Media Circus: How not to get your head blown off

"The Gift of Fear" offers real, usable advice for real, threatening situations.

Published September 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I really wanted not to like this book. I was reading it during the aftermath of the death of Princess Di, and there was Gavin de Becker all over the television offering up 12-second sound bites of wisdom on security matters. He was always identified as the author of "The Gift of Fear," so I understood that this volume was part of the marketing of Gavin de Becker, who wanted to move from little-known high-priced security consultant to well-known high-priced media expert.

It's not an uncommon ambition; I suspect many children growing up today would like to be media experts. Right now, an expert actually has to have done something -- journalism, lawyering, government work -- for a few years, but it can be reliably predicted that within a few years that step will be eliminated. Experts will spring full-blown from graduate schools, complete with suitable wardrobes, aphorisms and statistics. They will debate other experts from other graduate schools, and in the fullness of time they will set up their own graduate schools, so that within 50 years we will have a parallel academic system, geared entirely to the lucrative business of presenting facts and opinions in less than 30 seconds.

But that's just my crankiness. Gavin de Becker did not invent this system, and in fact he's written a surprisingly good book. By "surprising," I mean: It's a bestseller, it's called "The Gift of Fear" and yet it's good. What are the odds?

He seems to even shy away from the smarmy title, which suggests a book about the desirability of gated communities and home schooling or the need to carry a concealed handgun at all times. On the contrary, "The Gift of Fear" attacks many of the common myths about danger in the modern world -- your chances of dying from a terrorist attack on an airplane, for instance -- and instead talks about real threats and what to do about them.

Because all books in the wisdom category are aimed at women, the bulk of "The Gift of Fear" is taken up by situations more often encountered by women -- domestic abuse, rape and stalking. Over and over, de Becker emphasizes that the "niceness" that is part of the socialization of most young women is not useful in dangerous situations. "No is a complete sentence," he says, over and over, almost willing his readers to understand the aphorism in all its permutations.

He is a passionate man, Gavin de Becker. When he was 10, he saw his mother shoot his father after years of abuse. He describes the scene vividly. He describes his own abuse. Since violent adults are almost always abused children -- the correlation is close to 100 percent -- he wonders why he turned out to be a crusader against domestic violence.

"It is similar to one brother asking another, 'Why did you grow up to be a drunk?' The answer is, 'Because Dad was a drunk.' The second brother then asks, 'Why didn't you grow up to be a drunk?' The answer is, 'Because dad was a drunk.'"

The passion makes the book a compelling read. Its intent may be to promote Gavin De Becker, the product, but the book is an honest job of work, dense, loaded with anecdotes and unexpected bits of advice. For instance, he says, if you are being stalked by an unwelcome ex- or would-be boyfriend, conventional wisdom holds that you should have a male friend record your phone machine message, so that the stalker will think you have found someone else and have protection.

Wrong, says Gavin de Becker. Have a female friend record the message -- the male voice will often cause the stalker to investigate further, while the female voice won't. The best thing is to get a second line and give that number out to friends. Put the old line on a phone machine; gradually, only the stalker will call it. Your life won't be disrupted.

After the dense chapters of useful advice for ordinary people caught in nasty situations, there is a nice trashy payoff -- a chapter on celebrity stalkers and another on assassins. De Becker has met many of the major loonies of our time and guarded many of the major stars. He worked for the prosecution team in the O.J. Simpson case, and his report on the trial -- and on Simpson himself -- drips with vitriol. He dismisses the notion that Simpson's behavior -- he has no doubt at all that Simpson killed his wife -- was unpredictable; indeed, he lists the behaviors, including some not reported previously, and demonstrates how they fit into the classic pattern of almost all spouse murderers. Then we get some fine time inside jail with some of the creepiest humans you'd ever want to meet. It's like all the best parts of "Silence of the Lambs" put together in one long highlight reel of psychopathology. It may be self-serving -- OK, it is self-serving -- but Gavin de Becker spins a mean yarn.

The book is saturated with celebrities; de Becker makes sure that we know how many he knows. He thanks half of Hollywood one way or another. There is one long anecdote devoted to the protection of a famous singer from a crazed stalker. The singer is carefully not named in the chapter, and de Becker says with pride that he managed to keep the whole incident out of the papers.

Then, in a special short list of thanks to the celebrity victims who have gone through particularly trying experiences, he mentions Olivia Newton-John. Ah well.
Sept. 24, 1997


E X C E R P T - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A study done for the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than a third of the women had continuing problems after getting restraining orders. That means, favorably, that almost two thirds did not have continuing problems -- but read on. While only 2.6 percent of the respondents were physically abused right after getting the orders, when they were recontacted six months later, that percentage had more than tripled. Reports of continued stalking and psychological abuse also increased dramatically after six months. This indicates that the short-term benefits of restraining orders are greater than the long-term benefits ...

Restraining orders are most effective on the reasonable person who has limited emotional investment. In other words, they work best on the person least likely to be violent anyway. Also, there is a substantial difference between using a restraining order on an abusive husband and using one on a man you dated a couple of times. That difference is the amount of emotional investment and entitlement the man feels. With a date-stalker, a TRO orders him to leave the woman alone and go about his life as it was before he met her. The same court order used on an estranged husband asks him to abandon, at the stroke of a judge's signature, the central features of his life: his intimate relationship, his control and ownership of another human being, his identity as a powerful man, his identity as a husband, and on and on. Thus, a TRO might ask one man to do something he can easily do, while it asks another to do something far more difficult. This distinction has been largely ignored by the criminal justice system.

By Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Near-Life Experiences: The Best of Jon Carroll."

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