In 1991, a friend invited me to the graduation of her Impact self-defense class, to watch her demonstrate her newly acquired skills. I agreed to go, mostly because it seemed important to her. I had no idea that attending that graduation would lead to years of work with survivors of intimate violence-rape, sexual abuse, and battering-or that it would teach me so much, and so deeply, about courage.
* * * * * *
The woman sleeps. Footsteps sound behind her, but she does not wake. In one swift move, her assailant pins her to the bed and twists a hand into her hair.
“Don’t look at me, bitch.” She starts, and gasps something. He shoves her roughly to the mattress. “Shut up. Spread your legs.” He throws himself on top of her as she numbly complies.
A quiet voice coaches her. “Coil your power…” She stares into space, terrified, as he pins her down. “Wait for the opportunity…let him make a mistake…” Something clicks, and she unclenches her shaking hands, slumps passive to the ground, visibly surrenders. He relaxes and rolls onto her, releasing her hands. She brings up a foot, plants it on one side of her body, and…
…explodes from under him. He comes up, swearing, and the fight begins.
* * * * * * *
I was stunned by Rachel’s graduation. Like most women, I had lived in a world where women were frightened and men dangerous; like many women, I feared to walk alone at night, worried about date rape, crossed the street to avoid male strangers. I had assumed that an unarmed woman simply had no chance against a bigger, stronger, male assailant, and that the only chance of safety lay in avoiding such situations entirely. I was wrong. Fifteen women, of all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels, fought off “muggers” with such explosive power that I found myself weeping as I watched. I knew I had to take the class.
Impact changed my life completely. The intensive training forced me to face my worst nightmares; to wake up time and time again with a stranger’s weight pinning me down, whispering, “Do what I say, bitch, or die.” I had to learn to hit with all my might, despite a lifetime of conditioning against violence; had to find the courage to step forth and say no to a gun held in my face. It was not easy.
And yet it was worth it. I can defend myself now against guns, knives, and clubs, and can fight off five unarmed attackers; but that was the least of the lessons Impact taught me. I know that fear will never paralyze me. I died once during training, in a fight; we all did. I know I could die. That will not keep me from doing what I choose to do. Regardless of consequences, I can now act with courage of conviction; for that, I owe Impact a bottomless debt.
In 1991, after graduating, I set out to bring the program to other Caltech women. With help from Rachel, I pressed Caltech’s administrators to bring the class to campus; they were receptive, and that fall Impact was taught on campus for the first time. Thus began my career as an assistant instructor, and my work with survivors of intimate violence.
My first year nearly overwhelmed me. Our students came in, one after another, with stories full of anguish, or with scars and terror that needed no words. Most of their attackers were still free: the difficulties of conviction, coupled with the fragile state of most survivors, meant most assailants never came to trial. I could not conceive of a world in which such things could happen; could not believe that, in so many cases, the perpetrator of such atrocities could simply walk away. Many nights, I went home dumb with rage, or wrestling with despair: how could I–how could anyone–live in such a world?
I struggled the first year, and the second. I talked to other people, to fellow staff members. I thought of the students we had helped: in some small way, we mattered. Sometimes I walked away for months, concentrating on my crafts–my quilt, my garden, my batches of elaborate chocolates–trying to walk in beauty for awhile, not in horror. Eventually, it got easier; eventually, I could listen to almost anything. Eventually, nothing shocked me.
In 1996, after moving to the Bay Area, I decided to shift fields, to begin work with the Support Network for Battered Women. As part of my training, I attended a survivors’ panel; three women told their stories. Two sounded pretty bad; the third seemed about average. I finished up the session, went home, and started mixing up my weekly batch of bread. When my partner arrived, he asked me how training had gone.
I told him, and was stunned by his reaction. He was shocked; couldn’t bear listening to the survivor’s story, how her husband had beaten her until her skull fractured, her jaw collapsed, and all her teeth fell out; how the hospital patched her up, handed her teeth in a plastic baggie and told her brightly to return to her batterer. He kept interrupting me–how could this have happened, even in 1978? How could the hospital have told her–anyone–to go home, after such horrific injuries? How could the police have simply ignored her half-dead appearance, and let him go?
