Criticism

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, Critical Review Updated for 2021

It has been almost 25 years since Gavin de Becker wrote The Gift of Fear (24 years to be exact). To place the book in its proper historical context, I am probably best served by comparing it to the cinema that debuted around the same time. 1997 was the year of Titanic and Dante’s Peak. The fact that one of the best-selling books about violence would come out at a period of time when cinema was exploring the connection between human hubris, technology, and natural disaster is accidental, but worth noting. Dante’s Peak, for those who haven’t seen it, is a movie about the terrible things that happen when government officials in a small town fail to heed scientists’ urgent warnings that a volcano nearby is about to erupt. 1997 was the year of the O.J. Simpson civil suit (Simpson had already been exonerated for murder). The Columbine High School Massacre had yet to happen. Male violence and anger has often been normalized as a force of nature. When a man is angry, it is only natural. When a woman is angry, she’s crazy. In light of these assumptions, De Becker’s thesis is simple: when a woman feels fear around a man, for whatever reason, she should honor that fear.

America was a violent place in 1997, but I don’t think De Becker could have imagined America as it exists today—where the news cycle is dominated by mass shootings and stories of police brutality. If fear is a gift, in 2020, we have been particularly gifted to have a lot to be afraid of. Male violence may have once been characterized as another force of nature we’d have to deal with, but today we have nature itself to fear: a global pandemic, massive wildfires creating their own weather systems, heatwaves, rising sea levels, droughts, and the collapse of entire ecosystems. That most of us can go about our daily lives without being in a constant state of paralyzing fear most readily proves De Becker’s thesis, which is that too often we ignore our fear signals, to the detriment of our own safety.

In order to honor your fear, you need to feel you have agency. Whether that agency is possible or imagined doesn’t matter. When it comes to making a change, you need to believe that you can act. De Becker believes that a woman can make herself safe by trusting her intuition, but this is too simplistic and puts the onus on the woman. Women will be safe when men stop being violent. As an aside, but not really an aside (as you’ll soon see), our planet will start to heal and be a safer place to live when corporations and governments finally decide it is absolutely unacceptable to keep trashing the planet.

One wrong calculation can ruin a proof. One wrong line can break the illusion a painting is trying to create. One wrong measurement can take the architect back to the drawing board. And yes, one wrong sentence can indeed ruin a book. De Becker’s The Gift of Fear is a highly flawed book, but the flaw can be diagnosed in just one sentence.

In his chapter on domestic violence, De Becker writes this: “the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim and the second time, she is a volunteer.”

If we bring our microscope close and study this deeply flawed sentence, we’ll find that it is but a positive test result that diagnoses the great ideological pathologies that infect this book.

De Becker writes that he has received pushback when he has said this line before, but he is unable to even entertain the notion that he may be mistaken. Instead, he puts the sentence in bold and defends it by saying he writes it to show women that they always have a choice. But this paternalistic defense doesn’t stand.

De Becker had a difficult childhood, but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t enjoy privileges as a white male who has had some degree of success in his life. Women and people of color acutely understand what it means to walk into a room knowing that the default mode won’t be immediate credibility, acceptance, or respect. When white men walk into rooms where that default mode doesn’t hold, their first response tends to be righteous indignation. De Becker finds it impossible to inhabit a mind that may not have always been believed nor respected. After all, in order to respect your own intuition, you first need to respect yourself.

The sentence is disturbing because it also affects those who interact with abused women. The line serves to shame women who stay in abusive situations, while failing to take into account the strong reasons why a woman might stay in such a situation. Could a woman really be called a “volunteer” for staying because she fears losing her children, her home, or her financial stability? Abusive relationships are seldom isolated to physical violence and often include threats (I’ll take away the kids if you go), financial abuse, and more. In 1997, homelessness and access to affordable housing wasn’t at the critical level it has reached today. For many women in abusive relationships, there is truly nowhere else to go.

De Becker’s statement is myopic because it empowers society to look down upon women who stay in abusive situations, without fully accounting for the good reasons why a woman might stay. De Becker himself writes that as a troubled child he had sympathetic adults in his life who believed in his agency, and this made all the difference. Imagine being a single woman, surrounded by people who don’t believe in your agency. Imagine having no one, and nowhere to turn. To use the word “volunteer” when you understand the full context of how cycles of abuse function is disgusting. No woman volunteers to be hit.

Much has been written about the validity, and the need to express, female rage. I think it’s important to take a moment here to pause, and let my reader know that I am incredibly angry. The Gift of Fear makes me angry. Carlos Lozada, in his Pulitzer-prize winning critical review “Why Women’s Rage is Healthy, Rational, and Necessary for America” offers a decent enough account of a man finally “getting it,” finally coming to terms with female rage. But my anger isn’t general. Mine is specific. I cannot read The Gift of Fear without thinking of a close friend of mine. Though we grew up together, we have been estranged for several months. I won’t go into specifics. In short, I felt like I was doing the right thing, and she felt like I had abandoned her in a time of need. I felt the need to uphold a boundary and she believed there should be no boundaries between us. But all of this doesn’t matter. I love her dearly and I think about her every day. The story of her adult life for many years now has involved her involvement with abusive men, all verbally abusive, some physically abusive. It has taken me many years to understand why she’d choose to stay, and I’ll admit that for many years I did not understand. My friend was never a volunteer. She was a woman desperate to be loved, a woman who had come to expect little from a world that often gives women so little credit. She had therefore become numb to the violence the world could show her, and more specifically, numb to the violence the men in her life could show her.

