Girlhood, Interrupted

I’m wearing a helmet, knee and elbow pads, and big, thick mitts on my hands, all in fire engine red. Detective Lopez, a woman who could inspire confidence in a rabbit, is in the room, along with the woman running the video camera. The two huge guys in dough-boy padded suits aren’t really the rapists and muggers they’re pretending to be. So why is this so frightening?  Why is my daughter too scared to enter the room at all?

I grew up full of fear. Fearful of the unknown, which, in the narrow universe of my childhood, was nearly everything. Taught not to rely on but to doubt myself in a tough spot. My mother’s first reaction to many of the things I reported about my forays into the world was a gasp. I’ve worked to unlearn, to re-teach myself. I intended my own children to grow up differently.

Towards that end: the 12-hour anti-rape self-defense training recently offered at a nearby police station. Our group ranged in age from thirteen to late seventies. Four of us were there for and with our daughters, three young teens (one mine), and an unwilling eighteen-year-old whose mother wanted to arm her for the terrain she would soon navigate – a college campus. Our instructors were the formidable Detective Lopez, in her mid-thirties, and Officer Damon, ten years younger. If I had designed role models to teach my daughter self-defense I couldn’t have done better than these two strong, self-assured, and (important to this thirteen year old) attractive young women, both veterans. And if four of us were anxious that our daughters know how to defend themselves, Officer Damon provided a touching counterpoint with her particular concern to train one member of the group: her mother.

The class was open only to women. The police didn’t want to run the risk of teaching defense tactics to potential attackers. Then too, a woman or girl who’d had a bad experience in the past might find herself coping with emotional echoes during the training. An environment without men would feel safest, so there wouldn’t be any in the room, even as instructors. That is, until the final night.

Class time was intensely physical. We were taught to think about risk reduction, about making ourselves look like tough targets to aggressors, who generally prefer easy ones. But mostly we were taught to move. Techniques – blocks, kicks, stomps, punches, rolls, finger jabs, and one memorable procedure demonstrated with a pair of ping pong balls – were thrown at us in quick succession, practiced, reviewed, corrected. We were taught to use our voices. Stop! No! Get off! Rape! I’m not sure why this one was so hard for many of us to remember, but I’d like to think that, like hitting our teachers, what was challenging in the classroom would come much more readily in a dark parking garage.

Like everyone else, my daughter worked at nailing the techniques. She also giggled with another girl taking the class, and texted her friends during breaks. She laughed heartily at everything I did, not nastily but with affection, as if genuinely (and continuously) tickled by my attempts to master tactics.

Every now and again our instructors would stop the action and check in with us one at a time. We’d been told at the outset to expect the check-ins. Told we had to make eye contact with the person asking how we were, indicate that we were fine or that we were not. Meeting another’s eyes is, in a small way, a gesture of assertion. In circumstances in which we were feeling a little awkward, in which we were being asked to use our bodies in ways unprecedented for many of us, the moment of eye contact was yet another demand to locate some self-confidence. That’s how I think my daughter, who until very recently made eye contact with me whenever she spoke to another adult, felt about it.

From the start we were promised that the course would culminate in an exciting pay-off for our efforts, a simulation in which we would put everything we’d been taught to use. Simulation of what? Danger. One by one we’d be attacked in our classroom. It was our task to make it out of the room. It was the task of Dough Boys One and Two to keep us there. When our instructors spoke of the simulation, I noticed that none of us jumped up and down in anticipation. Still it was surprising when two class stalwarts didn’t show up the final night, and didn’t call to explain their absence. It was surprising when my daughter refused to participate.

As we’d been told, sometimes the training brings back echoes of things from the past. For my daughter, the training didn’t but imagining the simulation did. My daughter hasn’t been attacked by a stranger. She’s had experiences with someone she trusted that made her feel intruded upon, violated in a deeply personal way. There is a before and after in her girlhood. A time when it belonged just to her. And another time after, as she describes it, it was taken from her. She tells me that because of these experiences, she is afraid, almost always, of almost anything and everything. Though she vigorously denies it I feel that she had these experiences because I failed to protect her. I long to give her back her intact girlhood. And can’t. So I try to help her shed anxiety. The training was meant to help her be safe and feel strong. I encouraged her to try the simulation. She was firm. She said she feared she might break down inside the cage created by the face-masked helmet and be trapped there with her grief and terror.

I had taken the class myself only because my daughter wouldn’t take it without me. Now I had to ask myself what use I could make of the experience I was about to have. It so happens that I have been under emotional attack and in a great deal of fear myself in recent years, over-laying the fearfulness of my childhood. I decided I could enact symbolically what I’d never quite managed in life. I would end an attack – finally, definitively end it, and in so doing, free myself from vulnerability – from fear. Of course it wasn’t so simple for me, just as it wasn’t for my daughter.

In the lobby all of us, except my daughter, strapped on protective gear. We were reminded that our goal was to escape, not to beat up our attackers. Winning meant getting way. We needed to be reminded of this because in the heat of the moment, the flip side of terror is rage. During one of my simulations I kicked my (well-padded) assailant in the groin, then started to kick him again – only to realize that he’d let go of my arm and I was free to run.

One at a time we were called into the classroom. Those of us left behind, waiting, listened to our classmate’s screams.

Each of us returned a mix of pent up and spent, relieved, victorious. We congratulated each other. We’d been told not to discuss details of the simulations with those who hadn’t been through them, so we talked in a general way about our experiences. Everyone I spoke with agreed that, despite being fully aware that what was happening wasn’t real, the simulations had been terrifying. I’d been right not to press my daughter to go through them, though I was sorry she hadn’t. 

I had wanted my daughter to have an experience of setting her own boundaries and defending them. Of protecting herself. She wasn’t ready. Maybe before relinquishing my care, she needed to see if I was strong enough to provide it. Maybe she needed to see me face the demon and survive.

When I was about to enter the simulation room my daughter took a photo of me in full gear, face obscured by the helmet, gloved fists raised like a boxer’s. I’m Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, all phony ferocity, and reminiscent of the badge he’s awarded in the end, I walked out that night with a piece of paper stating I’d completed the course. The lion’s badge tells him he’s found his courage. My certificate tells me I can join any other class in this method of self-defense, wherever it might be offered. In other words, I can view my training as just begun. If my daughter had faced the simulation that night I might be tempted to feel finished. As it is, I’m only too aware that we’re not. I’d better start looking out for another class. Maybe next time, or some time, my daughter will want to face her own demon, and get away.



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