We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 4, Episode 1, in which the host of WYNC’s Micropolis series, Arun Venugopal, talks to Elena Waldman, a self-defense instructor at MKD Karate in Queens, New York, about how she came to be a martial artist. Waldman demonstrates how to escape from a violent sexual perpetrator, and talks about a personal attack that has informed the way she teachers her students. Plus, for the Slate Plus bonus segment, Waldman explains how to disable any attacker in less than 30 seconds. To learn more about Working, click here.
We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Arun Venugopal: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Arun Venugopal, a reporter with WNYC radio in New York and host of its Micropolis series, which takes on issues of race, sexuality, and identity. On today’s episode we talk with someone who’s in the business of violence, you might say, and spends a lot of her time thinking about how people can get hurt, or much worse.
What’s your name and what do you do?
Elena Waldman: Elena Waldman. I’m a self-defense teacher and karate teacher in Queens.
Venugopal: And here we are in Jackson Heights, Roosevelt Avenue. Within, like, what would you say? Ten feet of the legendary 7 train?
Waldman: Yeah. You’ll hear it, repeatedly.
Venugopal: So, this is the dojo.
Waldman: This is the dojo. Small and beloved. Humble and, you know, sensei calls it a forge.
All your impurities get burned out here.
Venugopal: So, how did you get into this line of work? How did you become a self-defense instructor?
Waldman: So, I became a self-defense instructor a long time ago, back in the ’80s. I was working for Housing Authority as a youth worker in the projects. And one of my co-workers wanted to teach a women’s self-defense class. He was a taekwondo instructor. And he wanted to teach a women’s self-defense class, and felt that he didn’t have any validity being a man.
So, he came to me and he said, “If I train you, will you co-teach with me?” And I said yes, and that was the beginning of it. And then a few weeks later, the karate instructor—we had taekwondo and karate. They’re different. The karate instructor came by and he said to me, “Listen, don’t read anything into this. But I think that perhaps, maybe, the possibility exists that you have a small bit of natural ability. And do you want to find out?”
And I said yes, and then I started training in karate. And he was my sensei for a long time. And I’ve been in a bunch of different dojos. And that is what brought me here, you know, to MKD. I got here, I don’t know, maybe six-ish, seven years ago. Walked in, sat down, spoke with my sensei, Orlando Sanchez, for a while, and started training here.
And realized it was my home. Realized that it was the place that I’d always looked for in a dojo.
Venugopal: Where all does your work take place? Is it just in this dojo, or do you teach in different places?
Waldman: Oh, I always say for self-defense, I will go anywhere, teach anyone, anytime. I’ve taught in formal settings. You know, community centers, senior centers, churches, etc. I’ve also taught in people’s kitchens. I’ve taught out on the stroll with sex workers.
I’ve taught in sex clubs. I’ve taught—oh, goodness. On the street. I mean, I’ll go anywhere.
Venugopal: And this is all across New York City?
Waldman: New York City. I’ve taught a lot in Philly. New York and Philly are the two places I teach most. But I’ll go anywhere.
Venugopal: So, when you’re talking about inclusive, that’s what you mean, is that you have different populations that walk in the door here?
Waldman: Yes. So, our standard karate student is what you might imagine. Anybody who walks in the door who wants to learn a martial art.
But martial arts and self-defense are completely different. And self-defense is really—I structure it so that even the most at-risk, disadvantaged populations—and even that sounds clinical, you know?—have the access to classes. So, self-defense classes that I teach are always free. There are people who will pay. There are people who say, “You know what? I have resources. I have some money. Here’s a donation.” That’s great.
But I teach for free, because it’s life-and-death information and people need it. So, that’s No. 1. No. 2 is that we recognize that there are gradations of risk. So for example, you’re looking at populations like sex workers, undocumented people, people with disabilities, children, women. Interestingly enough, say, folks who are on parole who really can’t afford to get into an altercation on the street and need tools on how to de-escalate and how to walk away.
That’s hard to do. It’s hard to de-escalate something. Folks of transgender experience. Folks of lesbian, gay, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming experience. Anybody. You know, anybody who’s brown, anybody who’s black. Anybody, you know. There are so many people who are at really high risk for violence.
