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The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker.

Gift of Fear

Title: The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.
Author: Gavin de Becker.
Genre: Non-fiction, self-help, violence, sociology, psychology.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 1997
Summary: By finding patterns in stories of violence and abuse, de Becker seeks to highlight the inherent predictability of violence and explores various settings where violence may be found — the workplace, the home, the school, dating — and describes pre-incident indicators (PINS). When properly identified, these PINS can help violence be avoided; when violence is unavoidable, it can usually be predicted and better understood.

My rating: 9.5/10


♥ A man kills a cow with an ax, cuts open the carcass, and then climbs inside to see what it feels like; later he uses the ax to kill his eight-year-old stepbrother. Another man murders his parent by shooting out their eyes with a shotgun. We use the word inhuman to describe these murderers, but I know them both, and they are not inhuman -- they are precisely human. I know many other people like them; I know their parents and the parents of their victims. Their violent acts were repugnant, to be sure, but not inhuman.

When a bank robber shoots a security guard, we all understand why, but with aberrant killers, people resist the concept of a shared humanness. That's because US and THEM is far more comfortable. In my work I don't have that luxury. The stakes of some predictions require that I intimately recognize and accept what I observe in others no matter who they are, no matter what they have done, no matter what they might do, no matter where it takes me in myself. There may be a time in your life when you too won't have the luxury of saying you don't recognize someone's sinister mind. Your survival may depend on your recognizing it.

...So, even in a gathering of aberrant murderers there is something of you and me. When we accept this, we are more likely to recognize the rapist who tries to con his way into our home, the child molester who applies to be a baby-sitter, the spousal killer at the office, the assassin in the crowd. When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, "This guy doesn't look like a killer."

Our judgement may classify a person as either harmless or sinister, but survival is better served by our perception. Judgment results in a label, like calling Robert Bardo a monster and leaving it at that. Such labels allow people to comfortably think it's all figured out. The labels also draw a bold line between that "wacko" and us, but perception carries you much further.

Scientists, after all, do not observe a bird that destroys its own eggs and say, "Well, that never happens; this is just a monster." Rather, they correctly conclude that if this bird did it, others might, and that there must be some purpose in nature, some cause, some predictability.

♥ In a very real sense, the surging water in an ocean does not move; rather, energy moves through it. In this same sense, the energy of violence moves through our culture. Some experience it as a light but unpleasant breeze, easy to tolerate. Others are destroyed by it, as if by a hurricane. But nobody - nobody - is untouched. Violence is a part of America, and more than that, it is a part of our species. It is around us, and it is in us. As the most powerful people in history, we have climbed to the top of the world food chain, so to speak. Facing not one single enemy or predator who poses to us any danger of consequence, we've found the only prey left: ourselves.

♥ Whether it is learned the easy way or the hard way, the truth remains that your safety is yours. It is not the responsibility of the police, the government, industry, the apartment building manager, or the security company. Too often, we take the lazy route and invest our confidence without ever evaluating if it is earned. As we send our children off each morning, we assume the school will keep them safe, but as you'll see in Chapter 12, it might not be so. We trust security guards - you know, the employment pool that gave us the Son of Sam killer, the assassin of John Lennon, the Hillside Strangler, and more arsonists and rapists than you have time to read about. Has the security industry earned your confidence? Has government earned it? We have a Department of Justice, but it would be more appropriate to have a department of violence prevention, because that's what we need and that's what we care about. Justice is swell, but safety is about survival.

♥ The human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call "random" and "senseless", is neither. It always has purpose and meaning, to the perpetrator, at least. We may not choose to explore or understand that purpose, but it is there, and as long as we label it "senseless", we'll not make sense of it.

Sometimes a violent act is so frightening that we call the perpetrator a monster, but as you'll see, it is by finding his humanness - his similarity to you and me - that such an act can be predicted. Though you're about to learn new facts and concepts about violent people, you will find most of the information resonating somewhere in your own experience. You will see that even esoteric types of violence have detectable patterns and warning signs. You'll also see that the more mundane types of violence, those we all relate to on some level, such as violence between angry intimates, are as knowable as affection between intimates. (In fact, the violence has fewer varieties than the love).

♥ Can you imagine an animal reacting to the gift of fear the way some people do, with annoyance and disdain instead of attention? No animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking, "It's probably nothing." Yet we chide ourselves for even momentarily giving validity to the feeling that someone is behind us on a seemingly empty street, or that someone's unusual behavior might be sinister. Instead of being grateful to have a powerful internal resource, grateful for the self-care, instead of entertaining the possibility that our minds might actually be working for us and not just playing tricks on us, we rush to ridicule the impulse. We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore - and even to ignore - survival signals. The mental energy we use searching for the innocent explanation to everything could more constructively be applied to evaluating the environment for important information.

