Friday, 21 December 2012

Gavin de Becker: The Gift of Fear

kaberettPosted by kaberett

[content notes: misogyny, abuse, violence, rape, murder, suicide]

Gavin de Becker is a security specialist based in Los Angeles; he's the founder of the eponymous private security firm Gavin de Becker & Associates, whose clients include many celebrities and - over its lifetime - an awfully large proportion of US Presidents, Governors, Supreme Justices and other politicians. He's evidently very effective; based on his experiences, he's written a number of books that have made it onto worldwide bestseller lists.

There's one in particular I see recommended all over the place, particularly in anti-abuse activism or counselling. The Gift of Fear is mentioned over and over again, whether it's in comments on the fantastic advice column run by Captain Awkward or in the course of my work at VaginaPagina. There's one name that comes up, over and over, more than any other that I can recall: Gavin de Becker.

And so! And so. I finally got around to reading it.

Before we go any further, I want to say this: The Gift of Fear was first published in 1997. In England and Wales, the legal exemption for marital rape was only abolished in 1991. He (note, please, the irony) was among the first people to get the issue of predominantly gendered violence into the public consciousness. His assertion that "women always have the choice to leave" abusive relationships is horrifying, but he was possibly - possibly - writing that in a context where saying "leave" was radical, against a backdrop of even greater social pressure to "keep working on the relationship". But even if that's true? He's had 15 years to update the book (he wrote a new foreword for the eBook edition!), and the statistics he cites make it abundantly clear that people were trying to leave, all the way back in 1997.

Bearing all that in mind, here is my one-sentence summary of The Gift of Fear: Gavin de Becker makes a fundamentally reasonable point in the shittiest and most self-aggrandising way he can without having it be immediately obvious to everyone.

(Also? he's a misogynist who doesn't understand geology.)

In slightly more detail, have a series of excerpts and my keysmashing about why HE IS WRONG ABOUT ALL THINGS.
To start with, let's have this charming tidbit from the introduction:
Note: Men of all ages and in all parts of the world are more violent than women. For this reason, the language in this book is mostly gender-specific to men. When it comes to violence, women can proudly relinquish recognition in the language, because here at least, politically correct would be statistically incorrect.

Taking what he says at face value, I'd be far more impressed by this paragraph if he didn't proceed to gender non-perpetrator executives, doctors, etc as consistently male - even where they're constructs for the sake of a thought experiment. Well done, Gavin, misogyny nicely lampshaded. Note that he never explicitly raises the issue of male-on-male violence as a prevalent issue; he glosses over the pattern when making reference to individual instances of male-on-male violence.

In the context of his utterly unsubtle use of the masculine as gender neutral, I'm much less willing to extend good faith to the rest of that paragraph - his patronising lecture on how women (& by extension, female readers) ought to feel, backed up by statistics (which women, as we know, don't understand...). And that is before we get onto the fact that I consider complaints about "political correctness" to be a dog whistle in their own right... more on this another 2am, perhaps.

Next up, it's the Gavin de Becker Doesn't Understand Seismology show:
The prediction of earthquakes gives us an extreme example. There are, contrary to popular belief, reliable pre-incident indicators for earthquakes. The problem is that the PINs might be ten thousand years long, and for this reason earthquakes remain, in human terms, unpredictable. In geological terms, however, it is fair to say that the next earthquake in Los Angeles has already started.

Here is a definition copied from the Oxford Dictionary of Earth Sciences:
earthquake Motion of the Earth. Tectonic earthquakes result from the release of accumulated strain when brittle failure occurs. This failure coincides with the release of stress on the rocks that actually break. Earthquakes are usually classified in terms of their depth [...] Earthquakes may also be caused by volcanic activity or induced explosions (e.g. A-bombs) to which the elastic model of tectonic earthquakes does not apply. The energy released is not stored kinetic energy, but chemical/physical energy which imposes a sudden stress that locally exceeds the strength of the rocks and no significant accumulated strain is involved as the rocks yield to the imposed stresses.

Or, to put it another way, he is wrong wrong wrongity-wrong wrong wrong. Sort of. Here is the quick summary: (some) earthquakes can be predicted - he's correct about that much - but what we mean by this is that we can look at how frequently a fault has moved in the past, and use that to say it's likely to go again at a similar interval. Those of you who've talked to me in any depth about rocks, though, will know that by "cold" I mean "less than 800degC" and by "recent" I mean "less than five million years ago": ditto "a similar interval" can quite happily mean "plus or minus thirty years" - or longer, depending on the repetition interval for the fault in question. This is useful on a geological timescale, and utterly useless in terms of getting people to evacuate a high-risk area.

