I had the vertiginous experience of reading Gavin de Becker’s 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear in the midst of the reporting and reaction to the killings at UC-Santa Barbara. I read Gift for the same reason as hundreds of other women: A close friend told me to. And there’s a reason the book gets passed along. It’s pushy, it’s overstated, it’s flawed—but it’s a powerful guide to recognizing potential violence and listening to your intuitions.
It’s also a sketch of how relations between the sexes go wrong. I’d give it to girls for their protection; but de Becker also explains clearly why some of the strategies with which well-meaning guys often try to get girls’ attention backfire, because they take place in a context where women fear violent assault. There’s sharp commentary here on how men are conditioned to feel entitled to women’s attention, and how they’re trained to overlook the exact kind of violence and harassment that sparked the #yesallwomen hashtag discussion.
The tone of the book is mostly empathetic and reassuring. De Becker (a security expert who is quite willing to let you know about the presidents, celebrities, and CEOs he’s worked for) is trying to give you permission: to listen to your fear, to say “no” and expect that to be respected, to notice when you’re being hustled rather than trying to talk yourself out of your intuitions. There are a lot of common-sense notes—for example, the person you choose to help you is more likely to be genuinely well-intentioned than the person who seeks you out at a vulnerable moment and offers you his help—and good, clear descriptions of pressure tactics that attempt to extract concessions from others by playing on our dislike of confrontation, our desire to be nice, or our feelings of reciprocity and guilt when someone forces a favor on us.
The book deals with harassment that lacks any kind of sexual edge, e.g. the man who becomes enraged when an employer rejects his business plan, and de Becker suggests that these situations have more in common with domestic violence and other violence against women than it might appear.
You have to get over a certain slickness in the presentation. The thing was clearly written to be a bestseller. De Becker strains to connect grabby stories about presidential assassination attempts to more local-news horrors of stalking and rape. Gift is a page-turner for sure, but you’ll notice that there are no stories where intuition ever turns out to be wrong.
There’s no mention of race in the book, which is important because racism warps our intuitions. De Becker alludes to the fact that cultural messages can misinform our intuitions and lead us to fear the wrong things, but he doesn’t get specific, and the absence of any discussion of racial mistrust really leapt out at me. He uses the decision not to get on an elevator because you don’t like the look of the guy who’s already inside as an example of rational fear, which made me think immediately of that old, sad urban legend about Stevie Wonder’s dog Lady. Casual encounters between white women and black men are shaped not only by the context of violence against women, but by the context of racial violence; we mistrust one another or misread one another’s signals against the backdrop of that violence.
The book is also clearly a product of its time. It came out at the crest of a U.S. crime wave, when everyone expected that violent crime would continue to rise indefinitely. If I could add one chapter to this book it would be a chapter on policies of overreaction—a concept that goes almost unmentioned. De Becker implies that you should drug-test your baby sitter, because let’s make every human encounter as mistrustful and invasive as possible, apparently. There’s a TSA, metal detectors everywhere, school-shooter drills, zero-tolerance flavor to the book’s occasional forays into policy solutions, a lockdown mentality that creates the conditions for abuse of police, governmental, and bureaucratic power.
But there’s a lot of empathy in this book. It aims to expand our imaginations: to allow us to recognize that people who look and act “normal” can hurt us, to help us understand why people act the way they do. Even one of the book’s most-criticized (and rightly-criticized) lines is an attempt at empathy. In the chapter on domestic violence, de Becker writes, “Though leaving is not an option that seems available to many battered women, I believe that the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim and the second time, she is a volunteer.” (Italics in the original.)
That’s one of those catchy lines that stick with you, echoing in your mind—reinforcing shame at not leaving, reinforcing blame for women who don’t leave. But I’ll say that in context de Becker makes it clear that he’s speaking from his own experience as an abused child: He remembers what it feels like to believe that you have no options, that there is no way out and no life apart from violence. He is trying—and I think this line was the wrong way to do this, but it is what he’s trying to do—to help women imagine leaving, because it’s extraordinarily hard to do something you can’t imagine doing. He’s trying to depict the way that fear and abuse reshape us, constraining our choices and even constraining our ability to see which choices are really available to us, and to help people see a world that’s bigger than the mental cell in which their abuser has confined them. This intimate, personal knowledge of the way violence and fear change those who experience them is one of the book’s strongest elements.
There’s strong, important stuff in this book: about looking at someone’s actions rather than his professions of capability or intent (don’t think you can fix him), about paying attention to someone’s unwillingness to take “no” for an answer, about listening to the fears which express themselves through queasy gallows humor. I’ve written a lot about the book’s flaws, but I’ll pass it on to you, as my friend passed it on to me. Here, you should read this.
Author’s note: Gavin de Becker wrote to clarify that he has spoken to the topic of overreaction in his book Fear Less, and explained his views—which are much more in alignment with my own than I’d realized or assumed—in this talk at the Symposium of Federal Architects. “I absolutely oppose zero tolerance and I am saddened by the (now) pervasive overreach of government in the name of protecting us from all those enemies who aren’t really coming. I believe the loss of freedom at the hands of our own government has and will hurt us much more than the 19 hijackers of 9/11 could ever have hoped to,” he said. He also notes that the book, far from being intended as a bestseller, was originally conceived as a police textbook, which he decided to reorient for a lay audience, and emphasizes that he does not recommend drug-testing babysitters. A forthcoming documentary series, produced and directed by Jeff Apple, will explore aspects of The Gift of Fear, including specific recommendations.