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Before #YesAllWomen, There Was The Gift of Fear

I had the vertiginous experience of reading Gavin de Becker’s 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear [1] 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 [2] 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.

Follow @evetushnet [3]

Author’s note: Gavin de Becker wrote to clarify that he has spoken to the topic of overreaction in his book Fear Less [4], 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 [5]. “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 babysittersA forthcoming documentary series, produced and directed by Jeff Apple, will explore aspects of The Gift of Fear, including specific recommendations.

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Comments Disabled To "Before #YesAllWomen, There Was The Gift of Fear"

#1 Comment By HeartRight On June 5, 2014 @ 7:21 am

the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim and the second time, she is a volunteer.

You know, this is really a slogan in need of being picked up.

Self-liberation starts with engaging imagination. I can see how his line is vulnerable to counter-attack, but it is also simply brilliant.

#2 Comment By tlk244182 On June 5, 2014 @ 7:28 am

There are about 20 pages total in the book worth reading. It’s mostly feminist propaganda. I recommend Rory Miller, CR Jahn, or Mark MacYoung instead of this crap.

#3 Comment By Leslie On June 5, 2014 @ 9:58 am

I have never read this book, but have heard great things about it. I plan to read it with my daughter when she is a little older.

Yes, agreed–women are brought up to be polite, and sometimes (unofortunately), by giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you put yourself in danger. On the bright side, anyone who does not have bad intentions may think you are paranoid, but should understand why you acted a certain way. I tell my daughter that, if she’s ever in doubt, to get out of a situation and if it’s a false alarm, she can explain her behavior later.

#4 Comment By Cathy Young On June 5, 2014 @ 11:25 am

I haven’t read the entire book. I recall that some of DeBecker’s advice sounds reasonable, but the “victim feminist” propaganda is really grating. The notion that women are culturally discouraged from rebuffing unwanted male attention just doesn’t ring true to me. If anything, scathing female putdowns (and sometimes even violence) in response to such attention are culturally celebrated.

#5 Comment By cj On June 5, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

No idea what book tlk244182 was reading, but I read this book a while back with no feminist context, rather to understand the psychology of those who perform violent behavior and how we react to that. I honestly had no idea that this was considered a ‘thing’ for women to read.

#6 Comment By Sharon On June 5, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

It’s not just women, though — we have lost our natural instincts and have been taught to quash normal feelings of wariness. We’re given such weird mixed up messages as kids — stranger danger on the one hand, but “be nice, be polite” on the other. We’re taught to accept all differences, yet when we look back on the people who do blow up, it’s those very overlooked, even accepted, differences that were red flags.

As far as young women are concerned, these days their biggest enemy is probably alcohol more than anything else. Alcohol warps our natural instincts and senses, makes us vulnerable, and leads to risky behavior. It’s a good thing to promote an awareness of natural, instinctive reactions, but if we don’t also teach young women (and men) that drinking the way too many young adults drink these days is a tragic situation waiting to happen, it won’t have any effect at all.

#7 Comment By Ellen On June 5, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

Yes! Preparation and attitude are everything in life. After reading this book, take a Refuse To Be A Victim class. Get strong mentally (his imagination idea) and don’t wait for someone else to fix life for you.

#8 Comment By Jones On June 5, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

“There’s sharp commentary here on how men are conditioned to feel entitled to women’s attention.”

I don’t really get it. If the claim was that some men feel entitled to women’s attention, I would say, yeah, I can believe that. I know some entitled men. (I also know some incredibly entitled women; wealth is usually the determinative factor, as far as I can tell).

But the claim is not that some men are entitled; it’s that men – in general; as such – are CONDITIONED to feel entitled to women. This implies that someone – an invisible social planner? – is going around and literally training men to believe this. They have not reached me, apparently. I’m not pretending to be a “nice guy” – actually I recognize it as a pathology, a lack of courage with women. Thing is, I’m not an exception – I’ve never met more than a handful of guys who were not afraid, on some level, of being rejected by women. Most of them overcome this fear, not because they feel entitled, but because they must. They are expected by all men and all women to take the risk of rejection.

What exactly does it mean to “feel entitled,” anyway? How do we discern when someone feels entitled to something? Is it because they are upset when they don’t get it?

Then we probably don’t need a theory of entitlement. It should not come as a surprise that men want women’s attention, and that they are not happy when they don’t get it. Then is it who they blame when they don’t get what they want? But who they blame is mostly an irrelevancy, and in any case people react in a huge diversity of ways when they don’t get what they want, based on where they stand in the wide spectrum of human personality. What consistency do you see, what suggests to you that there is some insidious cultural inculcation here rather than the varieties of human personality?

