Keeping the Penthouse Safe

Even on Easy Street, the best defense is self-defense

Sitting in her penthouse apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay, Terri Harris is telling the story of how she overcame fear. How two years ago, when she was faced with a sudden bout of anxiety, she fought back, regained control of her life, and now possesses a skill she wants to share with women everywhere. A skill she has spent more than $200,000 to capture on videotape, copies of which can now be had for $24.95 apiece.

Not that money is a principal concern. Terri and her husband Erwin are already the picture of monied Miami. Together they own the Harris Company, an advertising agency. "I don't think there ever will be any profits from the video," she states in a New Jersey accent smoothed by many years on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Even if there are, she has promised most of them to various charities.

"I had always thought that my man would be around to protect me," begins Harris, recalling the period in 1993 when Erwin took ill and was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. "I thought he was going to die, and I didn't know what I was going to do."

Erwin did recover, but even after a Thanksgiving spent in Nantucket, Terri's nerves were frayed when the couple stopped off in New York to visit friends and attend a small dinner party in their honor. It was at the home of Rosiland and Mel Jacobs, she explains. The latter Jacobs is the chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue. "We were staying in one of their guest apartments a few blocks away, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as we were getting ready to leave, Mel said, 'You are absolutely not walking,'" Harris recalls. "And I said, 'Don't be silly.' I mean, this was a good neighborhood."

Jacobs relented, but warned the Harrises to be careful strolling home. Walking the nine blocks, Harris recounts, it was as if her head were on a swivel, her eyes constantly darting back and forth for signs of trouble. And the next night she had a nightmare: She had been attacked on the street by two men. She woke up screaming, "Where's my gun? I can't find my gun!" She was terrified.

"What you have to understand is that I don't own a gun. I've never owned a gun," says Harris, adding that when she got back to her home on Fisher Island she became obsessed with her own personal safety and petrified with fear. "I didn't go off the island," she confides.

She quickly realized that something needed to change.
"I went to the spa director and said I wanted to take a self-defense class and could we have one here on the island. She arranged to have two fellows from the Metro-Dade Police Department come over one day. And for an hour and 40 minutes they did nothing but talk about what our liability was if we were to hurt someone."

A few weeks later, another seminar was scheduled, this time with a martial arts expert named A. Kilani, a Lebanese-born stuntman and bodyguard who teaches self-defense classes at the Police Athletic League gym on South Beach and who holds the martial arts title of tashi.

When Kilani and his assistant began by demonstrating a few simple moves involving pressure points, Harris thought she was in for another disappointment. "I admit that when Tashi Kilani first arrived, I had an attitude. I said, 'Gentlemen, this is bullshit! You're doing nothing.'" Whereupon Kilani took her arm and applied the technique he had been demonstrating. "The pain was excruciating," Harris remembers. "I was very quiet after that."

And hooked. The diminutive, fiftyish Harris (she won't give her age) immediately signed up for private aikido and jujitsu lessons with Kilani. "It did me a world of good," she says. "I really had the confidence once again to go off the island and shop and be a normal person."

Other women on Fisher Island were also interested in taking additional classes as a group, but none could agree on a regular time because their schedules were difficult to coordinate. "There was the ballet, or there was the opera," Harris laments. "There was always something."

Which led to the video. A year ago she formed a company, the National Self-Defense Institute, with herself as president and Kilani as executive vice president. They produced a 45-minute tape, Self-Defense for Women, which contains a number of scenarios A a woman being attacked at a bank ATM, in a parking garage, in bed A and offers a variety of techniques that might be used to fend off an attacker, mainly through the use of pressure points and deflecting an assailant's brute force. There's also a tape aimed at men.

Harris, who does not appear in either video, says that so far she has sold about 500 copies. (Those interested can call the National Self-Defense Institute at 868-6734.) At this point, she admits, the prospect of actually recouping her investment seems remote. But she continues to have faith, and says she and Kilani are discussing distribution ideas with a number of companies.

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