This interview first appeared in our December 2008 journal.

Interview by Gila Hayes

We get a lot of questions about how defending yourself with knife affects the legal claim of self defense. Marc “Animal” MacYoung was already on my mind, as the author of the book (Safe in the City) we review in this edition of the eJournal, so it seemed sensible to give him a call and ask his opinion.

MacYoung is a prolific author, a well-known hand to hand combat instructor, and a man who grew up in  gang-infested  Los Angeles. That experience coupled with work as director of a correctional institute, body guard, bouncer and security for large public events, makes MacYoung an unusually accurate source of information about criminal behavior. Of his many credits, his identification of the five stages of violent crime deserves more recognition than it receives. His extensive website shares a considerable amount of his knowledge “for free.”

MacYoung began writing about self defense about a decade ago, and since that time has authored well over a dozen books and DVDs, and when I spoke with him recently, he announced plans for an indepth three-part series on behavior of intimidators, pre-attack signals, and control presence.

The interview that follows is distilled from several hours of telephone conversation with MacYoung, and is offered in interview format to preserve as much as possible his explosive and often amusing style of communication.

eJournal: We have a number of experts on the topic of firearms and self defense associated with the Network. Since your expertise is in hand to hand skills, I’d like to use our time to learn more about the realities of using a knife in self defense. With that said, welcome, Marc, and on behalf of our members and readers of the eJournal, thank you for your time.

MacYoung: Okay.

eJournal: How do the courts view using a knife compared to using a gun to fight off an assailant?

MacYoung: Wrong question! That is a seemingly logical question, but it isn’t within the reality of the situation.

eJournal: What is the reality?

MacYoung: That lethal force weapons are not all created equal. When we get shot with a rifle, the shot to our nervous system causes a brown out. That’s why someone can drop to his knees when shot, because of the shock, and then the system can kick back up and he can get going. Handguns have less of a shock on the system. The problem is, people see movies where they shoot the guy and he falls down.

If you stab or cut somebody and expect them to fall down like they do in the movies, it is not going to happen. The problem with using a knife in self defense is that most people don’t know that they’ve been cut. So you have to hit this guy five or six or seven times and often that won’t work to get him to stop. That makes it look like you weren’t defending yourself; it makes it look like you were attacking.

The other problem when you’re talking about knives and self defense is the limbic system, or what I call the monkey brain.

eJournal: Meaning?

MacYoung: Rory Miller ( writes about the monkey dance. His brilliant insight into the adrenal system, is that you don’t control the monkey dance, it controls you.

Your monkey brain will look at somebody and if he is in front of you, will see a threat. Doesn’t matter which way he’s facing, the monkey brain sees proximity and says “Threat!” So, if you’re hitting somebody with a knife and he’s not going away like you expected him to, you’re getting more scared. When he turns to run, your monkey brain doesn’t see that; it still sees him in front of you.

I just did a court case where this huge guy attacked a smaller guy and the smaller guy started slashing him. Most of the wounds were on the big guy’s back because he turned to run way. When you’re talking about self defense, and you’re slashing, you’re going to start putting defensive wounds on the guy who’s trying to run away.

eJournal: Due to a distortion of reality?

MacYoung: No. Primate behavior, because a monkey wants to chase the threat away.

eJournal: In this state, we’re not capable of distinguishing retreat or surrender?

MacYoung: You can, but you have to be trained. What I’m teaching is to break away. The reason I’m telling you to break contact and get back into the rational brain is that when you’re in your monkey brain, into the limbic system, you are operating emotionally, but you believe you’re being rational.

eJournal: This has some serious implications for Network members, because a lot of armed citizens also carry knives as a back up to the gun. How reasonable is this practice?

MacYoung: It is reasonable. But when do you teach people to stop shooting an attacker?

eJournal: When threat ceases.

MacYoung: Correctamundo!

eJournal: Does same thing work for knives?

MacYoung: Yes, but because of proximity, you have to move yourself away from the situation.

eJournal: Is that retreat?

MacYoung: No. You are cutting your way out of the situation.

eJournal: When you move, does the rational mind regain control?

MacYoung: Yes, especially if you break visual contact with the guy. You break contact and continue mission.

eJournal: Which is?

MacYoung: Get the hell out of Dodge! You want out of the situation where you need to use lethal force. Getting out of range also ceases the threat.

People will ask, “What if he follows me?” Hellooo? Look what just happened! He attacked, you cut and run, he chased. See the blood trail? But there’s a really good chance this guy is not going to come after you at all, or he is going to start, then realize something’s way wrong when he knows he’s been cut.

All summed up very simply: the wound pattern you inflict must be consistent with self defense, but the monkey brain wants to do the “weed-whacker-of-death.”

eJournal: Can that instinct be trained out?

