Nonfiction Classic on Making Fear Work For You

Book review: The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker (Amazon / Book Depository)

Do not listen to the TV news checklist of what to do, or the magazine article’s checklist of what to do, or the story about what your friend did. Listen to the wisdom that comes from having heard it all by listening to yourself.

Someone recommended this book to me probably 15 years ago. It’s been touted as something every woman should read, but I didn’t take that seriously. I ended up kicking myself for not reading it sooner, because it would’ve helped me avoid some unfortunate crap in the meantime.

But I thought it would read like self-help, with a “you are a strong, confident woman” vibe. Although it’s the exact definition of helping you help yourself, neither is it standard self-help fare. It’s engrossingly well written and organized, reading as narrative blended with conversation, almost. I also hesitated as time went by because, originally published in 1997, I imagined it might be outdated. Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and sadly, a lot of the things security specialist Gavin de Becker describes have only gotten worse and some of his predictions have come to pass.

This doesn’t try to stoke unreasonable fear, rather one of its core messages is the importance of determining whether what you’re experiencing in a given situation is legitimate fear — what those signs are and how to use them to your advantage — or whether it’s anxiety and worry you’re grappling with. He handles these topics sensitively, never becoming accusatory, tough lovey, or blaming, which was a nice surprise.

De Becker is the proprietor of a private security company, and he draws on client experiences to illustrate problem-solving measures along with infamous case studies. He begins with Kelly, a woman who was raped by a man lurking in her apartment building, but acted on signals she perceived and survived although he’d planned to kill her. This story is referenced throughout, and its message is striking, as the things Kelly noticed were small, insignificant enough to be ignored, and yet they triggered something in her that she acted on instinctually, surviving because of it.

He emphasizes that we’re equipped with a highly sensitive, efficient internal system for predicting indicators of violence and responding accordingly. After interviewing people who survived violence and mentioned that they didn’t know why something had pinged their radar about a perpetrator or situation, de Becker homes in on exactly what did it. He doesn’t “teach” you any way to do this, rather how to trust instincts and interpret the signals already firing at you. It was like being given glasses and suddenly the situation comes sharply into focus.

De Becker also argues that violence, no matter what cliches indicate, is predictable, whether it’s the little things you notice in a confrontation that warn you something bad is imminent, or the signs that make the old evening news chestnut of “Who could’ve predicted this?” so ridiculous. His suggestion for how TV news should interpret interviews with neighbors who describe killers as shy, quiet people who kept to themselves: “Neighbors didn’t know anything relevant.”

Yet neighbors tell reporters they saw nothing unusual, and reporters tell us the family was normal, and the myth that violence comes out of nowhere is perpetuated.

His addressing of denial is powerful, and incredibly useful. It seems it’s often a protection mechanism, but he stresses why we have to do better. “Americans are experts at denial, a choir whose song could be titled, ‘Things Like That Don’t Happen in This Neighborhood.”

Often, the signals are all there, but so is the denial. For example, after some terrible on-campus violence, school officials will describe a perpetrator as having been a “student in good standing.” Such descriptions are meant to say, “Who could have known?” but further inquiry always answers that question.

He has a fantastic ability to use statistics to drive his points home, I noticed this most significantly concerning domestic violence. He analyzes major incidents, including embarrassing examples of its handling, like around OJ Simpson. “What was clear in the Simpson case is that while Ron Goldman may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nicole had been in the wrong place for a long time.” This case with its many huge mistakes unfortunately provides a striking object lesson that we, hopefully, can learn from.

And he discusses problematic issues like the conundrum of restraining orders and complications in obtaining protection through official legal channels, like how it can worsen situations instead. This isn’t groundbreaking, but he provides actionable suggestions, and it feels more hopeful than hopeless. Knowing how to use our own biological and psychological tools to help ourselves always feels worth spending time on, even if you think you’ve mastered it already. He reminds that humans are the most dangerous animals, and we’ve adapted to living with and amongst this constant threat; here’s how to tap into that advantage.

It’s not even exclusively aimed at women facing violence from men, much of it is universally applicable. The sections addressing stalking and obsessive behavior especially feel relevant for handling certain personalities and situations.

“If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to him–nine more times than you wanted to.”

“A rejection based on any condition, say, that she wants to move to another city, just gives him something to challenge. Conditional rejections are not rejections–they are discussions.”

