Book Review: “Seconds Out,” by Alison Dean

Published by Coach House Books, 268 pp.  $21.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

In an article published in the November 1979 edition of The Washingtonian magazine, U.S. Naval Academy graduate James Webb ignited a firestorm of controversy when he unequivocally declared that “Women Can’t Fight”.  At the time, the U.S. armed forces were going through the painful process of rebuilding from their humiliation in Southeast Asia, and women had been admitted to the service academies just three years earlier. In a few months’ time the first group of these female pioneers was due to graduate and be commissioned, and like many of his contemporaries, Webb had no qualms about expressing his vociferous opposition to their presence. Writing in the magazine, he expressed the view that:

“There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat. And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences.”

At first glance, one would certainly have had the impression that Webb possessed seemingly ironclad credentials with which to back up his opinions. Growing up as the son of a career Air Force officer, as a youth he had been an accomplished amateur boxer, a passion he continued to pursue during his years at the Academy. He graduated as a high ranking Brigade of Midshipman officer in the spring of 1968, and the following year topped his course at the Marine Corps’ Basic School in Quantico.

Barely two months after completing his officer training Webb was leading a platoon of Marine infantry in the An Hoa Basin, a place well known as being the focal point for some of the most brutal and intense fighting of the Vietnam War. He returned home Stateside in the spring of 1970, having suffered serious wounds and earned a chestful of decorations for valour, including the Navy Cross and the Silver Star.

Forced to medically retire from the Marine Corps in 1972, Captain Webb returned to civilian life and earned a law degree from Georgetown University, where he became well known for his advocacy work on behalf of Vietnam veterans. He also established himself as being an author of some note, debuting in 1978 with the now-classic work Fields of Fire, a semi-autobiographical novel which drew heavily on his own experience in combat as a young Marine officer in Vietnam. He later went on to a distinguished career of public service that included a stint as Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, and six years in office as a U.S. Senator from Virginia.

Don’t get me wrong, James Webb is a man for who I have long had an enormous amount of respect and admiration. But it really is too bad that back in 1979 he apparently had never encountered a woman like Alison Dean. Had he done so, he might well have thought twice about making some of the sweeping generalizations that were served up in his vitriolic Washingtonian article. On the surface, it would be difficult to visualize two more completely different people: Webb, the hard-charging, seemingly unstoppable boxer and Marine; and Dean, a petite, self-effacing academic. But what the two do very clearly share in common is their passionate love for two things that have been a hugely important part of both of their lives: one is literature, and the other is fighting.

And had he had the opportunity to read the account of Dean’s experiences that is related in her new book Seconds Out, Webb would have quickly awakened to the realization that yes, women can indeed fight. Not only that, but there are many who do, and some with almost superhuman ferocity and courage. As the events related in Seconds Out make abundantly clear, that’s a point that Dean herself has proven.

For a good part of her life, to the casual observer Alison Dean would have seemed like be a highly improbable candidate to venture into the world of the fighting arts. Growing up, she was a bookish, unassuming woman of limited athletic talent, and someone who would have appeared to be far more at home in the halls of academe than in the squared circle of a boxing ring. Indeed, most of her life has in fact been spent on university campuses, first by pursuing years of study towards a Ph.D. in English literature, and more recently as a lecturer in her field. By Dean’s own admission, for many years during that period here lifestyle was not one that offered any prospect of transforming her into the warrior she has become today.

But as she approached her mid-30’s, Dean felt a compelling urge to reconnect with her body, balance her cerebral pursuits with new challenges that would be more physical in nature, and test her limits in ways she had never previously explored. Her journey into the martial arts was prompted in part by two major life events, one being the completion of her doctorate, and the other being the collapse of her marriage. The odyssey itself began one night when she drifted into a small local gym in Vancouver, and signed up for kickboxing lessons. It seemed like fairly innocuous decision at the time, but it would prove to be one that would eventually change Dean’s life and outlook in ways she could never have imagined.

