What could be of the most help to you in a dangerous situation – pepper spray? Martial arts proficiency? A concealed weapon permit?
Awareness is the most important aspect of self-defense.
How to recognize and harness our body’s intuition for danger – a sense we evolved to survive – is the subject of the book I am recommending to almost everybody. Almost, because the book might be anxiety activating for people who’ve had recent experience with violent crimes. Thus, my trigger warning.
But for the Almost Everybody Else, ® I highly recommend the book moiself finally got around to reading.
For years I’ve run across references and referrals to Gavin de Becker‘s The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. I’ve lost count of how many times various advice columnists, and journalists covering violent crimes, have recommended or cited it. The book even got a mention in actor/comic/writer/producer Amy Poehler’s delightful 2014 memoir. I can’t recall the exact context; I believe it had something to do with how when a woman answers a man’s question or request with “no” – in situations ranging from business negotiations to dating – the guy persists, as if she hadn’t answered him, and attempts to elicit the response he wants instead (read: he bullies and/or manipulates you):
“Gavin de Becker talks about this in his wonderful book The Gift Of Fear.
He talks about how the word ‘no’ should be the ‘end of discussion, not the beginning of a negotiation. ‘ ”
(Any Poehler, Yes Please )
Last week I read a letter from yet another advice seeker, writing to a columnist about a personal relationship problem, and asking something along the lines of, “I am very concerned…but am I overreacting?” Part of the advice the columnist gave was to trust your own instincts, and to learn how and why to do so, read The Gift of Fear.
No one in my life is threatening or gaslighting me; I haven’t been in a workplace shooting or walked into a 7-11 just as it is about to be robbed. However, I have been in dicey situations in the past, wherein trusting my gut reaction ( “something’s really wrong here” ) and paying attention kept me safe. Statistically, as a human,  I am likely to encounter such situations again, be they personal (targeted and hassled by a stranger on public transit) or coincidental (walking into a mini-mart just as a robbery is about to take place). So, I let this other person’s question be my own “trigger” for reading The Gift of Fear. And now, I’m recommending it to *everybody.* 
Gavin de Becker is an American author and specialist in security issues and threat assessment. He founded a private security firm and works as a consultant to everyone from governments, large corporations, public figures, and private individuals. He was instrumental in developing the MOSAIC threat assessment systems, which evaluates threats in a variety of situations (e.g., threats in the workplace; threats by students against other students and/or school staff; threats against judges and other judicial officials; threats made to celebrities and public officials; stalking and domestic abuse).
The premise of GdB’s TGOF is that our (unfortunately, often discounted) intuition is a far better judge than our logical mind when it comes to recognizing and reacting to – and learning to anticipate and escape from as much as possible – dangerous situations. Simply put, his aim is to teach you how to avoid people who will do you harm.
This intro is from the book’s blurb on Amazon (my emphasis):
True fear is a gift.
Unwarranted fear is a curse.
Learn how to tell the difference.
A date won’t take “no” for an answer. The new nanny gives a mother an uneasy feeling. A stranger in a deserted parking lot offers unsolicited help. The threat of violence surrounds us every day. But we can protect ourselves, by learning to trust—and act on—our gut instincts.
…this empowering book…shows you how to spot even subtle signs of danger—before it’s too late. Shattering the myth that most violent acts are unpredictable, de Becker…offers specific ways to protect yourself and those you love, including…how to act when approached by a stranger…when you should fear someone close to you…what to do if you are being stalked…how to uncover the source of anonymous threats or phone calls…and more. Learn to spot the danger signals others miss.
The world we live in can be dangerous, especially for women, whom, TGOF claims, evolved a higher sensitivity toward intuition – that is, picking up nonverbal cues – than men. That skill was critical for our female homo sapiens ancestors to survive in a world where they were generally smaller and less muscular than men: they needed to quickly detect who around them was “safe” and who was a threat (to them, and to their children).
“It may be hard to accept its importance, because intuition is usually looked upon by us thoughtful Western beings with contempt. It is often described as emotional, unreasonable, or inexplicable. Husbands chide their wives about ‘feminine intuition’ and don’t take it seriously. If intuition is used by a women to explain some choice she made or a concern she has, men roll their eyes and write it off…..
Americans worship logic, even when it’s wrong,
and deny intuition, even when it’s right….
Men, of course, have their own version of intuition – not so light and inconsequential, they tell themselves, as that feminine stuff. Theirs is more viscerally named a ‘gut feeling,’ but it isn’t just a feeling. It (intuition; gut feeling) is a process more extraordinary and ultimately more logical in the natural order than the most fantastic computer calculation. It is our most complex cognitive process and at the same time the simplest.”