And it kind of speaks to the idea that there’s no such thing as who’s a victim and who’s a perpetrator. You know? A perpetrator, I believe, is one of three kinds of people: strangers, acquaintances, or intimates. That’s it. There really is nothing else that counts. It’s not about what somebody looks like, where they’re from, their gender. It’s simply about somebody who is ready, willing, and able to commit violence.
Venugopal: So, let’s talk about, you know, the job, in terms of job satisfaction. What do you like about this job?
Waldman: I love this job. I love teaching self-defense. There is nothing else I would rather do. Anytime somebody comes up to me and says, “I feel more empowered. I feel like I’ve learned something. I feel like I’m worth defending. I was a little iffy on it before. I feel like I can defend somebody else. I feel like I could walk away from something now, where I couldn’t before.”
I don’t know. For me, it’s the best job.
Venugopal: So, you’re teaching sex workers.
Venugopal: This is something that happens regularly, right?
Waldman: Sex workers are at really high risk for all kinds of violence, including sexual violence. Absolutely. And there are, I want to say, gradations of risk. Right?
If you are an undocumented individual who’s selling sex on the street, and maybe who has an addiction problem, your likelihood of violence is a million times higher. And to be trained in self-defense, to try to mitigate some of that violence, I think is really important.
Venugopal: So, do you have a curriculum that’s designed for sex workers?
Waldman: It’s really important to me that students kind of lead the way. And then I can illuminate, you know, those areas that are difficult. So, no matter who I’m teaching, I’ll say to them, “Step me through your day. Step me through your experience. What is it that you fear? Where do you think you’re at risk?” You know, you do a little assessment. Because what might seem benign for one person seems highly charged for another. So for example, I’ve worked with I cannot tell you how many street sex workers who carry hammers.
Right? It’s a big thing. They carry hammers. And so, I was teaching one day in Philadelphia, and this woman was like, “Yo.” You know, da, da, da. “I grab my bag. I take out my hammer.” OK. We’re talking, we’re talking. And as I’m teaching, always I’m walking around. And she didn’t know it, she had hung her bag on the back of her chair. And I just slid her bag off her chair and I took it away. And then I came up and I grabbed her. And she went to reach for that bag, and it was gone.
I stripped her of what she felt her defense would be. And instead, we talked about strategy. So, my curriculum really is to ask people what they feel they need. And of course, look, I have a zillion strategies for a zillion different things. But I’m also really open to what I don’t know. I think it was last year or two years ago, one of the women had had an experience. She had gotten into a car. She’s a sex worker. She had gotten into a car, and a particular thing happened.
And you know, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. And I came back to New York and I grabbed my sensei, my karate teacher. And I said, “Can you get in the car with me, and can we please figure this out? Because I need to go back to her and give her some real-life solutions.” And that’s what we did. And I went back to Philly, and you know, talked about what she could do. And I think that that is the respectful way to teach. I don’t have all the answers.
Venugopal: So, we’re sitting on this bench now. Should we enact this thing you and the sensei talk to each other? Shall we?
Venugopal: All right, so. OK, so here we are in the dojo.
Waldman: So, this is the dojo.
Venugopal: Wait. Go ahead. This is the dojo proper. This is the training floor. And it’s obviously not that large. But because some of us have grown up doing martial arts and our bodies are a little banged-up, we have the luxury of a softer floor. We don’t have a wood floor in here, which is quite nice. It’s hot, smells a little funky. We’re over the Himalayan Yak restaurant, so.
Waldman: Yeah. So, we get a little bit of that Himalayan Yak funk. So, one of the issues that one of the women brought to my attention was a transgender sex worker.
Venugopal: Which makes her even more vulnerable than other sex workers perhaps? Or what?
Waldman: For some folks the vulnerability increases because if they pick up a john who doesn’t realize that they’re transgender and then encounters a penis, they’re not happy about it.
You know, that’s not always the case. I mean, some johns, that’s really what they’re looking for. So, for her, she sells anal sex. He told her to turn around. She was in the passenger seat. And the passenger seat was pushed down so it was flat. And he told her to get on her belly.
