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We have instincts for a reason
on 27 November 2012
The Gift of Fear was recommended to me as a useful resource and while it does have valuable information it wasn't quite the book I was expecting.
If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you've encountered a person who prompts a reaction of tension or anxiety, for a seemingly unknown reason, The Gift of Fear can be a valuable guide to deconstructing those situations. The author goes through case histories and his experiences of why we should learn to listen to the valid subconscious cues and information we can receive about a person's behaviour.
Chapters Two to Four are resonant reading because, sad to say, I doubt that many women can read them without thinking of at least one occasion where similar behaviour has occurred even if it did not result in the same outcomes. These sections were the genuine strength of the book by having practical and reasonable suggestions about listening to your own reactions in difficult or potentially dangerous situations.
Where I encountered some problems with the book is that, although marketed as a self-help guide, there are only a few chapters I found to be entirely relevant. The book goes from explaining why we have instinctive responses and how to use them to being a type of true crime/criminal profiling study. Whilst this may be of interest to readers of criminal behaviour and legal systems; it is based on information for a purely American audience rather than an international one, so has some very clear cultural differences between countries (prevalence of crime with guns to highlight one example).
Gavin de Becker is also not backwards when it comes to selling himself and his credentials with mentions of high-profile clients he's worked for. Although relevant to his own security advisory business; I found the slant of the writing to be a little too much of an apparent "this will sound good on a chat show or promotional tour" rather than actively useful.
Where the book hit a low point entirely is Chapter Ten, which is on domestic violence. The author's own view on why people remain in abusive relationships is prominent throughout the entire chapter (understandable as it might be when Mr de Becker grew up with a violent, drug-addicted mother). I found it to be an out-dated and clearly biased view. Everyone being different; it could be helpful to be told that staying in an abusive relationship is a choice that is made but, for me, it came off as potentially sounding like blaming a victim of abuse. I would not suggest this as reading for a person trying to leave a violent/abusive relationship without back-up from a different professional source.
Overall: useful for the things it has to say about training your instinctive reactions and finding ways to defend against manipulative or aggressive personalities. Not quite so helpful are the sections with Gavin de Becker's need to repeatedly sell his abilities at the reader and personal views which are not suitable applied to all the instances he suggests.
(Edited note. Having seen other reviews refer to the belief that The Gift of Fear can prevent being the target of sexual violence or other violent crimes, I would like to stress that while I think this book can be a useful guide to understanding, recognising and avoiding aggressive or manipulative situations, as a survival mechanism, the onus of responsibility for such acts lies entirely with the person who commits them.
I abhor implications that women are equal in 'responsibility' for being assaulted or raped as it ignores the obvious point that the individual who is a deliberate aggressor or abuser has the sole responsibility on deciding to attack, rape or abuse. This book does not teach how to prevent violent or abusive people from acting on those behaviours in the first place or how to defend yourself in a situation that escalates quickly into a physical assault or confrontation. Readers who carry onto the chapter 'Extreme Hazards' with Mr de Becker's detailed and disturbing account of protecting an unnamed celebrity from a mentally ill and highly violent stalker can contrast his general advice with the fact that it apparently takes a platoon of police and security people, as well as lots of money, to ensure that threats do not become reality. The main idea of there always being very clearly signalled behaviour is by no means foolproof in itself for avoiding violence, nor does it act as some societal and cultural changing document)