School of Not-So-Hard Knocks

Never take a self-defense class with your sisters. Especially if the class is called Training for Life, in which you learn techniques that, unlike traditional martial arts, are designed not to inflict permanent or even semi-permanent harm upon an attacker, but instead rely on a series of intensely painful, twisted pinches. Three sisters, six hands, and the permission to clamp those claws onto each other equals years of sibling rivalry resolved through innumerable bruises.

We discovered this agony too late. My sisters Erin, 19, and Kelly, 22, had agreed to attend the class with me. I had already met with Pat Feahr, who, along with her sister Chris, is a newly licensed instructor in TFL; the Feahr sisters are the only such instructors in Minnesota. She explained the premise of this type of self-defense: a regimen of simple jabs, pinches, and kicks that, when aimed at some of the body’s most sensitive nerves, can disrupt an attacker’s central nervous system long enough for a victim to get away. The moves were created by Tom Patire, a lifelong professional bodyguard to the rich and famous. TFL is supposed to be easy to use and easy to remember, even when you’re under duress. Ironically, it’s also supposed to be easy on your attacker. This might seem a bit counterintuitive, but Professor Pat pointed out that most of us just aren’t violent people by nature. Therefore, the program surmises, we don’t really want to hurt people. TFL allows you to harm a person just enough to help yourself, but not so much that you’d have trouble sleeping at night. I’m not sure mainstream Minnesotans, now potentially wielding firearms on their persons, would agree that this is a concern. But the minimum-harm ethic is good for another reason: It will help you win that case when your attacker takes you to court for battery. Ridiculous, I know, but still potentially useful in our litigious, avaricious, and heat-packing society.

From the sound of it, the class was effective. It seemed like something my two younger sisters, both in college and therefore subject to the dangers of university campuses, should attend. We filed into the Feahr’s martial arts school, Mask Karate, and sat on folding chairs while Pat and Chris demonstrated some of the moves. Then practice began.

We started with “the horse bite,” an incredibly painful pinch and twist that you can use on an attacker’s underarm or inner thigh. If you use the technique on an aggressor who has hold of your arm, the intense pain is supposed to result in him or her instinctively releasing you. Pat described it as a tweak a grandmother might give, but I’m sure my grandmother couldn’t be that harsh. My sisters and I, though, grasped the concept quite easily, and we immediately dug our fingers into each others’ skin, with the varying outcome of yelps, squeals, “uncles,” and even a fall to the ground. We carried on through “the v-trigger” (a sharp jab to a nerve on your hand that immediately forces a person to release his grip); “the shin insertion” (a swift, straight-legged kick to a person’s shin that causes him to double over in pain); and “the dual facial points” (jabs into an attacker’s cheeks so deep and painful that you can “hold” the person and actually force him to the ground). The idea during this rehearsal was just to get a feel for where the nerves were, but what’s the point of learning a self-defense program if you haven’t learned to use it properly? Being the eldest sister, I confess I was the biggest bully of all. So much so that two hours and about eight new techniques later, my sisters cowered at my approach and forgave me only when I bought them each a Diet Cherry Coke. But for the record, I’ve got more than my share of bruises, too.—Katie Quirk