He told her to get on her belly, and then he started choking her. And the specific way that he was choking her was, he put his arm around both her head and the headrest. So, she was being crushed from the front, crushed from the back. And of course, a terrifying experience. So, what do you do? And it was difficult to kind of figure it out in the moment, because that particular question hadn’t been asked of me before.
So, that was why I came back to New York and worked it out, got in the car with my sensei and we worked it out. And that’s the kind of thing where I’m always learning. And I need to be responsive to people’s needs, whatever those needs are. Another example of that was most recently, a woman who was probably about eight months pregnant came to one of my self-defense classes and asked me to please show her how to get out of a choke if she had been thrown to the ground and was being choked.
And it wasn’t really my place in that moment to ask her if she felt safe at home and to do, you know, that sort of questioning. She came to me with a very specific request, and I needed to honor that request. And we did. We did it. I took her to the ground on the pad. You know, on the mats. Making sure that she was really safe. But I had to give her real instruction that would work. And then later I arranged for—what?
Venugopal: So, she’s eight months pregnant and you’re taking her to the mat?
Waldman: Yeah, I’m going to be honest and tell you, I felt a little traumatized by it. I called my sensei right afterwards and I told him what happened, and we talked about it. And he was the one really who said, “You know, you know that you did the right thing. You know that you gave her what she really needed.” And then I spoke with somebody who knew her really well and could talk to her on a more personal level. Yeah, it was really distressing.
Venugopal: So, you’re talking to some of these sex workers. You’re learning what their specific scenarios and situations are. And then you have to devise solutions for them. Is that right?
Waldman: Yeah, that’s how I do it. Anybody. It’s not just sex workers, honestly. I mean, you know, think about, for example, kids who are afraid to talk back to adults. I teach so many teenagers. And last semester I was teaching at a high school. And the police department sent a cop in to talk to these kids.
I mean, it was east New York. And they sent in this cop who had no understanding of these kids’ daily, day-to-day experience. And the disrespect that he showed for them and—I had to support the kids and their right to talk back to him and say, “Listen, with all due respect, you’re telling me that when you stop me for no reason, I should hand over my phone, I should hand you my phone if you ask to see it.” That is disrespectful and unrealistic.
And so, I work with all kinds of people, trying to be mindful of their needs. You know? Senior citizens, they have very different needs. You know, so whenever somebody comes to me, sex workers included, to say, “This is my experience and can you help me?”—that’s my job.
Venugopal: So, let’s go through this. The motions of whatever this one particular situation is.
Venugopal: Let’s see.
Waldman: Yeah. We’re going to be on the floor. So, you can put it on the floor.
Venugopal: All right. I will try to hold this mic so it’s not going to be like, you know.
Waldman: It’s going to go flying.
You’re going to hurt me, aren’t you?
Waldman: And I’m going to hurt you.
Venugopal: OK. All right.
Waldman: But you get paid the big bucks for this.
Venugopal: Yeah. Serious bucks.
Waldman: Am I holding this?
Venugopal: Yeah. Let’s get rid of my keys so they’re no flying also. All right. The wallet with all that cash in it.
Waldman: Yeah. I can see it. That’s impressive. Please don’t ever put your keys between your fingers as a self-defense technique, to think you’re going to punch somebody. All you’ll do—
Venugopal: Oh, I thought that was like the—you know, the whole thing where it’s like a little knife sticking out of your wrist, right? Your fist.
Waldman: Yeah, no. Just either take a self-defense class or learn how to throw a punch. You’re going to break your fingers doing that.
Venugopal: Oh. So, these are, like, the little things you have to unlearn. Not you, but other people.
Venugopal: People like me.
Waldman: People like you should unlearn that. The truth of the matter is, if somebody is really that close to you, kick them. Your legs are so much stronger than your arms. Towards the end of this conversation, I’m going to teach you every single thing you ever needed to know about physical self-defense in under 30 seconds.
Venugopal: For free.
Waldman: For free. I always teach for free.
Venugopal: Oh, I forgot.