There were a lot of points that I knew, in some sense, but his framing makes it enlightening in ways I didn’t expect. “Everything you need to know about how to be safe from people is in you too, enhanced by a lifetime of experience (and hopefully better organized by this book.)” Deserved hype; everyone should read this. 4.5/5

The Gift of Fear:
And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

by Gavin de Becker
published 1997

Amazon / Book Depository

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17 thoughts on “Nonfiction Classic on Making Fear Work For You

  1. Oprah introduced de Becker on her show many years ago and I became an instant believer simply because it was clear he knew what he was proscribing. I instituted a lot of his recommendations at the time and still use them, most notably to trust my instincts and not rationalize them away. I have avoided some potentially awful situations as a result.

    I was so hoping you’d like this book when I saw the title of your post! Thanks for featuring because he’s the real deal and his advice is still relevant. Excellent review💜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad this one has been helpful for you too! Seriously, why didn’t I listen to Oprah and read it years ago! Even in just the couple of months since reading I’ve been applying things from it. So refreshing that it’s not only still relevant but he was kind of ahead of his time, like when he mentions how things are going to change in the future and there’s so much potential to get worse if we don’t start listening to ourselves. He really does know his stuff.

      That’s such an important point that I forgot to mention in the review, about not rationalizing things away and just trusting when instinct is telling you something isn’t right. This one’s a treasure!

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  2. Never heard of this but it sounds essential reading. It makes sense to trust your instincts, we are animals after all, but social conditioning I think often makes us ignore our instincts and stop and be polite to people out of fear of seeming rude, when sometimes we should just get the heck out of a situation. Sobering stuff. I like that you say the book does not stoke fear and keeps things balanced too,

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    1. He has this line about how most importantly he wants people to know how to help themselves during the stormy moments and to better be able to enjoy the peaceful times in between. Which was a message I just appreciated so much, he doesn’t encourage hypervigilance or paranoia, just trusting yourself and our animal instincts for self-preservation and protection. It was so smart and well done. Absolutely essential reading, I can’t recommend it enough!

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  3. I read this for the first time in the past year as well and found it just as engrossing as you did. I, too, was surprised at how sadly relevant it remains in 2019. As you’ve eluded to, I loved the emphasis on trusting one’s instincts – if a situation feels dangerous, it probably is, so trust that feeling.

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    1. I’m glad it was helpful for you too! It’s such a simple thing to say trust your instincts but he lays out so well why we want to ignore that and assume things are ok or have another explanation.

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  4. My hub is a 20-year veteran police officer w SWAT experience. He now works in domestic violence and crimes against children as a detective. He swears by this book in terms of how en pointe it is, so I’m happy to see it re-emerge! Good review….

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  5. This sounds like a helpful book, but also terrifying because of the situations it would make you think about potentially ending up in. I’m glad it was helpful and not victim-blaming, but sad it’s still relevant.

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  6. In No Visible Bruises, there were a small group of people who found the indicators that someone would be the victim of domestic abuse so clearly that they could map out the trajectory of both the lives of those who had been killed (looking backward) and those somewhere in the middle of a situation (looking forward) and being painfully accurate.

    Someone else recently reviewed this book on Goodreads, so it caught my attention. I agree with one reviewer who asks what are we, people who have chronic anxiety, meant to do with the author’s advice? I thought it was a good point. And in a world more connected, with more access to news than our brains were ever meant to process, the numbers of people struggling with anxiety are increasing. I wonder if the author will come out with an updated book that looks at how media affects our perceptions of danger.

    I also wondered how people with biases (which is all of us) use the author’s advice. Just this morning I read about two white women who boarded a plane and saw three men in prayer robes and of a brown skin color and said something to the flight attendant. To them, they were just listening to their instincts, but to the rest of us, they look racist.

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    1. The author makes the point repeatedly that this is not to meant to invoke paranoia, rather to separate what’s genuine fear and can be put to good use in helping yourself and what’s anxiety. He also says that it’s not meant to keep you dwelling on these areas, but rather to be better able to handle bad situations and live more peacefully in the in-between times, which he assures is most of the time. It’s not in any way alarmist and I found it overwhelmingly positive and actionable. Obviously everyone should decide for themselves if reading about this topic is going to be helpful or too much of a trigger.

      As for the biases, the scenario you’re describing sounds like racial bias based on appearance and clothing and not reacting to instincts that kick in in response to behavior, interaction, and the situation, which is the focus here.

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      1. As for fear as a result of prejudice, I was trying to say that I wonder if people would argue that they were following their gut instincts and misconstrue what the author meant. If you go on Goodreads, some reviewers share horror stories that are fairly interesting (I hate to say it!!) that they analyzed after reading this book and demonstrating that they could have avoided a bad situation if they had listened to their guts.

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