Patti Giggans is 5 feet tall and wears glasses. But Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone aside, I’d want her with me if I were traveling in a dicey place, walking the streets of a strange city at night, driving alone on a deserted road.
She is the kind of traveler I admire -- experienced, open-minded, willing to take calculated risks to claim the rarest prizes of travel. Better still, she has a black belt in karate and has been teaching self-defense to women, children and the elderly and disabled for three decades.
Giggans is executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, which counsels and advocates for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. In that capacity, she developed a widely used self-defense training model. “Everybody has a right to be in the world and the responsibility to take care of themselves,” she says.
On the road, I’m as careful as I know how to be. I take the commonly prescribed precautions, even though I know they limit my experiences. Nevertheless, on a few occasions bad things have happened, which suggests that prevention is not enough, especially for women who strike off the beaten path alone. That’s why I recently went to see Giggans in her downtown L.A. office.
In just two hours she made me a more capable and confident traveler. She showed me some self-defense moves aimed at an attacker’s eyes, nose, throat, groin and feet, and I’ll practice those. But our conversation was even more instructive:
Your organization sponsors four- and 12-hour self-defense training programs and Woman Warrior Weekends. What would I get out of those to help me as a traveler?
There’s a vulnerability for women who travel alone or in small groups, but don’t let it stop you. We teach very simple moves that a person could do under stress. The point is to prevent someone from hurting you, to do some key damage, with enough startle effect to get away.
How did you get into this?
In the late ‘60s I worked for the welfare department in New York City and had to go to places like the South Bronx. Pretty soon I was saying to myself, “I have to take a self-defense class.” Then I married and went with my [then-] husband to Vietnam. One of his colleagues was a Korean who wanted to learn English. So I traded him language classes for taekwondo training.
I lived in Paris in the ‘70s, where I got my black belt in Japanese-style karate. My teacher asked me why women didn’t stay in classes. The men either ignored them or wanted to knock their blocks off. So I taught a class for women.
When I came back to the U.S. in 1978, I opened a karate school for women and children in L.A.
How did your black belt change you?
It was seeing that I could become less fearful and have an impact on the way I moved around the world. I could throw a powerful punch that would fend someone off, which made me more assertive.
What does it mean to be assertive?
It’s saying what you want. Being aggressive is moving into someone else’s space. There’s also value in being passive. We can do all those things when warranted.
It’s a matter of choice and risk. What can you get by doing something? What could happen to you if you do? What’s more valuable to you, your property or life?
What about carrying pepper spray?
I have never endorsed anything, though it would have funded our rape hotline. I could never say that a product would keep a person safe. You never have it when you need it.
Tell me some self-defense fundamentals for travelers.
Our basic training helps people see how they appear in the world: Fear and tentativeness can be smelled. We develop security strategies and make people pay attention the minute they start feeling unsafe.
I once went walking in Salvador, Brazil, with a woman friend. I love to get lost in cities. We were looking for a restaurant but landed in a neighborhood where I felt we were being sized up. She said she didn’t feel it, but I told her to pick up the pace.
Have you ever been attacked?
I made it through an attempted rape in Paris. I was crossing the Boulevard Raspail at dusk. When I reached the island between the traffic lanes, four guys appeared out of nowhere. One brandished a knife and said, “We want you to take a ride with us.” I remember thinking, “I’m not leaving, I’d rather fight here.” I found my bottom line. One guy was drawing pictures on my chest with the knife, another holding me from behind, and two others crowding in so no passersby could see me. I kept saying, “I am staying here, I am not afraid.” Then they left. I took the bus home and fell apart. But I learned many lessons from that.
Women will say they’d do anything to save a child or loved one. They have got to be willing to do it for themselves.
Maybe it would be better to stay home, where it’s safe.
Hiding diminishes our instincts and intuitiveness. We think there’s one special place where we can go. But it’s not a locked building; it’s inside. To stay in that fearful place is to not live.
Be in the world. Be yourself. Figure out what is needed to do that.
Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, 605 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 955-9090, fax (213) 955-9093, www.lacaaw.org.