Andra Medea learned her first lesson about resolving conflict the hard way, when a bunch of toughs from her neighborhood trapped her in an alley and smashed her in the face. “I was always in fights when I was growing up,” she says. Those fights form the backdrop for her latest book, Conflict Unraveled, a clearheaded guide to finding logical ways to handle illogical people, particularly bullies who don’t fight fair. “I’ve been living this book since I was a child,” she says. “I had to learn how to resolve conflict because there was so much conflict to resolve.”
She was born in 1953 on the southwest side and grew up in Marquette Park in a two-flat at 69th and Maplewood. Her neighborhood was predominantly Lithuanian, full of fiercely anticommunist World War II refugees. Her father, Edward, was a machinist. Her mother, Emily, was a homemaker who participated in community organizations. “It’s hard to understand how insular this world was,” says Medea. “I was 14 before I learned that Lithuanians were not the majority in this country. I did not figure it out on my own. A kid told me. Then she told me Catholics were not the majority. I couldn’t believe that. ‘Catholics aren’t the majority? Oh, no. Italians are Catholic. Irish are Catholic. Lithuanians are Catholic!’ She had to be pulling my leg.”
In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights marches through her neighborhood, trying to pressure Mayor Richard J. Daley to enforce recently passed open-housing laws. The marchers were greeted with rocks and bottles. “I remember these convertibles racing through the neighborhood,” Medea says. “They were filled with white thugs with baseball bats and lead pipes and banners across the side with swastikas.”
In the fall of 1967 she started attending Harper High School, at 65th and Wood, in the middle of a racially changing community. “It was the same old story–blacks were moving in and whites were moving out really fast,” she says. “It was like a war zone around there. Inside the school people tried to get along, but it was hard, because outside the school it was a hotly contested neighborhood and stuff spilled over. We had riots on a regular occasion. You’d have kids pour into the hallway, and there would be all of this fighting. They would tear the cafeteria apart and then slide out of the school. It shows you how ordinary violence can become. We’d have a riot in third period, and by sixth period I forgot it. It’s like living in Beirut. You start to take these things for granted–the violence is like background noise.”
She also ran into trouble outside school. “There were some girls in the neighborhood who waited for me after school to beat me up,” she says. “They were white girls who went to Catholic schools. They didn’t like the fact that I was going to a black school–or a high school with a lot of black kids in it. They called me ‘nigger lover.’ These racial lines were taken very seriously–they were rigidly enforced, and they were enforced by the teenagers of the community, who learned about it from their parents.”
The fights went on for the better part of her freshman year. “I never ran, even though I always lost,” she says. “It was never any kind of contest. There were always many more of them. It also bothered me that their brothers came along. This was family entertainment, and I was the entertainment. It finally came down to this bitter cold day. They got me in an alley. A couple of them had ahold of me. We all knew how this was going to play out–they would knock me to the ground and kick me and beat me. Then I had this inspiration. I broke away from the kids that were holding me, and I grabbed one of their younger brothers. I ripped off his shoe and threw it on a roof. Now the thing you have to understand is that gangs can’t do two things at once. They can beat up on me, or they can team up to get that shoe. But emotionally they can’t do both. They were so angry with me. This was a first time that they had a good reason to beat me up, but they had to let me go.”
While her tormentors figured out how to get the shoe off the garage, Medea snuck away. “This was the epiphany,” she says. “Right then I realized that you have to stop trying to muscle your way through all of that conflict. You can’t win the fights in which you are outnumbered. You have to use your head. You have to be smarter than they are. Don’t do the obvious. All of my work really comes from that moment.”
That spring she had another encounter with the gang. “They formed a circle around me and their ringleader. I was quite a bit taller. I jumped up and down like a kangaroo, punching over her head. The other kids were laughing at her. Now if you’re the gang leader and people are laughing at you, you can’t handle this. She ended up backing off. I won without having to fight–that was a great lesson about dealing with conflict.”
Medea had many other confrontations with bullies in and out of school, including fights with local Nazis. By the time she graduated from high school in 1971 she was tired of life on the southwest side. She moved to Lincoln Park, where she eventually met Kathleen Thompson, who ran a feminist bookstore on Halsted near Fullerton. “[Medea] was brilliant, eccentric, and shy, but she had this inner toughness,” says Thompson. “Her life put her in so many conflicts, and she learned how to deal with it.”