Waldman: Yeah. I’m a cheap date.
Venugopal: Wait. So, wait. How do you make a living off of this?
Waldman: Yeah, that’s a good question, right? I don’t make a living off the self-defense, and I am perfectly happy with that. I teach karate, for which I am really fairly compensated. I love it. I love teaching karate. And I also have another job, that I also love. But it’s not my calling. And that is perfectly fine, because I’ve been given self-defense. Right? Lots of people gave me those skills.
And I have the rare opportunity to joyfully pass that on. You know, honestly that really is the reward in itself.
Venugopal: Right. Let’s do it.
Waldman: All right, let’s do it.
Venugopal: Let’s do this.
Waldman: So. So, she is on her belly, right?
Venugopal: So, you’re lying on your belly. I’m supposed to lie down next to you on my belly?
Waldman: No. How is that a sex act?
Venugopal: I wasn’t sure. I have no idea.
Waldman: No. You’ve got to get on top of me, man. Sorry.
Venugopal: You’re OK? Do I need to, like, request permission?
Waldman: Yes, you should always ask and say—you should probably put down that microphone. Put it right here. It’ll hear us.
Venugopal: Alright. I want to make sure that it might—
Waldman: OK, here. I’ll hold it. OK.
Venugopal: OK. There you go. There you go.
Waldman: All right. So, now you have to choke me. Do you know how to—oh my goodness. You don’t know how to put on a chokehold.
Venugopal: Oh, a chokehold.
Waldman: Just do that. Yeah. Like that. Right.
Venugopal: Okay, yeah. That’s good. So, I’m choking you. I’ve got my elbow in front of your throat.
Waldman: That means tap out. That means you have to stop.
Venugopal: Oh, sorry.
Waldman: That’s OK.
Venugopal: I was actually choking you. OK. Got it.
Waldman: You were choking. So. Now, remember, she’s in a car. Right? She’s in a car seat. So, she can’t roll you off.
Venugopal: She can’t?
Waldman: No. You can’t—you don’t have the space—I mean, she might be able to. But I think it would be—
Waldman: No, no.
Waldman: I think it would be difficult. OK. So, I’m imagining being the passenger seat, right? To my left is the door. I can perhaps roll you a little bit and slam you into the door. But you’re just going to put that chokehold on stronger, tighter. I could possibly roll you to the right, hopefully into, like, the emergency brake.
And maybe that would poke you in the kidney or something. But I don’t think that would be effective. And all I care about is effectiveness. I don’t care about pretty. I don’t care about elegant. I don’t care about anything but effective. That’s the only thing I care about, right?
Venugopal: Can we assume that this person, the john, wants to either severely hurt her or kill her at this moment? Is that the assumption?
Waldman: I was going on a different assumption, but that is absolutely possible. I mean, I was thinking that for him, that was part of, like, his sex play. But he didn’t ask permission and he didn’t pay for it.
Venugopal: So, it ambiguous in her mind. She doesn’t know what exactly is happening.
Waldman: Not only does she not know what’s happening, as soon as somebody put a chokehold on you, it’s terrifying. And he had all the information, she had none. He had all the power, she had none in that moment. Like, her life was in his hands. How can she possibly trust him to, like, figure out what that line is? He should have gotten consent and paid for it if that’s what he wanted, and he didn’t. So, I think it’s fair to assume that her life is in danger.
Venugopal: OK. So, am I still supposed to be sitting on your back right now?
Waldman: OK. So. Yes. You do not weigh very much. OK, so. Go ahead and—it’s hard to do this with a microphone. But if you had that chokehold on me.
Venugopal: OK. So, I am holding this mic, but I’m alsoת—OK. My other arm, I will be—I’m choking. Chokehold.
Waldman: Exactly. So, this is what it would be. So, what I tell her is the first thing she has to do is create a little airway. Like this. So, what I’m doing is I’m pulling your arm down and I’m getting my chin into the crook of your arm so that I can just get some breath in.
