Lightreads's Reviews > The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
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's review
Jan 16, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: crime, nonfiction, feminism, psychology
Read in December, 2011

I have a long-standing . . . psychological investment, let's say, in the science of violence: classifying it, predicting it, recovering from it. This book spent a bit of time talking about the epidemic of violence, which needs very little more illustration than to say that three out of every four American women will in their lifetimes be the victim of a violent assault, and a large portion of those assaults will be sexual. This is not something I need convincing on. I often find myself in a packed and silent elevator car down to a train station, or sitting around a boardroom table, and I'll listen to the men around me (hello, massively male-dominated field in a male-dominated profession) and think, which one of you is a rapist? Which one of you has beaten someone unconscious? Though to be statistically accurate, I should often be asking how many, not which one?

Anyway. Rambling. This book is about the prediction of violence. The things you -- mostly women -- can do to avoid being the victims of assaults, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, beatings. And not in the way where it's telling you how to dress or where to walk, but in the way where we can all be smarter about the things we notice, and how we react to them. Most of this was old ground for me, but it's presented here more effectively than I've seen anywhere else.

It's not perfect though. A few of the more obviously problematic things that jumped out at me:

*De Becker doesn't really get socialized gendered compliance, at least not all the time. He'll go from this incredibly smart discussion of how the ways women are socialized to say no to men -- "I don't want to be seeing anyone right now," rather than "no, I don't want to date you," -- can be very dangerous because they open the door to negotiation. De Becker will be making the sharp and correct point that women aren't actually allowed to say no in many scenarios, but that it's engrained so deep, we don't notice. But then he'll turn around in another chapter and say that he can't give a checklist for how to behave if you are in the power of a violent offender, just use your intuition, it will save you. The first part is true enough; there are too many scenarios at play, too many variables, and the need for appeasement in one situation can be the need for hard, relentless resistance in another. But the second part? Hang on. We know women have been socialized to react in maladaptive and often dangerous ways to men, and yet we're supposed to rely purely on reflexive response in moments of great danger? Intuition may be smart, and it may in extremis be smarter than social conditioning, but how many of us actually know how to respond to that intuition?

Don't get me wrong, it's happened to me. That moment where your brain disconnects and your body moves all on its own and you are not afraid. You aren't anything. You aren't even you. And you only think later after it's over, I could have died. That is really powerful shit, right there, and De Becker's right, it's smart. But it's not a given, and forgive me if I suspect that people who have been trained from birth not to credit their own wants and needs might be capable of smothering the reactions that could save their lives.

*De Becker really misses the boat in his section on distinguishing fear from worry. Fear being the useful, smart, intuitive impulse and worry being the habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don't have to be. He really wants to divide things up into clean, accurate, instinctive fear at the sight of a particular threat gesture, and learned, socialized fear that is not driven by unconscious data. Okay, sure.

But in which category do racially-motivated fears go? Studies consistently show that white Americans have a physiological fear response to the sight of African-American men in particular situations. Hell, some of the subconscious word association trials show a prevalence of fear associations just at the micro-visual flash of an African-American face on a computer screen. And you don't need a study for that, you just need to go into any major city with a couple of comfy white habitual suburbanites.

So, seriously, what category does that go in? It's not very smart or useful. Aside from just being shitty, I mean. African-American men might commit more violent crime than their white peers (I know, it seems like the sort of statistical assertion that should be arguable, but it turns out it's not) but that violence is directed overwhelmingly at other African-American men. Most people, in most circumstances, are in far more danger from a member of their own race.

But we have a racially-motivated fear response. So how are people supposed to tell the difference between that sort of pre-conscious racist social conditioning and true, useful intuition? De Becker doesn't say, and actually given the nearly pathological lack of race discussions from this book about violence, I suspect he doesn't know.

*I laughed out loud when De Becker confidently proclaimed, in discussing post violence analysis of pre-violence indicators, that "if it is in your head now, it was in your head then." Ahahaha *gasp*. Oh, God, that is hilarious. And so amazingly wrong. Eye witness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and victim witness accounts are noticeably worse. In fact, one of the physiological results of high-adrenaline for many people is blurred perception and memory. Add that to the understandable and overwhelming impulse of victims to explain it, to tabulate all the ways they should have seen it coming, and you have a recipe for incredibly unreliable recollections.

De Becker's right -- a lot of violence is not senseless, and most of it is predictable if you process the signs. If you see them in the first place. But sometimes we don't see. And the way De Becker tries to teach readers to process in-the-moment what he can only reconstruct in example post facto strikes me as pretty problematic.

Still. It's a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It's just the race thing. He doesn't deal with it -- I suspect he can't -- and that's a pretty big flaw.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Punk Good review! This italics tag needs to be closed, though: unconscious?,/i>

message 2: by skein (new) - added it

skein You're the first person who recommended this book in a way that makes me want to read it.
Thank you for the first paragraph. Especially.

Tinea I really appreciate your critique here, especially regarding race-based social conditioning and its influence on "intuition"! It would be wonderful to get a book like this that teased out the difference between racist/classist conditioning and actionable fear of violence-- and a book that addressed predicting and reacting to racist (& otherwise bigoted) violence itself (from profiling to lynchings) that plagues this country.

message 4: by Jenetta (new) - added it

Jenetta Fabulous review.

Cyndi Thank you. The complete absence of any mention of race or ethnicity (or other areas where subconscious beliefs can play a part) is a huge flaw in this book.

message 6: by Emily (new) - added it

Emily I would really rather read your book, actually. His sounds interesting and possibly very important... but you made so many good points I really wish it was YOUR book on abusive attitudes and warning signs that I could buy.

Amanda Z Heh. I loved the book, but was wondering what the author would think of subconscious bias, and would it be in the book if it were written today (that, and internet stalkers).

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