Book Review: The Gift of Fear: survival signals that protect us from violence
by Gavin de Becker. (Little, Brown and Co., 1997)

I very rarely get to recommend a book as highly as this one. It is packed with useful information that could save your life, and it is well-written and easy to read. It has great examples that make it vividly clear exactly what he is writing about, and it is written with the matter-of-fact humility that indicates a true expert. The fundamental message of the book is that you can trust your intuition, and that you can train your intuition to make it even more accurate and reliable. Here are three short paragraphs from chapter 1 that summarize the book:

Because of my sustained look at violence, because I have predicted the behavior of murderers, stalkers, would-be assassins, rejected boy-friends, estranged husbands, angry former employees, mass killers, and others, I am called an expert. I may have learned many lessons, but my basic premise in these pages is that you too are an expert at predicting violent behavior. Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.

I’ve learned some lessons about safety through years of asking people who have suffered violence, “Could you have seen this coming?” Most often they say, “No, it just came out of nowhere.” But if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: “I felt uneasy when I first met that guy. . .” or “Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me,” or “I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day.”

Of course if they realize it now, they knew it then. We all see the signals because there is a universal code of violence. You’ll find some of what you need to break that code in the following chapters, but most of it is in you.

Below is the opening story from chapter 1 about Kelly, a woman who was raped at gunpoint. Some may find it scary, and not want to read about “negative thoughts.” However, it vividly illustrates many of the clues that you can use to avoid violence — not by carrying guns, mace or learning martial arts, but just by paying close attention to your intuition to detect the early signs, so you can get out of a situation before it becomes dangerous.

After meeting with de Becker, Kelly felt more safe than before it happened, saying, “The weird thing is, with all this information I’m actually less afraid walking around now than I was before it happened — but there must be an easier way people could learn.” There is. You can develop this same sense of safety without having to go through what she did.

That afternoon, in an effort to get all her shopping done in one trip, Kelly had overestimated what she could comfortably carry home. Justifying her decision as she struggled with the heavy bags, she reminded herself that making two trips would have meant walking around after dark, and she was too careful about her safety for that. As she climbed the few steps to the apartment building door, she saw that it had been left unlatched (again). Her neighbors just don’t get it, she thought, and though their lax security annoyed her, this time she was glad to be saved the trouble of getting out the key. She closed the door behind her, pushing it until she heard it latch.

Next came the four flights of stairs, which she wanted to do in one trip. Near the top of the third landing, one of the bags gave way, tearing open and dispensing cans of cat food. They rolled down the stairs almost playfully, as if they were trying to get away from her. The can in the lead paused at the second floor landing, and Kelly watched as it literally turned the corner, gained some speed, and began its seemingly mindful hop down the next flight of steps and out of sight.

“Got it! I’ll bring it up,” someone called out. Kelly didn’t like that voice. Right from the start something just sounded wrong to her, but then this friendly-looking young guy came bounding up the steps, collecting cans along the way.

He said, “Let me give you a hand.”

“No, no thanks, I’ve got it.”

“You don’t look like you’ve got it. What floor are you going to?”

She paused before answering him. “The fourth, but I’m okay, really.”

He wouldn’t hear a word of it, and by this point he had a collection of cans balanced between his chest and one arm. “I’m going to the fourth floor too,” he said, “and I’m late — not my fault, broken watch — so let’s not just stand here. And give me that.” He reached out and tugged on one of the heavier bags she was holding. She repeated, “No, really, thanks, but no, I’ve got it.”

Still holding on the grocery bag, he said, “There’s such a thing as being too proud, you know.”

For a moment, Kelly didn’t let go of that bag, and then she did. “We better hurry,” he said as he walked up the stairs ahead of Kelly, “We’ve got a hungry cat up there.”

Even though he seemed to want nothing more at that moment than to be helpful, she was apprehensive about him, and for no good reason, she thought. He was friendly and gentlemanly, and she felt guilty about her suspicion. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who distrusts everybody, so they were next approaching the door to her apartment.

“Did you know a cat can live for three weeks without eating?” he asked. “I’ll tell you how I learned that tidbit: I once forgot that I’d promised to feed a cat while a friend of mine was out of town.”

Kelly was now standing at the door to her apartment, which she’d just opened.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said, hoping he’d hand her the groceries, accept her thanks, and be on his way. Instead, he said, “Oh no, I didn’t come this far to let you have another cat food spill.” When she still hesitated to let him in her door, he laughed understandingly. “Hey, we can leave the door open like ladies do in old movies. I’ll just put this stuff down and go. I promise.” She did let him in, but he did not keep his promise.

He raped her at gunpoint for three hours, and after that he planned to kill her. But this time she trusted her intuition and escaped. Besides repeatedly dismissing her strong intuitions, Kelly ignored eleven clear signals that would have confirmed her intuitions, and could have saved her from a horrible experience. How many of these eleven signals can you identify? You’ll have to read chapter 4 of the book to find the answers, and it will be well worth your time.

I think everyone should read this book. Period.