Every day people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in midthought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it.

♥ How many times have you said after following one course, "I knew I shouldn't have done that"? That means you got the signal and then didn't follow it. We all know how to respect intuition, though often not our own. For example, people tend to invest all kinds of intuitive ability to dogs, a fact I was reminded of recently when a friend told me this story: "Ginger had a really bad reaction to our new building contractor; she even growled at him. She seemed to sense that he isn't trustworthy, so I'm going to get some bids from other people."

"That must be it," I joked with her. "The dog feels you should get another general contractor because this one's not honest."

"The irony," I explained, "is that it's far more likely Ginger is reacting to your signals than that you are reacting to hers. Ginger is an expert at reading you, and you are the expert at reading other people. Ginger, smart as she is, knows nothing about the ways a contractor might inflate the cost to his own profit, or about whether he is honest, or about the benefits of cost-plus-fifteen-percent versus a fixed bid, or about the somewhat hesitant recommendation you got from a former client of that builder, or about the too-fancy car he arrived in, or about the slick but evasive answer he gave to your pointed question." My friend laughed at the revelation that Ginger, whose intuition she was quick to overrate, is actually a babbling idiot when it comes to remodel work. In fact, Ginger is less than that because she can't even babble. (If there are dogs out there intuitive enough to detect what's being read here by their masters, I take it all back).

♥ I'll start with a hackneyed myth you'll recognize from plenty of TV news reports: "Residents here describe the killer as a shy man who kept to himself. They say he was a quiet and cordial neighbor."

Aren't you tired of this? A more accurate and honest way for TV news to interpret the banal interviews they conduct with neighbors would be to report, "Neighbors didn't know anything relevant." Instead, news reporters present noninformation as if it is information. They might as well say (and sometimes do), "The tollbooth operator who'd taken his quarters for years described the killer as quiet and normal." By the frequency of this cliche, you could almost believe that apparent normalcy is pre-incident indicator to aberrant crime. It isn't.

♥ Charm is another overrated ability. Note that I called it an ability, not an inherent feature of one's personality. Charm is almost always a directed instrument, which, like rapport building, has motive. To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction. Think of charm as a verb, not a trait. If you consciously tell yourself, "This person is trying to charm me," as opposed to "This person is charming," you'll be able to see around it. Most often, when you see what's behind charm, it won't be sinister, but other times you'll be glad you looked.

♥ Man: What a bitch. What's your problem, lady? I was just trying to offer a little help to a pretty woman. What are you so paranoid about?

Woman: You're right. I shouldn't be wary. I'm overreacting about nothing. I mean, just because a man makes an unsolicited and persistent approach in an underground parking lot in a society where crimes against women have risen four times faster than the general crime rate, and three out of four women will suffer a violent crime; and just because I've personally heard horror stories from every female friend I've ever had; and just because I have to consider where I park, where I walk, whom I talk to, and whom I date in the context of whether someone will kill me or rape me or scare me half to death; and just because several times a week someone makes an inappropriate remark, stares at me, harasses me, follows me, or drives alongside my car pacing me; and just because I have to deal with the apartment manager who gives me the creeps for reasons I haven't figured out, yet I can tell by the way he looks at me that given an opportunity he'd do something that would get us both on the evening news; and just because these are life-and-death issues most men know nothing about so that I'm made to feel foolish for being cautious even though I live at the center of a swirl of possible hazards doesn't mean a woman should be wary of a stranger who ignores the word "no."

Whether or not men can relate to it or believe it or accept it, that is the way it is. Women, particularly in big cities, live with a constant wariness. Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don't experience. Ask some man you know, "When is the last time you were concerned or afraid that another person would harm you?" Many men cannot recall an incident within years. Ask a woman the same question and most will give you a recent example or say, "Last night," "Today," or even "Every day."

Still, women's concerns about safety are frequently the object of critical comments from the men in their lives. One woman told me of constant ridicule and sarcasm from her boyfriend whenever she discusses fear or safety. He called her precautions silly and asked, "How can you live like that?" To which she replied, "How could I not?"

I have a message for women who feel forced to defend their safety concerns: tell Mister I-Know-Everything-About-Danger that he has nothing to contribute to the topic of your personal security. Tell him that your survival instinct is a gift from nature that knows a lot more about your safety than he does. And tell him that nature does not require his approval.

It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different - men and women live in different worlds. I don't remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid of women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.

♥ Still, alarming words cause people to react by going into a defensive posture, psychologically speaking. Though shocking or bizarre things don't usually put us in any actual risk, uncertainty about risk causes us alarm, and this causes a problem: When we are stunned or distracted we raise the very drawbridge - perception - that we must cross in order to make successful predictions.