Waldman: OK? And then I instruct people, just start moving. This is very tight quarters. We’re in a car. I need to just start moving. And if I can get up on my knees, which I just did because you weigh nothing, now what I can do is slam you into something. So, at this point I would slam you back into the dashboard, and I would just start kicking and punching and doing everything that I could.
Venugopal: You’re just flailing and thrashing about.
Waldman: I’m flailing and thrashing. And at this point if I really did that, I’d—sadly, I’d break your ribs and your arm. Oh, look. Your elbow’s broken. Sorry. And your shoulder’s dislocated. Sorry.
Venugopal: And in this situation though, where it’s—if you’re assuming that the guy, the person, the john, is—
Venugopal: The perp. Yeah, the perpetrator. Do I sound like an idiot saying all this stuff?
Waldman: No, you sound like Sipowicz. What’s his name?
Venugopal: They are going to be resisting. There’s no way to know what’s in their head, right? Whether they’re like, “Whoa, I’m just trying to have fun here,” or “I’m actually trying to hurt you.” Or some weird—
Waldman: I think we have to go with the assumption that somebody’s trying to hurt you. A reasonable person would believe that they were about to be killed.
Venugopal: Now, the city is, statistically speaking, it’s a lot safer than it was, say, 20, 25 years ago, when you were earlier in your career. Does that give people a false sense of security? The fact that, oh, New York, it’s a safe city. It’s not the city it used to be.
Waldman: I would look at it two ways. One is, somebody’s making up the statistics, right? Somebody’s being victimized, right? I mean, does it really matter whether it’s 1 in 10,000 or 1 in, I don’t know, 6,000? There’s that one. And that one needs to be safer, right? And the other thing is, I think—and you know, you can fact-check this—but I would guess that there have always been certain communities that have faced more violence. And so, the folks who may be strutting around feeling safer, maybe they’ve always felt a little bit safer anyway. You know, maybe the communities where there is greater violence have always experienced greater violence.
Venugopal: And like you said earlier. I mean, somebody who is undocumented or a sex worker, we may never know whether or not they’re getting beating up or whatever.
Waldman: Of course not. Right. Exactly.
Venugopal: Have you been attacked before?
Waldman: I have. So, let me share with you an experience that I don’t really talk about that much. I was definitely trained in some amount of self-defense. And I might have even been practicing some amount of karate at the time. And back then they called it date rape. I had gone out with a co-worker. We’d gone out, I think to the movies.
And he walked me home, and he walked me into my apartment. And the upshot of it was that he—I mean, it doesn’t matter whether or not he was bigger or stronger than me. None of that matters, right. But the upshot of it was that he strangled me with his bare hands and ripped off—like, literally, I was wearing, like, this little shirt.
And he ripped off my shirt with his hands. And that was—I fought—I mean, it took me I don’t know how much time. But it took me some time to be able to kind of fight back. Because the only thing I could think of in my head was, you know, I invited him into my apartment. You know, all of those things that we’re told, and in it. So, it’s kind of like I was experiencing it.
I was experiencing sort of the shamer. That external, like, shamer. Like, you shouldn’t have let him in your apartment. And then, like, my internal warrior is coming out, yelling at me. Like, fight back. And it was this really disconnected experience. And so, I fought back. The thing I remember was him saying—I broke his glasses. I had broken his glasses. And then he offered me a ride to work for the next day. Yeah.
Because he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. That is what most people, I think, experience, when you’re assaulted by an acquaintance. That that person doesn’t think they did anything wrong. Now, that perpetrator is completely responsible for the violence. But I understand that that person was made. You know? None of us raise ourselves. He was raised in a culture where he was told it’s OK to take what you want.
He was raised in a culture where he was taught that it was acceptable to demand sex from a woman. He is still thoroughly, 100 percent responsible for the violence. He is not off the hook for that. Because there are lots and lots and lots of people who are raised in the same exact culture who would never dream of doing that. Right? But I understand that somebody taught him that entitlement. Or some group of somebodies taught him that entitlement. But the next day, I tried to reach out for help.
