Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear (1998)*

I am dissatisfied with this book, but I'm not sure if that's because it's actually a bad book or because it isn't the book I wish de Becker had written.  The edition I read (3d, and there have been more recent ones) certainly doesn't live up to the promise that I read as implicit in its subtitle--"survival signals that protect us from violence"--the promise being that, well, the author will give the reader useful tips on recognizing when "real" danger exists and how to handle those situations, while being free to recognize non-dangerous situations as non-dangerous.

As one of my professors once said, "a title is not a contract," and it is probably fair to say that neither are the blurbs written on the cover of the paperback version I read, which I can't cite because I've failed to take notes and I've returned it to the library.  But some of the chapters come so tantalizingly close to making it seem that de Becker is going to give useful tips and offer us a new way to look at promoting our own safety that I think I might be forgiven for thinking the book was going to be something it in fact was not.

De Becker offers examples, from victims or near victims of predatory crimes, of cues they implicitly noticed before they were attacked had they acted on these cues, they either wouldn't have suffered the attack or would have escaped earlier.  He relates for instance a scary, but he says true, story of a woman who, on her way home from work, is met at the entrance to her apartment building by a stranger.  This stranger uses many of what de Becker calls the classic techniques used by predators who stalk women:  the predator, for example, refuses to take no for an answer when he offers unsolicited "assistance" to help her carry groceries.  We then read that the woman, after being assaulted, picks up on other cues, and uses the resulting fear--the "gift of fear"--to save her life.

He has other stories.  One fellow upon getting an uneasy feeling in a convenience store, decides to leave and later finds out that store owner was shot just minutes later.  De Becker in another example notes how he advised one young person to be wary of a man on an airplane who was engaging in similar tactics that the predator in the opening story used.  In short, de Becker has some quite informative discussions of stalkers and domestic abuse, along with helpful information that restraining orders usually do not work as they're supposed to.

All well and good, but he doesn't give the reader much to do with it.  If a stranger engages another with the predatory tactics and the putative victim recognizes the tactics, de Becker is often silent on what are some of the strategies the mark can engage in.  In the first example I mentioned above, we see what the woman eventually did to extricate herself from the situation after the assault before what most likely would have been her murder, but we don't see what she might have done even earlier, say, when she was at the door to her apartment building and the man wouldn't take no for an answer when he intrusively offered to "help" her carry groceries.

De Becker does, I admit, give some explicit "how to" advice that is or can be helpful.  He points out, as I said above, that temporary restraining orders work in situations of domestic abuse more rarely than one might expect.  I assume that this admonition is true, or at least he offers what seems to be convincing evidence.  He reminds his readers, particularly women readers, not to be afraid of hurting a well-intentioned man's feelings when he offers unsolicited "help."  As de Becker says quite rightly, it's better to hurt someone's feelings than to put oneself in danger.  He also makes occasional suggestions--albeit in passing--that I endorse heartily.  I found myself nodding in agreement when he warns of the dangers of wearing headphones while we walk in public.

But de Becker doesn't follow through.  Temporary restraining orders might not work and might even make things worse, but there is very little practical advice about what a victim of domestic abuse is to do.  He says "go to a battered woman's shelter" and he says that there should be more such shelters.  Okay, but what about in communities where such shelters are not equipped to meet the demand?  He would probably say the woman should move.  But where?  and how to manage it when the abuser comes after her?

All we really get is a "real life" example of a woman whose roommate was in an abusive relationship.  The woman had seen de Becker do whatever it is he did on an episode of Oprah, and the woman who had the roommate extricated herself from the situation and moved back with her family.  That worked for her.  But her friend in the abusive relationship did not have a supportive family willing to take her in, and when a tragedy almost happened, her family blamed her and her friend who tried to warn about the relationship.  So at best the solution to the problem seems to be recognize the abuser early on and put a stop to the relationship before it gets that far.  Good advice.  But if it does indeed "get that far," the solution seems to be, don't have the problem in the first place, or be only the roommate of the victim and not the victim herself.

Or you can hire a private security firm.  Gavin de Becker has one in mind.  It's called Gavin de Becker, Inc.  In fact, not a majority but a hefty chunk of the book serves as an advertisement for the great things Gavin de Becker, Inc., does.  We don't learn a lot about what specific tactics we should use to escape a stalker or protect ourselves, but we learn how his business worked with police to protect some famous Hollywood celebrities and to capture one particularly wiley and violen perpetrator.  We also don't learn a lot (or anything) about pricing.  How much does it cost to get advice from Gavin de Becker, Inc.?  Is there a sliding scale?  How much does it slide?