In the last thirty years, I've read, heard, and seen the world's most creative, gruesome, distasteful, and well-performed threats. I've learned that it's important to react calmly, because when in alarm we stop evaluating information mindfully and start doing it physically.

For example, a death threat communicated in a letter or phone call cannot possibly pose any immediate hazard, but the recipient might nonetheless start getting physically ready for danger, with increased blood flow to the arms and legs (for fighting and running), release of the chemical cortisol (which helps blood coagulate more quickly in case of injury), lactic acid heating up in the muscles (to prepare them for effort), focused vision, and increased breathing and heartbeat to support all these systems. These responses are valuable when facing present danger (such as when Kelly stood up and walked out of her apartment), but for evaluating future hazard, staying calm produces better results. A way to do this is to consciously ask and answer "Am I in immediate danger?" Your body wants you to get this question out of the way, and once you do, you'll be free to keep perceiving what's going on.

♥ We can all rationalize anything, an when an employer is too anxious to fill a position, intuition is ignored. As I mentioned earlier about hiring baby-sitters, the goal should be to disqualify poor applicants rather than qualify good applicants. Those who are good will qualify themselves.

♥ Often, employers are tempted to offer a gradual separation, thinking it will lessen the blow to the terminated employee. Though it may appear that this approach extends the term of employment, it really extends the firing, and the embarrassment and anxiety along with it. It is analogous to hooking someone up to life-support systems when he has no qualify of life and no chance for survival. Though some may believe. this extends the process of life, it actually extends the process of death.

♥ "I have the worst luck with men. Over and over again, I find myself in these relationships with men who are abusive. I just have the worst luck." Luck has very little to do with it, because the glaringly common characteristic of each of this woman's relationships is her. My observations about selection are offered to enlighten victims, not to blame them, for I don't believe that violence is a fair penalty for bad choices. But I do believe they are choices.

Though leaving is the best response to violence, it is in trying to leave that most women get killed. This dispels a dangerous myth about spousal killings: that they happen in the heat of argument. In fact, the majority of husbands who kill their wives stalk them first, and far from the "crime of passion" that it's so often called, killing a wife is usually a decision, not a loss of control. Those men who are the most violent are nor at all carried away by fury. In fact, their heart rates actually drop and they become physiologically calmer as they become more violent.

Even the phrase "crime of passion" has contributed to our widespread misunderstanding of this violence. That phrase is not the description of a crime - it is the description of an excuse, a defense. Since 75 percent of spousal murders happen after the woman leaves, it is estrangement, not argument, that begets the worst violence. In the end, stalking is not just about cases of "fatal attraction" - far more often, is it about cases of fatal inaction, in which the woman stayed too long.

♥ This Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn't Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you've treated her like trash (and sometimes because you're treated her like trash), you'll get the girl. Even if she's in another relationship, even if you look like Dustin Hoffman, you'll eventually get Katherine Ross or Jessica Lange. Persistence will win the was Against All Odds (another of these movies, by the way). Even the seeming innocuous TV show Cheers touches the topic. Sam's persistent and inappropriate sexual harassment of two female co-workers - eight years of it - doesn't get him fired or sued. It does, however, get him both women.

There's a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: Persistence only proves persistence - it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn't mean you are special - it means he is troubled.

♥ It is similar to one brother asking another, "Why did you grow up to be a drunk?" The answer is "Because Dad was a drunk." The second brother then asks, "Why didn't you grow up to be a drunk?" The answer is "Because Dad was a drunk."

♥ We all know there are plenty of reasons to fear people from time to time. The question is, what are those times? Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn't be so. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or the unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you'll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won't be applied wastefully. When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message and quickly evaluate the environment or situation, fear stops in an instant. Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear. In fact, the role of fear in your life lessens as your mind and body come to know that you will listen to the quiet wind chime, an have no need for Klaxons.

Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition. But though few would argue that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to stay there. They may have forgotten or never learned that fear is not an emotion like sadness or happiness, either of which might last a long while. It is not a state, like anxiety. True fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger, yet unwarranted fear has assumed a power over us that it holds over no other creature on earth. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker explains that "animals, in order to survive, have had to be protected by fear responses." Some Darwinians believe that the early humans who were most afraid were most likely to survive. The result, says Becker, "is the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even when there are none." It need not be this way.

I learned this again on a recent visit to Fiji, where there is less fear in the entire republic than there is at some intersections in Los Angeles. One morning, on a peaceful, hospitable island called Vanua Levu, I took a few-mile walk down the main road. It was lined on both sides with low ferns. Occasionally, over the sound of the quiet ocean to my left, I'd hear an approaching car or truck. Heading back toward the plantation where I was staying, I closed my eyes for a moment as I walked. Without thinking at first, I just kept them closed because I had an intuitive assurance that walking down the middle of this road with my eyes close was a safe thing to do. When I analyzed this odd feeling, I found it to be accurate: The island has no dangerous animals and no assaultive crime; I would feel the ferns touch my legs if I angled to either side of the road, and I'd hear an approaching vehicle in plenty of time to simply open my eyes. To my surprise, before the next car came along, I had walked more than a mile with my eyes closed, trusting that my senses and intuition were quietly vigilant.

