We read about brutal crimes against women, and they become part of us. We alter our routines. Stay home at night. Obsess about the locks. But it doesn't have to be that way.
WE’VE ALL been there.
The dark parking lot at night. Keys poking from a fist as we walk briskly — maybe even run — to our car, chased in our minds by the strange man we’ve conjured.
Or the noise in the apartment that catches our breath as we imagine an intruder making his way to our bedroom.
The metallic taste. The wave of dread. The pounding in our chests.
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We’ve all been there. Many of us are stuck there, our lives made small by an endless narrative of imagined horrors that will most likely never happen to us.
We read about brutal crimes against women — rapes, murders, attacks — and they become part of us, a low-grade infection that is so pervasive and persistent that it starts to feel normal.
We alter our routines. Stay home at night. Obsess about the locks. Put off the trip we’ve dreamed of.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“As women, we’re conditioned to be afraid,” says Py Bateman, a former karate instructor who developed one of the nation’s original self-defense-training classes for women, first through Seattle’s Feminist Karate Union, which she founded, and later through Alternatives to Fear.
“A good way to look at fear is you take the precautions that make sense — the precautions that don’t limit your life,” she says. “If you feel confident that you could do something if somebody got through those precautions, you can relax and live your life.”
Bateman knows of what she speaks. In 1984, when she was 37 years old, she famously fought off a knife-wielding attacker who tried to cut her throat inside her Madison Park home. She fought him for more than 30 minutes, trying one thing after another until he was scared off by the arrival of her friend.
Remarkably, the only scars Bateman seems to bear today from the attack are physical ones, including the thin white line on the pad of her left thumb where the knife landed when she put her hand to her throat to protect it.
Bateman says she knew her attacker wanted to kill her. But she’d imagined such an attack — and always pictured herself victorious.
“It was an interesting experience,” she says calmly over a late breakfast at her favorite North Seattle restaurant. “I still live in that house.”
AT FIRST GLANCE, Bateman seems an unlikely pioneer for women’s self-defense. At age 66 and standing all of 5 feet 2, she grew up at a time when conventional wisdom held that women who fought back against their attackers would only get hurt worse.
Bateman became active in feminist politics while attending the University of Washington and took up karate when she was 22, quickly earning a black belt. At a friend’s suggestion, she developed a women’s self-defense course in 1971, when there were only one or two other programs in the country. The women’s movement was in full swing by then, rape was becoming talked about more openly, and women were increasingly participating in sports, including martial arts.
But it was Ted Bundy, the serial killer who preyed on young women in Washington and Oregon in the 1970s, who gave the movement momentum, Bateman says.
“After Ted Bundy, I was swamped with women wanting self-defense training and karate training.” Soon she was teaching 17 classes a week. “What was really important about Ted Bundy is that he would abandon a potential victim if she just said no.”
Researchers in the 1980s became interested in the subject of self-defense, enabling Bateman to teach techniques that were proven to work.
Interest in women’s self-defense intensified in 1993 when Seattle punk-rock singer Mia Zapata was raped, beaten and killed, and again in 2009 after a mentally ill man with a knife climbed through a window of a house in South Park and raped and slashed the two women living there, killing Teresa Butz. In response to the South Park attacks, singer Brandi Carlile created the Fight the Fear Campaign, financed through her Looking Out Foundation, to extend the reach of self-defense training.
Now, all sorts of classes are taught all over the city. The best ones train women to avoid and react to violence, replacing ceaseless fear with skills, and a deep awareness of what’s around them.
Bateman knows that most attacks are usually preceded by a predictable dance in which boundaries are tested. Recognize the warning signs and you have an opportunity to shut things down before there’s a need to get physical or resort to a weapon.
She and other instructors are quick to note that many women survive attacks with no training at all. And not every woman is afraid. Some women come to their confidence organically and use it to hone their awareness of their surroundings. They walk confidently, look people in the eye and stick up for themselves.
As it happens, all of that can be taught, and the horror fantasies re-imagined.
In his book, “The Gift of Fear,” Gavin de Becker describes real fear as a brief signal, “a mere servant of intuition.”
“If one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed,” he writes. “When you honor accurate intuitive signals you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention.”
FOR MOST women, self-defense can start with simply finding the right words.
“You’re too close. Go away.”
Those are the words that Melinda Johnson, head instructor at Seattle Kajukenbo, suggests using if someone makes you uncomfortable, say, by sitting too close on a bus.
“Go away.” Clean. Simple.
If that strikes you as rude, well, now we’re getting to the interesting part.
Johnson, who holds a fifth-degree black belt in kajukenbo and a black belt in aikido, says women need to risk offending to stay safe.
And they need to be able to roll with the anger that might accompany a rebuff. Decent men might be embarrassed, but they’d leave you alone upon hearing the word “no.” Guys to be wary of don’t hear “no,” and if they do, they don’t like it.
Those of us who have a hard time saying no might as well strap a target on our backs.
Most attackers will start with the violation of a boundary: standing too close, or insisting on helping after you’ve said no.
“If they proceed, they’re making it clear that they’re not going to respect your wishes,” she says. “Trust your instinct.”
But first you have to think you’re worth protecting.
