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 I also hesitated as time went by because, originally published in 1997, I imagined it might be outdated.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