The Gift of Fear Book Review

About the Book

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker has been given to me by well-meaning friends more than once, but I finally sat down to read it this month. This is not an easy book to read-- at several points, I had to stop and think carefully about how I felt about what I was reading.

Rage was, for me, the most common emotion, because as a rape survivor and the sister (biologically and spiritually) of abused women, I wanted to take my copy of the book, coat the pages with concrete, and smack a few dozen men in the head with it. This is a difficult book to read, but if you are a woman, you must read this book. For starters, it could save your life, and that's not just hype.

Predicting Violence

Over and over throughout the book, de Becker stresses that, by paying attention to verbal and behavioral clues an individual gives off, you can predict whether or not a person or situation will turn violent. He uses examples from his own personal life, from the studies his protective services company has conducted, and from nationwide studies. Time and again, he demonstrated that the guy who "kept to himself, no one could predict" was clearly a simmering time bomb waiting to go off, usually with weeks of predictors for violent behavior preceding whatever horrific tragedy this quiet loner enacted.

He also provides a list of predictors, kind of the basic tools for survival, like a history of violence in childhood (as the victim), violent incidents leading up to the crime, verbal or written threats and statements of intention ("I'm going to kill you"-- not uncommon as a threat), and a fascination with weapons. De Becker points out that no crime happens without someone thinking to themselves that they want to do it, and that they can do it. The thought is there. Then the words come-- the threat of violence is a sure predictor, and the one we are most likely to ignore. Finding a means in the weapon, or simply taking advantage of the weapon of opportunity. Finally, there are usually violent incidents leading up to the big crime-- practice, in a way-- the murderer is testing his own limits.

This isn't just for serial killers-- de Becker points out that these predictors are common in spousal abuse cases (where ignoring the threat or even actual violence is often a sure road to death), child abuse, school and workplace shootings, fatal robberies, rapes, and public assassinations.

In addition to predicting a violent incident by observing the perpetrator before it happens, de Becker gives the all-important cues to listen for when you are actually in the situation, including: 

  • A nagging or suspicious feeling-- most of the time, women in particular will have an intuitive sense that something is wrong. Listen to this instinct!!! It will save your life.
  • Anxiety, particularly unexplained anxiety. The woman who sits on a bus next to a killer who strikes up a conversation, and who is suddenly anxious that the bus is going to crash is being alerted by her body to get away from the killer.
  • Humor, particularly dark humor, is an interesting one, because we often use humor to defuse a volatile situation, but people also often laugh at inappropriate moments because our laugh reflex kicks in when we don't know what else to do.

De Becker has an entire list of these, but they boil down to the same message. When your mind and body genuinely tell you to fear, you should listen to them. 

IMPACT Self Defense

Identifying Bad Boyfriends

If I could recommend one part of this book to anyone, it would be Chapter 10: Intimate Enemies, and I would recommend it to any woman who has ever feared her boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. It's all about domestic violence. The 9 chapters leading up to it would be good reading, too, because in every chapter, de Becker mentions the thousands of women who die every day because they ignored the fact that their partners were killing them.

"Intimate Enemies" delves into the predictors for violent partners, but you can learn those in the previous chapters. A wife or girlfriend has the best vantage for seeing predictive behaviors-- she sees the rages, hears the words "I'm going to kill you" and knows the state of constant fear. She is in a permanent state of fight-or-flight, and usually overrides both instincts for emotional reasons of her own.

This chapter has not only led to thousands of women saving their own lives and the lives of their children, it's also led to men getting help. Because domestic violence isn't pathological in the sense of being unstoppable. An abuser can get help, can get into therapy and save the lives of his family (whether he kills them or not, violence at home destroys their lives).

Chapters 8 and 11 would be my second recommendation, and it goes out to all the girls who have ever found themselves picking up the phone to say "I told you not to call me!" This persistent stalking behavior is one of the predictors of violence, and how you interact with it can shape how the bad boyfriend (or even bad date) will behave towards you. Ignoring him is the best option-- it's when we continually engage, even to say "go away," that the stalker gets mixed messages and persists in his harassment. 

Violence in Children

There's a whole chapter dedicated to children, protecting them from violence as well as dealing with violent kids. For me, as a non-parent, the chapter was an academic exercise. For a parent, though, I imagine it would be a powerful and perhaps chilling lesson to read. 

Men and Women and Fear

When was the last time you seriously considered whether or not an individual meant to harm you?

  • (Male respondant) Within the last 48 hours.
  • (Male respondant) 2-7 days ago.
  • (Male respondant) 1-3 weeks ago.
  • (Male respondant) 1-3 months ago
  • (Male respondant) More than 3 months ago.
  • (Female respondant) Within the last 24 hours.
  • (Female respondant) 1-2 days ago.
  • (Female respondant) 2-7 days ago.
  • (Female respondant) 1-3 weeks ago.
  • (Female respondant) 1-3 months ago.
  • (Female respondant) More than 3 months ago.
See results without voting

Understanding the Media

The rest of the book is useful for learning how the media amplifies and encourages violence. The amount of celebrity a killer can get from killing a blonde 10 year old girl is, frankly, obscene. Heck, the amount of celebrity a person can get just for confessing to killing a blonde 10 year old, even if he didn't do it, is also obscene.