This is unrelated to the main thrust of the article, but this sort of claim has proliferated recently. Seeing it in an otherwise careful and intelligent article makes me worry more.

#9 Comment By stef On June 5, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

Thank you, Ms. Tushnet, this is an excellent book and while it’s in need of a bit of updating, that shouldn’t dissuade both men and women from reading it.

Women: so they can understand why those fear signals are life-savers. Men: so they can learn not to be so creepy, and so entitled to feminine attention.

I’d argue though that it’s not the woman who’s hit who’s the first-time victim. Hitting is often preceded by a long laundry list of signals that women also need to recognize.

These include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, threatening to hit or break objects, then following through and doing so. It can escalate to threats to hit (the drawn fist, blustering acts of temper, etc.) Usually by the time a woman is hit, the abuser has already gone through a long series of build-up behaviors.

And re: the comment above about “feminist propaganda,” I’d add that learning self-defense behavior isn’t the issue. The best self-defense is not getting involved with a hyper-macho or masculine man in the first place. The second is leaving and getting out of harm’s way BEFORE things escalate to physical abuse.

There is such a thing as toxic masculinity, which the author of this book clearly describes. It needs to be avoided, and especially not glamorized among younger women, especially because the women themselves aren’t the only victims. Other victims include children, as well as law enforcement personnel, who are more likely to get killed in a DV situation than just about anything else.

#10 Comment By Aaron Gross On June 5, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

I see he also wrote a book called Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). Anybody read that one? Is it worth buying? Or is The Gift of Fear better, even for parents? Recommendations or dis-recommendations welcome. I’ve got a teenage daughter and a younger son, and I worry too much.

#11 Comment By William Dalton On June 5, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

“the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim and the second time, she is a volunteer.”

If not a “volunteer”, by choosing not to leave, at whatever the cost, she is choosing to submit to more episodes of abuse. (Unless, of course, she finds and utilizes other means of defending herself.) The fact that someone may not always have GOOD choices does not take from them responsibility for the choices they make. Failure to resist abuse not only sets the course for the lives of those women who make that choice. It also sets the course for other women who will follow them into the lives of the abusers.

#12 Comment By Tina Trent On June 5, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

Did we read the same book?

De Becker’s book is not just for women: it is for men too, for anyone who may be victimized, which is anyone. It is for non-sociopaths to understand the danger of sociopaths.

There certainly is discussion of race. De Becker counsels strongly for recognizing when your political correctness (he does not use this term) prevents you from taking steps to protect yourself in public settings especially.

It is not a screed against men.

#13 Comment By Kate On June 5, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

I have heard that line quoted approvingly, almost solely by women who have been “the volunteer” at some point. There is something incredibly empowering about recognizing that you were making choices even when you thought you had no choices–that even refusing to make a choice is itself a choice.

It does sound callous, but it also has a hard-won truth in it–we have to be our own protagonist, not a bit player in someone else’s story with no autonomy. It’s a kind of rejection of learned helplessness, a reclamation of full agency.

#14 Comment By Gabriel Blanchard On June 6, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

I read this, partly under my mother’s influence, several years ago. I recall being extremely impressed with it, and it’s influenced my own ability to trust my intuitions (something I wasn’t brought up to do, on the whole). I agree that it’s highly valuable for men as well — both because men are sometimes victims too, and to give men perspective on the experience of women. I may have to go back to it.

#15 Comment By Daniel S. On June 7, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

My job is to conduct background investigations for the U.S. Government for national security positions. Most of the investigators working this job are former police detectives, retired Secret Service, FBI, et al. I do lots of interviews with “Subjects”. I and other investigators/agents work separately on a Subject and get various records from school, work, residence, etc. Lots of people are interviewed and picture starts to emerge about a Subject’s habits and character. Given my background I have a lot of experience and I know I am extremely intuitive and perceptive about people. I can speedread people. Time and again I will spend three hours interviewing a Subject and going over minute details about his life and walk away thinking, “This guy can be trusted, I’m positive.” Lo and behold I will read a report by another investigator two thousand miles away working on the same guy who dug up damning information. It is those experiences that make you realize you can only get a somewhat accurate portrait of someone by looking into a Subject’s past behavior patterns. Instead of the impossibility of trying to decipher individuals for threats, I think it is best to develop situational awareness skills and train to be appropriately reactive.

#16 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 8, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

It seems to me that way, way too MUCH credit is given to “instinct,” particularly the instinct of fear.

