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The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violenceby Gavin De Becker
In the Presence of Danger
"This above all, to refuse to be a victim." -Margaret Atwood
He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren't sure-but what we do know is that she was not his first victim. That afternoon, in an effort to get all her shopping done in one trip, Kelly had overestimated what she could comfortably carry home. Justifying her decision as she struggled with the heavy bags, she reminded herself that making two trips would have meant walking around after dark, and she was too careful about her safety for that. As she climbed the few steps to the apartment building door, she saw that it had been left unlatched (again). Her neighbors just don't get it, she thought, and though their lax security annoyed her, this time she was glad to be saved the trouble of getting out the key.
She closed the door behind her, pushing it until she heard it latch. She is certain she locked it, which means he must have already been inside the corridor.
Next came the four flights of stairs, which she wanted to do in one trip. Near the top of the third landing, one of the bags gave way, tearing open and dispensing cans of cat food. They rolled down the stairs almost playfully, as if they were trying to get away from her. The can in the lead paused at the second floor landing, and Kelly watched as it literally turned the corner, gained some speed, and began its seemingly mindful hop down the next flight of steps and out of sight.
"Got it! I'll bring it up," someone called out. Kelly didn't like that voice. Right from the start something just sounded wrong to her, but then this friendly-looking young guy came bounding up the steps, collecting cans along the way.
He said, "Let me give you a hand."
"No, no thanks, I've got it."
"You don't look like you've got it. What floor are you going to?"
She paused before answering him. "The fourth, but I'm okay, really."
He wouldn't hear a word of it, and by this point he had a collection of cans balanced between his chest and one arm. "I'm going to the fourth floor too," he said, "and I'm late-not my fault, broken watch-so let's not just stand here. And give me that." He reached out and tugged on one of the heavier bags she was holding. She repeated, "No, really, thanks, but no, I've got it."
Still holding on to the grocery bag, he said, "There's such a thing as being too proud, you know."
For a moment, Kelly didn't let go of that bag, but then she did, and this seemingly insignificant exchange between the cordial stranger and the recipient of his courtesy was the signal-to him and to her-that she was willing to trust him. As the bag passed from her control to his, so did she.
"We better hurry," he said as he walked up the stairs ahead of Kelly. "We've got a hungry cat up there."
Even though he seemed to want nothing more at that moment than to be helpful, she was apprehensive about him, and for no good reason, she thought. He was friendly and gentlemanly, and she felt guilty about her suspicion. She didn't want to be the kind of person who distrusts everybody, so they were next approaching the door to her apartment.
"Did you know a cat can live for three weeks without eating?" he asked. "I'll tell you how I learned that tidbit: I once forgot that I'd promised to feed a cat while a friend of mine was out of town."
Kelly was now standing at the door to her apartment, which she'd just opened.
"I'll take it from here," she said, hoping he'd hand her the groceries, accept her thanks, and be on his way. Instead, he said, "Oh no, I didn't come this far to let you have another cat food spill." When she still hesitated to let him in her door, he laughed understandingly. "Hey, we can leave the door open like ladies do in old movies. I'll just put this stuff down and go. I promise."
She did let him in, but he did not keep his promise.
At this point, as she is telling me the story of the rape and the whole three-hour ordeal she suffered, Kelly pauses to weep quietly. She now knows that he killed one of his other victims, stabbed her to death.
All the while, since soon after we sat down knee to knee in the small garden outside my office, Kelly has been holding both my hands. She is twenty-seven years old. Before the rape, she was a counselor for disturbed children, but she hasn't been back to work in a long while. That friendly-looking young man had caused three hours of suffering in her apartment and at least three months of suffering in her memory. The confidence he scared off was still hiding, the dignity he pierced still healing.
Kelly is about to learn that listening to one small survival signal saved her life, just as failing to follow so many others had put her at risk in the first place. She looks at me through moist but clear eyes and says she wants to understand every strategy he used. She wants me to tell her what her intuition saw that saved her life. But she will tell me.
"It was after he'd already held the gun to my head, after he raped me. It was after that. He got up from the bed, got dressed, then closed the window. He glanced at his watch, and then started acting like he was in a hurry."
"I gotta be somewhere. Hey, don't look so scared. I promise I'm not going to hurt you." Kelly absolutely knew he was lying. She knew he planned to kill her, and though it may be hard to imagine, it was the first time since the incident began that she felt profound fear.
