We’re heading into the homestretch of summer vacation, and I’m running out of ways to entertain my kids, which explains why I spent last Sunday morning locking them in the trunk of the car.
Well, boredom was one explanation. Another (if I’m being honest) is that I’ve frequently been tempted to lock my kids in the trunk, and it seemed like a good idea to just go ahead and get it out of my system. Also—and maybe I should have led with this one—locking my kids in the trunk gave me a chance to talk to them about a self defense scenario people tend to obsess over: The classic being-thrown-in-a-car kidnapping.
Last month at a summer training camp hosted by the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, I took an entire class on defending against attacks in and around cars. I was interested in the topic because, while the self defense classes I usually teach are built around skills like assertive body posture, voice, and eye contact, I have noticed that what many of my students really want to know is what to do if they find themselves locked in the trunk of a car.
Never mind the spectacular odds against them ever-ending up there. Fewer than ten thousand American adults, and a similar number of children, will be reported involuntarily missing for any reason in a given year. That means maybe a hundredth of a percentage point of the population, and most of them won’t go missing in classic snatch-and drive kidnappings. To put this in perspective, UFO researchers routinely claim that a full 2% of the population—that would be almost 5 million adults—have been abducted by actual space aliens.
And never mind the question of how someone might end up locked in the trunk of a car, which I personally find much more interesting to puzzle over, and also more likely to lead to productive conversation. If we imagine the events leading up to me being locked in a car trunk, we can see many more ways that I could avoid or disrupt the process. Whereas once I’m in the trunk, we’re limited to boring logistical questions, like “Am I unconscious?” and “How strong is duct tape, really?” (I’ll give you the short answer on that one: Duct tape always fails. ALWAYS.)
But for some reason when we think about these situations, the film clip always starts in media res: The woman is in the trunk. That’s sort of her natural habitat, in the fevered world of self-defense scenarios. We don’t question the logic of her being there; we don’t want to clutter up the narrative by asking how or who or why. We just follow along with the story, and this is how the story is supposed to start: Once upon a time, a woman was bound and gagged and locked in the trunk of a car.
I’m not immune from the tendency to embrace this cliché and obsess about worst-case scenarios. I’ve probably spent more time thinking about ways I might be assaulted than I spent planning my wedding. A couple of months ago, for instance, I got into a detailed technical discussion of kidnapping with a very nice couple who drove me back to my hotel after a book reading. The wife remarked that, all things considered, she would much rather be locked in the trunk of a car than trapped in the back of a windowless van, because at least in the trunk, her kidnapper wouldn’t be able to reach her directly. I said if I could choose, I’d opt for the van, because it would give me more opportunities to deal with my abductor while he was driving and distracted, whereas in the trunk I’d have to wait until he stopped the car and came to get me out. We went back and forth on this, not unlike two beer aficionados debating the merits of a Baltic Porter versus an Oatmeal Stout.
After a while I noticed that the woman’s husband, who was driving, was kind of quiet (admittedly, it was kind of a weird conversation to be having with someone whom he had never met before, and to whom he had generously offered a ride). Not wanting him to feel left out, I asked, “Do most men have a preferred kidnapping scenario that they mull over in their spare time?”
“I’ve never given it a moment’s thought,” he replied, sounding more than a little freaked out by the whole topic. Then he added, “What an awful way to live.”
It is an awful way to live, isn’t it? At least, it’s awful if we never break free from the narrative constraints of our ridiculous, error-filled urban legends. In fact, as I learned in the car defense class, if we put a little thought into re-telling the story—if you jump into your nightmare scenarios with both feet, walking them through and demystifying them, it’s not such a bad world at all.
Case in point: Pushing, pulling, or throwing someone into a car? Turns out it’s a lot harder to do than you’d imagine, even if the person you’re relocating cooperates. And if the person resists, it can be next to impossible. I know this; I was ordered to pull one of the other students into the instructor’s Honda, and even with the rest of the class shouting advice, I couldn’t do it.
I found out why when it was my turn to be pushed and pulled: If you simply brace your arms and legs on the frame of the car, you have more than enough leverage to resist another person—or even two or three people. The woman who tried to pull me into the Honda taught urban boxing for a living; she was bigger, stronger, and younger than me. She couldn’t even get me halfway inside. Hell, at one point I had my left hand on the doorframe, one foot on the outside edge of the floorboard, and was letting my other arm and leg simply dangle limply as she hauled away at my midsection. I wasn’t even expending any energy; just using the car to brace against, and she couldn’t budge me.