(Here is the routine PSA: to-the-minute, or even to-the-day, earthquake prediction is just. not. relevant. in places where building codes are rigorous and upheld. Earthquakes that will kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iran or Indonesia can on the West coast of the US result in not a single bottle in an entire hospital being broken. And getting building codes right is much, much easier than predicting earthquakes on a human-relevant timescale.)

But there is no reasonable sense in which "the next earthquake in LA has already started" is a true statement "in geological terms". While I can tell where he went wrong (plate motion continues; new strain - which will be released in the next earthquake - begins building up as soon as the previous quake is over), it's a ridiculous analogy and one he really, really shouldn't have made without better understanding what on Earth (intentional) he was talking about.

I've learned a lot about this from young people who killed others, some who killed themselves, and as you'll see in the next chapter, one who did a little of both. -- even in the context of the case study he cites, I think that final subclause is so jawdroppingly inane as to be worth noting.

And then! de Becker uses heteronormativity. IT'S SUPER EFFECTIVE.
Some people seriously ponder the question of whether males are even necessary for raising children, and we do little to encourage the role of fathers.

I... pretty much just feel like leaving that one there, actually.

I looked at [prisoner GdeB is interviewing] and nodded. We'd been together for nearly a half hour, and I had not asked him a single question.

Six lines earlier, de Becker quotes himself as saying "That sounds like you think there is someone else like you." Sure, that phrase is maybe not a question in the sense that the transcript includes a question mark - or even in the sense that he gave it rising inflection when speaking it - but I don't think claiming it's not an implicit question is particularly impressive.

Pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life. Suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary components of life. (Great humanitarians, remember, have worked to end suffering, not pain.)

I'm pretty comfortable arguing, based on this, that de Becker has never lived with chronic pain; has never been close to someone living with chronic pain; is entirely unaware of pain clinics and pain specialists. And to him I say: piss. off. -- & maybe come back when you have any idea what you're talking about.

To clarify: I agree that pain is often a useful warning signal. But for me? Yes, I occasionally get spikes indicating that Something Is Wrong and I should Sit Up And Pay Attention - but the rest of the time, I'm living with high background levels of pain that provide me with no useful information and serve only to make me miserable and to wear me out.

Of course, these excerpts are only a few paragraphs from a 353 page book - but they're typical of a common theme and a common attitude towards his reader. He blithely insists people have choices and should leave abusive relationships sooner rather than later; it is a long time after that that he first acknowledges that many people (sorry, Gavin: women) are killed because they leave. Even then, he does a pretty shoddy job of explaining how that plays into the bigger picture of abusive dynamics, and why people shouldn't (as he promotes) be afraid to leave.

I left this book frustrated and angry, more than enlightened; these days, I feel mainstream feminist conversations (which you're probably pretty familiar with, given where you're reading this!) are likely to give you as good an introduction to the subject as The Gift of Fear is, with - on the whole - a much lower chance that you'll encounter victim-blaming and misogyny. In retrospect, I'm gently horrified by how often I see this book recommended with no disclaimers: while I can see the argument behind telling me I've got a choice, when I'm trapped in a dangerous situation where I don't feel that's the case, being told I need more willpower is exactly the last thing that's likely to be helpful.

But I'm glad I read it - because now, next time I see it praised, I'll be able to step in with an "er, actually" - and some days that feels like the most useful phrase I know.


  1. In fairness, I've never seen Captain Awkward recommend it without a disclaimer about skipping the chapter on domestic abuse - I've been aware of that because I think, "Well, I'd probably wind up reading every chapter, and being very upset."

    However, it sounds quite dreadful and I very much enjoyed your seismic rage here. ;-)

    1. Heh, fair point - I think I've mostly spotted it in comments and/or managed to gloss over that... in any case, as I say above, I find it more infuriating than helpful and think you'll get pretty much all the benefit just from reading the good Cap'n ;) (In particular, a lot of it is "it's OKAY to feel uncomfortable when someone ACTS LIKE A DOUCHE because they're ACTING LIKE A DOUCHE, & it is not on you to make them feel okay with that...)

      And, heh, what does Lashings keep a geologist around for if not the occasional volcanic explosion ;)