Q & A: How Did Exposure to Violence Change You?

QUESTION: How did exposure to violence change you?

ANSWERS: Rory Miller, Garry Smith, Teja Van Wicklin


IT’S HARD TO SAY – Rory Miller


It’s hard to say.  There are so many factors in life that to point at one thing and say that it is the sole reason for something else… that just may not work.   For instance, I’m extremely pragmatic.  I really don’t give a shit about anything beyond whether something works.  Was that an inborn personality trait (I am a Meyers/Briggs INTJ)?  Or was it an effect of growing up as the smallest kid in an area with extreme violence (a town of 210 people that averaged one shooting a year, not counting the serial killer…) Or growing up poor, without electricity or running water?

Probably the most important point of this particular 1Q10A is that experience does change you.  In my opinion, there are at least three stages of experience that will affect you ability as an instructor.

1) No experience at all.  No matter how much training you have had, no matter what you have read and studied, there are aspects of this (whether ‘this’ is self-defense, close combat, or fighting) that you simply cannot comprehend.  It doesn’t matter what complicated matrixes you devise or how many IQ points you have to burn, with no experience of people trying to kill you, it is like teaching swimming when you have never been wet.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.  You can teach the strokes of swimming without going in the pool.  Someone who has never blown a hole in another human being can still coach you to an awesome draw.  And, in a way, we all start here.

You have to be careful in two ways, if you have no experience.  Number one, never pretend that anything other than experience is experience.  Everything is exactly what it is, no more.  To pretend that 20 cage matches is equivalent to an ambush is something we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.  Everyone has holes in their knowledge and abilities.  The holes are doubly dangerous when we deny that they exist.

The second caution: If you have no experience, you will want to borrow it.  That’s fine, there is a long tradition of learning from the mistakes of others. But vet your sources.  Be skeptical.  Dojo folklore or first hand accounts or news reports are all hearsay.  CRGI has some very experienced people, but take nothing we say, or anything else, on faith.

The second level of experience is to have one or maybe two serious encounters.  I think these are the most dangerous teachers.  A serious violent encounter shatters your worldview.  The people at this stage of experience are almost driven to make sense of the world and they have a tendency to create myths or theories to feel better.  They drive their training and their teaching towards managing their own emotions, not towards truth.

The third, of course is extensive experience.  And this is a danger, too.  Because extensive experience, especially if you are successful, changes your internal wiring.  No one who has gone hand to hand with a hundred violent criminals thinks, feels or sees the way a beginner does.  And sometimes, we lose sight of that when teaching that beginner.

I’m going to close with a word of caution here.  Especially for the really experienced.  Every level of experience, from zero to the edge of death, has advantages and disadvantages. Don’t get complacent. With no experience, you don’t know what you don’t know.  With extreme experience, you have forgotten what it was like when everything was a blur of chaos. You job is not to teach from your level of knowledge but to teach to the students level of understanding.




The effects of my first fight were very long lasting and affect me today, there was the immediate changes but more important was the chain reaction of changes it set in place that led me to this group, Somewhere in the Amazon a butterfly flaps it’s wings?

1. Firstly I remember the first rushes after being in my first real fight, the tremendous relief after the build up and the release of all that pent up tension. The long lasting nature of the buzz beat alcohol and later weed as the high was almost euphoric in nature and lasted for days.

2. It gave me a reputation for being the crazy one, the one who sought the fight, the one who went in first against the odds, the one who would keep fighting when others backed away.

3. My week began to revolve around Saturday as we prepared for the fight with rival firms, planning ambushes at home and setting out lures at away games, trying to outwit the police and infiltrate the other side’s ends and fight them from within their own crowd.

4. Made me refine down from seeing the big mob as the best answer, smaller groups of committed fighters could achieve much more.

5. Doing and seeing people get very badly injured, even killed, gradually turned me away as there came a point when enough was enough.

6. Use of violence led me to fall back on the use of force to solve difficulties and problems with others, I was too quick to let my fists and feet do the talking.

7. Gave me a reputation as a hard man that attracted trouble I no longer needed on occasion but kept others away at others and people know not to touch my family as retribution will be severe.