And this is particularly the case among women in the USA. Women are culturally and socially conditioned from when they are girls to be fearful of men. But the overwhelming majority of men are not, in fact, any threat at all, not to women, anyway. Most violence in our society (from whatever source, and, yes, it is mostly men who commit the violence), the overwhelming majority of it, is directed against men. Women, particularly middle class and up women, in Western society, are, according to statistical fact, the least likely people in the world to be subject to any kind of violence. Throw in ethnic and racial stereotyping, a relentless, partly politically inspired and partly just old fashioned, “if it bleeds it leads” yellow journalism, drumbeat of hysteria, and most women, already, without having read this book, are much, much fearful than is necessary.

Our “instincts” are not at all trustworthy. They are based on fears that have been built up way out of proportion to the actual threat level. And that is true for all middle class citizens of the USA. Despite all the cop shows and TV horror reports and movies about gangs and so on and so forth, crime, particularly violent crime, is quite rare. And, when and where it does exist, it is mostly directed at (and by) young, poor men, particularly young Black and Hispanic men. A young, poor Black man is who knows how many times more likely to be murdered or assaulted than a middle class women. Men are, to begin with, four times more likely to be murdered than women.

Indeed, the only category of violent crime in which women represent the majority of victims is sexual crime. And the gross underreporting of male victims in this field, in prisons, homes and elsewhere, calls even that into question. Domestic violence, most recent research has shown, is usually a two way street. Moreover, when it is not, the dynamic is typically one of mutual pathology, rather than the “Duluth” model of an innocent female victim and a man engaging in ever more brutal, totally unprovoked, acts of violence. Women who “stay” with abusive men, when they are not committing the same abuse, actually ARE, in a pathological way, “volunteers.” Studies have shown that such women often DO have alternatives (short term: such as shelters; long term: moving in with relatives or friends), but reject them and go back to their abuser when he shows up with flowers and promises. At some level, these women see the cycle of abuse and “make up” as high drama, as contributing excitement and “passion” to their lives (which are often underprivileged in many ways…poverty, lack of job skills, motherhood at an early age, etc). And such women often see violent reaction by their abusers, especially if triggered by jealousy, as an affirmation of their own desirability and attractiveness. And, indeed, some of them actually do deliberately attempt to trigger that jealous rage.

Of course, none of that means that a man has any right to abuse, or that he is not guilty of a crime if he does, but the point is that most women don’t really have a rational basis for all the “fear” talk.

“Stranger” assault, sexual or otherwise, of women, is quite rare. And domestic violence could be prevented, either by not engaging in it mutually with one’s abuser, or by decisively leaving that abuser.

#17 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 8, 2014 @ 10:59 pm


“Other victims include… law enforcement personnel, who are more likely to get killed in a DV situation than just about anything else.”

Not true. The “DV Danger” myth is just that, a myth.

“Domestic Violence Danger: Myth or Reality?

“Even with ongoing attention to the dangers of policing, there is some confusion regarding precisely what factors are associated with risk to officers. This lack of clarity has extended to domestic violence calls for service and has resulted in the ‘DV Danger’ myth. For example, it is widely believed that domestic violence calls pose the greatest threat to police officers’ safety and that law enforcement officers are most likely to be injured or killed responding to this category of call. While the fact remains that officers are seriously injured and killed responding to domestic violence calls, the bulk of research does not actually support this perspective. Rather, findings typically indicate that robberies and burglaries are the most dangerous calls for law enforcement officers and that these calls pose a far greater risk for assault and death than do domestic violence calls for service.”



For example, see Joel Garner and Elizabeth Clemmer, “Danger to Police in Domestic Disturbances—A New Look,” Research in Brief (November 1986): 1–9; Lorie A. Fridell and Antony M. Pate, “The Other Side of Deadly Force: Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers,” in Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings, eds. Roger G. Dunham and Geoffrey P. Alpert, 4th ed. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2001), 636–663; and Mona Margarita, “Killing the Police: Myths and Motives,” Annals of the American Society of Political and Social Science 452, no 1 (1980).

Some folks claim that the myth is a “cop wives tale,” ie a narrative created by the wives of police officers, perhaps because of their resentment of women who do call the police into dangerous, DV situations, but then end up “forgiving” the perpetrator, which leads to repeat offenses, putting the officers in danger again.

#18 Comment By carlamariee On June 9, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

An awful lot of misinformation about domestic violence here. Check out “A Cry for Justice” for starters for anyone interested in actually understanding it from the inside out.