally it was my turn. I stood on the mat with my back to Stone. Suddenly he was behind me, grabbing me, taking me down to the mat. The “No!” I was supposed to yell got stuck in my throat. I waited to hit the ground. Stone was all over me. I got up on my forearm and elbowed him in the face: “Elbow!” As he fell back, I turned and poked him in the eye. “Eyes!” I yelled. He reeled back and I filled the gap, kneeing him in the groin. “No!” I shouted.
“Again!” yelled Sarah.
The noise was deafening. My classmates were yelling, Sarah was yelling. Stone was now on his back, and I got into side-thrust kick position and kicked his face. “Kick! Kick! Kick!”
Stone’s hands came up and Sarah blew the whistle, signaling that I had knocked him out. I completed the “mugging” as Sarah had taught us, positioning myself at Stone’s head and centering myself. “Look!” I yelled, looking around for other attackers. “Assess!” I looked down at Stone’s immobile body, checking for movement. Then I stomped my foot above his head. “No!” (If a real attacker were faking a knockout, his reflexes would react to this.) Then I ran to the end of the line and yelled “9-1-1 ,“ signaling that, after the attack, I had sought help.
After class my adrenaline was pumping. I wasn’t tired at all. My brain was reeling from all the things I’d learned.
Friday, November 9
When I woke up, the first thing I thought of was the previous night’s class. I felt very well rested. I left for work early; on the train, a man stared at me. I thought to myself, ‘‘Go ahead, stare. You’re not hurting me. But if you try to touch me, you’re not going to know what hit you.”
In class we learned what to do in certain attack situations — if someone grabbed us while walking by, or came up behind us and pulled our hair. We also learned several new strikes: the heel palm (used against the attacker’s nose or chin), the knee to head and the ax kick (dropping your heel on the nape of your mugger’s neck). This time we weren’t given a set progression of moves — we were to improvise with whatever openings we had.
My turn on the mat. Stone walked toward me threateningly. “Stop!” I said. He paused, and then continued moving forward. “Stop right there. Go away!” He paused, walked around me. I pivoted, staying centered. Then he lunged at me. The next thing I knew, he was knocked out. “Look! Assess! No! 911!”
When I got back in line, Laine said that if the attack had been real, the mugger would have walked away after my verbal commands because they were so strong.
Almost half the class had gone through the mugging when something awful happened: Stone ran at one of the women very fast and she panicked. She screamed and ran away from him, then dropped to the ground and backed off the mat. “Help me!” she sobbed.
Sarah stayed right with her. “You can do it. You’re alright. Just look for your opening.”
We all yelled encouragement from the sidelines. I was crying. I was afraid the woman would give up, and it was important to me that she didn’t. When she finally knocked Stone out, our claps and shouts echoed through the school.
Everyone was shaken up after that. I think we all knew that the same thing could have happened to us.
After this mugging we were introduced to a technique called the “reversal.” Each of us lay on the mat, centering ourselves, becoming completely relaxed. Sarah said that this state was “zero” and instructed us to go from zero into an eye strike, then zero into a side-thrust kick. She said we would be using this technique in our third mugging: a simulated rape.
Stone made these attacks very realistic. He told some of my classmates to get on their hands and knees, as if he were planning to have sex with them from behind. Watching fourteen women get “raped” was awful, simulated or not.
When my turn came, I lay on the mat and tried not to think about what was going to happen. Suddenly Stone was on top of me. “Do what I tell you,” he said, rolling me onto my back. I tried hard to stay calm. He released my wrists and pretended to pull my pants down. I made my move. “Eyes!” He reared back and kicked him in the groin, then gave him two ax kicks. “No! No!” Sarah blew the whistle, and it was over.
After we all got through the mugging, Janusz took off his mask. Sweat was running down his face and he was panting. He said if these attacks had been real, many of us would have knocked the mugger out with the very first blow.
Our assignment for the next class was to write about an emotional or physical assault that we had gone through, a situation in which we felt hurt and powerless. The muggers would act out the scenario as part of a mugging. Confronting the situation in the supportive class environment would help us come to terms with how we had originally responded. In our reenactments, we would have the control and power. And when we knocked our attacker out, we would be the winners. I wrote about being betrayed by two of my friends who had lied to me and cheated me out of my money. Even though a year had passed since I last talked to them, I still had recurring dreams in which I’d alternately hug them or beat them up.
Sunday, November 11
When my parents called, as they do every Sunday, all I could talk about was my class. Mom and Dad weren’t too thrilled with it. They were afraid it would make me feel invincible and that I wouldn’t be careful anymore. Before we hung up, my dad asked his usual question: “What’s the key word?”
“Safety,” I said.
Monday, November 12
We now had a new mugger: Julio (a.k.a. ‘‘Bato’’). Bato and Stone switched off, giving each other time to rest between attacks. Both of them seemed determined to make our fights realistic. During my first fight, Bato inadvertently hit me in the mouth and I got a fat lip. One woman got a bloody nose.
“You’re gonna like this, bitch,” Bato said.