( TGOF Chapter 1: In The Presence of Danger )
“Intuition” or “a gut feeling” is your body’s and mind’s response to thousands of years evolution, of picking up on cues which alert you that something’s off. GdB offers case studies of violent crimes, going through a step-by-step dissection of the situation with the survivors who said, regarding their feeling of impending doom, “I don’t know where it came from/it came from out of the blue.” By asking specific questions, GdB helped them to see that their feeling of fear didn’t just come out of the blue; rather, their minds noticed an A-B-C-D list of aberrant or “off” behaviors, which their guts put together.
The Gift of Fear aims to teach you to listen to your instincts and heed them. Trust your gut; don’t suppress your intuition. Don’t worry about hurting some stranger’s feelings or “being judgmental;” don’t endanger yourself to “be polite” – all of which are particular traps for women, who are socialized to “be nice” and “don’t make a fuss.”
Although many of the incidents recounted in TGOF are hair-raising, the book’s intent is not to scare you. The message is: Don’t be afraid; do be *aware.*
It’s not that GdB advises readers what clothing to wear or where not to go (although he cites taking common sense precautions, as in, should the businessman walking alone late at night through a dicey neighborhood known for strong arm robberies really be flashing his expensive Rolex?). Rather, he presents ways where we can all learn to pay attention to the things we should be noticing, and offers strategies as to how we can choose to react. His advice is not earth-shatteringly new, but it’s presented more succinctly and effectively than I recall seeing elsewhere.
So yeah, I really liked TGOF, even as moiself recognizes the book’s knotty areas.
TGOF Problematical Issues:
* There is some dated material (including more than one mention of pay phones !?!).
* Some of his ideas may seem counter-intuitive and are likely controversial. For example, he believes that not only do Protective [aka Restraining] Orders not help in most domestic violence/stalking situations, they are frequently the catalyst for escalating violence from the offender (GdB cites law enforcement data to back his opinion.)
* Much of the advice given is repetitive. Seeing as how we’ve been trained to distrust or ignore our intuition, this is why (I think) he keeps repeating the salient points.
* A gender-related issue. GdB is a strong ally for women – so much so that he has received some miffed feedback from men when he points out the prevalence of male violence.  Still, some of GdB’s advice re domestic violence situations might be taken as very subtle victim-blaming, even as he does acknowledge the reasons why a woman might not (be able to) choose to leave a violent home.
This is a judgement I moiself struggle with. I am a strong believer in the wisdom behind the adage, “Fool me once; shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If I stay after a first violent encounter, am I not resigning myself to being the victim again? GbD says as much.
However, he is also a long-time advocate for women, and in the partner-abuse cases he cites (the book is filled with case stories of and interviews with crime survivors), I truly believe his experience drives what could initially be seen as harsh – but is in fact is very good and even life-saving – advice. He proceeds from the premise that all people, even abused women, are not just flotsam, and can be empowered:
“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.
Invariably, after a television interview or speech in which I say this, I hear from people who feel I don’t understand the dynamic of battery, that I don’t understand the ‘syndrome.’ In fact, I have a deep and personal understanding of the syndrome,  but I never pass up an opportunity to make clear that staying is a choice.
Of those who argue that it isn’t, I ask: Is it a choice when a woman finally does leave, or is there some syndrome to explain leaving as if it too is involuntary? I believe it is critical for a women to view staying as a choice, for only then can leaving be viewed as a choice and an option.
( TGOF Chapter 10: Intimate Enemies [domestic violence].
GdB emphasis, my emphases )
Gdb also decries the disturbing scenarios we have about romance. Our culture’s myths, literature, and stories told by TV shows and movies, have devolved into a formula (into a drug, I’d go so far to call it), which is marketed to both women and men as romantic. In this formula, a male’s aggressive behavior and stalking – so creepily and mistakenly labeled as “persistence” – is rewarded and even celebrated:
“This Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl.
Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you’ve treated her like trash (and sometimes because you’ve treated her like trash), you’ll get the girl…..
There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence – it does not prove love.
The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special – it means he is troubled.”