And I called, like, a rape crisis hotline or victims hotline. And all they could tell me was that I had to report it to the police. But I knew I didn’t have to report it to the police. I didn’t want to report it to the police. I had to work with him. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I lived on my own. You know, I had bills to pay, etc. I didn’t want to report him to the police. I just wanted to offload some of the trauma. I couldn’t find—I knew the resources were there. I just couldn’t access them.
And I think that that experience, coupled with some other things, really informed the way that I teach, and the way that I talk to people, and the way that I recognize who’s a victim. And also that perpetrators are not—do not exist in a vacuum. And what and how we teach people. You know, rape culture, that phrase is really big right now.
And I hope that there’s a lot of nuanced discussion happening around that. But it is really important to talk about it. The idea that anybody would want to be violated is an insane thought. The idea that what I might wear or what I might say might entice somebody to perpetrate violence is such a dehumanizing thought, both for me and for the perpetrator.
Right? Because that individual has a set of beliefs that they cultivated somehow. And to some degree, we all helped cultivate it.
Venugopal: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at email@example.com, and dig through our first three seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jason de Leon.
Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo. And our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Arun Venugopal. See you next time on Working.
This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Venugopal: So, when it comes to boys who you teach and girls who you teach, do they bring something different to your classes? Do boys come into self-defense class—you know, I don’t know—with a swagger, as if, like, you know, “Oh, I don’t really need this, I’m a boy”? I don’t know.
Waldman: Just in the last year, I’ve taught maybe 50 teenage boys. I had the opportunity to teach in high schools and here in the dojo. And I had a group of really incredible, wonderful teenage boys. So, part of what I had that changed was, I found that the groups of boys that I was working with—and I don’t want to generalize to all boys. But they were, at the beginning, were willing to fight for their pride.
And then at the end, they were less willing to fight for their pride. Because they understood that there’s a difference between self-defense and a fight. And if somebody is calling you names and you punch them, that’s not self-defense. That’s a fight. As their understanding of what it meant to defend yourself grew, what they were willing to do changed. So, some of these boys come and they were like, “Oh, I want to—I want to learn how to headlock.” You’re not going to put somebody in a headlock in a self-defense situation until you have some more expertise. Like, that’s something that you would definitely do, but that’s further down the line. If somebody’s really trying to hurt you, it is this: eyes, throat, knees. Period. End of story. If you cannot de-escalate a situation, if you cannot get to safety, if it becomes physical self-defense, it is this: eyes, throat, knees. From the front, eyes and throat and knees. And from the back. If somebody’s got you from the back, you can get to their knees.
Or even from the side, you can get to their knees. Those are primary targets. They can’t be strengthened. If you use technique against one of those primary targets, you can permanently injure a perpetrator. And here’s the thing. I don’t want to hurt a perpetrator. I want to disable them. I want to make it stop. Right? You look at me. I think if I’m walking down the street, people wouldn’t necessarily guess what I do for a living.
Right? The might be surprised at how hard of a hit I can take. Because I can take a pretty hard hit. Right? So, trying to hurt me? That might not work. Someone like me needs to be disabled. Right? So, my sensei, my martial arts instructor, you know him. He’s a big guy. Six feet, 240 pounds, solid muscle, unbelievably well-trained. He is—he is an efficient martial artist. Right? He’s so good.
He’s the whole thing. He’s fast. He’s savvy. He’s incredibly strong. He’s agile. He’s flexible. Right? He’s everything, right? I can’t hurt him. I have to disable him.
Venugopal: What’s the difference? So, you can’t hurt him. How are you supposed to disable him?
Waldman: Gouge out his eyes. Crush his trachea. Break his knee. If I take out your eyes, you can’t see me, you can’t come after me. If I take out your throat, you can’t breathe, you can’t come after me.
If I take out your knee, you can’t walk, you can’t come after me.
Venugopal: But that sounds like you’re hurting him still.
Waldman: But like, if a perpetrator is high, they may not be feeling pain. If a perpetrator is severely mentally ill, they may not feel or experience pain. If somebody is juicing on steroids, they may not be experiencing pain. Right? There are a lot of reasons why people might not experience pain. I mean, I think about myself and my own training. I have trained to be able to accept a tremendous amount of pain. And so, there’s a lot that you could do to me that will just not impress me.