At the beginning, it wasn’t easy for her. On her first lesson, Dean’s instructor described her as being “the least aggressive person he had ever seen”, and the morning following the class she was so stiff that her now ex-husband had to roll her out of bed. She struggled to master the intricacies of the Muay Thai techniques, and to keep pace with her more athletically talented fellow trainees. But notwithstanding the obstacles she had to contend with, Dean persevered, showing that what she may have lacked in natural ability she more than made up for through a combination of grit and tenacity. And as her skills blossomed and her confidence grew, through the process of learning to be a fighter she eventually developed a new and deeper appreciation of who she really was, and what she truly valued in her life.

The end result of this process proved to be a transformation that was gradual and protracted, but nonetheless very real, and truly remarkable. Judging by the anecdotes related in her book, it would appear that as Dean punched and kicked her way through endless hours of rigorous training, her bucketloads of sweat were rewarded with a newfound sense of self-esteem that she had never previously known up until then. The knowledge that she could hold her own and fight to defend herself if she had to, and the realization that she no longer needed to be in any way constrained by deeply ingrained social stereotypes of women as the “weak and helpless sex”, proved to be enormously liberating.

Consequently, as time went by and her training continued, the initial setbacks she had encountered as a martial arts wannabe quickly receded into distant memory. In many ways, so too did the image of the mild-mannered and diffident intellectual who had first walked into the kickboxing gym. The new version of Alison Dean had now become a force to be reckoned with, and the progress she had made only served to fuel her desire to seek out new and greater challenges, and find out just how far she could go.

The ultimate test of any martial artist’s skills is found by engaging in competition with a real-life opponent, and the crucible of combat was something that Dean willingly thrust herself into. Admittedly, she had no illusions of ever becoming a world champion, and her initial forays onto the field of battle were comparatively low key events involving bouts at local tournaments. But Dean nonetheless embraced these as being an opportunity to test herself even further, and the experience of competition itself served as an important rite of passage that would eventually set the stage for bigger and more significant challenges that were yet to come.

The highlight of Dean’s fighting career came when, after working out with some female athletes at a local boxing gym, she decided to sign up to compete in an amateur bout. Her book provides a detailed recounting of the essential signposts on the journey leading up to it: the weeks of training to get her physically and mentally prepared for the big day; the creative nicknames suggested by her team (she eventually settled on Alison “The Doctor” Dean); the theatric ritual of the “walkout” to the ring on the day of the fight; and the rush of emotions she felt as the impending contest approached.

Stepping into the ring, she had her two coaches close behind, but once the referee called “seconds out!”, Dean was on her own. The moment of truth had arrived, and the time had come to find out what she was really made of. And to the surprise of no one except possibly Dean herself, she rose to the challenge and responded magnificently.

The fight itself was seemingly short, lasting for three rounds of two minutes each. I obviously wasn’t there to see it, but drawing on my own memories of fighting in judo and karate tournaments, I can well imagine that those six minutes must have seemed like an eternity. It wasn’t by any means simply a fight for survival; right from the opening bell Dean took control, landing combinations, and taking advantage of her longer reach. Her adversary proved to be a worthy and courageous opponent, absorbing the punishment that Dean dished out without flinching, and all the while continuing to move and tenaciously press her attack.

But suddenly the final bell rang; the pugilistic drama was over, and as the two combatants stood in the centre of the ring, the referee raised Dean’s hand and declared her the winner. It was a moment extraordinary triumph, perhaps not so much for the actual fight itself, but more for its symbolic value in attesting to just how far Dean had come, and how much she had accomplished.

Apart from fleeting moments of glory like the one associated with her victory in the boxing ring, her training as a fighter was destined to lead Dean to rewards that were far greater in significance. Probably the most important of these was the unmistakable sense of closeness and camaraderie that she shared with her fellow fighters, both women and men. She would come to appreciate that, just as diamonds are formed slowly over time through the application of intense heat and pressure, so too are warriors shaped and perfected by the bonds created through persevering in the face shared experiences of the kind from which the rest of us mere mortals would be only too happy to flee.