And yet, she is perhaps no different than all of us who open the newspaper every day, see the state of California on fire, read about more people dead from a pandemic largely started because we treat animals like shit, and see reports that some places in the country will be so hot it might not be safe to go for a walk outside, only to shut the paper, brush our hair, make a cup of coffee, and drive to work. I’ve told my friend I’d fly her to Hawai’i to get away from her latest abuser. She has refused. I still don’t think she’s a volunteer.

Tree and Moss. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Tree and Moss. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

And yet, aspects of The Gift of Fear make the book feel radically ahead of its time. De Becker writes about the reality that restraining orders fail to protect battered women and in some cases can actually make their situation worse. He is right. He writes critically of toxic masculinity, though he doesn’t quite call it toxic masculinity in the book. “Recklessness and bravado are features of many violent people. Some might call it daring or bravery, but … ‘heroism’ has two sides.” He highlights the fact that many of the characteristics celebrated in male action heroes are the very same traits one sees in domestic abusers and violent men.

De Becker is also ahead of his time when he writes about the difficulty women face when rebuffing potentially unwanted approaches, especially from strangers. He writes, “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 that response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness.”

De Becker is also astute when evaluating gender-based double standards: “If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction, King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Basic Instinct.” De Becker also adds the revolutionary idea that high school health and sex education should explicitly teach women how to reject and teach men how to hear no. What a radical idea.

And yet, the book’s problems are a deep void from which the book cannot recover. De Becker has difficulty understanding some key facts about being a woman in America, but he also has no clue about how race plays a key role in the subject of his book, particularly in how race plays a role in policing in America.

De Becker urges his readers to follow their intuitions when it comes to fear, but he completely omits the way that racism and racial bias might play a role in fear and risk assessments. In fact, the role that racial bias plays in risk-assessment is ignored entirely. De Becker doesn’t mention race at all.

De Becker writes: “The inner voice is wise, and part of my purpose in writing this book is to give people permission to listen to it.” And while this advice might still hold true in Instagram self-help feeds, it hardly holds true when you consider it in the context of policing or mass shootings.

The book urges its readers to make split-second life and death decisions based on their gut feelings and intuition. And yet, it appears that this very type of training may be to blame for so many instances of needless police brutality and violence. In policing, the decision to act or not to act violently is one that can indeed be made in a split second. If race isn’t considered a factor, it is no wonder why a disproportionate number of brown and black men find themselves on the receiving end of police brutality.

If de Becker’s book were merely another self-help book, I could see where someone could say that I’m just beating a dead horse. The book is old. But de Becker’s The Gift of Fear is not a dead horse. Police Chief magazine author John F. Muffler cited The Gift of Fear in an article titled “Mitigating Targeted Violence in Our Communities: Learned Lessons From Past Attacks” published in 2020. If this is any indication, it is clear that The Gift of Fear is still being used as a resource by police departments and police officers. In his 2010 Foreword to the Special Kindle Edition, de Becker mentions changes to society that have taken place since 1997, which include the risks posed by the Internet, social media, and violent video games, but he doesn’t mention the role racial bias might play in fear assessment or mistaken assessments of risk.

Gavin de Becker protects clients that include government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the United States Capital Police, and the Supreme Court of the United States. The company also notes that university police departments and 14 state police agencies are its clients. The offerings of the company include Advanced Threat Assessment trainings. How much do these trainings and offerings mirror what we read in The Gift of Fear? Given that the public has a stake in the outcome of these trainings, I don’t think these are trivial questions.

All this isn’t to dismiss The Gift of Fear outright. There are aspects of the book that offer fascinating insight into risk assessment and fear, and many of these insights are ahead of their time. De Becker writes about how a violent man might use niceness to encourage reciprocation in a potential victim, noting, “We must learn and then 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 always present the image of a nice person in the beginning.”

There are some aspects of human manipulation that de Becker delves into in explicit detail. He writes that a person who is lying will give too many details. A person looking to manipulate and control may offer unsolicited help and refuse to take “no” for an answer. De Becker explains, “‘No’ is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you.” A “no” unheeded in the context of an intimate relationship or friendship is a bad warning sign enough, but in the context of an interaction with a stranger, it is the most important warning. In many cases, a man seeking a potential victim will test his victim by seeing how she reacts to his refusal to take no for an answer.

De Becker explains that his strategies aren’t meant to be applied in a “one-size-fits-all” manner, but he writes that the only strategy that is right for all situations is to “listen to your intuition.” And yet, while this might be good advice for a woman encountering a random man in a dark alley, this very excuse has been used to justify police shootings across the country. In high-stakes situations, when intuition fails, an innocent person can end up dead.

Human folly takes many forms. We ignore legitimate fear and sometimes fear the wrong thing. Violence in America is a tragedy and an urgent problem to be feared for sure. Inequality is a tragedy and an urgent problem, certainly one that should leave us all fearful if not for ourselves, then at least for our children’s future financial security. But when it comes to what we’re doing to the planet, if our fear doesn’t turn urgent soon, we might someday find ourselves turning on the faucet (how mundane, how reliable), and find no water there to drink. If this doesn’t chill you, I understand. I keep telling my best friend to let me buy her that ticket to Hawai’i. She still hasn’t come.

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About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.