Pretty Deadly Self Defense

10 years ago, I launched a self defense program for women. This is how it all started.

Ten years ago, I launched Pretty Deadly Self Defense, a self defense program for women I developed based on my training in the Japanese art of Ninjutsu. People often ask me how Pretty Deadly Self Defense got started, and I usually quip that I developed it first and foremost for my mom. But — no offense to my mom — it actually goes deeper than that.

I’ve told the story before of the event that set me on this path, of my reason for learning martial arts: I was attacked in my Los Angeles home by a stranger. The attack happened in the early morning hours of a Wednesday in July 2000.

Later, after the police and the paramedics had cleared out, I went to stay with friends and their two large dogs in Sherman Oaks — there was no way I could stay in my apartment where it all happened.

I also knew that what had happened to me was more than I could ever handle on my own. Therapy was literally first on my priority list. I started calling around for therapists right away, but wasn’t able to get an appointment with anyone until the following Monday.

I just had to make it through the weekend.

I was surrounded by my friends and my community. My family was on the phone with me so much I lost my voice just from talking to them. Even my job was sympathetic, giving me some time off to recover, and my health insurance would cover the medical and therapy costs. I was safe, cared for, and supported.

Regardless of all the love and support I had, as soon as I was left alone, I found myself reliving those terrifying minutes in the middle of the night again and again and again.

It was sheer torture.

The way that trauma works in the brain is to replay the traumatic event over and over. Trauma is a brand new experience — you have no frame of reference for it, no context, no touchstone. It literally blows your mind. So the brain tends to replay the traumatic event over and over, essentially looking for a place to file it.

It felt like a betrayal: the emotional, psychological and physical wounds were all still so fresh and my brain was just replaying them over and over. I started to feel desperate to get away from myself, from the loop in my head. I got so desperate at one point that I thought, “if I kill myself, this will stop.”

And that made me stop. I sat on my friends’ terrace in the hills of Sherman Oaks, looking over the San Fernando Valley and deep into Burbank, over the hills to East LA, to Downtown and South Central and Watts, and all the points in between that weren’t Beverly Hills or West Hollywood or Santa Monica. The cheap rent neighborhoods, the low income areas, the immigrant communities, the barrio. I just had to make it Monday. But if I didn’t have that option?

And I wondered: how many?

From campaign to illegalize domestic violence, 2017

How many women who survive violence suffer a loop like this, women who live in these other neighborhoods? Women who didn’t grow up middle class, in an environment where therapy is ok and domestic violence is not; who don’t have health insurance or jobs they can take a couple of days off from; who’ve never even heard about rape crisis hotlines; who can’t read, or who don’t yet read English and don’t understand the billboards that advertise numbers for domestic abuse victims, for sexual assault victims, for violent crime victims; or who are living in communities where these things are never to be talked about, or where they are accepted and expected? How many women who the police will never help, because of the color of their skin or their jobs or their income?

How many women have trauma loops running in their heads? How many women kill themselves just to make the loop stop? How many lives are cut short, dreams lost, potentials unfulfilled because they don’t even know there is help?

I made a decision that weekend, that first weekend after surviving a brutal assault: I would find a way to reach these women. I had no idea how I was going to do it, or when; I only knew that I would. I knew I couldn’t save anyone, but what I could do is help make it easier for all women to get help.

But first, I had to get healthy. I had to learn how to feel confident again. Traditional self defense classes weren’t going to do it for me; I recognized that in that moment my life was on the line, I couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t take aim for any targets, couldn’t remember what to do. My body just reacted, and I had no control over it.

So I wanted to train. I wanted to train my body so that every move it made naturally would be as devastating as possible. Because if I ever found myself in a situation like that again, I was not going down alone. Never again.

That’s when I found Ninjutsu.

Shodan test @ Yamato Dojo in Studio City, CA | Photo by Stanley Appleman 2006

Back to my mom…

In 2009, gang violence was creeping into my mom’s neighborhood in Chicago. She no longer felt safe walking to her favorite coffee shop to meet up with her friends. She asked me to teach her how to defend herself and of course I was eager — I hated the idea of my mom having to isolate herself, to live a smaller life just to stay safe.

But, as I’ve also often quipped, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy: she was in her late 60s at the time and no longer very coordinated, nor did she have the confidence to learn new physical movements (especially with Japanese terms). She was a stubborn old Swede…

My mom (laying down) and her friends, ca 2003

…aaaand she was my mom.

I knew she’d resist everything I taught her in the way that mothers and daughters can be. I had to get creative: I had to make it easy, make the techniques accessible, and I had to make it fun… so she would forget she was learning anything from me.

Senpai Cody Cord, Me, Kancho Chadwick Minge, Sensei Alan Friedman at Yamato Dojo in Studio City, CA | Photo by Stanley Appleman 2006

During my formal martial arts training, I was fortunate to have some really great teachers — truly excellent martial artists, but they could also teach. It’s rare to find people with a talent for teaching, but I had hit the jackpot at my dojo. My teachers encouraged us to look for correlations between the techniques we were learning and movements in our daily lives. But they were all men, so the examples they often gave were things like “clean the engine of your car” or “tighten a pipe under the sink”.

Shodan test @ Yamato Dojo in Studio City, CA | Photo by Stanley Appleman 2006

These didn’t really apply to my mom, though; I had to find correlations between the techniques I wanted to teach her, and her daily life, so I came up with pretty typical moves that women do in general: putting your hair behind your ears (elbow strike), opening a heavy door when your arms are full of groceries (front foot stomp), or just giving a friend a cup of coffee (straight punch).

Opening the Door (front foot stomp) | Photo by Pretty Deadly Self Defense 2018

It worked! As long as she had the confidence that she could do the moves (because she was already doing them in her daily life), my mom picked up the techniques quickly, and was impressed and proud of what her body could do. Now that she had a couple of options for defending herself under her belt, she could go back to her local coffee shop and enjoy catching up with her neighbors. That’s all she really ever wanted.

Where there are options, there is hope, too.

I ended up incorporating the terms and approach I used with my mom into Pretty Deadly Self Defense, and I’ve been teaching the program in different cities and countries ever since.

Put Your Hair Behind Your Ears (elbow strike) | Photo by Nadja Wohlleben for GoDaddy 2019; used with permission of GoDaddy Germany

I had no idea back then, sitting on my friend’s terrace in Sherman Oaks that first weekend that I survived, that this path would take me to creating a self defense program, that teaching my mom was going to prove the challenge I needed to make self defense accessible, or that I would be able to share the tools I’ve learned with so many women and girls in the places I’ve visited. And I certainly would never have predicted that the term “give a cup of a coffee” would take on a whole new meaning in six different cities around the world (and counting)!

My motivation is still the same: to reach people who might not have access to self defense, due to location or job or income or culture or just plain ol’ stigma. And now technology has finally caught up with our program: we’re developing an app to reach as many women and girls as we can, to share these basic tools that help grow confidence, to give them options. To give them hope.

My mom inspired me. But it’s everyone stuck in the trauma loop that motivates me. I want to give them a way out. And break the cycle, stop the loop.

Visit our website and learn more about Pretty Deadly Self Defense.

Photo by Nadja Wohlleben for GoDaddy 2019, used with permission of GoDaddy (Yes, I know I look like my mother)

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