Carrie Donovan remembers that night five years ago all too well. She and a friend had flown to Manzanillo, Mexico, to spend a few days at a private residence in a beachfront gated community. One night, about 3 a.m., she found herself unable to fall asleep. Since she had the luxury of sleeping in, she slipped downstairs in the dark to gaze out at the moonlit ocean.
Outside by the pool, a man walked by. Must be the security guard, she thought. He wasn’t. The next thing she knew, the man had come through a side door and was in the living room. “I jumped up and said, ‘What the bleep are you doing in here?’” Donovan recalls. “He grabbed my throat in one hand, pulled out a machete and backed me down on the couch. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is a bad movie, this can’t be happening.’”
In that instant, she heard in her mind the voice of Al Horner, whose self-defense class she’d attended just a few months earlier: “Do something now or risk getting killed.” Reflexively, she grabbed the machete blade with her left hand and began screaming for her friend who was sleeping upstairs. The man took off running.
A few days later, back in the U.S., Donovan and her husband dropped in on Horner at his Minneapolis office. She had severed the tendons in three fingers that will never go straight again, “but I can deal with that,” she says.
“There was no way I could not go and acknowledge Al since it was he who saved my life,” Donovan says. “If I wouldn’t have had his training a few months earlier, I would have thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in this situation; do I just lay quietly?’ But no, Al said you’ve got to do something.”
“It took me by surprise when Carrie and her husband came to my office with her hand all bandaged up from fingertip to elbow,” Horner says. “The three of us were crying as they told me her story, and then they each gave me a big hug. I thought, ‘You know, I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”
That sense of mission led to Horner’s founding Not Me! LLC, a Minneapolis-based company offering self-defense training for employees of clients including General Mills, M&I Bank, Medtronic, Edina Realty, and Ryan Construction. “The name ‘Not Me!’ represents the courage and inner strength necessary to resist when threatened,” Horner says. “It represents the power that comes from knowledge, and a person’s refusal to be a victim.”
Horner has self-published a book, also called Not Me!, and hosts a weekly Internet radio show that garners 40,000 listeners a week. “I don’t know where this is going to go, but I don’t have to push it or feed it,” he says. “Women tell women, now men are telling men, and it just keeps growing on its own momentum.”
The Not Me! training can be summed up in two words: rough and intense. Most anti-assault training comprises either martial arts moves or a list of dos and don’ts taught by law enforcement officers. Not Me! makes the assault experience almost real.
Keeping It Real
At the beginning of each three-hour session, “We tell the participants up front that this course will involve language like they might hear from a real attacker, and will involve us grabbing them a little tighter than they’re used to,” Horner says. “It’s about inoculating them against the initial shock of being treated in a way they’ve never been treated before.”
Each session covers two topics: how to avoid assaults, and how to escape from those that can’t be avoided. The first two hours discuss avoidance and prevention; the final hour teaches Horner’s two signature moves.
When he first started teaching the art of self-defense, Horner relied heavily on his Navy SEAL training, teaching women how to neutralize attackers with their hands, elbows, knees, and feet. He quickly realized why that approach was all wrong: The pregnant women in his classes, as well as young girls and elderly women, weren’t able to physically execute such martial arts–type moves. After studying, experimenting, and listening to feedback from his students, Horner distilled his approach down to two types of movement.
“Our signature move is the cat move, where you straighten your fingers out and attack the guy’s eyes,” Horner says. “It disables him and you can escape; it’s that simple and anybody can do it.”
The second move is the rag doll, used when you’re grabbed from behind and can’t see the attacker’s face. You put your arms up, pull your feet up, go limp, slide down to the ground, then kick and scream. “It’s like trying to pick up a three-year-old child who doesn’t want to be picked up,” Horner says.
Horner’s team analyzed hundreds of assaults and identified the two patterns that assaults follow. Attacks by people the victim knows follow a pattern called CIA: Connect, Isolate, Attack. Attacks by strangers follow a pattern called AIA: Abduct, Isolate, Attack.
