Author’s Note: This review contains some spoilers, but not many…
In the early 90’s Shirley Watral was violently beaten and held captive by a former intimate partner. Decades later, Watral takes pen to paper to chronicle the experience in Heels to Holster: One woman’s story of surviving an abusive relationship and discovering her inner warrior. In the book Watral paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to deal with domestic violence, a violent encounter, stalking, and the aftermath of dealing with a relationship that goes beyond south. Heels to Holster grabbed my attention as soon as I started reading it. The book comes to readers as a narrative by a survivor of abuse, rather than a writer that is trying to entertain through violent imagery.
I had the chance to meet Watral earlier this year while she was tending to a DC Project booth at the annual Florida Carry Speakers event. We exchanged pleasantries, and I did not really dive into talking to her about her book that day, things were just busy. It was not until a couple of weeks ago when one of her social media “memories” popped up, which was a video of her opening the first proof copy of Heels to Holster that I decided I needed to check out the book.
When an author gets the opportunity to hold the very first copy of their book in their hand’s, it’s an emotional experience. Watching Watral, it was more than just the pride of having created a work and feeling accomplished. It looked like there was a catharsis, as if the pages of the book being fanned out in the corporal world helped her in her final stages of many years of healing and development. When Watral held that copy, I imagine those she mentions in part In her dedication were smiling upon her:
For those who have lost their lives in the fight and are now warrior angels, my heart goes out to you and your family.
The book clocks in at 142 pages. It did not take me very long to read, but it’s worth noting, I could afford to read it again. The writing style isn’t overly complicated and Watral doesn’t force the work with contrived words. She leans on vivid descriptions to bring the reader a little into the world she lived(s) in. While the book, one can imagine was therapeutic to write, there is no indication that this was a selfish endeavor. The foreword, penned by Dianna Muller, explains much of Watral’s actions and what the text aims to do:
Giving the gift of empowerment to others, not only through instruction, but also the words in this book! Education = Empowerment.
“I sat huddled in the corner…” is how the book starts out. In chapter one we’re given part of the beginning of the aftermath. While setting the stage, Watral explains some of the emotions she was experiencing, “My hand trembled from the emotional tornado violently whirling deep inside me.” The narrative continues by taking the reader deep into the depths of being badly beaten and subsequently held captive for over a half day.
Watral’s story is harrowing and eye opening. What proceeded in the aftermath was not only the physical injuries she had to heal, but also the emotional ones. Watral also had a very lengthy legal process to bring her assailant to justice which she had to endure. Some of the key takeaways, and things to really think about, from the book come in the form of quotes I’ve selected to share:
In the United States, every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten; one in four women has experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime; one in six women is a victim of stalking in their lifetime.
[Prior to being attacked] As days went by, I started to pull further away from Paul by having less interaction with him. I wanted to make this breakup gradual, just like his personality was gradually changing. By doing this, I thought I could end this relationship in a friendly fashion. I was wrong.
Making waves was not something I liked to do. I’d rather do what I could to make everyone happy, which is impossible, though at this time in my life I still tried. I have accepted the fact that even though you can’t please everyone, you can do things that make you happy.
It was hard to believe this person once said he cared about and loved me. Now he wouldn’t listen to reason. In hindsight, I also think I lacked one key element: the readiness to harm a person I had been intimate with.
Just like in the movies, it is never over when someone is arrested.
A restraining order was still active, but that is just a piece of paper. It will protect you if it is against a law abiding citizen, not someone like Paul who had evil in his heart.
To not completely ruin Watral’s story for those of you who will read it, there is a “happy ending”. The depth of what was going on with her abuser was larger than she imagined at the time, and as a reader you’ll be shocked too to learn what else was supposed to happen. The attack and aftermath seems like it’s stranger than fiction, but the sad reality is it’s not. And Watral’s story is one woman’s story. The story of an individual that persevered and perhaps had some luck on her side.
The events that unfolded were not the end of Watral’s quest. Over time, she did eventually start her healing process, which she stated took some 26 years to do. One of the most pivotal things that she did that opened her eyes she describes:
My opinion of my self had also changed. Somewhere along the way my self-esteem had taken a nosedive. Several years passed before I took a huge step that improved my life. This pivotal point was when I signed up for a pistol course. Up to that moment, my changes were gradual. This one decision took me out of my comfort zone and catapulted me into a new level of self-awareness. I stopped letting the incident with Paul define who I was.
Watral talks about her transformation that started after that first pistol class she took. From there, she advanced in the shooting world, moving onto competing, and eventually becoming a firearms instructor. Watral draws from her experiences and tells her story to help other women that might be living through similar ones.
The latter part of Heels to Holster focuses on different awareness techniques and self-defense options that are available. Watral tells the stories of other women who were in different scenarios to illustrate the implementation of the concepts she discusses. The material is not gendered, that is what she has to say applies to anyone that is interested in their own safety. Through the combination of story telling to back up concepts, this section of the book is not very “in your face”, but rather serves as a primer to instilling the proper mentality.
There are so many lessons and quips in Heels to Holster that it’s impossible to impart everything that I’d consider important. This is a book for both men and women. Men can take a small look into what a battered and then empowered woman may live through. Watral offers insight on how her relationship went south, and for the good men out there, this book will charge you to be a better man. For women, the book may speak to you directly. Watral uses her story of empowerment to help encourage other women to take the steps necessary in their own lives to overcome whatever they may be going through.
When people hear of women staying in an abusive relationship, I hear comments like, “Why don’t they just leave?” Today I understand why they don’t leave. Fear is a very powerful emotion and can stop you from taking action even if it seems totally logical. I believe there is a part of us that wants to give others the benefit of the doubt and believe if they are sorry and say it will never happen again they mean it. Or decide not to make waves because we believe there is the possibility things could get worse.
Heels to Holster is a harrowing story with lessons to be learned from. Watral took refuge in the shooting world after taking charge of her life. No one wants to or deserves to live in fear. I recommend reading this book and also getting copies for the females in your life, in particular the younger ones. The final two bits of Watral’s words I’ll cap this review off with come from the beginning, in the acknowledgements, and towards the end of the book in chapter 7:
To the group of people that make up the firearms community, and the many instructors of firearms and self-defense who taught me how to defend myself I thank you. They are a community of loving, caring people I know will be there for me if I ever need their help…
I have opened myself up hoping my journey from heels to holster will help others. I have met a number of women who have faced abuse sometime in their lives. Every time I meet these women, I feel driven to share my experience in an effort to help them. This abuse of women must stop! We must learn to defend and protect ourselves.