8. Finally led me into martial arts where I have trained in Ju Jitsu for many years and had many amazing experiences, met and trained with some incredible people.

9. Saw me set up the Academy of Self Defence in 2008 as the recession hit and 5 years later I am still in the game, still keeping my feet on the ground whilst working and training with some of the world’s best and now speaking at conferences and seminars.

10. Turned me into a writer after years of education, academic and martial arts and self defence, I think I am actually discovering the real me now and actually feel comfortable in my skin.




Throughout childhood I had many runs-ins with minor violence, mostly bullying at school – kids would throw things at me, push me. At five years old there was a minor molestation issue that even so caused years of trauma.

In my experience with low-level violence, I’ve found the emotional shrapnel to be much more damaging than the actual violence. To that end it matters enormously what kind of ground you are standing on when it hits and what you have to lean on. If you have a strong sense of self and people behind you, you will likely get over it quickly and move on much of the time.

My support system was my mother, who herself had been a victim of violence as a girl and had never faced it or learned from it. So the bullying informed every step I took as a child and made me timid and fearful of every noise.

Then, at 21, my world caved in without anyone ever touching me.
One bright sunny day, pieces of my friend and neighbor were found in garbage bags outside our apartment. We didn’t know it was him until that night.

We took pictures of the police lines from our window and speculated about what craziness New York was bringing today. We smiled and waved to friends across the street, snapped a few more pictures and had lunch.

Later that evening the navy sedans pulled up and the FBI knocked on our door. I watched the movie of my mother and I standing in the 7 foot by 9 foot room that served as both bedroom and living room, as one man stood quietly and the other told us they thought it was Milano. “No” my mother said, “that’s impossible, he couldn’t hurt a fly!”
“No” the suited man said, “we think it’s him in the bags”

My mother and I sat in slow motion without realizing it as they asked questions. As I scanned my memory, realizing it had been more than the usual one or two days since Milano had pounded on the door and insisted we feed him. I could hear his voice. My vision closed in around me, there were sparkler-like fireworks at the periphery of my vision and the men were at the end of a tunnel. Sound was muffled.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Well… he was supposed to come downstairs and help paint the ceiling on Wednesday, but I never heard from him,” I heard my mother say. “So I called him on Thursday, but his roommate answered and said he was in the shower.” A small squeak escaped her then, though I still didn’t move. “Oh! Oh, no…. he… doesn’t have a shower.”
We lived in a 100 year old tenement with bathtubs in the kitchen.

They ultimately pinpointed the time of the murder to be that same Thursday, right around the time my mother had called.
I can’t speak to extreme violence touching me personally, but that event was a brutal awakening. In movies there’s closure, in life, not so much.

It all dragged on. We went to court once every few months for a while. Mostly, we lived in the apartment building where Milano had died, ate dinner without him next to us as he had been several days a week since I was two years old. We took our garbage out to the spot where his body was discarded.

In the movies people move because they want to make new memories and not live with the old ones. But I had been born there. Even so tainted it was the only home I’d ever known. It also happened to be a rare and valuable rent controlled apartment in one of the best neighborhoods in New York. There was nowhere else to go with rents so high. In fact, the police speculated that Milano had been killed by his roommate expressly for the apartment.

On television people are brought to justice. We heard some time after that, the roommate who had done the deed had been sentenced to seven years in a high security mental institution and would then be deported back to his country of origin.
I had nightmares he would come after us since my Mother’s testimony helped put him away. I wanted to avenge my friend’s death. I wanted to find the man responsible. Seven years? Really? And then he gets to go home?

I questioned everything about life and came to no conclusions. I cried sporatically for years when things reminded me of him. Mostly I lost my childlike sense of safety. Forever. I don’t even know if that’s good or bad.

I wish there was a moral to this story. But I have no great seeds of wisdom to plant. Violence touches everyone close to it. Milano’s ghosts still lives with us. My mother has a plant he gave her. It’s over 30 years old now and she takes it with her every time she moves. When it gets too big for the apartment, she dutifully trims it down to size, fertilizes, waters.
I’ve never known a houseplant to live that long. But I think this one will live forever.

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