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How not to be killed

If you’re a woman, you’re vulnerable. Beth Mann offers up some strategies for staying alive.

 Liz Falco, an old college friend, suddenly popped in my mind recently while I was shopping. She was a real inspiration to me - fiery, outspoken, kind, cute as hell, wild hair. She was the type who could speak her mind without ever offending anybody - unlike me. I thought to myself, "When I get home, I'm going to look her up. I hope she's still alive." 

This was a strange thought, considering our age. After some research, I found out that she had been murdered years ago in Philadelphia.

I went to high school with Cathy. She was a warm, vibrant, kind soul prone to near constant smiling or fits of laughter. She liked butterflies, for obvious reasons - she resembled one. Cathy was also murdered many years ago.

I won't get into the details of either of their cases. I don't think it really matters. What does matter is that if you're a woman, you're vulnerable. How not to be killed? Perhaps that sounds glib. But I'm dead serious. And I'm not just talking about the serial killer in the black van. 

I'm talking about the ex-boyfriend. Or the date gone wrong. Or the drunken friend with a suddenly explosive temper. Or the random strung-out dude whose walking behind you on the street.

This isn't about self-defense moves per se. There's only one real way to learn them and it's not via an article. These questions are meant to find out how you address your personal safety. I've recruited my Taekwondo coach Angela Tiene (third degree black belt) for some input.

1. How aware are you?

Self-defense starts with a high degree of awareness. Always. Even while sleeping. (Cats are great examples.) This means recognizing that when you're on your cell phone or running with your iPod on, you are at a higher risk - regardless of where you live. This means that when you're vegging out in front of the television, you are less aware of a sound in your backyard.

In an age of constant distraction, are you present and aware of your environment or constantly buzzing about or zoning out in one form or the other?

A brief example of environmental awareness would include taking note of who is sitting around you in a cafe or taking a quick inventory of the exits when you enter a store or noticing erratic behavior.

2. What's your body like?

This isn't going to be a lecture on weight or fitness! But if you are overweight or don't work out, you are more susceptible. Chances are, you can't run that quickly, your reflexes are slower and you don't have a good sense of your physical capabilities because you don't hone them. You need to be strong enough to fend off an attacker or run pretty damn quickly. Can you?

If you're older or have physical issues that could impede your self-defense, you'll need to compensate in other ways, such as increasing your awareness to prevent situations in the first place. Or take self-defense classes where you learn a few solid, protective moves.

3. Do you startle easily?

Startling easily may seem like a good thing, as if you're ultra-aware...but it's not. A scared person doesn't tend to react well in dangerous situations. They "blank out." Think of a good martial artist. They're centered. Physiologically, they're using adrenaline to their advantage.

In my years of sparring, I tended to get my ass kicked when I got upset or angry. If you're always "on edge", work on techniques, such as meditation or exercise, as a way to ground yourself. Being grounded is really half the battle - it increases awareness, as well as your likelihood to respond correctly in a dangerous situation.

4. Can you take a punch?

If you've never fought in your life, how do you expect you'll react in a situation where someone wants to hurt you? (And don't say you'll "hit them where it hurts" - that is not a dependable technique, for a number of reasons. Neither is mace.)

Say you get punched in the face. This can be so startling for a woman that she can't respond. She's goes into shock instantly.  For me, I practice fighting, with men. Ask any of the guys I hang out with - we spar, we wrestle. There are safe ways to fight that get you in the habit of knowing what it's like to fight a man.

Angela adds: "Not just what it’s like to fight a man, what it’s like to get hit, HARD, and keep going. Pain and shock (and fear of more of same) makes you want to give up, until you learn that your body is just as tough as a man’s."

You may argue that generally women will lose to men in a physical altercation no matter what. That's not entirely true. Many factors come into play such as size, ability, age, agility, mental state, environment, speed, weapons. Maybe he is stronger but if you can manage ONE technique, one sudden maneuver, one smart move, it could save your life.

