At Westport Library, moms and daughters get defensive
A lesson in self-defense
Thirteen-year-old Jaime Pettit walked across the Westport Public Library on Saturday afternoon, hounded by a middle-aged man.
"Hey sweetheart, how old are you?" the man asked.
She eyed him quickly and kept walking, saying nothing.
"You got a boyfriend?"
She eyed him again.
"Huh? You gonna talk to me?"
She plopped down in a chair.
"That was a great job," her harasser said. "But next time, turn your head and look at me in a way that almost seems absurd. You don't want to give me the corner-of-the-eye glance."
At this, Michael Robin turned to the rest of the room. "When we get scared, we tend to get tunnel vision," he explained. "But passive glances can be a signal to predators that you're an easy target."
That's exactly what Robin was teaching participants of the library's first-ever Mother-Daughter Self-Defense Workshop: how to avoid becoming easy targets. The women sat in a wide circle in the McManus Room, ready to act out situations with Robin that would grow from awkward to annoying to horrid. As with Pettit, the group would then discuss how the situation could be avoided or, if not, overcome.
The majority of the two-hour session focused on ways to prevent fights from taking place. But participants did go home with tips on deep shouts, heel kicks, groin shots and elbow jabs.
"We're learning things today so that we'll never have to kick someone," Robin said. "If I'm trading blows with someone much bigger, stronger and more experienced than I am in the real world, about a million things must have already gone wrong."
To show his point, he told two success stories in self-defense that rarely receive praise. The first has a woman who's feeling uncomfortable walking down the street duck into a shop for a few minutes until a potential predator scrams. But even better, Robin said, is when a would-be predator sees a woman as a bad target at first glance and doesn't engage her.
"That's practicing self-defense when you don't even know you're doing it," he said.
On Saturday, the daughters ranged in age from middle school to early college. They were generally brought by their mothers, and for a variety of reasons. Maria Tabaschek, of Wilton, said she signed up with her 12-year-old, Paula, because Paula is starting to do social things on her own.
"This will make me feel more comfortable that she's ready to react to situations," Tabaschek said. "You see in the news that some crazy things happen out there."
Donna Beretta said that if her 14-year-old daughter, Melissa, were to learn just one thing from the session that proves useful in the future, it'd be a success. She recently took a self-defense class from the instructor of state police officers, she added. "In one day, I learned how to flip someone over my back, put someone in a choke hold, and how to defend from a punch. I'd love to get my daughter the same skills," she said.
Those lessons would have to wait. After Pettit, Robin asked a teenager to repeat the exercise, but to arc away from him as he approached her. He urged her to keep eye contact with him the whole time, and, if she found that hard, to use a more elusive "Zen gaze" -- to stare at his forehead or "through" him, not into his eyes -- as she crossed the room. He asked her to keep her feet moving to prevent any social obligation between her and him.
Then she stood up and made for an opposite chair, maybe 20 yards away. Robin stepped toward her immediately.
"Hey baby, how you doin'?" he said, inching closer. "What's the matter, you don't talk to older guys?"
She veered left, turned her head to watch him, and kept her feet moving in an arched bee-line for the chair.
"Your loss, baby," he said, relenting. Then he turned, in search of a new target.
One recurring theme on Saturday was how to know when a stranger actually poses a threat. In determining this, Robin said, your instinct is a far better judge than your brain. Whether you feel butterflies in your stomach, a chill down your spine, or your knees start to shake, it's important to notice that someone has "sounded your alarm," he said.
"If you give your brain permission to start thinking then it will sabotage you," Robin said. Some common undermining thoughts: "I'm being paranoid"; "I'll embarrass myself"; "Maybe I do know him"; or "He might be insulted."
Even in the simulated environment, it proved difficult for the women to handle Robin's advances. Sharpening the intensity, he next came at Valerie Pettit, Jaime's mother, as an angry man in a parking lot.
"Hey, you just scratched my car!" he screamed. "Scratched that bag of yours across my hood. Do you know how expensive that'll be? You're gonna pay for this!"
Pettit lifted both hands in front of her like she was holding a basketball before a foul shot. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," she said loudly, fanning her hands downward to try to calm him. He slowed his approach and she softened her voice. "Listen, I didn't scratch your car," she said. "I'm sorry for your situation, but it wasn't me."
Her performance, Robin said, was good. She was solid on her feet and spoke directly to him. She was loud at first to quiet him and de-escalated the situation quickly. But he warned her to soften her "death-ray" eyes to not appear to be looking for a fight.
Even the savviest body language won't always prevent an attack, however, and Robin spent the last portion of Saturday's course going over basic forms of physical defense. He focused on blind-side attacks, when one is either bear-hugged from behind or placed in a choke hold.
Step one was to master the yell. He had everyone bend at the knees and lift their hands as Valerie Pettit had done -- palms open, facing forward, about the height of the handle on a shopping cart. The yell should be short, explosive and from deep in the chest, Robin said, not resembling a shriek.
"No!" he howled, springing into the pose.
The women followed suit.
Step two was to lift a foot and stomp down on the tiny bones of the attacker's foot, where it meets his shin. Another "No!" accompanied the stomp.
Step three was to kick the right heel backward, aiming for the attacker's groin. This motion, too, was made with a "No!"
Step four was to shield one's face with the left hand and thrust the right hand out front. The elbow recoiled, aiming for the attacker's face. "No!" was screamed during the jab.
Finally, the left hand stayed put as the right hand reached down and jabbed backward and upward at the attacker's face. This motion came with the final "No!"
After 10 minutes of practice, the two dozen women stomped and yelled their way through a choreographed survival dance that resembled a karate studio.
"Take someone who's grabbing you and make them change their mind!" Robin exclaimed.
The last exercise involved a frontal assault. Robin showed how to grab an attacker with one hand around his arm and the other hand around his attacker's neck. The objective was to pull the attacker's torso down and send a knee north into the attacker's crotch.
"Impale him on that knee!" Robin said, moving person to person with a punching bag wrapped around his arm for a target.
This, too, required a show of confidence and controlled purpose.
"There's no sense of ownership in your upper body," Robin told one woman who'd just sent a knee flailing into the punching bag that shielded his torso. "Your knee's pumping right, but your upper body's apologizing for it at the same time."