But perhaps it felt silly or embarrassing at least in part because it was new. Despite years of wandering around Greater Boston and Portland — often at night, alone, and not-exactly-sober — I've never taken a self-defense class. Sure, I've thought about what I would do if someone came up behind me on Congress Street . . . But as the RAD simulation showed, once adrenaline kicks in, it's muscle memory — not pre-planning — that counts.
The RAD system, developed by former marine and police officer Lawrence Nadeau in 1989, "advocates realistically employable tactics, without the time investment, ceremony, regimen, or mystical concepts of a martial art . . . specifically designed for women who are willing to consider as a viable option, defense, in situations where their life is in jeopardy." So reads the explanation in the front of the big black binder (a/k/a Participant Manual) given to each student at the first session. Its contents include detailed "risk reduction" strategies, as well as descriptions (and visuals!) of various defense tactics. These are the ones we practiced in class, against pads.
Guided by PPD Officer Coreena Behnke, who has been involved with the program since its local inception in 2002, we learned to extract ourselves from choke holds and bear hugs, and how to get someone off of us if we're pinned to the ground, or a bed. There was visceral discomfort in the room during the latter demonstration, as one of the male instructors climbed atop Behnke and she bucked her hips to throw him off her.
Aside from the final simulation, however, we students practiced only with each other or with female instructors. (There are separate RAD for Men courses that are not yet offered here.) There was certainly a vibe of girl power in the room, one that fed off the messages of empowerment. Did we relish, even a little bit, practicing knee-jabs to an imagined groin? Perhaps.
"So many women go through their life trying to be polite and not offend anyone," Behnke says. "Women have the right to say no — to control their own bodies and personal space."
That empowerment, in turn, grows out the context of fear. Because in order for a woman to feel empowered, she needs to feel that she is exerting power against or over something. In this case, the hypothetical (male) attacker, who — and I think we need to believe on some level in order to take the class, and our empowerment, seriously — might be lurking around every dark corner, in the shadows of every dimly lit parking lot, at every party, at every bar. There's a delicate balance between carrying a healthy amount of fear and fearing everything. RAD cannot teach that.
And I was scared, in flashes of seconds, when the men grabbed at me that Saturday morning. I wasn't scared of them. I was scared of myself, of my own lizard brain turning against me, going blank. Would I remember the correct way to strike — swiveling at the hips, giving power to my punch? Would I execute my straight-kick the right way — with the ball of my foot making solid contact against his torso? Turned out, I did.