A Review of
The Gift of Fear:
and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence

by Gavin de Becker
reviewed by Catherine Hampton

Publisher: Dell Publishing
(a division of Bantam Dell Doubleday Publishing Group, Inc.)

1540 Broadway
New York, NY 10036
# of Pages: 420
Binding: Mass Market paperback
  ISBN: 0-440-22619-8
  List Price: $6.99

The Gift of Fear is a basic text on violence -- how to recognize it, how to predict it, how to avoid it, and how to cope with it if avoiding it doesn't work. Its author, Gavin de Becker, is considered one of the greatest living experts on violence, and runs a highly rated personal security firm with clients ranging from battered women's shelters to Hollywood stars to the U.S. Secret Service. He learned about violence early on -- living in a violent home with a mentally ill, heroin-addicted mother and a series of battering stepfathers. de Becker spent much of his childhood dodging bullets, hiding, and trying to protect his younger sister. He knows what he's talking about.

The various forms of violence common in western society and, to some extent, human societies as a whole, include:

This book discusses how to live in a violent society, protect yourself and those you love, and not be dragged under by the violence around you. de Becker gives clear, simple explanations of what to look for in a person's behavior or a situation -- how to predict whether an individual is just blowing off steam or is likely to act violently. He provides practical, helpful advice on how to handle different kinds of potentially-violent situations. These situations range from a woman dealing with an overly friendly stranger who makes her feel creepy, to a battered spouse, to someone being stalked by a mentally-ill person.

By giving his readers clearly stated, accurate information on how to assess the danger posed by violent or potentially violent individuals, de Becker demystifies violence. This gives his readers the tools they need to understand and learn from their own fear, and therefore not be obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.

I'm sure this sounds like a book at least half the people in the world, and former members of a number of cults, could benefit from. But you're probably wondering what this has to do with the International Churches of Christ? After all, the ICC does not approve of physical violence, and its members are rarely overtly violent to anyone, even people leaving the group. So what's the use of this particular book?

I've found it helpful for several related reasons. First and foremost, de Becker respects instinct, and tells you why in clear, specific, and convincing language. The ICC denigrates instinct as "emotionalism", for the most part -- someone who insists on following a particular course of action because their instincts tell them it's right is in for some heavy discipling. :/ But most people who leave the ICC do so because something instinctively feels wrong, rather than after lengthy study or airtight reasoning.

Hearing an expert explain what instinct is and why it is valuable can lift a load off of your conscience and silence the old ICC tapes if it was your "gut" that told you to get out.

Second, de Becker explains what boundaries are, and how to deal with someone who insists on violating them. He discusses the tactics used by many crooks to manipulate their victims into cooperating in their own victimization -- tactics he calls "forced teaming", "charm and niceness", "too many details", "typecasting", "loan sharking", "the unsolicited promise" and "discounting the word 'no'". Each of these techniques is a means of manipulating someone into dropping their defenses and handing control over to the other person.

While de Becker is discussing how violent criminals use these techniques, of course, any former member of the ICC will recognize several of them as techniques which have been used on us when we "were met" and recruited into the group, while we were being discipled, and which we used on others for the same purposes. These techniques are also used for legitimate (as opposed to legal but not legitimate) purposes, as well. Robert Cialdini discusses many of the same psychological techniques in his groundbreaking marketing book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a book anyone who has received an MBA in the past few years will have read in school.

As those of us who have been in it know, the ICC acknowledges no boundaries; privacy does not exist. One of the primary virtues in the ICC is "openness". One of the great sins is "independence". Reasserting your boundaries and refusing to allow a former discipler or others in the group to violate your privacy any longer is an important part of healing from your time in the ICC.

Third, people who leave the ICC are often subjected to a barrage of short-term harrassment -- constant phone calls at work and at home at all hours, pages (if they wear a pager), letters, and visitors showing up on their doorsteps in large numbers and insisting on discussing things, or "studying it out". This harrassment is rarely dangerous except to your peace of mind, and it rarely lasts more than a few weeks. That isn't always clear to someone who just left the ICC, however, and desperately needs some space and quiet to think things through.

This breeds confusion and fear in the former member, confusion and fear that ICC members will use to reinforce what you were taught in the ICC -- that leaving the group is leaving God and all sorts of terrible things are likely to happen. :/ Terrified former members have been known to go back to the group because of this fear.

Someone who has read The Gift of Fear is much more likely to realize that they are in no physical danger from current members, and much more likely to recognize attempts by current members to instill irrational fear. Knowing this can give you both the information and the courage you need to set limits firmly and act decisively to stop the harrassment.

In the rare cases where you might be in physical danger, you will also have a much better grasp on what you're afraid of and why you're afraid, and will have a much clearer understanding of what to do to protect yourself and your family.

The book contains the following chapters:

Chapter 1: In the Presence of Danger
Chapter 2: The Technology of Intuition
Chapter 3: The Academy of Prediction
Chapter 4: Survival Signals
Chapter 5: Imperfect Strangers
Chapter 6: High-Stakes Predictions
Chapter 7: Promises to Kill: Understanding Threats
Chapter 8: Persistence, Persistence: Dealing with People who Refuse to Let Go
Chapter 9: Occupational Hazards: Violence in the Workplace
Chapter 10: Intimate Enemies: Domestic Violence
Chapter 11: "I was Trying to Let Him Down Easy": Date Stalking
Chapter 12: Fear of Children: Violent Children
Chapter 13: Better to be Wanted by the Police Than Not to Be Wanted at All: Attacks on Public Figures
Chapter 14: Extreme Hazards
Chapter 15: The Gift of Fear
Recommended Reading

The subject matter of this book is unpleasant, but the book's actual effect on people tends to be reassuring. Fear of the unknown is always much worse than fear of the known. After reading The Gift of Fear, you'll know both what to fear and how to cope.