( TGOF Chapter 11: “I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy” [Date stalking/violence] )
GdB tells many stories in TGOF, involving both institutions and individuals, wherein warning signs (re violence-prone people) were ignored, and tragedies followed. Some of the stories can be hard to contemplate. But, as the author emphasizes repeatedly, his aim is not to frighten, but to *enlighten.* And he acknowledges that in almost all cases, from a manager ignoring signs that a worker was intent on shooting his officemates to an aggressive suitor who becomes a wife-beating husband,
“…the people involved….were doing the best they could with the tools they had at the time. If they’d had the knowledge you (readers of the book) now have, I believe they’d have made different choices….
my observations are not about blame, but about education.” 
* * *
Last Sunday eve, when I was just a few chapters into the book, son K joined MH and I for dinner. I mentioned that moiself was reading TGOF and could tell that I would likely be recommending it to all. We had interesting dinner table conversation centered around the most striking of what I consider to be the book’s problematic areas, which is:
* We (Americans) have a racially-directed fear response. How are we supposed to tell the difference between our systemic, racist social conditioning and our true, useful intuition?
Excuze-moi, but some truthfulness in narration is called for. We *could* have had an interesting conversation about those issues. Ahem. I began to relay GdB’s points about paying attention to fear and intuition, and in their zeal to point out something they’d both simultaneously thought of, MH and K interrupted me. They did not wait to see if moiself was going to bring up the problem of instinct being mistaken for internalized racism (I was). They also didn’t seem to notice that I had snapped at them (“Let me finish!”) before they astutely (in their minds) pointed out that problem with the gut-feeling-heeding. It wasn’t exactly mansplaining; it was…manterrupting?
What about the fact that our instincts and gut reactions might, in some cases, be based in prejudice and stereotypes? What about the fact that police officers (of any background) often react to a gut feeling which tells them that a black man, no matter what he is doing ( just walking down the street or driving a car, FFS! ) is inherently more dangerous than a white man?
I told my menfolk that as I was reading the book moiself too wondered about the gut feeling-racism issue. Seeing as how I was just into the first few chapters, I was expecting GdB to address the issue later on.
Except that, he didn’t.
Study after study has shown that White Americans (both men and women) experience a gut fear response to the sight of Black men in certain situations. As a Criminal Justice major back in the day,  I encountered the statistics that African-American men commit more violent crime than White American men – BUT – those statistics also showed that those same violent crimes are overwhelmingly directed at and experienced by other Black men, and that most violent crime is intra-, not inter-, racial.
I wasn’t sure if those statistics still held true.  Perhaps GdB can be excused for not addressing “race” on that basis: he was aware of the stats when he wrote the book, and since most violent acts are perpetrated by members of the same ethnic group as their victims, identifying a victim’s and/or perpetrator’s ethnicity was, in his mind, superfluous.
Or, perhaps I’m trying to rationalize GdB’s neglect of this issue and/or explain it to myself, other than to say that GdB himself just doesn’t know how to resolve the prejudice/instinct dilemma. Regardless of why he didn’t do so, the two-ton, rainbow-colored, gender-inclusive elephant in the room is that most of us have a racially-motivated fear response. It would do us well to recognize that, when it comes to trusting our instincts.
Having said that….in the heat of the moment, I’m likely to trust my instincts (this guy is giving off creepy vibes) regardless of skin color, and err on the side of offending someone/being called bigoted or other names. Hey, better alive and insulted than dead but “woke.” Still, it’s a crappy dilemma, a problem for which I’ve yet to read a good solution. Someone much smarter and wiser than moiself needs to figure out this shit.
* * *
Punz For The Day
Violent Crime Edition
Uh…maybe something totally unrelated is called for, to lighten this up.
Make that, Punz For The Day, Kitties and Pirates Edition
What’s a cat’s favorite color?
Why don’t pirates need to go on vacation?
They get all the arrr and arrr they need at work.
Why don’t felines do internet shopping?
They prefer catalogues.
What is a one-legged pirate’s favorite restaurant?
* * *
May you trust your gut feelings;
May you educate your mind and gut so that your instincts are trustworthy;
May you err on the side of keeping yourself from harm;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
* * *
 And particularly, as a human *woman.*
 Keeping in mind your own capacity for being exposed to some frightening stories. And sorry for the crappy book jacket picture.
 Sorry, dudes, but the guy has the sad statistics on his side.
 de Becker survived a childhood which was filled with domestic abuse. His unstable mother was abused by multiple husbands; she in turn threatened and abused her son, tried to shoot at least one of her abusive partners, and also turned the gun on her son. GdB’s survival, due in part to the kind adults he credited with taking interest in and mentoring him, led to his interest in the field of recognizing threats and preventing violence.
 Chapter 9: “Occupational Hazards (Violence in the workplace).”
 A pre-law major who later decided against law school. You’re welcome.