Title: The Gift of Fear
Author: Gavin de Becker
Genre: Nonfiction / self-help / psychology
I read this book because 1) Captain Awkward often refers to and recommends it, and 2) there was a situation that was raising some alarm bells for me so I went looking here for answers. I’m glad I read it but I am pretty conflicted about some of the stuff in it, to the point where I don’t feel I can give it a rating. I have given books the lowest rating for saying things that are less objectionable than some of the things in this book. There are also some chapters that were totally superfluous and unnecessary; they watered down the impact of the book and seemed to be just GdeB (as he refers to himself)’s ego talking. At the same time, there is some valuable information here that I think many people could benefit from.
The best parts of the book are chapter 4 (Survival Signals), chapter 8 (Persistence, Persistence), and chapter 11 (“I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy,” about stalking). Chapters 1, 2, and 3 (In the Presence of Danger; The Technology of Intuition; The Academy of Prediction) are also worthwhile and recommended. Chapter 7 (Promises to Kill) and chapter 9 (Occupational Hazards, about workplace violence) are also useful for the workplace and dealing with threats. Even in these chapters, I have a quibble with some of the way he phrases things—for instance, “failing to follow so many other [survival signals] had put her at risk in the first place.” Actually, what had put her at risk in the “first place,” and indeed the only place, was a murderer/rapist. Let’s not frame violence as some sort of failure on the victim’s part, mmkay? Nonetheless I found some of information insightful, probably most of all the list of “concealments” a predator or creep will use to get past defenses.
For the most part, the rest of the book is filler. There is definitely some good information lurking in the other chapters, but mostly they had the effect of diluting his other messages. GdeB’s firm protects famous people, typically, those who are at risk of assassination or deal with more stalkers, threats, security problems, unwanted attention, etc., than the rest of us. Assassination attempts really don’t seem to be a problem for most people, and if they were, they would probably already have hired GdeB’s firm or a similar one. These chapters were also a chance for him to name drop—or pointedly not name-drop, just say “I am protecting the privacy of this celebrity who is a very dear friend of mine”; his “Acknowledgements” are full of celebrity names. I mean, it’s cool that you’re BBFs with xyz celebrity, but maybe save it for your blog? He claims there is a connection between what he was telling us about famous people and their would-be assassins and the regular reader’s troubles, but I didn’t see it.
And that’s all fairly minor. The real complaint I have with this book is the chapter on domestic violence. It is awful, and the victim-blaming is pretty atrocious. Captain Awkward typically recommends the book but suggests skipping that chapter because, I quote, “dude has issues.” And boy does he ever. (Even with that caveat, threads often get heated with people expressing their distaste for what GdeB says in this chapter.) I don’t even want to repeat the worst of what he wrote; like a slur, I’m averse to speaking it because it’s repugnant, and like a slur it pretty much performs the function of disrespecting an already marginalized group. In the interest of keeping this review short(ish) and manageable, and to keep my blood pressure low, I am just going to say that most people are going to be better off for skipping that chapter. It’s unfortunate that GdeB fumbled so badly here, because women are much more likely to find themselves in an abusive relationship than most of the other dangers he goes over in the book. Instead of this chapter, I strongly recommend reading Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. It is the best resource for abusive relationships and domestic violence that I have found. If it were up to me, every person in our country would read and internalize Bancroft’s information on and messages about abuse. I am sure this book would be better if GdeB had done that.
Something else troubling about the book is the way it handles mental illness. GdeB lets us know repeatedly that almost all assassins are mentally ill. And they may be. However based on the way GdeB presents it, there is a subtext that the mentally ill commit violence, especially “random” or “senseless” violence. And that is just not the whole picture. No mention is made of the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than dealing it. No mention is made of the fact that sufferers of certain mental illnesses are much more likely to be attacked than the general population. No mention is made of the fact that overall, the incidence of violence among people with mental illnesses is very small and does not contribute much to the rates of violence in our society. GdeB leaves all of this out, instead reminding us over and over again that this assassin was mentally ill, or that this person who committed a gruesome murder was mentally ill. It offers a distorted picture of mental illness and the risks associated with it. This is irresponsible since it promotes stigma and fear of those with mental illnesses.
There were some major problems with this book that, for me, dragged the entire work down. I hesitate to suggest it to people due to these flaws, but it’s true that it contains helpful information that I think many people would be better off knowing about. I am already someone who relies on intuition and is aware of that, and I make accurate judgment calls on people that in most cases become validated weeks, months, or years down the road (or so I hear from the friends who didn’t want to hear my opinions in the first place), but many people eschew their intuition or are afraid to rely on it. This book would be particularly helpful for them. A lot of the good stuff in it is such basic common sense (for instance, people who push your boundaries or don’t respect your “no” are probably not people with your best interest at heart), but laying it out, calling attention to it, and giving people permission to trust the unease they feel in those situations is where the book shines.