I shrugged. “It happens. It still happens. Sarah was just telling us last week about how her upstairs neighbor threw his wife off their balcony; the officer wouldn’t even take a report until Sarah asked for his badge number. This sort of thing goes on all the time.”
Joe looked at me. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
I paused. After some time, I said, “You know…after awhile, it just looks normal.”
The darkest tragedy of brutality is not simply that it happens; it is that, over time, even atrocity ceases to horrify, becomes normal. I have heard so many survivor stories, so many tales of wretched abuse, that I’m no longer shocked at any of the crazy things that people do to one another. I can hear someone tell me how her ribs fractured under a poker without feeling the impact in my own body, can listen without blinking, without thinking of anything but how to reach her, how to tell her what she needs to know. Those of us who work the front lines, who constantly confront the reality of violence, must become numb; otherwise, we’d burn out immediately, be no good to anyone, even ourselves.
But I don’t feel nothing. I feel deep outrage at my lack of outrage-that I must call “normal” things that should never be normal, to anyone. I’ve learned not to react to stories of brutality, because my reaction distracts me, doesn’t help. I’ve learned to be compassionate, and supportive, and empowering to someone who needs all those. That the price has been my own innocence, my own horror, deeply saddens me.
And yet I can’t walk away. I can’t walk away because I know that I can make a difference; that even though I can’t affect the numbers, I can affect this one person, right here, right now. I can’t stop battering from happening, but I can tell this woman that she is not stupid, not insane; that she deserves a life filled with happiness, not abuse; that she has the right to choose her path, no matter what others tell her. I can tell her that I worry about her safety, and that battering–almost always–ends in death or departure. I can’t save her, but I can tell her what she needs to know. And that makes a difference.
My work has changed profoundly the way I choose to live. I used to take a lackadaisical attitude about truthfulness, about political games, about the occasional snide nastiness. I don’t anymore. I’ve seen too much of the things that can come from trust betrayed, from manipulation and mindgames, from put-downs and veiled threats, and I can draw no distinction between petty violence in normal life and the same acts in darker places. Batterers believe they have a right to humiliate, to hurt others in the name of justice, of pointing out and correcting others’ wrongdoing. I reject that. I choose to treat everyone–from annoying telemarketers to acrimonious enemies–with the respect owed every human being; to speak with empathy and firmness, not hatred; to act without any of the forms of violence–verbal or emotional–to which we are so accustomed. Violence is a choice. I choose not to.
It is hard for me to hate. Working with battered women has shown me, beyond all possibility of doubt, that even the most vicious abuser remains human, capable of regret, of love, of tenderness. Batterers do terrible things. But calling a batterer an inhuman brute, or a survivor a weak-willed masochist, is helpful to neither. We can understand the roots of violence only if we place ourselves in the shoes of those who perpetrate it, seek to understand them. Only then can we understand well enough to craft solutions. I think it takes a special kind of courage, and a necessary one, to recognize those who perpetrate atrocity as humans, as reflections of our own dark side.
Courage is more than simply physical. Courage is also endurance, compassion, firmness, humility. It is choosing to walk away from a fight, where fighting brings no honor. It is choosing to survive, when life brings terrible pain. It means facing not just fear of death, but fear of triviality, of failure; means opening your heart not just to the wounded and the weak, but to those who destroy others.
At the end of my Multiple Assailants class, I received a poem from a woman I’ll call Natasha, who had been gang-raped at 17 and had come back through alcoholism and several suicide attempts to make it to our class. To me, it summarizes all that I’ve learned of courage through Impact, and through my work with survivors.
Courage has roots. She sleeps
on a futon on the floor and
lives close to the ground.
Courage looks you straight in the
eye. She is not impressed with
powertrippers, and she knows first aid.
Courage is not afraid to weep, and
she is not afraid to pray, even
when she is not sure who she is
praying to…The people who told me
she is stern were not lying;
they just forgot to mention that she
Walk in courage.
©1998, Tien Chiu.