Books : reviews

Gavin de Becker.
The Gift of Fear: survival signals that protect us from violence.
Dell. 1997

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 21 July 2012

In the space of a week or so I came across two references to this book on two very different blogs that I read, so I decided to give it a try. I had started reading it a while back, but coincidentally finished it as the news of the Batman movie atrocity in Colorado was hitting the news.

de Becker is a personal security consultant, and this is his distillation of how to recognise and guard against violent people. There are always warning signs, he says, and he provides multi-point checklists of things to watch for. He covers employees going "postal" when fired, creepy fans stalking celebrities, creepy men stalking women, and domestic violence. (How much celebrities endure stalking was highlighted by one case study. A person who had made persistent threats against a celebrity murdered his parents and went on the run. In the space of a few days of heightened alert following this, two other stalkers were detained in the woods around the celebrity's house.)

He is adamant that there are always warning signs, for those looking, that there are always pre-cursor incidents that can tip you off. All his case histories discuss these precursors. At first, these examples seemed to be falling into the trap of the reasoning: "since all murderers were abused as children, all abused children will murder". I was particularly surprised by this, since his own experience of domestic violence as a child is quite shocking. However, his argument is more sophisticated: there are sets of indicators, and the situation has to exhibit several before violence is predicted to be "likely" (although if even only a few are true, you might still want to take heed).

de Becker's take on the culture within which various kinds of violence occurs is interesting. Stalking behaviour is encouraged by a culture that tells women "to let him down gently", and tells men that "persistence is romantic": women are socialised not to say no, and men are socialised not to hear no. On the other hand, many cases of "random" violence appear to be attempts to get recognition or attention. One chapter is entitled: "Better to be wanted by the police than not to be wanted at all". So he is particularly scathing of the media response to such violence, as it feeds the perpetrators with exactly what they are seeking, and hence tacitly encourages others to act similarly, for similar reward. Hence the prevalence of copy-cat incidents.

His purpose is not to increase the level of fear by living in constant anticipation of such incidents, however, but rather the opposite. If you know what the signals are, you can look out for those. You can listen to your fear, and take note of what it's really telling you (sometimes: there is danger here -- take action -- don't go into denial; but sometimes something rather different). You can relax for the rest of the time, rather than being in a constant state of tension. An interesting idea.