♥ Statistically speaking, the man and his wife are far more likely to shoot each other than to shoot some criminal, but his anxiety wasn't caused by fear of death - if it were, he would shed the excess forty pounds likely to bring on a heart attack. His anxiety is caused by fear of people, and by the belief that he cannot predict violence. Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty.

It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain the prediction is correct, you don't have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can't predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty. It's worth doing, because the word anxiety, like worry, stems from a root that means "to choke," and that is just what it does to us.

Our imaginations can be the fertile soil in which worry and anxiety grow from seeds to weeds, but when we assume the imagined outcome is a sure thing, we are in conflict with what Proust called an inexorable law: "Only that which is absent can be imagined." In other words, what you imagine - just like what you fear - is not happening.

♥ Having spent years preparing for the worst, I have finally arrived at this wisdom: Though the world is a dangerous place, it is also a safe place. You and I have survived some extraordinary risks, particularly given that every day we move in, around, and through powerful machines that could kill us without missing a cylinder: jet airplanes, subways, buses, escalators, elevators, motorcycles, cars - conveyances that carry a few of us to injury but most of us to the destinations we have in mind. We are surrounded by toxic chemicals, and our homes are hooked up to explosive gases and lethal currents of electricity.

Most frightening of all, we live among armed and often angry countrymen. Taken together, these things make every day a high-stakes obstacle course our ancestors would shudder at, but the fact is we are usually delivered through it. Still, rather than be amazed at the wonder of it all, millions of people are actually looking for things to worry about.

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain wisely said, "I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

♥ I've discussed all this fear with several news producers, one of whom assured me that "a little worry never hurt anybody." In fact, worry and anxiety hurt plenty of people - through high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and nervous habits such as smoking. These things kill hundreds of thousands each year, more by far than all the foreign viruses, electromagnetic fields, and airplane crashes put together.

As I watch the way stories are presented on the local news these days, it occurs to me that each evening's broadcast should simply open with, "Welcome to the news; we're surprised you made it through another day."

All in all, it is little wonder that the poll showed fully ninety percent of Americans feel less safe toddy than they did growing up. But let's look at that "safer" world of our youth. For most respondents, it was a world without air bags or mandatory seat belts, before the decrease in smoking, before early detection of cancer, before 911 systems showed dispatchers the addresses of people in distress. You remember those carefree fifties before CAT scans, ultrasound, organ transplants, amniocentesis, and coronary bypass surgery. (Admittedly, there was no AIDS back then, but there was polio.) You remember those oh-so-safe sixties when angry world powers planned nuclear attack, and schoolchildren practiced regular air raid drills.

This books has explored violence, and clearly the violence we see in the media age is more gruesome than it was in our youth. But that's the point: the violence we see. Years ago we had a smaller catalogue of fears to draw upon. That's because in our satellite age we don't experience just the calamities of our own lives; we experience the calamities in everyone's lives. It is no wonder so many people are afraid of so many things.

♥ Some gun owners explain that they needn't lock their weapons because they don't have children. Well, other people do have children, and they will visit your home one day. The plumber who answers your weekend emergency will bring along his bored nine-year-old son, and he will find your gun.

The other oft-quoted reason for not locking guns is that they must be ready to fire immediately in an emergency, perhaps in the middle of the night. Imagine being in the deepest sleep and then a split second later finding yourself driving a truck as it careens down a dark highway at seventy mile per hour. That is the condition gun advocates vigorously insist remain available to them, the ability to sit up in bed and start firing bullets into the dark without pausing to operate a safety lock. An Associated Press story described one gun owner who didn't even have to sit up in bed; she just reached under her pillow, took her .38 in hand, and, thinking it was the asthma medicine, shot herself in the face.

Every year in California alone closer to 100,000 guns are stolen. The people of my state more than make up for the loss by purchasing 650,000 guns each year. Little wonder that in a typical week, almost a thousand Californians are shot. The majority survive to tell about their ordeal, so that those who hear the awful tales can rush out... and buy guns. There's a lot to think about here, but my main point is that those stolen guns would be worthless and harmless if a locking system made them inoperable.
Tags: 1990s - non-fiction, 1st-person narrative non-fiction, 20th century - non-fiction, american - non-fiction, my favourite books, non-fiction, psychology, self-help, sociology
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