Our second mugging was a simulated rape. When it was my turn, Bato sat on top of me for several seconds without releasing my arms. At first I did a good job of staying relaxed, but he took so long that I struck before I really had an opening. A few seconds later he pinned me down again. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, you stupid bitch!” he snarled. “Are you trying to fight? I’ll kill you!“ “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Bato released my hands, and I immediately got him with two eye strikes. Then I got into side-thrust kick position and kicked at him. “No! No!” The fight seemed to go on forever. Finally Sarah blew the whistle. “Look! Assess! No! 911!”
I stumbled to the end of the line, out of breath. My eye strikes had been so good that I broke almost all of my fingernails.
Our third mugging was the conversational scenario we had written down. Before each woman got mugged, the instructors would read her scenario, then Bato or Stone would reenact it. It was all so sad — women yelled at their incestuous fathers, their alcoholic mothers, their abusive sisters. I never knew such pain existed.
Then it was my turn, and I told the class about my friends and how they had stolen from me. Bato walked up to me. “What are you so upset about?” he asked. “What I did wasn’t wrong.”
“Yes, it was!” I said. “I didn’t deserve to be treated like that.” After arguing with me some more, Bato attacked.
The fight lasted forever. I was screaming, not yelling. My kicks were strong, but they were all over the place — Bato’s chest, his legs. I was so angry that I was hitting too fast. “No! No! No! No! No!” I shouted. I started hyperventilating. I was losing my strength. But I couldn’t let Bato — my ex-friends — win.
After class I hailed a cab and headed home. I was completely exhausted. My lower back was killing me. I had anxiety dreams all night long, dreams of Stone and Bato mugging me again and again.
My classmates were all yelling. I was half awake and I felt like they were all in my apartment with me. Every hour I woke up with a start, then fell back into the nightmare. I had a terrible migraine and didn’t have any aspirin. I woke up on my stomach, fists clenched.
Thursday, November 15
When I walked into the gym at 5:30, I thought, “Well, you’re here. You can’t back out now.” Some of my classmates commented on my conversational scenario. At least it wasn’t my imagination that it had been an incredibly tough fight.
We learned two new moves, both of them to be used in the event that your attacker straddles your face and tries to make you perform oral sex. In one of the moves, you bite your attacker’s penis, then, when he leans forward in reaction, you punch his butt with your fists, throwing him over your head. In the other, you bring your legs up, clamp them around his body and throw him onto his back, following with several hammer fists to his groin.
We went through five muggings in this class, three “reversals” and two “walk-bys.” Sometimes Stone and Bato were supposed to be drunk or on drugs. Since they were less aware of pain, it would take more kicks to knock them out. Other times they put a pillowcase over their ‘‘victim’s” head or brought out a rope and tried to tie her. “If your attacker tries to tie you up, don’t wait for an opening,” Sarah told us. “Create your own.” When it was my turn, Bato got on top of me, pinning my arms with his legs and straddling my face. “You’re gonna like this, bitch,” he said in a chilling voice. Then he raised up to “unzip” his pants, and that’s when I struck.
“No!” I yelled. I brought my legs up around Bato’s chest and slammed him onto his back, pounding his groin with my fists. Then I got into side-thrust kick position and kicked him several times in the face. When I watched the video of the mugging, I was surprised to see that my posture was very erect (I tend to slouch). I looked very self-assured, and each move met its mark. I felt an extreme sense of accomplishment.
Sunday, November 18
Graduation day. My attacker was a “guest mugger,” Joquin. He came up behind me and threw me to the mat. Then I was in side-thrust kick position, kicking him in the face. Within seconds he signaled the knockout and I started to get up. Suddenly I saw Stone running at me. I got him with an eye strike and dropped back to the ground. “Kick! Kick! Ax! Ax!” Stone was knocked out, too, and I stood above his head. “Look! Assess! No!” I started back to the line. Suddenly Joquin jumped up again, and I realized too late that I’d forgotten all about him. I dropped back to the ground and kicked him again. When it was over, I was careful to stomp above both mugger’s heads, making sure they were both immobile. I was so exhausted that I almost forgot the sequence. But it really didn’t matter — I had done it!
Did Model Mugging change me? Yes. Though I’m more aware of dangerous situations, I feel confident that, if I’m attacked, I’ll be the victor. I’ve learned that I don’t have to take verbal harassment from men on the street, though I’m still working on how to know when to speak up and when to ignore it. I’m not a victim anymore.
At least once a week, I dream that I’m being attacked by Stone or Bato or a stranger. But my dream self isn’t afraid — she is strong. She always wins the fight. And when I wake up, I’m lying on my side, hands open.
Elizabeth Kuster is on the staff of Glamour Magazine.
Model Mugging is a specialized course that teaches women self-defense against an unarmed attacker. It is offered in states across the country; the cost ranges from $425 to $750. This course isn’t for everyone. In some states, potential students must complete a questionnaire about their medical and emotional history; women who have been assaulted are recommended to wait until a year after their attack before taking the course and to be in therapy.
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Glamour magazine, July 1991
Original article in Glamour Magazine July 1991 – pages 174 to 175, 190 to 191; download file size is 3.85 MB.
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