Instead of an assault being a traumatic blur, those who participate in our classes realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening,’ as each of those stages unfolds,” Horner says. “Then we teach participants how to prevent or respond to the assault at each of those sequence steps. Nobody else does that.”
At the heart of Horner’s training is prevention, and at the heart of prevention is an individual’s personal threat alarm. This intuitive sense of impending danger typically manifests as an unsettled feeling in the stomach. “There are two things about the personal threat alarm,” Horner teaches. “One, we all have it. Two, it’s always right.”
Throughout the training, Horner emphasizes the importance of knowing what to expect, knowing how to react and why. “For example, there’s a common belief among women that if they don’t resist so badly, that if they comply, the man won’t hurt them as much,” he says. “That is diametrically opposed to what the statistics tell us, which is that around 75 percent of the time, when a woman aggressively resists, the assault is stopped. That’s because she either injures the attacker and escapes, or the attacker determines that the woman will not be easy to overpower and control.”
In a role-playing exercise at the beginning of class, the instructor assumes the role of an assailant while one of the women plays the victim and the rest of the class looks on anxiously. When the same story is role-played again at the end of class, participants shift from merely empathizing to pointing out ways to prevent the assault or escape the attack.
“We then have them do a visualization exercise in which they use all the things they learned in an at-risk situation,” Horner says. “We have them smell it and feel it and own it. What happens is they typically say, ‘Oh, my God! That thing I was afraid of? I’m not afraid of it anymore, I know what to do!’”
How the Stars Lined Up
Until Donovan showed up in his office that day in 2005, Horner had no intention of turning his self-defense class into a business. He was too busy running Aaron Carlson, a $15 million architectural woodworking company in Minneapolis that he’d purchased in 1995 and turned into the largest custom woodworking shop in Minnesota.
He had begun teaching self-defense earlier that year because a friend, Pat Fallon, now chairman emeritus of his eponymous Minneapolis advertising agency, wanted his own college-bound daughter and her friends to get some self-defense skills. The timing was scarily right. Three weeks later, Fallon’s daughter was loading the back of her car by Lake Harriet when a man came up from behind and grabbed her. She spun around, ready to protect herself; the man ran off. Fallon then asked Horner to conduct a session for the women in his downtown Minneapolis office. One of them was Donovan, Fallon’s director of office administration.
Horner’s self-defense sessions remained a side activity until May 2007, when he underwent open-heart surgery. His wife, Diane, and son, Jason, ran Aaron Carlson while he recuperated that summer.
“When I came back to work in September, I realized that my son and my wife were doing a fabulous job running the business,” Horner says. “I had just turned 60, Jason was in his prime, and we were talking about a transition anyway, so the smart thing for me to do was just to stay the heck out of his way.” Horner continued going to the office four days a week but left the day-to-day operations to Jason, involving himself only in the company’s strategic planning.
“It seemed to me there might be something going on here where I had this heart event that took me out of the game after I had begun helping people be safer,” he muses. “And then I was presented with an opportunity to throw myself into writing Not Me!, because I was no longer needed in the business as much, and I wanted to get the training to women who couldn’t come to the classes. It seemed like the stars were lining up.”
Once he’d opened for business, Horner found himself overwhelmed with inquiries. It was clear to him that he couldn’t operate as “a one-man show.” Enter Alison James, who called Horner after attending a training session to tell him, “I feel called to be involved in this; I can’t imagine not helping women know that this training is available.” In April 2009, Horner put her to work as an outreach and development specialist, following up on leads, booking classes, and introducing Not Me! to the Twin Cities business community.
The growing demand that resulted soon created a new problem. “As the instructor, I have to make that feeling real by sending threatening vibes to these women,” Horner says. “But emoting that threat turned out to be very draining. I would literally need a day to recover from the emotional drain and the physical interaction.”
Luckily, the word of mouth that filled Horner’s classes also brought him passionate advocates for personal safety whom he could train as instructors. Diane Aulik, a produce manager for Lunds and Byerly’s, came aboard in mid-2008. As a young woman, Aulik was raped at gunpoint. Next to join the team was Roman Postle, who leads a group of IT professionals at Wells Fargo. Postle had 20 years experience in martial arts and had spent the last couple of years teaching women’s self-defense.