Johnson is gearing up to offer free self-defense classes this fall through Fight the Fear. Executive director of the organization, she taught two rounds of classes to vulnerable and underserved populations after the South Park attacks. This year, the classes will be offered to all women.
The classes, she says, “give everyone the chance to have the epiphany that says, ‘I can defend myself. I can be strong. I do have choices.’ “
JOANNE FACTOR had her epiphany after starting karate in 1992 at the Feminist Karate Union in Seattle’s International District.
Mastering something difficult infused Factor with greater confidence.
At 54, she has a black belt and exudes a calm energy that belies her fierceness. When she stands up, it’s a bit of a shock to see that she’s barely 5 feet tall.
In the early days, many of the women taking self-defense had been attacked in some way. But clients who take classes through Factor’s company, Strategic Living, are mostly women interested in learning to protect themselves before going off to college or to travel. Others just want to move more freely around their city.
For those women, self-defense goes beyond owning a weapon to deal with lethal threats. They want tools that address the majority of issues women deal with.
Learning how to recognize when someone is viewing them as a target, and how certain actions or inactions can make it more likely that they’ll be targeted creates a mindset that gives permission to be direct and say “no” without apology.
Like the student who was picking out peaches at the market when a man crowded up behind her. The student put her hands on her hips and turned, striking the man in the ribs before saying in a loud voice, “Oh, you’re so close.”
The man moved along without comment, Factor says, and the student watched him do the same thing to two other women.
“You don’t have to be sorry and make yourself small for a jackass,” Factor says.
WENDY DAVID, 58, became interested in self-defense when she was stalked as a teenager. She’s blind, and the stalker would walk up to her in a school corridor or locker room, put his arm around her and fondle her. Once, on a deserted sidewalk, he tried to steer her into his car.
“Any time I would hear someone walk toward me, I’d have this terrible fear reaction,” she says. “I started feeling afraid to go out. I was angry because I was very independent and wanted to go.”
David moved out of town, and looked for a self-defense class that would be useful to her.
In 1994, she teamed up with colleagues at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta, who noticed that clients with visual impairments were living restricted lives even though they had access to transportation. Turns out the issue wasn’t mobility. It was vulnerability.
The team published the techniques as a book, “Safe Without Sight,” in 1998, and about 400 blind people have since been trained under the program, David says.
Because so much of women’s fears involve things happening in the dark, the techniques translated for sighted women as well, she says.
In 2003, David started working with colleagues Ann Cotton and Tracy Simpson on Taking Charge, self-defense for women veterans at the Women’s Trauma and Recovery Center. The center is based at the VA Puget Sound in Seattle, where David, a clinical associate professor at the UW, is a staff psychologist.
Women “want to be liked, we want to be nice and not hurt people,” David says. Combine that with military obedience, where soldiers are drilled on respecting the chain of command, even when the superior may be the abuser, and you end up with a lot of victims.
Their traumas become movies that play over and over in their minds, she says, and the women often become reclusive.
Over 12 weeks, the women are taught to stick up for themselves. When someone cuts in line, they learn to say, “Excuse me. You’re out of line. Would you mind stepping back?” They practice saying “no” in the mirror. When they’re ready, they work up to exercises where they are grabbed, touched and called names.
David gives the women a chance to rescript their trauma, and re-enact it with the outcome they would want. The new scripts are videotaped for the women to watch. The new movie replaces the old.
“I get letters from women saying the class has changed their lives. One woman couldn’t go to her mailbox. She called on the last day of class saying she wouldn’t be in class because she was driving to Las Vegas to see her son.”
“People realize they have power. They can be safe. They can take care of themselves.”
JENNIFER HOPPER is on the phone — happy to talk, she says, grateful that people were helped by starting a self-defense program to honor Teresa Butz, her partner who was murdered in the South Park assaults. The attacker cut Hopper’s throat, too, and probably would have killed her had Butz not managed to throw a bedside table through a window, giving Hopper a chance to run out the door.
Weeks later, “a lot of people wanted to help. I knew everyone was scared, and I wanted everyone else to be OK,” she says. Soon, Fight the Fear was up and running.
But Hopper isn’t ready to go there. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
The brutality of the attacks took its toll, she says. For 18 months, she didn’t feel strong enough to exercise or consciously close her eyes to sleep.
“Being physical in any way, shape or form that resembles a fight — I couldn’t fathom it,” she says. “I don’t believe that any modicum of self-defense could have changed that night.”
Hopper says she’s learning to look at things differently. She talks herself down when panic takes over. Has begun thinking of her attacker as a troubled person. Has learned to sleep soundly.
“Learning how to deal with my thoughts is the key to the castle,” she says. “I’m doing what’s best for me so I can have the best life.”
She lives with her mother now in a condominium high above the street and hopes some day she will be able to help other victims.
There’s no bitterness in her voice. Just hope that a joyful life awaits her.
Like Bateman’s before her, Hopper’s story offers an important, inspiring lesson: She survived the worst thing any of us could imagine. All those parking-lot journeys. The bumps in the night. All tentacles attached to the same nightmare: the rapist, standing over your bed with a knife.
Yet here she is, talking on the phone, moving forward, going out with friends, and crying when she needs to.
It’s amazing what we can survive.
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW staff writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.