The media circus surrounding celebrities, public figures, and the people who assault them is part of why these crimes continue to happen and why they are so prevalent. It's also why child kidnappings come in groups. Partly, the media picks up on additional stories when one is on the radar. But again, thought and possibility have to occur to the perpetrator before the action occurs. When a would-be child killer sees on the news that a little blonde girl's disappearance is all the media can talk about, the idea enters his head-- I could do that.

I was already a pretty jaded viewer of these sensationalist stories. I detest them-- I would rather see the nightly news turn off ten minutes early or even show ten minutes more of commercials (and you know I hate commercials!) than have them run more stories about cute kids getting kidnapped.

From my own non-clinical observations, the Amber Alert system does not do an adequate job of protecting children, because it turns kidnappers into instant celebrities, and encourages more violence through vigilanteism. And I'm not afraid to point out racial bias-- we all know that little black children go missing, too, but if you live in the inner city, I guess your disappearance doesn't warrant a statewide manhunt.

Get it on!

Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism
Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism

Fear Less: Want to know if the nature of fear has changed since 9/11? Everything else has....

Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)
Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)

It seems like the job of a parent is to worry and fear for the safety of our children. How to do that without becoming a stifling headcase?

Just 2 Seconds
Just 2 Seconds

Just 2 Seconds is for bodyguards and others in protective services-- it's an industry book.


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Comments 15 comments

Catlyn profile image

Catlyn 7 years ago from Somewhere in the OC

Thank you for this summary! As a receipient of this book, I will now make the time to read it.

mortaine profile image

mortaine 7 years ago from United States Author

I'm so glad, Catlyn! It's definitely solid information for any woman to defend herself!

Karen C. 7 years ago

Interesting! I only know of deBecker through his book for parents - "Protecting the Gift" - which is on my "to read" list. I really hope I can teach my child(ren) to listen to their intuitions and "weird feelings." I've already started by not forcing him to be affectionate with anyone he doesn't feel like hugging or kissing - and that sometimes includes me!

Tiff 7 years ago

What a biased and opinioned review, oh I agree that it's a wondersul book. However to say this book "will" save your life rather than "may " save it is purile & patently rediculous. Les ias, more facts please.o

mortaine profile image

mortaine 7 years ago from United States Author

Tiff, you clearly don't get what a book review is. It's the reader's opinion and interaction with a book. It's subjective, hon. Opinionated. It's not supposed to be fact. I wonder how many letters you've written to book reviewers, blasting them for saying "This is the best book I've read this year" (or "this is the worst book I've read this year," even). Does the New York Times Review of Books know about you?

Rachel Ann 6 years ago

Thank you for this review! One of my mentors had suggested this book years ago, but I couldn't remember the title. I came across your review today and it has made more determined than ever to get and read this book. I wish women wouldn't be so damned socialized to be nice; I wish we were instead socialized to listen to our instincts.

Adam Lukeman profile image

Adam Lukeman 6 years ago from New York

Hi. I appreciate your review. The book is very meaningful.

loriamoore 6 years ago

Thanks for the info on this book. I too am a rape survivor, of an intimate enemy. I might purchase this book.

fujoshicat profile image

fujoshicat 5 years ago from California

I read this book years ago, when it first came out. It's an excellent read and, like you, I can definitely recommend it to everyone - particularly women.

Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA

Thank you for this review! The book is one of my all-time favorite books, and I think of it every time the news tells about some violent situation that could have so easily been predicted and prevented. I wish everyone would take the time to read it, because it definitely can change perceptions of what goes on around us.

Because I mentioned the book briefly in one of my Hubs, I have linked from it to this article. I am so glad I came by to read it. You have done an excellent job here. Rated "awesome"!

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

I read this book years ago, and refer to it often in the groups I do. My pet peeve is that parents should never allow their children to be exposed to verbal threats of violence or violent language. When kids are exposed to violence, their sensors stop working right. They start accepting violence as normal. Children need to be corrected when they talk with violent ideation, and told that "we don't talk like that." Unfortunately, if parents don't recognize violence themselves, they are not teaching their children that violence is not ok. They are teaching their children that violence is an option. Thanks for the excellent review of this book. I liked when he talked about how our subconscious mind recognizes red flags and how important it is to listen to ourselves. I still remember the example of the woman carrying groceries and the attacker kept offering to help her.

gerogelamen 5 years ago

As a clearly expressed, introverted male I take this as highly offensive.

Time and again, he demonstrated that the guy who "kept to himself, no one could predict" was clearly a simmering time bomb waiting to go off, usually with weeks of predictors for violent behavior preceding whatever horrific tragedy this quiet loner enacted.

Having not read the book, I hope it explains to keep this idea in check.

Stephanie 5 years ago

Actually, what the author points out is that the introverted man who isn't violent is easy to distinguish from the media's archetype of the simmering killer. The killer will have shown for weeks, even months beforehand that he is thinking about and planning to do violence, through cues that anyone close enough to observe will be able to pick up. Paying attention to *those* predictors and not dismissing them can actually prevent violence. And he's pretty clear about how those cues are very much different from normal, non-violent introverted behavior.

My apologies if that wasn't clear in my review. It is certainly clearly expressed in the book. If you've ever found yourself in a situation where someone mistook you for a threat, you should probably read the book so you can understand what triggered their fear.

S G Hupp profile image

S G Hupp 5 years ago from United States

I made both of my now college age daughters read this book while they were in high school and it REALLY stuck with them. I've heard both of them reference it from time to time with other young women. Excellent book.

Johnk306 24 months ago

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