Martial Artist

Shortly after Liz Pennell '79 divorced in 1991, her son (then five years old) told her ...

Shortly after Liz Pennell '79 divorced in 1991, her son (then five years old) told her, "I'm the man of the house now, Mom--I need to learn karate!" He was serious, so Pennell looked in the Boston phone book for instructors. But it was Mom who got hooked on the sport. A decade later, Pennell--now a third-degree black belt in kempo karate--is a martial-arts instructor at a local dojo three nights each week. "Get Home Safely," the self-defense course she also teaches, has inspired her to write Self-Defense For Women (Adams Media).

"I'm an academic at heart," Pennell confesses. "The first few times I ran the course, I brought pencils and paper and told everyone to take notes, but no one ever wrote a thing!" Around the same time, she was also working in Harvard's computer sciences department and saw professors handing out lecture notes before each class. "I thought, 'Aha! That's what I need to do!' I started passing out my own notes and diagrams, and two years later I had a book."

One of the few such books on the market, Self-Defense for Women teaches the basics of self-defense--how to hit and kick, escape from a grab, fall without getting hurt--while preaching common-sense street-smarts. Find ways to diffuse a confrontation if at all possible, Pennell writes. "You need to learn when to fight, [because] fighting is bad.

Getting hurt sucks. Causing harm to other people, even bad guys, sucks, too. No matter how great it feels at the moment, it doesn't feel good a week later, at four in the morning when you can't sleep." The two-time mugging survivor adds, "You have to be realistic about defending yourself. A black belt doesn't make you bullet-proof. Nobody is bullet-proof. Anybody can get mugged." "It is never your mission to see that the bad guy gets what is coming to him," she writes. "If you get home safely, you did your job."

Still, avoidance is sometimes impossible, and that's where self-defense know-how comes in. The techniques Pennell teaches in her course are brutal enough that she won't accept anyone younger than 15, but, she says, it's best to be prepared. In a violent situation, "there are too many variables--the best thing you can do is put as many variables as you can on your side." She insists a self-defense course isn't useful if it lasts only half an hour or one afternoon. "Without practice, and lots of it," she writes, "this book is only a useful self-defense tool if you hit somebody with it."

Contrary to popular belief, Pennell notes, martial arts are as much about control as about fighting. "People spoiling for a fight are not martial artists," she says. "The martial arts help create the ability to control your emotions. Every time I keep my temper in a difficult situation, I'm using martial arts. And believe me," she adds wryly, "with two teenagers, I keep my temper in many difficult situations."

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

An Authentic Act

Basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith navigates players’ gender and sexual identity, mental health, and other challenging social issues.

Mass Audubon Ushers in the Spring

Exploring nature through Mass Audubon

Blindspot: A Novel

History professor Jill Lepore is the coauthor, with Jane Kamensky, of the historical novel Blindspot, set in colonial Boston.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults