The Gift of Fear

by Gavin de Becker

When I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I worked alone in a small office in a large university building. For most of the day, the corridor outside was deserted. A woman lecturer I once met in the library said, with concern, "You're very isolated up there, aren't you?"
          And so I was. I saw hundreds of students, who came to my office by appointment, and in confidence. No one knew who I was shut in that small room with, or when. The majority of the students were female, but I also saw a lot of male students, some of them very large indeed.
          I never felt the slightest bit uneasy or threatened by any of them -- except one.

          He didn't fit the part at all. He was shorter than me, slight, soft-spoken and very polite. Yet the moment I opened my office door to him, and quite out of the blue, a voice spoke up at the back of my head and said, very distinctly, "Not him."
          But I ignored this misgiving. After all, what was it based on? Nothing -- except that voice in the head. I ticked myself off for being irrational.
          So I ushered him in, and asked how I could help. He didn't want help with writing, he said: he wanted to practice his English. I thought: Okay. I've no other appointments. We can talk about the headlines for an hour.
          But whatever subject I brought up, he turned it round to me. He kept saying that he wanted to know all about me. I didn't like this at all. Apart from this insistent curiosity about me -- which I did my best not to satisfy -- he didn't say or do anything in the slightest bit threatening, but the longer I was with him, the more uneasy I felt, though I couldn't have said why.
          Nevertheless, I agreed to another appointment -- because I didn't want to be rude or foolishly irrational.
          I woke in the middle of that night, and in my head was the image of this student, and the firm instruction: "Not him."
          I still had no logical reason to refuse to see this student, but decided that if that inner voice felt strongly enough about it to wake me in the night, I would listen. Especially as it was such a strong contrast with the way I felt about my other appointments. I'd admitted many larger, louder and more abrasive men to that office, and no mysterious inner voice had ever bothered to say anything about them at all, not so much as a comment on their dress sense.
          The RLF insists that its fellows can refuse to see anyone, on a whim, if they feel like it. So I used this get-out clause. I emailed the student and told him that my RLF bosses were cancelling his appointment because the task of the RLF is to help with writing, not English conversation. (Which is true.)

        I never saw or heard of this student again, so I can't supply a satisfying ending to the tale -- which is quite a relief -- but it was fascinating to read The Gift of Fear: The Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, and to realise that its author, Gavin de Becker would have joined forces with the RLF and backed me all the way. Except that de Becker would say that I should have listened to the voice the first time it spoke.
          I found this book completely absorbing. De Becker was himself raised in a violent family and, he says, learned to read the signs that signal coming violence as a child.
          As an adult, he increased his expertise and uses it to protect people in the public eye, including presidents, from violence. His company, for instance, monitors the mail, paper and electronic, sent to politicians, stars and other people in public life. Private citzens too, if they ask for his help.
          The mail, which is mostly harmless, is constantly evaluated by de Becker's teams. The signs of coming violence are always there, de Becker says. The kind of rage which posts bombs, shoots randomly through an office or school, or decides to murder a singing star, never comes out of nowhere -- though, to de Becker's disgust, most institutions prefer to think that it does and that 'there was nothing that could have been done.'
         In de Becker's opinion, there was always an awful lot that could have been done -- but the companies and institutions in question have to be alert to those survival signals. Most can't be bothered.
          When de Becker's teams detect a rise in violent intent, they alert the police and the person threatened, and even move in to take action themselves. In one case, where they had reason to suspect a singing star was threatened, they had her move out of her house because it backed on to a large area of wild scrubland, and they didn't think they could adequately protect her there.
          Believing that their suspect was living rough in the scrub, they conducted a search -- and found two other obsessed stalkers living in make-shift huts while they watched the singer. Neither of these men was judged dangerous -- and the real threat turned out to have gone elsewhere, to make an attempted attack on a woman politician, who was on his list because 'women shouldn't be above men.' (The politician's office and local police had been alerted to this possibility.)
          De Becker analyses the behaviour and language of attackers, showing how they use words and actions to gain control over the person they intend to attack -- but his message is that we are all as expert as he is in recognising and identifying this behaviour, if only we would listen to ourselves. Again and again, he reports, the victims of violence, in retelling their stories, identify key signals which raised their suspicions at the time, but which they ignored or suppressed, because they didn't want to be 'silly' or 'rude.'
          He takes us through cases of mass shootings and bombings, where the alarm was raised about the criminal well before the event -- because other employees or students felt consistently uneasy in his presence. (I'm afraid it usually is 'his' presence.)
           This feeling of unease or suspicion, says de Becker, is our primitive animal nature screaming a warning. It should never, never be ignored. Listening to it could save your life.
          I think everyone should read this book -- but it's perhaps of especial interest to writers, who are always curious about the peculiar pathways human nature can take.
          I think I shall search for some more books by de Becker.