Saturday, April 19, 2008

spotting abuse

From: Susan (

Nicola, one of the things I've really enjoyed about your books is how you can make things seem interesting to me that I wouldn't have thought of as very interesting if I'd approached them on my own. (Woodworking in Stay or sewage systems in Slow River.) I didn't think I was very interested in learning about self-defense, but when I read Always I found myself fascinated by the lessons Aud gives to her class in Atlanta. Thank you for that!

That's not really relevant to my question, which is: When you taught self-defense, did you ever teach women you knew or suspected were routinely being abused at home, and if so what did you do about it? (I'm thinking here of how hard it might be to try to encourage someone to leave home, when the reality is that women who leave may be at an increased risk of being killed by their abusers.) Also, do you think you can tell by a woman's posture, mannerisms, etc. that she's being abused, or is that just something you thought Aud would be able to do because of her police experience?


Yes, I think I can spot a person (man or woman) who has been badly abused on a long-term basis, particularly if they were abused as a child. It leaves a deep, deep mark. It leaves a mark on their physical use of space, on their verbal patterns, on their facial expression; the way they dress, how they move in the world. And, yes, I've taught several women who had been abused as children, and one woman who I thought was being abused at home by her husband. She was very like Sandra: smart, bitter, contained, utterly twisted up inside. As far as I know, she hasn't murdered anyone, though.

I've also done a bunch of non-directive counselling (mostly volunteer work), and a couple of paid jobs as a welfare benefits advisor and a caseworker for a street drugs agency. (Ironic, that. At least two of the people I talked to in an official capacity were users I used to buy from or sell to in my Bad Self days.) I have met murderers. Meek as milk, most of them. For example, I advised one man, who'd just been released from prison, on how to appeal a government decision on his benefits. In another context I counselled a young woman who was being abused at home, who then went out with a gang and murdered a confused and incapable street person: beat him and set him on fire. Feeling like a failure doesn't come close to describing how I felt.

I never tried to encourage anyone to leave home. That wasn't my job. For me, teaching self-defense was a bit like writing, it's all about getting people to see things a little differently. What they then do with their insight is entirely up to them. We simply can never know what someone else is going through, why they're choosing to stay or not.

When teaching, or advising, or counselling, or simply talking to a friend, all we can do is our best. Sometimes we can help, sometimes we can't. But, frankly, I hate it. If I ever had to take a job again, it would not be in a helping profession. Just sitting and listening to broken people drives me crazy. And while I know I have occasionally done some good, I also know I sometimes really haven't. So I pretty much refuse to suggest to people what they should do about problems. I just listen as sympathetically as I can (once: I have no patience with interminable rumination on a subject), pour another drink, and then make sure they get home safely.

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