In reading Dean’s story, I am in fact reminded of the quote from Captain Pingree, a company commander at the legendary U.S. Marine Corps Depot at Parris Island, who told his recruits at the outset of their training”

“You have an enemy here at Parris Island; the enemy that you’re going to have at Parris Island is in every one of us. It’s in the form of cowardice. The most rewarding experience you’re going to have in recruit training is standing on live every evening, and you’ll be able to look into each other’s eyes, and you’ll be able to say to each other with your eyes “By God, we’ve made it one more day. We’ve defeated the coward.”

If there is a larger message that seems to resonate throughout Seconds Out, it may be that when provided with the right kind of training, guidance, and mentoring, even the most ordinary of people can become not only a competent and motivated fighter, but also a more mature, self-confident, and enlightened human being. As Dean’s own experiences show, the technical skills of a martial discipline can be learned, the mindset of a fighter can be cultivated and developed, and the soul and the spirit of a true warrior can be moulded and forged. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone has the inherent fundamentals; the most essential ingredient is desire.

The process itself certainly is neither easy nor painless; it takes discipline, dedications and persistence, and there is a heavy price of hard, rigorous training that must be paid. But as Dean’s story shows, sometimes it can be the individuals who are seemingly the least likely candidates to commit to such an endeavour that ultimately prove to be the most successful once they decide to embark upon it. In my own experience training in the martial arts, the supposedly macho tough guys are invariably the first to fall by the wayside. It typically happens when they discover they are not as tough as they thought they were, and come to the realization that developing any real skill actually requires some hard work.

As far as I am aware, Alison Dean never served a day of her life in the military, but even so I believe Seconds Out offers some enormously valuable reading for our people in uniform. It’s true that times have changed and attitudes have come a long way since James Webb propagated his inflammatory views in Women Can’t Fight. Nevertheless, much more recent events would still seem to clearly indicate that gender equality continues to be an issue the armed forces are struggling mightily with.

For this reason, as we look to begin a new year at RMC, Seconds Out is a book I’d hope that every cadet at the College would be able to study. It’s certainly very valuable reading for the female cadets, in that the book offers them the opportunity to follow one woman’s remarkable journey of transformation and self-discovery, and hopefully draw inspiration from it. But I might suggest that this book would be even more valuable reading for their male counterparts, in that Dean’s recounting of her experiences provides a vivid illustration of the reality that the time honoured stereotypes of men and women that were held so preciously by generations past simply don’t cut it in the world of the 21st century. Maybe, in fact, they never did.

Seconds Out is one of those rare books that offers a read that manages to be compelling, entertaining, and eminently meaningful. Once I got into this book, I found it hard to put it down. Alison Dean manages to tell her story in a way that skillfully blends the analytical insight of an accomplished scholar with the visceral, deep-in-your-gut understanding that would be known only to those who have actually been there. Truly, this is an important book that deserves to be read by leaders in all sectors of our society, but probably nowhere more so than by those at RMC and in the Canadian Forces.

It seems like a paradox that while Canadians live in a society that has clearly become increasingly disdainful of violence, the cruel irony is that the prospect of violence is also an ever-present threat that we all have to live with. A corollary to this point is, there are without doubt some situations in life where the only practical defence is a good offence. When Alison Dean first walked into that tiny kickboxing gym, her decision to take the plunge wasn’t motivated by any desire to inflict harm on other people. To accomplish what she eventually did, she had to persevere through heavy exertion, nagging self-doubts, and a healthy dose of blood, sweat, and tears. The reward for her efforts was an epiphany, one that arguably was almost a rebirth, and a transformation that redefined her frontiers and enabled her to move forward towards new depths of understanding, and new heights of achievement, that almost certainly would otherwise never have been possible.

Indeed, one might argue that Dean herself is a bit of a paradox. By day, she is an erudite professor who earns her living wage in university lecture halls, teaching her students the finer points of English literature. In her off hours, she assumes the alter ego of a modern day Boadicea who seems to morph into a veritable tigress the moment she steps foot into the ring. For sure, this lady is someone I would never care to mess with. If you have read this far and have not yet picked up a copy of Seconds Out, now is the time to run out and grab it. Reading Alison Dean’s story, something tells me that even the great James Webb would have to admit to being impressed.

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