Some of the advice Gavin de Becker, Inc., gives its clients:
  1. Ignore threats, except when you shouldn't, and you'll know the difference when a private security company tells you the difference.  
  2. Wait until the crime happens, and then you can talk with the private security company to second guess your decisions and what you should have noticed before the crime happened.
  3. Unsure whether your child might become violent?  Well gosh darn it, be a loving parent, and (the reader might assume) decline to have children who have any influences whatsoever outside of their family or who have absolutely no will of their own and who are complete tabulae rasae, or who have no mental disturbances that might in some situations manifest themselves violently.
  4. Trust you intuition, except, again,when you shouldn't.  De Becker has two examples of women who were fearful when they returned home or got off work.  Fortunately, we find that their fears are unfounded.  De Becker's psychoanalysis demonstrates that one woman's intuitive fear wasn't really fear of her (what happens to be high-crime) neighborhood but a manifestation of her desire to live in another city.  The other woman, we are glad to learn, suffers from an inferiority complex and has nothing to worry about as she walks alone in a darkly-lit parking lot after work.
De Becker has at least one answer to my objection.  He shies away from "lists of what to do" in part because each situation is unique and a list might serve to close off options or give people a false sense of security.  He wants to discourage us from making an idol of our fear, from being afraid, sometimes literally, of our own shadow when our own shadow is all we really have to fear.

Maybe the idol needs smashing.  De Becker cites recent (to the 3d edition) examples from local news outlets of near hysterical fear (actually, he relates these examples right after saying that he "never" watches local news and hasn't for some years).  He reassures us that we have already learned most of what we need to intuit real danger in preference to unreal danger (actually, he does this while making at least a little bit of hay about his unique experiences of having been a child who grew up observing domestic abuse...we all have our own reserves of fear-intuition, but hey, he's lived through it, so you should buy this book).  He teaches us that dogs don't necessarily intuit danger when we can't, but they merely respond to our own fear-intuition signalling (and he then declines to answer what to me is an obvious rejoinder, "if we have trouble recognizing our own signalling, maybe it'd be a good idea to have a pet who helps us in that arena").

My review probably seems more caustic than it ought.  The first few chapters were so intriguing and seemed to promise so much, that I almost hopped along to my nearest internet book provider and ordered my own copy to keep for my own reference.

Moreover, I've skimmed through a few of the reviews on "Goodreads" and most of them, which almost all seem to be written by women, are glowing.  It doesn't take intensive training feminist theory to realize that men have a lot of the power in this world, and that men victimize women in much greater proportions than the other way around, and that one practice that empowers men to do so is the systematic (or at least very frequent) denial of women's concerns.  It's the same practice that says, "oh, don't listen to her, she's probably hysterical," or, "if only she'd understand he's had a hard day, then maybe he'll stop hitting her."  It would be foolish--and sexist--of me to denigrate de Becker's contribution to empowering women to trust their own senses and their own intelligence even when other people in their lives undermine their legitimate concerns.

And I probably have to admit that trusting our own intuition and intelligence involves taking responsibility for them.  Maybe, contra my criticism about de Becker's paucity of advice for what a person in an abusive relationship might actually do, someone in that situation has so few good options the real answer is "do whatever it takes to protect yourself," not as a call to vigilantism, but as a call to realizing that at the end of the day, it's not the state will protect us.  It's our own common sense.

Still, I wanted more of the one thing and less of the other.  I wanted more advice and less of the "let's respect our intuitions" pep rally and less of the advertisement for the services of private security firms that only a certain percentage of us can likely afford.

In short, read it but don't buy it.



*This is part of a new feature I will, occasionally, do on this blog, called "Pierre Corneille's Book (or Movie, or Song, or Play, aut cetera) Review


2 comments:

Jon said...

Learning how to keep ourselves safe from crime is an almost irresistible hook. It's interesting that those (women) on Goodreads weren't put off by his failure to deliver much in the way of answers. I would have felt the same disappointment you described. Although I'm getting used to books 'hooking' without delivering. We could write a book on How to Better Detect Those Books that Fail to Deliver on their Claims. :)

I really enjoyed the review, and look forward to more.

Pierre Corneille said...

Thanks, Jon.

Truth be told, the book is so highly recommended by people I respect, that on some level I wonder if I'm misrepresenting or misconstruing the book. Still, to the best of my recollection, everything I wrote in this review is true and I don't believe I omitted anything relevant.