02/21/2013 07:51 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

On The Nail: My Fear Of My Fear

I'm a wuss. I'm not proud of it, but I'm one of those 98-pound weaklings who just happens to weigh a bit more. Ever since I was a kid, words have been my weapon of choice. I wouldn't know what to do if I was attacked except maybe write about it after. And a fat lot of good that would do.

I hate this part of me. I hate knowing that one in five women have been raped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some other studies put it at one in four, others at one in six; I pretty much don't care. It all scares me.

My fear of physical attack was underscored about three years ago. I live in what is regarded as an extremely safe community, one of those places where everyone watches the news and says "that could never happen here" -- until of course it does.

What happened here three years ago was that a woman was attacked while she was out running in broad daylight. She bravely fought off her armed assailant and in the course of the physical scuffle was forced to hurl herself down a steep rocky embankment to the beach below in order to escape. Her attacker was afraid to follow and instead stole her car and fled. Her injuries required hospital treatment; her assailant was later caught and sent to prison.

I believe with every fiber of my body that had it been me, I would have been raped and left for dead. My fear would have paralyzed me. I wouldn't have known how to protect myself. More to the point, I lack any confidence in my ability to defend myself. I feel powerless -- and therefore I make myself powerless.

I was able to repress the attack on this woman from my consciousness until a few months ago when a 17-year-old girl in our community was car-jacked. She had forgotten to lock her passenger door and some guy jumped in at a red light. He forced the terrified teenager to drive around for several hours before a Good Samaritan alerted the police to what he thought was a suspicious situation at a gas station.

My own daughter is months away from driving. I feel the bile rising in my throat when I think about the terror this 17-year-old experienced before help arrived. I think how brave she was to mouth the words "help me" through the sealed car window at a man pumping gas and how lucky she was that that man chose to get involved instead of minding his own business. I worry whether my own child would be courageous enough to conquer her fear if she were in such a situation. I fear I wouldn't.

My fear of my fear led me to sign us up for a different kind of "Mommy and Me" program: a self-defense course offered for mothers and daughters by a local martial arts instructor. It was free and held at our school in response to the most recent attack. Interest was so keen and attendance so large that the program had to be run three times to accommodate everyone.

Joey Escobar, a seventh degree Black Belt Master in Tang Soo Do Karate, and his wife Ginger -- a second-degree Black Belter -- nailed the biggest problem facing women: We are too polite.

We are afraid of insulting someone, of hurting their feelings. We don't exit the elevator when a creep gets in because we fear offending him. We uncomfortably tolerate the guy who stares at our breasts. We don't want the homeless guy to see us roll up our windows or lock our car door as he approaches for fear that he'll -- what? -- think ill of us?

"Learn to assert yourself," said Escobar. "And trust your gut. If it feels uncomfortable, that's all you need to know to act." And by act, Escobar makes it clear, he means flee. Escape is your victory dance; trying to thwart an attacker by trying to topple him is a less-safe bet. Fight, said Escobar, but fight for your release -- and then hoof it out of there as fast as you can.

"What if he has a gun?" asked one woman. "Have you ever heard of a woman who was shot in the back fleeing an attacker?" Escobar asked her back. No. "They want you, your car, and/or your money. More than that, they don't want trouble. If you manage to run away, he's not going to fire a gun. He's going to look for someone else."

Then there's the common sense stuff: Lock your car doors, avoid dimly lit parking lots, keep your gas tank full, and when the guy at the market offers to help you to your car after dark, accept the offer. Walk purposefully, take out your car keys before you exit the building, and be mindful of your surroundings -- that means don't walk to your car texting. There is nothing more valuable than your life, so don't sacrifice it for something stupid and replaceable like your wallet.

And then the class went beyond the common sense and got physical. We practiced a few ways to break a grip (bend one finger back), learned a few body parts where it hurts the most (groin kicks are inconsistent; instead slam your extended fingers or car keys under the assailant's nostrils) and were taught what to scream (nobody comes when you shout "help;" try "fire" or "stranger" at the top of your lungs instead).

And then we dealt with our politeness problem. We practiced stopping short in our tracks, spinning around and in menacing voices with pumped fists at our face level, we shouted "Are you following me?" at the imaginary stranger following us.

"Wow Mom," my startled daughter said, "I never heard you sound so mean!" It was easy; all I had to do was envision some low-life following her.

For at least one day, it was Ann, 1; Fear, 0.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Mommy And Me Self-Defense Class