"I like it here in the gym because everyone's a bit damaged," says Kate Sekules in her brave and ballsy new memoir. "The Boxer's Heart" chronicles how a pretty, pacifistic 35-year-old London-born bookworm wound up stepping through the ropes at Philadelphia's Blue Horizon arena in February 1997 to bloody an opponent, nicknamed Raging Belle, in a bout billed as "the St. Valentine's Day Massacre."
Sekules traces her intense (albeit short-lived) career as a professional fighter back to 1992, when the moderately athletic freelance writer took an aerobic boxing class at the Crosby Street Studio in Manhattan. The first time she threw a punch, she was hooked. She was soon training at Gleason's Gym, "the oldest operating fight gym in the United States," which had produced 88 champions. In the early 1980s, according to Sekules, Gleason's attracted an interesting female crowd that included choreographer Twyla Tharp, who based a season's dances on "the sweet science," fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, whose famous wrap dress was inspired by boxer's robes, and Joyce Carol Oates, whose book "On Boxing" Sekules angrily takes to task for snubbing female boxers.
As her interest grew, Sekules discovered an underground history of women in the brutal sport. She shares some colorful details, including evidence of female boxing matches in London as early as 1722. She writes about an Irish girl named Polly Burns, a female challenger in a carnival boxing booth who was the subject of the documentary "My Grandmother Was a Boxer"; a 1920s Flint, Mich., subculture of stenographer-pugilists called "The Buster's Club," which was banned from the YMCA; and Barbara Buttrick, the first woman inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1945, when the 15-year-old from a small town in Yorkshire stood 4-foot-6.
Currently an editor at Food & Wine magazine, Sekules also dissects her lifelong issues with her body and explains how boxing helped improve her self image, giving her the chance to fight "the weight obsession as opposed to the weight." Her fighting weight is 147, making her a welterweight with, she brags, only 12 percent body fat. Yet being fit isn't all that matters in the ring. She describes in blow-by-blow, stream of consciousness detail her two losing bouts. Though she doesn't give up, she gets the shit kicked out of her, winding up bloodied and bruised. Happily, after the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" she finds out that she's broken Raging Belle's nose.
Though the fight scenes are funny and painful at the same time, the emotional search that culminated in Sekules' passion for boxing is more compelling. Some of the reasons she offers for being drawn to boxing seem facile: She grew up a tomboy who hated dolls and pink, her family was repressed, she wanted a nonlinear career, she was pissed off at the world. Luckily, she digs deeper, analyzing the kind of people who use their damaged psyches in this "concrete and practical way." "To be able to hit without compulsion," she says provocatively, "it helps to have been hit yourself when you were too young to retaliate."
Though she doesn't discuss physical abuse from her childhood, Sekules was hit by some powerful incongruities. In 1979, just before her 18th birthday, her father died. She soon discovered his hidden history: He was Jewish and had been sent to England on the last Kindertransport out of Austria after his father killed himself. Sekules' mother was raised Lutheran in Germany by a father who was a Nazi. When she was 17, he abandoned the family, her brother was shot and her mother killed herself. "I'd figured out," Sekules says, that "to have as parents a converted, ashamed Jew and a Nazi once removed, living in postwar German-hating Britain, each carrying the grief and guilt of a parental suicide, was a shaky foundation." No wonder she came out swinging!
The commercial women's boxing world that Sekules details lends a certain flashy appeal to "The Boxer's Heart," and it's especially timely given the recent popularity of female combat: female wrestlers, the movies "Girlfight" and "Shadow Boxers" and the much-hyped match between Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, the daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Yet ultimately, the internal chaos that prompts Sekules' rage and desire to retaliate is a more original, fascinating place to visit than any gym. "I find it paradoxically relaxing," she writes about preparing for one fight, "to have all my nameless, floating anxieties serried together in one solid front of realistic dread." Now that Sekules has hung up her gloves, one looks forward to reading the next phase of her battle.