Sure, a male abductor might be bigger than her, or stronger than two or three women martial artists (a combination we also tested, with similar failure rates). A male attacker could try to disable me by hitting or choking me. But there are ways to defend against those elements of an attack too (I had a hand and a foot completely free, after all, and I can do plenty of damage with either one). And in the meantime—that rather lengthy period of time the attacker has to spend not whisking me magically into the vehicle the way we somehow imagine he would, but instead struggling to pry all four of my limbs free from the car frame simultaneously—I could be yelling my head off, biting a chunk out of his ear, slamming his forehead into the vehicle frame, or closing the car door on his neck. In other words, I have the means and the opportunity to write a very different kind of story than your typical “Woman Snatched by Predator” headline.
I was particularly charmed by the concept of trapping an attacker’s arm or neck in the door, a beautifully simple and devastating maneuver that our instructor obligingly demonstrated on herself.
“Now, don’t go home and try this yourselves,” she cautioned us, her face turning slightly purple. “Don’t get all excited and lock yourself in your trunk either, assuming you’ll figure out how to escape. My friends and I did all that years ago when we were first learning to teach this stuff; you don’t have to repeat our mistakes.”
“Yeah,” her co-instructor chimed in ruefully. “Ask us how we figured out how mace works.”
Naturally I fell in love with this approach to researching safety. Which is why I came home and locked my kids in the trunk. (But I followed the experts’ advice: I made sure I knew how to get them out first.)
“Can you see the latch in there?” I asked my daughter. “It glows in the dark.”
In reply, I heard a click, and the trunk of my Corolla popped open. It took her two seconds, a fraction of the time it had taken us to get her into the trunk in the first place. I explained that new cars all have a latch like that, and then I had her find the interior latches that release the seat backs, proving another exit from the trunk. We also explored the options if a car doesn’t have a safety latch: How to feel around in the latch itself for the wires that spring the lock mechanism; how to search the spare tire well for tools (or potential weapons); how to pull back fabric and plastic to expose wiring near the taillight assembly, disable the light, or cause other damage visible from the outside of the vehicle.
“You can also kick the inside of the trunk,” I told her. She did, making the whole back end of the vehicle sway dramatically.
“Those are all things you could do to show people you were inside the trunk and needed to get out,” I explained. My nine-year-old daughter accepted this without further question—the way kids her age accept all the safety instructions we give them, from where to go in a tornado to what to do if their pajamas catch on fire.
My son was more dubious. He didn’t come right out and say, “I’m a teenage boy. No one wants to kidnap me.” The sentiment hung in the air nonetheless. But if his sister needs to know how to get out of a car trunk, I reasoned, then he does too. If my daughter has to grow up in a world where women who’ve just met chat casually about kidnapping scenarios, my son is at least going to be aware that he lives in that same strange world.
All three of us learned something from this fun family activity, and I recommend trying it with your own kids (don’t try it with other people’s children unless you have explicit permission). Because what happens when you invest some time, and effort, in physically walking through the stories we spend so much time imagining, is that the mythical, omnipotent abductor disappears in a puff of smoke. In the harsh light of day, or the stuffy darkness of a car trunk, you can see him for the two-dimensional character he is. You realize, as you’re puffing and sweating and heaving ineffectually at some stranger’s torso, that if “something like that” ever does happen to you, it won’t be like all the stories. Real attacks, unlike urban legends, involve real attackers, real objects, and real choices. They provide real, tangible opportunities—lots of them; you have no idea how many until you try it—for escape and victory and survival.
What I enjoyed most during these dry-run kidnappings was the growing awareness that my attacker was making one very grave miscalculation—namely, that he was the dangerous person in the equation. When in fact, no matter what his strengths were, I had an embarrassing number of ways to harm him, and would also have the element of surprise on my side.
Which makes for a very different story, should we care to tell it that way: The woman is in the trunk. The kidnapper stops the car, gets out, and unlocks the trunk. Does he find the lady lying there, terrified and cowering, the way he thinks the story always goes? Or does she pop out with a tire iron and give him a new facial piercing that goes all the way through his skull?
You can tell the story any way you like. But I’m a sucker for happy endings