REVIEW: The Gift of Fear, or, Figure Out Who’s REALLY Going To Kill You

Spirit in a material world This is one of the posts that was lost in the hacking, all the way back from January of ’09. I’ve been asked to resurrect it, so…here it is.

Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear is a forehead-slapper of a book. By this I mean that what he says is so simple and practical, not to mention useful and logical once you think about it, that you will slap your forehead repeatedly and say, “DUH I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THAT!” De Becker manages to share a whole lot of this sort of stuff without making the reader feel stupid, which is an achievement in and of itself.

I’ll be honest: this book is largely for women. From the back of the book:

A date won’t take “no” for an answer. The new nanny gives a mother an uneasy feeling. A stranger in a deserted parking lot offers unsolicited help. The threat of violence surrounds us every day. But we can protect ourselves, by learning to trust–and act on–our gut instincts.

These are female problems. As de Becker himself points out, there’s a basic rift in our society: at bottom men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them. Women are also socialized to make us good victims, another thing de Becker deconstructs. We’re taught to play nice, get along, make someone feel better, let someone down easy. Even if we do feel uneasy, or if our intuition tells us something is off, we’ll play along just to be nice.

And a lot of times, these nice cooperative things are used so someone can get inside our homes or our lives to hurt us. We are capable of predicting the behavior of our fellow beings–we do so every day we drive, stand in a line, talk on the phone with a friend, get on an airplane, or do any number of everyday things. We are experts when it comes to other human beings, and we often get into trouble when we don’t trust what our expertise tells us.

De Becker also speaks directly about the techniques someone will use to get within range before they perpetrate violence on you, techniques like “typecasting”, “loan sharking”, and “too many details”. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen these techniques used, and having something to call them helps immensely. Not only does it give these techniques, but it also gives women permission and strategies for shorting them out. This can help in all sorts of situations, not just the ones we’re afraid might erupt into violence. And it was immensely helpful and

I found this book immensely, intensely valuable. I’m going to be buying copies to give to my sisters and my female friends, as well as recommending it at the bookstore. It’s taken me thirty years and several bad encounters before I’m comfortable saying “no” or enforcing my personal boundaries. If I’d read this book sooner I could probably have saved myself a lot of grief.

There are flaws with this book. Chief among them is de Becker not talking about one of the bigger reasons women stay in abusive relationships–because the first thing an abuser tries to do is get control of the financial situation, and women (especially women with children) often cannot afford to leave without starving on the streets. He also glosses over the shell-shock and several other important issues when it comes to battering and domestic violence. I can see that it’s outside the purview of what he set out to write, and all in all the book is so goddamn valuable this is a tiny little quibble.

De Becker also talks about separating anxiety, uneasiness, or other feelings from fear. Fear is a survival mechanism, and it’s serious business. Jacking yourself up to feel fear when you don’t need to–a trick lots of people do with the help of the evening news–is counterproductive, because it drowns out all those little things your intuition is taking note of to help keep you safe.

The book is a quick read, and I’ve marked several passages for rereading. Going through and reading a self-help book won’t actually change anything, I know–but reading a self-help book, paying attention, and working hard on the issues you find will help.

Case in point? About halfway through this book I had an Encounter.

It was after dark, and the kids and I were at Safeway picking up some groceries at the end of a long day. The UnSullen One stopped with the kids at the quarter machines–he saves his quarters from change and gives them to the kids to get stickers, gumballs, or little figurines at the bank of machines at the grocery store. I carried four bags and two gallons of milk out to the car, he would bring the kids when they were done.

I scanned the parking lot. There were a couple people on foot talking to someone in a parked car, and they made me slightly uneasy. I am a tempting target–female, weighed down with groceries, alone. I kept an eye on them while I walked to my car, got everything in the trunk, and since I had them in my peripheral vision I was prepared when they approached. A man and a woman, both obviously homeless.

“Excuse me,” the man says, politely enough. I slammed my trunk and turned on my heel. “Can I ask you a favor?”

No you can’t, I think, but I draw myself up and make eye contact. “You can ask.”

“Do you happen to have a spare $2.50 for the bus?” He’s sizing me up. I can feel it, and the woman is looking at the ground.

“The bus?” I raise an eyebrow.

The kids are coming, each of them holding an UnSullen One’s hand. I make a series of lightning-fast calculations. Since I’ve been reading this particular book, I am not frightened. I am a little uneasy, but for good valid reasons. I don’t need to be afraid at this particular point.

I have my wallet and my car keys in my hand. The man steps forward, and something in the set of his shoulders warns me.

I say, “That’s close enough.” In my Mommy Voice–the one that stops people in their tracks, even adults at the mall. I don’t think he would have committed any violence had I not said that. But I do think he and his partner would have gotten aggressive when it came to begging for cash.

He stopped dead, the kids got closer, and he and his partner wandered away. It might not have been dangerous, but it could have been unpleasant, and adding my kids to the mix changed what I was willing to do in the situation.

That’s just a small story and a small incident, true. But it was amazing how I suddenly saw from another point of view while in the incident. The book had immediately proven practical and helped me save myself some unpleasantness. Granted I was slightly annoyed and anxious, but I wasn’t crippled by fear because I had faith in my predictive ability in the situation.[1]

This is why I recommend this book, and why I’m going to be buying copies for people I know. I could go on and on about the useful things in The Gift of Fear, but that would make this review almost a book in itself. So, be safe out there. And do yourself a favor: read this book.

Who knows? It could save you annoyance, or it could save your life. I call that a good bargain for a trade paperback.

[1] Of course, I also had faith in my ability to kick some ass if the guy got snitty with me or frightened my kids. But that’s an entirely different set of mama-bear reflexes.

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I am reading this right now. It’s fascinating and also a wee bit scary to see how many behavioral cues I’ve brushed off because of societal conditioning, ideas about how women should behave, and the like. Definitely a book I’ll be lending out to friends.

Sean Coleman
Sean Coleman

Any tips for distinguishing fear from anxiety once paranoia starts to creep in. I know that I am not an obvious target being male but my trust in my intuition is lacking (slight understatement but hey them da brakes)