YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Teaching the Verbally Abused to Fight Back

December 17, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN


Interviewer: Are there really that many browbeaten wimps out there who feel they need a book titled "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense?"

Author: I don't know that I'm willing to go for the term 'wimps,' because for me the term applie s only to males. But, yes ... there are a lot of unhappy people out there, and most of the time their problem turns out to be that they're verbal victims.

Like most kids, Suzette Haden Elgin learned the rhyme: "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me." But she never bought it.

A lot of Americans were walking away from verbal exchanges feeling as if they'd been mugged, she decided. So she wrote a book called "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense," which Prentice Hall published in 1980.

Despite Elgin's arguments that there were millions of verbal weaklings out there eager for help, the publisher quickly gave up on the book and remaindered it. Then two years ago some ad people at Barnes & Noble--which had acquired the title--brought it back to life with a simple black and white magazine ad reading: "How to Become a 'Black Belt' in Verbal Self-Defense."

The ad appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in May, 1985, and the timid of tongue responded immediately, Elgin said. Additional ads followed additional orders, and before long readers of newspapers from the Orlando Sentinel to the Wall Street Journal and such disparate magazines as The American Spectator, Mother Jones, Audubon, Harpers, the New Yorker, Wilson Quarterly and Military History were quietly clipping the ad and sending in their $6.95.

From 1,500 to 2,500 orders have been arriving in the mail each week ever since; 250,000 of the books are in print, more than 200,000 of which are already in the hands of the verbally battered masses. Barnes & Noble released a workbook and cassette, and Prentice Hall has "More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" (1983) and "The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" (1987) on the market.

"It's really every direct mail person's dream to have something like this happen, particularly with a forgotten item," said Cynthia Sternau, marketing and publishing manager at Barnes & Noble's Marboro Books. "It's been going back to press every six to eight weeks."


Interviewer: So what makes you such an expert?

Author: Let's see. One of the things that made me such an expert is that I grew up in a house where there were always politicians , preachers and lawyers around , so everyone was always involved in this kind of verbal exchange.

Another thing that makes me an expert is that I have a doctorate in linguistics (U.C. San Diego). I'm an expert because I've raised five children to adulthood (laughs). And also, I've been getting up in front of audiences of hundreds of people and answering questions about this for years.

As Elgin sees it, America is populated with verbal bullies and verbal victims, most of whom don't even realize they're embroiled in linguistic slugfests every day.

"People jump to the conclusion that verbal bullies are always male or rich," she said, speaking into the telephone with the sort of calm assurance one might expect. "But there are many delicate little women who are just frightful," she said. "And a 6-year-old can be a tremendous bully."

In mere numbers, however, you'll find more women who are victims and more men who are bullies, she said. That's mainly because men more often have the dominant role in society. "The bully tends to be a doctor in a doctor-patient relationship, the boss in a boss-employee relationship, the teacher if it's student-teacher."

Verbal bullies seldom realize their role, but usually "they enjoy what they do," Elgin said. "They get kicks from the verbal abuse they dish out. . . . They are lonely. They are desperate for attention. They'd rather be involved in a fight or horrible scene than not have this attention.

"One of the things that's typical of victims is that they think their problems are all their own fault. . . . They often start out being abused by their spouse, and pretty soon they're a victim everywhere they go."

And, Elgin writes in her first book: "The pain of verbal abuse goes deep into the self and festers there, but because nothing shows on the surface, it will not win you even sympathy, much less actual assistance."

That's why the first of Elgin's "four basic principles" is Know that you are under attack. The other three are: Know what kind of attack you are facing ; Know how to make your defense fit the attack; and Know how to follow through.

Despite that violent imagery, Elgin's guidelines are verbally nonviolent. She does teach a few "emergency responses" that can be used to cripple a particularly aggressive bully, but for the most part she finds little long-term effectiveness in scathingly clever comebacks or "Your mother wears combat boots" ripostes.

Los Angeles Times Articles