Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: The Gift of Fear

I missed this book when it first came out almost 20 years ago, but my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, recommends it on a regular basis. When I spotted it at the library the other day, I decided it was time to finally read it. I'm glad I did.

The bottom line in this book is trust your gut. If your instincts tell you something isn't right, listen. We humans spend our entire lives being socially conditioned to deny and ignore basic survival instincts. We'll deny the obvious -- the warning signs that a new boyfriend is a controlling abuser, that a problem employee has the potential for violence, that the nice young man who's offered to help carry your groceries is planning to mug you in the parking lot. Women especially are trained from childhood to be "nice," to never make a fuss, not to be aggressive. We're so afraid of looking like a bitch that we set ourselves up to be abused. We'll try to explain away or make excuses for people showing every clear sign that they're borderline crazy or worse.

De Becker does notes that although women have been  trained by society to ignore warning signs, men can be just as bad when it comes to denial in settings like the workplace. Employees will signal loud and clear that they're a serious risk to have around, but managers will ignore warning sign after warning sign until it's too late. De Becker gives multiple examples of incidents that were easily preventable if employers had just taken the time to actually do background checks, to ask serious questions at job interviews, or to take complaints from other employees seriously. When he asked employers why they didn't check references, the excuse was that they knew that no one would provide a reference who was going to give a bad answer. Well, it might still be a good idea to verify that the references actually exist or that the applicant did work at the places given as past employers. At the very least, discovering that an applicant claimed to have worked for a company that doesn't exist would be a clue that applicant might not be the most honest person on the planet.

A slight digression: I am always astounded when I read about cases where people have managed to lie their way into some fairly high profile jobs by giving themselves degrees from colleges they never attended or listing past employers who don't exist. Yes, it's true that most employers fear litigation enough that they won't say anything negative about a former employee, but they will at least tell you whether or not someone actually worked for them. And you know what? If you call a former employer and the reaction on the phone involves an audible gasp and a muttered "Oh, shit. . ." before they go into the spiel about not being able to say anything other than to confirm employment you've gotten the answer you needed.

Anyway, De Becker also mentions that communications within a company can lead to problems going unresolved and eventually exploding. If top management doesn't know a problem exists, they can't address it. He gives an example using sexual harassment in the workplace: when he talked with a CEO of a national restaurant chain, the executive said they had maybe one or two complaints nationally per year. When he went down a level, the number of known complaints went up to a dozen or more. At even lower level, it went from "one or two" to "20 or more a month." Which, of course, meant that nation-wide there were hundreds of complaints annually that top management either didn't know about or were pretending didn't exist.  Why didn't the guy at the top know what was actually going on? Because no one wanted to be the person reporting bad news. Which isn't much of a shock, actually, considering that CBS Television built a reality series, Undercover Boss, around the premise that the CEO of a corporation has no clue as to what's happening down in trenches.

As I was reading this book, I found myself remembering an episode on Michael Moore's short-lived television series, TV Nation. One of the classic themes when a serial killer is apprehended or some horrific episode of domestic violence occurs is "He seemed like such a nice guy. We never noticed anything unusual." Moore decided to test that. If I recall correctly, he rented a house in a nice suburban neighborhood and then had the male occupant behave in a blatantly suspicious manner, right down to digging large, coffin-sized holes in the backyard and burying human-sized bundles and 55-gallon barrels. After a few weeks, the "police" staged a dramatic raid and marched the occupant out in handcuffs and drove him away. Moore then interviewed the neighbors, who quite predictably
claimed the occupant "seemed like a nice guy" and "never did anything unusual." The occupant had done everything short of putting a billboard in the front yard proclaiming "I'm a serial killer!!" but the neighbors willfully ignored it all.

Part of that willful ignorance no doubt came from the classic American reluctance to get involved, but another motivation had to be denial: denial that there could be a real problem right down the street from where a person lived. Humans are really good at believing that if they just ignore something long enough, it will eventually go away. After all, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's landlord bought the explanation that the foul stench coming from Dahmer's apartment was caused by a few dead tropical fish in the trash. Having experienced the Woman Cave becoming unbearable from the stench of one dead mouse, I don't want to think about what a building would smell like with a couple of decaying human cadavers in it. You've got to work hard at denying reality to be able to rationalize away that sort of stench.
De Becker also debunks the notion that violent behavior is not predictable. He lays it out pretty clearly that in domestic violence cases there's always a pattern of escalation. More importantly, he describes the warning signs, the indicators, that signal early on in a relationship that a person is on track to be an abuser.

So what's the bottom line on the book? It's worth reading, especially for its message that there's a difference to living in fear and listening to fear. As Americans we tend to do the first -- too many people live in a constant state of terror, scared silly of abstract stuff that's never going to happen, while ignoring our intuition about threats that are right in front of us. We tie ourselves in emotional knots about threats from terrorists while ignoring the nagging sense that there's something about a potential babysitter or boyfriend that doesn't seem quite right. Then we're shocked when the babysitter turns out to be a thief or the boyfriend becomes violent.

Because the edition I read came out in 1998, when social media as we know it now did not exist and cell phones were still relatively rare, I wondered if there was an updated edition. Apparently not. However, that's a minor quibble. It would be interesting to see De Becker's thoughts on dealing with social media, most of which strike me as being a stalker's dream come true, but the fact it's not discussed in the book doesn't make the book overall less important.


  1. Social Media did exist in 98, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, blogs, things like that.

  2. Yahoo Messenger? People actually used that?

  3. Yup, it was actually pretty cool back then, when you was chatting with them you could actually watch them typing in real time. Then it got a talk feature and if you had a mic you could just talk to each other like on a phone.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.