"The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker [Review]

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It seems trite to say, “This book changed my life.” But The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker changed the way I think about how to protect myself and my kids from abuse and violence--which changed the way I view the world, and how I act in it. I have no hesitation recommending this as a Must Read for every woman, and every man who is concerned about the women in his life.

In The Gift of Fear, de Becker has explored the patterns of violence and given us tools to predict possible danger:

I’ve learned some lessons about safety through years of asking people who’ve suffered violence, “Could you have seen this coming?” Most often they say, “No, it just came out of nowhere,” but if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: “I felt uneasy when I first met that guy...” or “Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me,” or “I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day.”

Of course, if they realize it now, they knew it then. We all see the signals because there is a universal code of violence. (p. 7-8)

I believe this book is so important that every time I find a good deal on a copy, I buy it so I always have a copy to give away.

Christians believe we should not be governed by 'the spirit of fear' (2 Timothy 1:7), and I agree. But the author is not suggesting that we live with irrational, unwarranted fear; rather, he offers tools for effectively dealing with it. 

The book's premise is that we all possess instincts based on our lifetime of acquired information and guided by our previous experiences, and these serve to alert us when we are faced with danger. 

The Gift of Fear serves as a guide to interpreting survival signals, and to show us that we are equipped to predict violent behavior in others much more than we realize.

Gavin de Becker is recognized as an expert on these matters. He is the designer of the MOSAIC threat assessment system used to screen threats to Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, members of Congress, and senior officials of the CIA. It is also used by law enforcement all over America to assess cases involving domestic violence and stalking.

The Gift of Fear is a nonfiction book written in the tone of a thriller, with descriptions of actual cases that are often stranger than fiction. The first chapter, “In the Presence of Danger”, begins with the seemingly miraculous survival of a young woman who was the victim of a rapist/murderer. She learned that listening to her intuition saved her life, just as squelching it had put her at risk. The examination of the incident serves as a thread that runs through most of the book.

The next two chapters, “The Technology of Intuition” and “The Academy of Prediction” further explain what Mr. de Becker means when he uses words like 'fear', 'instinct' and 'behavior prediction'. He acknowledges that we often think of our “knowing without knowing why” as inexplicable and even magical, but he believes it is a cognitive process more firmly rooted in our conscious mind than we’ve given it credit. We often place ourselves at risk because in our modern era we are too invested in denying anything that doesn’t seem firmly rooted in logic.

The following illustration is a great example of this:

A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago--it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself ,”I’m not going to live like that; I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.” When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator.

Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of? (p. 31)

Chapter 4 gives a list of behaviors that form a pattern of potential violence. Predators are motivated by the desire to dominate, manipulate, and control. There are some very recognizable ways they accomplish this.

  • Forced Teaming - this is a way to draw the victim in, by “projecting a shared purpose or experience where none exists” (p. 55) with comments that imply “We’re in this situation together”.

  • Charm and Niceness - the author advises us to think of charm as a verb and not a personality trait.

  • Too Many Details - People who intend to deceive often feel the need to offer detailed information to reinforce their story. The purpose is to distract you from the fact that you are being conned.

  • Typecasting - This is basically using a veiled insult to overcome objections. A woman refuses help from a man who makes her nervous, and he responds, “What’s the problem? Too proud to accept help?” So in order to prove she is not too proud, she allows a potential attacker inside her space.

  • Loan Sharking - The predator is looking for a way to get his victim under his control, or incur some kind of ‘debt’, like helping a woman to carry her groceries. It’s true that most men who offer a woman help are merely being thoughtful, but in combination with other questionable behaviors, it is a sign to be on the alert.

  • The Unsolicited Promise - A promise is supposed to convey honorable intentions, but for a predator, it is an effort to convince you of something.

  • Discounting The Word “No” - A person who does not respect the word “No” is seeking to control you. It isn't cute, and it isn't romantic. It's disrespectful and condescending. “No” is a complete sentence, not an opening for negotiations.

A sensible man will understand why a woman might be uncomfortable with his approach and will leave her alone. Unfortunately, too many guys have seen a bunch of romantic comedies in which creepy stalking is how you get the girl. 

Mr. de Becker addresses the fact that men often don’t understand why a woman would be wary, and treat their sisters, wives, daughters, and friends with impatience and even disdain for feeling anxious. They try to talk them out of their concerns and anxiety, but in a world where 3 out of 4 women will experience violence, a woman should not have to explain why she is cautious, or be subject to criticism for it. She needs support and encouragement to listen to her inner voice.

The rest of the book becomes much more specific about the topics already introduced.

  • Chapter 5, “Imperfect Strangers”, deals with stranger-to-stranger crimes.

  • “High Stakes Predictions” gives more information about the science of prediction.

  • “Promises to Kill” helps us understand the nature of threats.

  • “Persistence, Persistence” and “I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy” offers a guide for dealing with people who refuse to let go and engage in ‘date stalking’.

  • Workplace violence is covered in “Occupational Hazards”.

  • The O. J. Simpson case provides some insight into domestic violence in “Intimate Enemies”.

  • A particularly heart-breaking chapter is “Fear of Children”, a look at violence committed by those in our society we consider to be vulnerable and harmless.

  • “Better to be Wanted by the Police Than Not to be Wanted at All” explores attacks on public figures, and includes information about such cases as the murder of young actress Rebecca Schaeffer (My Sister Sam), attacks against Frank Sinatra, baseball player Eddie Waitkus, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

  • “Extreme Hazards” explores the mind of mass murderer Michael Perry.

  • The last chapter, “The Gift of Fear”, outlines rules for balancing instinct-based fear against paranoia, and proposes that by allowing oneself to be open to intuition, you can, in a sense, free yourself from anxiety and worry.

We must give ourselves permission to leave an uncomfortable situation, and reject advances--however well-intentioned--that allow a man into our space. When too many warning signs are there, it may be necessary to act in a manner we would otherwise consider rude, but it is important to remember that the goal is to be safe.

quote about The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

These concepts are also important for men who have mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. They need to understand what it is like to need to constantly be aware of potential danger, and help the women in their life protect themselves when they are alone.

Does this book teach that women are helpless? Well, maybe Xena and Buffy can whoop up on a grown man, but the average woman is toast the minute a guy up to no-good grabs her by the arm. Self-defense classes are great, and might help you get away if you are ever attacked, but why not be able to predict possible violence and walk away?

Let's not forget that most crimes against women (64%) are committed by men they know and are already in their space. (U.S. Department of Justice Report "Criminal Victimization, 2010", page 9) They get into that space because they are predators, and this book may help you spot them before they are deeply embedded in your life or even in your home.

If you are sensitive about descriptions of violence, don’t read this book late at night, but do read it for your own benefit. By the way, it also contains a few obscenities as part of quotes by convicted offenders.

Gavin de Becker is also the author of Protecting the Gift, a sort of sequel to The Gift of Fear. It teaches parents how to teach children the principles of listening to one’s survival signals.

Do you have questions about The Gift of Fear? Share them in the comments below -