Susan’s Fight Back
One Woman Takes on Her Worst Fears
Photographs by Jennifer Bishop
THE FIRST SNOWFALL of the season enveloped the town on the day her father died. It kept on snowing as mourners overflowed the church and eulogies were murmured all around the small town. There was fond talk of the rugged, gray-bearded businessman and outdoors man who filed his important papers in the pockets of his Pendleton wool shirt.
Little Susie-Pee Wee to her dad-had recollections of her own: “My dad killed a stray cat I was taking care of because he said I paid too much attention to it. He took me to the woods and killed the cat, and then he raped me.”
The local newspaper said her father had “brightened and enhanced lives all around him” and described him as “gentle as the snow that heralded his death.”
Susie, who was 13 that winter he died, recalled the times her dad had locked her in a trunk in the basement and threatened to throw her, trunk and all, off the dock.
Years later, Susie’s hometown was still holding an annual dinner commemorating her father. Years later, a loud noise would still snap Susan, now grown up, into an immobilizing flashback, a reaction to severe childhood abuse. Her paramedic boyfriend, john, once shouted her name to warn her of an approaching car, and the harshness of his voice froze her in the Crosswalk: She was Pee Wee again. Favorite daughter, favorite victim of the man in the wool shirt.
Susan is 27 now. A short, sturdy woman with wavy brown, gold hair, golden skin tones, and an expression that seems to change every time you look at her, she is completing a master’s degree in social Work. She is also about to begin a course in which Women who have been physically or sexually assaulted – along with women who are afraid they might be – learn to fight for their lives with the help of mock assailants dressed in helmets, face guards, and 5 0 pounds of padding.
The idea for such a course originated 20 years ago in California with a man named Matt Thomas, who holds a black belt in karate. Today, some 15,000 Women have graduated from similar programs offered by 27 affiliates, operating under different names across the country. The class Susan is taking is based in Seattle. Called Powerful Choices, it’s part self-defense and part therapy. Unlike more traditional self-defense courses, however, this class encourages participants to mine their personal histories for feelings of fear and anger and to learn to fight under the influence of emotion and adrenaline. And, unlike talk therapy, it introduces hand-to-hand combat into the healing process.
Whether students enroll to work through early abuses or just to feel safer on the streets, they learn a variety of skills-from anticipating an attack to de-escalating conflict to using specific kicks and punches. But all that is secondary to the catharsis many discover in a full-force, no-holding-back fight with a living, sweating, cursing, attacking man.
Although some critics have charged that the fights are too traumatic for women who have been raped or assaulted, Powerful Choices executive director Judith Roth argues that the all out scenarios help women face and overcome the real thing. The language used by the muggers is graphic and obscene, she says, because in real-life assaults on women, 85 percent of the time it’s the verbal attack that initially terrifies and paralyzes the victim. Roth says potential students are carefully screened and are asked to discontinue the course if they are not emotionally prepared. By the time Susan has signed up for the class, she’s been through other types of therapy and feels she’s ready for this. Maybe.
“When I look at photographs of these men in all their padding, I have a hard time breathing,” she says a few days before the Saturday class is due to start.
HE COMES AT HER, massive, with a hideously suggestive walk. Susan stares at the place where his eyes should be, but all she can see is a black hole, reminding her of the trunk in her father’s basement. She feels she is falling. The attacker’s arms, skinny and deformed looking, are attached to a bloated trunk, and his face, bisected with red and yellow tape, looks like a giant fly eye. In the scenario he and Susan are enacting, he approaches her at a cash machine.
“Hey, I want some dough.” His voice is garbled by the webbing covering his face.
“Nobody wants to get hurt,” says Susan. “You can have my money. Now leave me alone.”
“Yeah, maybe I want more than money.”
The man snarls an obscenity and threatens to rape her. He grabs Susan’s arm. Yelling “No!” as she’s been taught, Susan pulls him closer. She slams her palm into his face. His head snaps back, and she knees him in his padded groin, shouting “No!” As his head comes forward, she knees him once more. The instructor, crouching at Susan’s shoulder, blasts a whistle to end the skirmish.
Susan leaves the first class feeling sore and foggy. The instructor has urged everyone to do something nice for herself, so Susan goes out and buys a teapot she’s been admiring. She lingers, talking tea with the Japanese salesman-something her fear of strangers usually wouldn’t allow.
That night she dreams that her father is pointing a gun at her head and pulling the trigger. She wakes, shakes off the image, then falls back asleep and dreams the dream a dozen times. Her analysis: “My father taught me very, very clearly to be helpless and take it, and now I’m not taking it. Something is changing in me.” ‘
SUSAN IS STANDING on the old patched blue wrestling mat at the front of the class, telling her fellow students about her father and the cat. “He said if I behaved correctly the pets I loved wouldn’t get hurt …. ”
Interrupting, the mugger stalks toward her, bug-like and heartless. “This cat is dead because of you,” he shouts, pretending to shake a small stiff body in Susan’s face. “If you knew how to do things right the cat wouldn’t be dead.”
Susan assumes the power stance she has learned: knees flexed, right leg back. Her eyes, normally compliant, go hard. She snaps: “It’d be dead anyway.”
After a protracted fight, Susan careens to the edge of the mat, stumbles, and falls down on her knees. “I felt like throwing up,” she says after class. “Everyone started beating the mat and cheering. It was the loudest thing I ever heard. Two hours later I was still shaking.”
A few weeks later, on graduation day, balloons festoon the basement of the hall where Powerful Choices meets. Susan’s boyfriend, john, is in the audience.
The 20 women, awaiting their entrance, peer from behind the auditorium door like supercharged kids before a recital. They join hands and thunder out across the mats. Susan, third in line, wears denim shorts and knee pads.
One by one, the women step up to take on the monsters. Suspense showing on her face, Susan watches a girl in tartan shorts and a Mickey and Minnie T-shirt ward off an attacker who ambushes her on her way home.
Between fights, the muggers yank off their heavy, hot helmets, gulp Gatorade, and swab their dripping faces with ice.
“Susan is ready,” an instructor says, giving her a gentle nudge to override her fear. “Go, Susie,” John whispers, in agony for the events that brought Susan here, in fear that she`ll freeze, drop back into childhood in front of all these people.
The bug comes at Susan and grabs her from behind, wrapping both beetle arms around her. “Don’t you f—ing fight me, hear me?” the muffled voice says.
Susan’s eyes get that serious, focused look. This is not pretend. She bites the padded hand as hard as she can and tastes sweaty leather. When the mugger loosens his grip, she drops to the ground to attack with her strong legs. The mugger lunges to the mat after her, and she kicks him twice in the head with the flat of her foot, then brings her heel down hard on his helmet in a crushing motion that instructors call the ax.
There’s a thump, and the padded head bounces off the floor. She axes him again. He curls up, cringing, hands to his face in a gesture that says “I’ve had enough.”
Afterward, Susan says she doesn’t feel the course has erased or altered the bad memories. “It’s more that I took myself to a place where I was really helpless again, and this time I won,” she says. “I was free for the taking before. Now I feel if something happened there’d be a fight.”
The assailants throw off their helmets, turning back into tired men. Friends and family swarm onto the wrestling mats. John and Susan find each other in the crowd and hold each other silently for a long time, like people who have been separated by misfortune-and reunited.
Powerful Choices and similar courses were designed for women who want to learn effective skills for self-defense – not just for survivors of abuse.
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Model Mugging Powerful Choices holds classes in Seattle.
Original article in American Health Magazine, September 1993 – pages 59 to 61; download file size is 2.22 MB.
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