“There is always that moment in childhood, when the door opens and lets the future in.” Author Graham Greene
Where does your ferocity come from? Did – pause – something happen to you?
Happen to me? I’ve been asked this question untold times. Frankly, it’s an annoying and telling question because it assumes that something terrible must have happened to me because why else would I, a nice Jewish lady, encourage women to cultivate ‘killer instinct” and teach them how to re-fashion their bodies into weapons and heat-seeking missiles in search of targets.
And yes. I have my happening and heart-stopping stories. I can rattle off too many: from manhandling and violent groping, to being trapped by predatory men on a train car; from near-rape attacks which I fought off, to a home invasion by a knife-wielding would-be rapist and maybe killer (the stuff of nightmares). They’re all true and plenty good reason to take up self defense.
There are the stories that we tell, and there is the story behind the story. The one that often lives in the shadow of grander lore. Not surprisingly, it can often be traced back to childhood.
I know when and where my quest first began, the origin of my original flame. Its memory rushed back to me one day during a radio show interview. It wasn’t that the memory was new, but I hadn’t visited it in a while. Decades maybe.
When I finished the interview and hung up the phone, I returned to that clearing in my mind where the memory greeted me like a bell waiting to be rung.
“It” was born on a frosty winter’s night in the ashes of fear, fueled by a young girl’s desire to have saved herself, her friend and… her friend’s hat.
The memory has become a touchstone for my teaching. I visit it often.
It happened like this:
I was seven the first time I felt the Terror. It was winter, a silvery brisk day. The snow-covered earth crunched underfoot, but the sun was out shining across its slick white surface. My friend Jennifer and I went walking to a familiar wooded area near my home, where a creek ran through. When we arrived, two boys, bigger and older, maybe nine or ten, approached then flanked us. They were friendly at first, then something switched; the air between us turned cold and still – I knew we were in trouble.
One of them brandished a knife, threatening to cut us. I remember the blade, how it gleaned in the afternoon sun as he waved it back and forth. The second boy grabbed me, pulling us apart. “I’m gonna set you on fire,” he growled before clutching a hunk of my long dirty blond hair. Flick? Whoosh! It was the sound of his lighter set to the highest possible flame closing in on my head. I could smell my hair sizzle and burn, and could not escape his grasp. Blow, blow, blow was all l could think to do. Each time I blew out his flame – my cheeks panting, red hot – was followed by another dreaded Flick. No. Stop! I pleaded. Each time I tried to pull away, he pulled me closer, charring more hair, singeing my scalp.
I don’t remember a word he said, I just remember the look on his face as he toyed with me in a mean game of cat and mouse. I was lightheaded, growing dizzier by the second, and wanted desperately to be home. Maybe it was that thought that enabled me to yank myself free and scramble to a clearing.
That’s when I spotted Jennifer, the pompom on her long winter’s stocking hat was bouncing up and down as she wrassled with the bigger boy in the creek. I remember standing there frozen in terror, petrified and clueless as I watched my best friend get punched and roughed up, her beloved stocking hat floating away in the icy stream.
Then abruptly, without warning, our young terrorists-in-training took off like a couple of wild critters who’d had their fill – and so did we. We crossed the Big Avenue and ran down the street. I had never run so fast. She was the tomboy, not me, but that was one home stretch where my chunky legs hit the pavement as fast as hers.
Later that night at home after things had calmed down, I thought long and hard about what happened, and why. I didn’t have the words for it, but I knew I’d been initiated, crossed some threshold. I remember thinking that I had stepped on an unweclome mat. “Welcome to fear!” I imagined it saying, as if I knew it would be a given, a natural part of the female landscape. Like the eventual menses and breasts, so too there would be fear. First it will be of boys and then it will be of men.
The truth of this would wax and wane over the years. And I would come to know fear and terror intimately again, each incident propelling me further down this path and into the heart of self defense, until I earned my beloved trade name: Dr. Ruthless.
Passions can often be traced back to childhood beginnings, to an incident or desire deposited into a fertile young mind. That day in 1963 would prove to be such a fateful beginning: the young boy who scared the bejesus out of me had unknowingly lit something far more than a tress of hair.
That night in a warm soapy tub, while trying to scrub away the day, a new nascent thought and a yearning emerged, a hunger was born, flickering beneath my fear: What if I had kicked his scrawny ass and rescued my friend, and her hat? What if I had stolen his fire?
That was the thought that put a smile on my face.
In essence, I had- stolen his fire. I just didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until decades later when I was inducted into Black Belt’s Hall of Fame that I realized I had become a keeper of the flame.
A flame that I believe exists in all women.