Daughters Everywhere: Read Gavin de Becker

When you take a campus tour with your prospective college student, they tell you about the blue light system, the little pedestals that await as beacons of safety on dark nights, when she may be alone and in need of help. Push the blue light, and the campus police will come right away. Safety at your fingertips. But what happens if an unknown male is following her, and he’s blocking her access to the blue light?
I learned about Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear last week, when I read Lena Dunham’s interview in her newsletter, Lenny. The conversation was compelling. I made note of it. De Becker advocates for women, because he recognizes how gender influences the victimization. He tells Dunham:
Don’t buy the idea that you can’t understand violence. Learn about violence. Don’t be the only animal in nature that doesn’t. You think there’s a female kitten that isn’t learning about violence, or a female bird that isn’t learning about predation and isn’t focused on that subject? Why would you be the only creature in nature that is not endowed with a nuclear defense system?[1]
De Becker’s book is filled with insight about violence. These are behavioral clues, indicators that warn possible victims to take heed. Fear is biological, explains de Becker. It is hard-wired into us, and the warning system that helps us to survive is intuition. Our culture discounts intuition in favor of logic, but intuition is supreme logic. Intuition is solid information provided so rapidly in our brains that it bypasses the why, in favor of buying the precious time needed for survival.
The book is a page-turner, filled with survivors’ riveting accounts. After they tell their stories, De Becker teases apart the indications of violence within their narratives, one by one. De Becker owns a 520 member firm that  consults with state police agencies, governors, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Supreme Court Police. He has been twice appointed to the Presedential Advisory Board and serves as a senior advisor to the Rand Corporation and is a Senior Fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In his spare time, he helps celebrities with stalkers.
His personal expertise on violence began in his own childhood; he is a survivor himself.  No matter our backgrounds–we are all experts, de Becker explains, on human behavior. It’s nothing we have to learn; we already know it. We just have to learn to listen to ourselves. Yet there is much to learn about criminal behavior. De Becker has different chapters divided into the different types of criminals.
In “stranger to stranger” cases, such as street crimes, criminals assess their victims, which De Becker calls “the interview.” Through such an interview, a predator learns whether or not he may be able to victimize her. One of the most important points, he explains, is that no means no.
Women are conditioned to be nice in our society. If we’re not, we’re called names. In our southern culture, this is especially the case. But de Becker explains that, in many cases, we misunderstand the concept of nice. Don’t trust someone just because they are nice. See nice for what it is:

We must learn and teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait. People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Like rapport buiding, charm, and the deceptive smile, unsolicited niceness often has a discernable motive.[2]

The cliche, Being nice doesn’t get you anywhere, means so much more in terms of victimization. Don’t worry about being rude, he urges, by declining a stranger who has approached you on the street. Or about “letting off someone easy” which gives mixed signals to people who become a stalker.

In the passage below, de Becker spells out the way women are expected to behave in our society, and how this may put them in danger. It seems so old-fashioned. As I read it, I had visions of Mad Men, the secretary bringing Don Draper a drink. But in terms of expectations about politeness, not much has changed since the 1960s:

I encourage women to explicitly rebuff unwanted approaches, but I know it is difficult to do. Just as rapport building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.[3]

Yet, even as societal expectations remain patriarchal, the culture has in other ways shifted to be sexually open in an egregious way, which is doubly threatening.

Statistics prove that most violent crimes are committed by someone who the victims knew. De Becker does this trick, where he tells the reader to imagine the worst possible thing that one person could do to another (I fell back on scenes from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  and Silence of the Lambs, which far exceed anything I could imagine). Then he points out that we just proved we were capable of thinking the unthinkable. “The resource of violence is in all of us; all that changes is our view of the justification,” de Becker explains. [4] When we try to label predators as the other, then we begin the process of denial. But our warning systems are there. De Becker lists them for us:

Intuition of the highest order is fear, then apprehension, suspicion, hesitation, doubt, gut feelings, hunches and curiosity there are also (less urgent) nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, physical sensations, wonder, and anxiety.[5]

I’m still learning from de Becker. This book is fascinating.

[1] Gavin De Becker, Lenny, The Lenny Interview: Gavin de Becker, http://www.lennyletter.com/life/interviews/a271/the-lenny-interview-gavin-de-becker/

[2] Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear, New York: Dell, 1997, 58.

[3] Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear, New York: Dell, 1997, 59.

[4] Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear, New York: Dell, 1997, 44.

[5] Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear, New York: Dell, 1997, 72.


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