Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear


Since 1978, Gavin de Becker and Associates has been providing worldwide protective security and logistical consultations for celebrities, media figures, politicians, athletes, and other high-profile individuals and organizations at risk for violence.  A senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, de Becker himself has been twice appointed to the President’s Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Justice and has acted as senior advisor to the Rand Corporation.  A statement on his company’s website reads, “Our clients have designed our firm,” meaning that the methods de Becker has developed to predict and prevent violence stem from customer requests that have required creative planning.  Nearly twenty years after opening his firm, de Becker decided to share his wisdom with the public, and the resulting book, The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, appeared for four months on the New York Times Bestseller List and has been translated into fourteen languages.  De Becker wants you to remember that your safety depends on the ability to successfully assess the potential for violence and thus avoid high-risk predicaments.  You too can learn to predict, prevent, and stay clear of danger.  Most importantly, however, you can learn to manage fear, not to lessen it, but to manage it, because fear when properly heeded becomes an excellent tool for survival.

Fear, not worry or anxiety, is a reaction to signals from our environment that tells us we’ve entered unsafe ground.  This gift of evolution doesn’t emanate from a mystical third eye.  It doesn’t involve spider-sense, cosmic awareness, or whatever makes that robot from Lost in Space wave its arms and shout, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”  Evolution has geared us to learn through the process of living, to learn what isn’t safe, whether we realize it or not.  We need only to listen.  De Becker offers the example of Kelly, a young woman who saved her own life by allowing instinct to run its course.  A man approached Kelly as she arrived home with groceries.  His manner and style of communication set off alarms for Kelly, but he didn’t seem immediately dangerous, so she dismissed her feelings, eventually allowing the man into her apartment where he raped her.   Later, the man would have killed Kelly had she not escaped when the man left her bedroom.  What made Kelly decide to get up and walk out of her apartment to a neighbor’s while the man rooted around her kitchen?  Not panic, but fear.  If she’d panicked, perhaps she might have frozen on her bed until the man came back to complete his horrific plan.  Fear, however, inspired her instinct to get the hell out of there, so it wasn’t a decision so much as a reaction.

While never blaming the victim, de Becker discusses case after case in which a client relates details that would have aided in predicting or preventing dangerous situations.  The way someone speaks, certain gestures, and even humor can provide the ingredients necessary for successful prediction and prevention.  An entire list of behaviors or “pre-incident indicators” (PINs), might awaken our “messengers of intuition.”  Does someone force you into feeling like a teammate regardless of your unwillingness to do so?   Does he discount the word “no?”  Does he negatively typecast in a way that subtly coerces you?  Does he offer too many unsolicited details about himself?  In The Gift of Fear, readers will find a clear list of these and other behaviors that trigger fear responses.  And as I have in the above, de Becker purposefully uses the masculine pronoun throughout his book, because the predominant number of predators are indeed male.

Several chapters in the book are dedicated to specific occurrences, such as overly persistent people who won’t go away, occupational hazards, intimate enemies (domestic violence), date stalking, violent children, and attacks against public figures.  Each of these chapters contains descriptions of PINs, those factors which help to explain why we get that tingle in the back of our brains and how we can listen to avoid later complications.  One section within the chapter on violent children gave me pause, however.  After citing a statistic from David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America about how the prevalence of young men in juvenile detention centers were “raised without fully participating fathers,” de Becker posits:

Fathers are important because they teach boys various ways to be men.  Sadly, too many boys learn from the media or from each other what scholars call “protest masculinity,” characterized by toughness and the use of force. That is not the only way to be a man, of course, but it’s the only way they know. (272)

Can women not teach boys various ways to be men, or counter the messages they receive from the media about toughness and the use of force?  Surely the causes of crime are multivariate, so I’m leery of placing so much emphasis on any one factor, especially given the prevalence of same-sex parent families and single-parent families with sons who are doing just fine.  I do agree, however, that we can’t underestimate the effects of childhood abuse and neglect.  What’s one method for countering the advent of violent persons?  Be loving and responsible parents, regardless of gender or family makeup.

Gun-rights advocates have taken exception with de Becker.  While supportive of self-defense courses like IMPACT, and very clear that he in no way challenges an individual’s right to bear arms, he does advocate for sensible control.  He suggests the following, a system he calls “bullet control”:

I propose that we hold gun manufacturers to the same product-liability standards we require from every other consumer product.  Imagine if caustic drain opener were sold in easy-pour, flip-top, pistol-grip dispensers made attractive to children by the endorsement of celebrities.  Now, drain openers can’t hurt people, but they aren’t made for that purpose.  Handguns are made precisely for that purpose, so shouldn’t manufacturers be required to build in safety features that have been technologically practical for decades?  Even electric drills have safety triggers, yet revolvers do not. (389)

This eminently practical reasoning has appeared in other sources.  Other methods surely provide better protection, the ones having to do with prediction and prevention as presented in The Gift of Fear.

Overall, de Becker has provided a useful guide, including even a lengthy list of questions parents can ask schools about policies they’ve adopted to prevent violence.  At times, the atonal plop of name-dropping, or at least the indication that he knows important people, impedes the flow of de Becker’s prose, as does a narrative puffery that reveals that in part this book stands as an advertisement for his firm.  Nonetheless, valuable information about learning to focus our internal instruments resides herein.  All would do best to remember that letting another down easy rarely works.  Know when to walk away.  Learn to trust your instincts.  Predict, prevent, and manage that greatest of survival instincts: fear.

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