In 1974 Thompson and Medea coauthored Against Rape, a book that’s partly about self-defense and partly about coping with the aftermath of rape. Medea was only 21 when it was published. “It’s pretty remarkable that she did this at such a young age,” says Thompson. “The book emerged from a conference that Andra helped organized about rape.”
After the book was published Medea began teaching martial arts classes and developed a self-defense technique she called chimera. “I studied martial arts and took some of the good elements from different disciplines and wrapped them around my street savvy,” she says. “The basic mentality behind chimera is you think and you keep thinking and you do not let someone psych you out. You need physical skills, but your brain is the most important thing you have.”
She says there are various techniques people can use to escape attackers without throwing a punch: walk aggressively, walk toward your attacker, alter your voice patterns, ask confusing, off-the-wall questions. Once she avoided a mugging by breaking into song: “The predator didn’t know what to make of it.”
For the last 20 or so years she’s been teaching chimera and conflict-resolution classes at various local colleges, including Northwestern, DePaul, and, currently, the University of Chicago. Roughly ten years ago she began writing Conflict Unraveled, which she self-published this past winter.
In the book she writes that there are three levels of conflict. The first involves different viewpoints debated in a relatively rational fashion, as each side listens and tries to learn from the other. “You may not agree with the other side and you may wish they felt differently,” she writes, “but once you hear things from their point of view you have to admit it makes sense.”
At level two adrenaline takes over, turning people into combatants who want to win for the sake of winning, even if their position doesn’t make sense. “In level-two conflict, nobody listens. New information can walk in, sit down and put its feet up on the table and no one will notice,” she writes. “Psychological warfare becomes impervious to facts.”
As an example she cites a parent who “storms in to confront a teacher and the teacher pulls out the child’s test scores. Do you think the parent will look at those scores? Of course not. That could prove she was wrong, so it’s important for her not to look at test scores. Of course it also means that her kid won’t be improving. But that’s not the point. A power struggle isn’t about solving problems; it’s about being Right.”
The third level of conflict is blind–rationality flies away, and people lock into a win-at-all-cost struggle. “Individuals or organizations dig themselves in deeper and deeper, caught in self-defeating loops and utterly ignoring solutions at hand,” she writes. “People can’t begin to change their behavior because they don’t even see what it is. Blind behavior also includes the IRS and other vast institutions, which have learned to abuse power not intentionally but because they always got away with it.”
The book deals mostly with conflict between parents and children or employees and employers. But it’s also relevant for citizens demanding change from politicians who have so much power they do what they want even if it makes little sense. “I see a connection to conflict in the family or the workplace and conflict in the political world,” she says. “I would tell anyone who’s engaged in a battle against the bureaucracy to be very careful about dealing with blind behavior. I understand the temptation to fight back, swinging hard. But you have to keep your head. You have to ask questions and listen to their answers and challenge those answers and force them to comprehend the illogic of their position. I’m not saying it will always work.”
She sees the Bush administration engaging in classic level-three behavior. “Blind people believe their own lies–they believe them earnestly–and they’re quite outraged that other people don’t,” she says. “Iraq is quicksand, and [Bush] is thrashing. He can’t say he’s wrong. He can’t say he’s sorry. He believes his own lies.”
In many ways people locked in level-three conflicts are like Medea back in the late 60s, trying to fend off attacks from bullies who enjoyed beating her up if only because they could get away with it. “I learned a lot of these things growing up in Marquette Park,” she says.
In the past few years a lot of the old racial tension has faded from that neighborhood. The area’s much more integrated, with whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Middle Eastern immigrants. “I’m amazed by the changes,” says Medea. “I go into the park itself, where the Nazis marched, and I see different kids from all races. Once when I went back I saw [one of] my old tormentors who used to beat me up. We were both grown up. I saw her in a grocery store. I was amazed by how happy I would have been to have thrown her through the plate-glass window. Of course I did not. I didn’t do anything. I recall how absolutely ordinary she looked. In retrospect, I realize she and her friends were not very special. This was just how life was back then. I understand a lot of things now, even if I didn’t then.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.