Kassandra Moore, who runs the SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner) and SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) programs for seven area hospitals, is the latest to join Not Me! Moore had organized and trained a group of nurses who respond to calls from area hospitals when a sexual assault victim comes in. “She understands the real world of female and male sexual assault in a way that nobody else can,” Horner says. James and the three trainers work as independent contractors for Not Me! on an as-needed basis.
One night last winter, Jill Robinson, a senior scientist in the General Mills Food Service division, was buckling her eldest son into her minivan in a superstore retailer’s parking lot. “Out of the corner of my eye I saw a very tall, authoritative gentleman walking briskly and purposefully toward my van,” Robinson recalls. “There weren’t many other cars parked nearby, so not only did I panic, but I felt immobilized by fear. He walked right past us but came within two feet of me, completely invading my personal space. I went home and cried to my husband because I had visions of this gentleman pushing me into my minivan and taking off with me and my child, never to see my family again.”
As luck would have it, one of Robinson’s friends was setting up a group session with Horner and invited her along after hearing what had happened. “I’ve participated in self- defense programs before, but nothing to this caliber,” she says. “Al and his team taught me the skills necessary to get over that paralysis of fear.”
Robinson spread the word. She had an enthusiastic ally in her husband, Jason, a senior engineer at General Mills, who had Horner conduct training for his international R&D division, whose staffers frequently travel outside the country.
Horner’s classes at General Mills were easier to fill because they were open to both men and women. Until then, Horner had designed and conducted his training sessions exclusively for women. When General Mills asked Not Me! to conduct mixed-gender training, Horner and his team analyzed each component and realized that what they were teaching women was completely transferable to men. “Even though women are 20 times more likely to face a personal sexual assault than men, being alert to your surroundings, knowing what’s going on, and responding appropriately is your first line of defense in every type of situation for both genders,” Horner says.
Mixed-gender training also makes good business sense, considering that many businesses sponsor companywide wellness weeks and safety months. From a budget standpoint, it’s also easier to get a program approved if it’s all-inclusive.
Craig Claude, a corporate chef in Robinson’s General Mills division, believes men may benefit even more than women from Horner’s training. “Guys sometime think they’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof, when in fact they’re often not aware enough of their own surroundings to know whether they’re in harm’s way or not,” Claude says.
Brad Chapin, Minnesota regional president of Wisconsin-headquartered M&I Bank, agrees. “We thought there was a lot of value, particularly for our female employees, in what Al was teaching,” says Chapin, who brought in Horner for a series of sessions in 2008 to train nearly 150 employees. The feedback Chapin received from bank employees was so encouraging that he’s planning on bringing Horner back.
“One of our employees called me and said, ‘Here is a hug from me coming through the phone to you,’” Chapin says. “That’s how meaningful it was to these women that we would offer them this kind of opportunity. This kind of program is good for our employees; and if it’s good for our employees, it’s good for our business.”
Mixed-gender sessions also drive home a point to men. “Every time female employees walk out the front door, they experience a risk and a related fear that men can’t relate to,” Horner says. “To women managers it’s real, but men don’t have a clue because it’s not our world. So when guys like Brad Chapin and Pat Fallon care enough about their female employees to recognize this very real issue, and are enlightened and courageous enough to take action by arranging this training, it creates a sense of gratitude, respect, and loyalty that may not have existed before.”
The cost for Not Me! training is $60 per participant. Many companies pay 100 percent of the costs, but some choose to arrange, host, and sponsor the training while asking employees to pay part or all of the fee themselves. To further defray costs, some companies begin the training mid-afternoon so that half of the session takes place on the employees’ time.
For Horner, Not Me! goes far beyond a source of income. “We know that if we get to 100 women, somewhere between 15 to 35 of those women are likely to use what we teach them to avoid getting raped or assaulted,” Horner says. “I get constant feedback from women who avoided becoming a statistic thanks to our training. That’s what keeps me going.”