MacYoung: Yes, the first thing you need to do is recognize the importance of a wound pattern that is consistent with self defense, and to break contact.

Cut your way out of danger. Do what we call mountain man rabbit stew recipe where step one is to catch a rabbit. For self defense, step one is “don’t get hurt.”

eJournal: Is that realistic?

MacYoung: Yes, it is. If you hang around and try to fight, you’re going to get hurt. The problem with being in close is that he’s got a really good chance of killing you. If in knife range, he is a serious danger. You want to get out of that range, otherwise, you will be stuck in a situation where you have to go “weed-whacker-of-death” on the guy.

Self defense means not getting hurt or minimizing the damage. It doesn’t mean winning the fight. The monkey brain can be interested in winning. This is why you need to tell the monkey, “Don’t get hurt.”

eJournal: Can the monkey brain be taught?

Yes, it can, but you need to train with correct goals in mind. Most knife training goes the wrong direction. They will teach you to always reorient on your opponent, to do multiple strikes, and they will not teach you how to close and finish the job. All of that will put you in prison. They never teach you to finish.

What is taught in the U.S. as knife fighting never closes. They stand back and dance around. That’s what they teach as the Filipino martial arts in the United States. And that is going to make all kinds of defensive wounds. That training will put you into prison because you inflicted defensive wounds.

A knife for self defense is used to cut your way out of a situation.

eJournal: How do you train for that?

MacYoung: Really easy. You pull the knife, deflect the incoming attack, you hold out the knife and you run screaming like a girl.

eJournal: Just like that?

MacYoung: Except for one thing: by holding out the knife, I’ve left an 18-inch gash on the guy. All I’m doing is holding my knife out and running past. I only cut him once. I can justify that as a defensive move. He was attacking me with enough force that I needed to use a lethal force instrument to stop a threat.

eJournal: So using a knife for self defense is as simple as learning one move?

MacYoung: Doing it isn’t hard. What’s hard is knowing when and why to do it. (I took that from the Dresden Files.) Just watch people engaged in the monkey dance. Throw in threat display and posturing. Remember the New York actress’ last words during a mugging, “What are you going to do, shoot us?” A huge part of the monkey dance is threat display. I show you I’m too big, bad and dangerous for you to attack, so you go away. It’s an unconscious pattern. So when I’m telling you to break contact, I’m telling you to get out of monkey brain.

The problem when you’re dealing with the courts is you need to be able to articulate facts. That, above anything else, is what’s going to save you.

eJournal: Do we even know the facts during the monkey dance?

MacYoung: No. This is why we have to break contact. If I can get out of the monkey brain, I can look and see he did this, a known danger. In even the most clear cut case of self defense, if I don’t know how to explain what was going on, the prosecuting attorney is going to make it sound like so I killed this man because he looked at me mean.

This is where my DVD “Street Safe” (later released as “Safe in the Street” by Paladin Press) gives you articulable facts, by showing behaviors that are known jeopardy so you can explain, “He did this, then he did this, I tried to counter, then he did this which countered my counter.” In the monkey dance, you don’t see that.

Let’s throw something else on top of this. Being in the monkey dance screws up your judgment. You add to the problem. You become a participant in the creation and escalation of the situation, but your monkey brain tells you that what you’re doing is self defense.

eJournal: What about the common advice to trust your instincts?

MacYoung: You actually can trust your instincts. They are telling you, “I fear him; I want to get away.” What you can’t trust is your pride. Your pride tells you, “I won’t let him tell me what to do.”

eJournal: How does defense with knives sit with juries?

MacYoung: Knives are a thug’s weapons. If you stab somebody and you stab him repeatedly, then you’re going to be the bad guy in their minds. It is really hard to get rid of that impression if you’ve gone “weed-whacker-of-death” on him. I can justify cutting and running a whole lot better.

eJournal: And training to do that is more a mental preparation than physical training?

MacYoung: Yes, yes, yes! The fact is, when it comes to knife work, I send people to you. The first step I do is I send them to shooters. Because shooters plan for success.

The shooting world has to plan for success. If you pull that trigger there’s going to be legal consequences, so you spend a lot of time focusing when you are justified to shoot, don’t you? You plan for success.

Use of force for a knife is the same as it is for a gun. The problem with immediate threat of death or grave bodily injury is that somebody’s trying to kill you. That’s problem one. You have to do something to stop this. That is “mountain man rabbit stew step one” – make sure he doesn’t kill you.

eJournal: I periodically reread “Safe in the City” and this time through, I was struck by something I didn’t remember from before. You make a real distinction between being assertive and being aggressive in communicating, “Back Off!” to someone who is “interviewing” you as a potential victim.

Isn’t it is hard for someone who feels threatened to respond with just the right degree of forcefulness?

MacYoung: Peyton Quinn came up with four rules that are awe-inspiring when it comes to dealing with situations. It’s brilliant.

