RCASA’s Sunday Book Review: The Gift of Fear

In Outreach, Sexual Assault Awareness on February 21, 2010 at 8:45 am

The Gift of Fear is a book on violence — how to recognize it, how to predict it, how to avoid it, and how to cope with it if avoiding it doesn’t work. Its author, Gavin de Becker, is considered one of the greatest living experts on violence, and runs a personal security firm with clients ranging from battered women’s shelters to Hollywood stars to the U.S. Secret Service. He learned about violence early on — living in a violent home with a mentally ill, heroin-addicted mother and a series of battering stepfathers. de Becker spent much of his childhood dodging bullets, hiding, and trying to protect his younger sister. He knows what he’s talking about.

 The various forms of violence common in western society and, to some extent, human societies as a whole, include:

  •  Acts of physical violence, such as murder, assault, battery, rape, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and the like — in all its forms.
  •  Acts of mental and emotional violence, such as threats of physical violence, stalking, harassment, patterns of insulting and degrading comments to spouses, family members, and close associates, refusal to recognize boundaries and privacy, etc.

This book discusses how to live in a violent society, protect yourself and those you love, and not be dragged under by the violence around you. de Becker gives clear, simple explanations of what to look for in a person’s behavior or a situation — how to predict whether an individual is just blowing off steam or is likely to act violently. de Becker provides practical, helpful advice on how to handle different kinds of potentially-violent situations. These situations range from a woman dealing with an overly friendly stranger who makes her feel creepy, to a battered spouse, to someone being stalked by a mentally-ill person.

By giving his readers clearly stated, accurate information on how to assess the danger posed by violent or potentially violent individuals, de Becker demystifies violence. This gives his readers the tools they need to understand and learn from their own fear, and therefore not be obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.

First and foremost, de Becker respects instinct, and tells you why in clear, specific, and convincing language.

Second, de Becker explains what boundaries are, and how to deal with someone who insists on violating them.

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to leave someone alone when none was asked for, this usually means they won’t leave the person alone.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

Each of these techniques is a means of manipulating someone into dropping their defenses and handing control over to the other person.

In addition to predicting a violent incident by observing the perpetrator before it happens, de Becker gives the all-important cues to listen for when you are actually in the situation, including: 

  • A nagging or suspicious feeling– most of the time, women in particular will have an intuitive sense that something is wrong. Listen to this instinct!!! It will save your life.
  • Anxiety, particularly unexplained anxiety. The woman who sits on a bus next to a killer who strikes up a conversation, and who is suddenly anxious that the bus is going to crash is being alerted by her body to get away from the killer.
  • Humor, particularly dark humor, is an interesting one, because we often use humor to defuse a volatile situation, but people also often laugh at inappropriate moments because our laugh reflex kicks in when we don’t know what else to do.

De Becker has an entire list of these, but they boil down to the same message. When your mind and body genuinely tell you to fear, you should listen to them. 

Over and over throughout the book, de Becker stresses that, by paying attention to verbal and behavioral clues an individual gives off, you can predict whether or not a person or situation will turn violent. He uses examples from his own personal life, from the studies his protective services company has conducted, and from nationwide studies. Time and again, he demonstrates that the guy who “kept to himself, no one could predict” was clearly a simmering time bomb waiting to go off, usually with weeks of predictors for violent behavior preceding whatever horrific tragedy this quiet loner enacted.

He also provides a list of predictors, kind of the basic tools for survival, 

  • a history of violence in childhood (as the victim), violent incidents leading up to the crime, verbal or written threats and statements of intention (“I’m going to kill you”– not uncommon as a threat),
  • a fascination with weapons. De Becker points out that no crime happens without someone thinking to themselves that they want to do it, and that they can do it. The thought is there. Then the words come– the threat of violence is a sure predictor, and the one we are most likely to ignore. Finding a means in the weapon, or simply taking advantage of the weapon of opportunity.
  • Finally, there are usually violent incidents leading up to the big crime– practice, in a way– the murderer is testing his own limits.

This isn’t just for serial killers– de Becker points out that these predictors are common in spousal abuse cases, child abuse, school and workplace shootings, fatal robberies, rapes, and public assassinations.

The central message of de Becker’s ‘Gift of Fear’, is that in just about every case of seemingly ‘random’ extreme violence, whether it be attack from a co-worker or a spouse, the violence could have been predicted hours, days, months and even years in advance.

Violence is predictable, says de Becker, when we learn to trust the fear instinct and read the signals of incipient aggression. Fear is not the same as anxiety or neurosis. It is an instinct of the mind, not a distortion, and de Becker claims you can develop your instinct for fear. Although the book is heavily weighted towards American culture, the themes of dangerous obsession and violence are universal and timeless.  

de Becker says victims of violent behavior have often felt a sense of fear before any threat of or actual violence even took place. They may distrust the fear or rationalize it away, or it may get them to take action to avoid harm and save their own and other people’s lives.  A person may ‘explode’, but the fuse is lit long before actual harm occurs. This is especially so for those who murder.

The Gift of Fear is full of case histories of stalkers who turned violent and co-workers who went berserk. He convincingly highlights how these tragedies could have been averted had the signs (which clearly were there) been picked up and then acted upon.

The book also explains how to identify warning signs of potential attack. There are strategies for dealing with those may become violent.

De Becker says: “People don’t just ‘snap’ and become violent. There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil.” Gaining the knowledge to predict violence is the best way, of course, of preventing and avoiding it.

According to De Becker, the biggest mistake made by most people who are in danger of injury from others is to disregard their instincts. Victims who survive attacks usually say they sensed something was wrong when they encountered their attacker. The attacker usually sends subtle behavioral clues indicating an aggressive situation. The victim usually notices the clues on a subconscious level, and gets an uneasy feeling. But we have been taught to “be polite” and to “give other people the benefit of the doubt,” so we disregard the warning. This can be fatal! Trust your gut!

The Gift of Fear is a real page-turner full of thought provoking and potentially life-saving information. It’s worth the read.


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