I know I wasn't going to outline self-defense techniques here, but smashing someone in the nose causes a blinding, searing pain. It can be done with the heel of your palm in an upward manner (don't try throwing a punch unless you know how to properly - your elbow is far more powerful than a poorly executed punch.) So even if a man is much bigger than you, one upward shot could afford you the opportunity to run away. Eyes and the throat are vulnerable areas as well.

5. Can you spot danger?

If a car is pulling up behind me slowly, I get out of the way (of course!) and turn around to face them. If there is a gang of young guys walking down the street, I naturally move to the other side. Are they troublemakers? Maybe not. But why risk it? I pick up a large stick when going for a walk in the woods. I'm very aware when I open a car or house door (very vulnerable locations.) It may sound paranoid to you but its second nature to me.

Before I studied martial arts, I was mugged in Philadelphia. When I look back on it, the warning sounds abounded. I was walking down a dark street (external disadvantage), weighed down with bags (personal disadvantage), distracted because I had lost my keys (personal disadvantage) and it was icy (external disadvantage.)

I walked by a man, with his back against a wall, slamming up against it repeatedly, as if trying to pump himself up for something (erratic behavior.) I turned around and saw him running behind me. Get this: I didn't want to look paranoid and cross the street and offend him. So I kept my back to him. He clothes-lined me with his arm, punched me and took my pocketbook. It took about 3 seconds.

Bottom line: I'd notice all of those signs now. Years after my training, a man attempted to mug me during the day (in Park Slope, one of the nicest areas in Brooklyn.)  I saw his erratic behavior when I walked by him. I looked behind me and he was heading toward me quickly. I simply started running. Scarily, so did he. But he stopped after a few seconds. Bottom line: I was too much of a bother to chase after.

6. Can you run?

I personally rarely wear shoes I can't run in. I wear chunky heels when I get dressed up because I can move quickly in them. (Some may claim you can do some real damage with heels, but again - you want to be able to run first, fight when all else fails.) I generally don't wear constricting clothes for that reason as well.

The last thing you want is a physical altercation with a male. Your first defense is always running. So make sure you can.

7. Do you know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run?

(This one I'm still working out, I must confess.) But most altercations are not worth it. Don't get in them in the first place and you're better off.

With that said, this question isn't just about conflict avoidance. You need to be able to read a situation, weigh it. There are times in  life when acting a little crazy and unpredictable can give someone pause. (No one wants to mess with a nutcase - even another nutcase.)

There are times to look someone directly in the eye so they know you're not afraid - it can be equalizing. There are times not to make eye contact. And of course, your walk says a lot as well. A strong, focused gait sends a clear message to the world.

Every situation requires a specific response. The more you increase your awareness, the better you can adapt, quickly.

8. Where's your weapon?

Choose your weapon! Are you aware of  the ways you might defend yourself right this moment? I am. Keeping a pen or your keys in your hand, ready to stab, a chair you could throw in the path of an attacker, a cup of hot coffee in someone’s face. It might sound a little gung ho, but it all speaks to being aware of your environment. If someone is attacking, they already know what weapons they’re using. Why not be on par with them?

My friends Liz and Cathy were tough girls. But they made some critical mistakes. Of course, it's not their fault they were killed. That lies in the ruthless souls of the people who did it.

These questions are laid out in front of you so you can take a moment and review the way you interact with the world and increase your power and awareness. Don't think it can't happen to you. Anything can happen anytime. With that said, the idea isn't to live in a constant state of fear. Knowing how to defend yourself makes you feel more relaxed and empowered, ultimately.

A quick plug for martial arts: in short, it changes everything. It doesn't matter your size, your weight, your age - martial arts is a transformational practice like no other. I can think of few things that have had a bigger impact on the totality of who I am. Find a school for yourself. If you have children, find them one.  But beware - all martial arts schools are not created equal. You'll know a good fit when you feel it. This article entry is just words - martial arts changes the entirety of your awareness and preparedness permanently.

Be safe. Be aware.

Beth Mann is a writer and creative consultant. She has years of experimental comedy and strange theater under her belt. She surfs and cooks and loves wine men and song. And puppies. She blogs here.


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