1. Do not insult him.
2. Do not challenge him.
3. Give him a face saving exit
4. Don’t deny what is happening.

People think they’re defending boundaries by being aggressive. Again, check the link to personal and shared space/psychology on my web site for more.

eJournal: For now, can you offer an example?

MacYoung: You have the right to get someone off your property. That’s assertive. But you never have the right to chase ‘em down the street, across their yard and up on to their front porch. That’s aggressive.

The problem is, what happens in monkey brain, you’re standing on this guy’s porch, but you’re saying, “I was defending myself.” No! The thing that is a real challenge is to learn how to show the individual that you will defend your boundaries with whatever force is necessary but that he’s OK as long as he doesn’t cross on to your area.

eJournal: How? It’s tough when two people are both operating from their limbic systems.

MacYoung: Exactamundo! You let his monkey know that he can retreat safely. When I teach cops defensive tactics, I teach that the return trip to good behavior is always free. Behave and there will be no more pain. For Joe and Jane Civilian the key is negotiation. It’s always a negotiation, “Stop the behavior and I will let you walk away.”

If someone mildly violates my boundaries, I say, “Excuse me; be so kind as to step back.” I negotiate. But if someone is intent on violating my boundaries, we will negotiate for a totally different goal, “If you don’t cross this line, we both live.”

eJournal: You don’t think this is a veiled threat?

MacYoung: No that’s negotiation. This is a win-win system. When I say you don’t cross this line and we both live, that’s not a threat, it is a promise because I’m ready to back it up.

eJournal: What if we lack the wherewithal to do it?

MacYoung: Try “commitment” instead of wherewithal. The problem with most so-called self defense is that people are looking for an Omega solution.

eJournal: What’s an Omega solution here?

MacYoung: Looking for a magic bullet. They screwed up, screwed up, and screwed up. Now they want to know how to come out OK from this long string of screw ups. They’re looking for a way to survive Ragnarök, the Viking Armageddon where all but five Norse gods die, a battle to end all battles, and these people want to find a way to survive it!

The way to survive is not to be there!

eJournal: We’re not allowed screw ups?

MacYoung: No. With every stage you let go of control. You lose options. The fact is, the closer you get to Ragnarök, the fewer options you have. And the greater the cost of losing.

Self defense is damage control. By the time you’ve gotten to self defense, it is not to prevent a problem, it is because you have a problem. There is no happy answer. It’s too late for that.

eJournal: What if we can’t avoid the problem?

MacYoung: 90% of self defense is what went before. Most of it can be avoided, but when you’ve been around on the planet long enough, you’d do everything to avoid, to de-escalate, and when it finally gets to that point [requiring lethal force], you can act in full faith. Knowing that you are right is very powerful. He’s left you no choice, so you can operate without hesitation and with commitment.

Watch my DVD “Safe in the Street.” It is a court-tested checklist asking if this man is operating in a manner that is consistent with jeopardy. If I see “a,” “b” and “c” is developing, I know without doubt.

Here’s a fact: if someone’s attacking you with enough force that you’re legally justified to use a knife on them, your number one problem is not legal, it is how not to get killed. Add on to that, the fact that getting out of monkey brain by buying distance also does wonders to keep you from getting killed. It’s hard to get killed if you’re not there.

That’s why I say there’s nothing wrong with running and screaming like a girl. Get out of there! That is true monkey dance. Your monkey wants to run like hell. Let your monkey run!

eJournal: So operating out of the limbic system is not bad thing?

MacYoung: You don’t want the monkey brain driving your car unless you are running away. You decide when it’s time for the monkey to be driving, but you keep a hand on the wheel. As they say: fear and fire are good servants, but bad lords.

Use a check list that asks, “Is this real, is this actual?” Create a trained monkey, not just a wild monkey. This is where solid, articulable facts are the counter to the monkey brain. And get training that is predicated on FACT that teaches you to react in a certain way. The training has to be toward actuality, not encouraging the monkey dance.

In most situations involving the monkey dance, you’re trying to catch up to the threat.  But if coming at the situation from lethal force, you are coming in backwards. You shooters start with when is lethal force justified, then begin working your way back.

eJournal: Back to what?

MacYoung: To developing a better understanding of different tools, that each has a time and place and when to use it. I send people to the shooting world for “shoot-don’t shoot” training. Decision-making is a critical skill that people must learn. But what a lot of people do not understand is how that decision affects somebody’s willingness to mess with them.

The biggest paradox in the world is that with willingness to go there [to use lethal force], you usually don’t have to. The guy is seeing you coming in from that viewpoint, and he realizes that you aren’t messing around.

eJournal: Marc, this conversation has taken some unexpected twists and turns, but it’s been extremely educational. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge with us.

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