He motioned to her with the gun and said, "Don't you move or do anything. I'm going to the kitchen to get something to drink, and then I'll leave. I promise. But you stay right where you are." He had little reason to be concerned that Kelly might disobey his instructions because she had been, from the moment she let go of that bag until this moment, completely under his control. "You know I won't move," she assured him.
But the instant he stepped from the room, Kelly stood up and walked after him, pulling the sheet off the bed with her. "I was literally right behind him, like a ghost, and he didn't know I was there. We walked down the hall together. At one point he stopped, and so did I. He was looking at my stereo, which was playing some music, and he reached out and made it louder. When he moved on toward the kitchen, I turned and walked through the living room."
Kelly could hear drawers being opened as she walked out her front door, leaving it ajar. She walked directly into the apartment across the hall (which she somehow knew would be unlocked). Holding a finger up to signal her surprised neighbors to be quiet, she locked their door behind her.
"I knew if I had stayed in my room, he was going to come back from the kitchen and kill me, but I don't know how I was so certain."
"Yes, you do," I tell her.
She sighs and then goes over it again. "He got up and got dressed, closed the window, looked at his watch. He promised he wouldn't hurt me, and that promise came out of nowhere. Then he went into the kitchen to get a drink, supposedly, but I heard him opening drawers in there. He was looking for a knife, of course, but I knew way before that." She pauses. "I guess he wanted a knife because using the gun would be too noisy."
"What makes you think he was concerned about noise?" I ask.
"I don't know." She takes a long pause, gazing off past me, looking back at him in the bedroom. "Oh . . . I do know. I get it, I get it. Noise was the thing-that's why he closed the window. That's how I knew."
Since he was dressed and supposedly leaving, he had no other reason to close her window. It was that subtle signal that warned her, but it was fear that gave her the courage to get up without hesitation and follow close behind the man who intended to kill her. She later described a fear so complete that it replaced every feeling in her body. Like an animal hiding inside her, it opened to its full size and stood up using the muscles in her legs. "I had nothing to do with it," she explained. "I was a passenger moving down that hallway."
What she experienced was real fear, not like when we are startled, not like the fear we feel at a movie, or the fear of public speaking. This fear is the powerful ally that says, "Do what I tell you to do." Sometimes, it tells a person to play dead, or to stop breathing, or to run or scream or fight, but to Kelly it said, "Just be quiet and don't doubt me and I'll get you out of here."
Kelly told me she felt new confidence in herself, knowing she had acted on that signal, knowing she had saved her own life. She said she was tired of being blamed and blaming herself for letting him into her apartment. She said she had learned enough in our meetings to never again be victimized that way.
"Maybe that's the good to come from it," she reflected. "The weird thing is, with all this information I'm actually less afraid walking around now than I was before it happened-but there must be an easier way people could learn."
The thought had occurred to me. I know that what saved Kelly's life can save yours. In her courage, in her commitment to listen to intuition, in her determination to make some sense out of it, in her passion to be free of unwarranted fear, I saw that the information should be shared not just with victims but with those who need never become victims at all. I want this book to help you be one of those people.
Because of my sustained look at violence, because I have predicted the behavior of murderers, stalkers, would-be assasins, rejected boyfriends, estranged husbands, angry former employees, mass killers, and others, I am called an expert. I may have learned many lessons, but my basic premise in these pages is that you too are an expert at predicting violent behavior. Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.
I've learned some lessons about safety through years of asking people who've suffered violence, "Could you have seen this coming?" Most often they say, "No, it just came out of nowhere," but if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: "I felt uneasy when I first met that guy . . ." or "Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me," or "I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day."
Of course, if they realize it now, they knew it then. We all see the signals because there is a universal code of violence. You'll find some of what you need to break that code in the following chapters, but most of it is in you.
In a very real sense, the surging water in an ocean does not move; rather, energy moves through it. In this same sense, the energy of violence moves through our culture. Some experience it as a light but unpleasant breeze, easy to tolerate. Others are destroyed by it, as if by a hurricane. But nobody-nobody-is untouched. Violence is a part of America, and more than that, it is a part of our species. It is around us, and it is in us. As the most powerful people in history, we have climbed to the top of the world food chain, so to speak. Facing not one single enemy or predator who poses to us any danger of consequence, we've found the only prey left: ourselves.
Lest anyone doubt this, understand that in the last two years alone, more Americans died from gunshot wounds than were killed during the entire Vietnam War. By contrast, in all of Japan (with a population of 120 million people), the number of young men shot to death in a year is equal to the number killed in New York City in a single busy weekend. Our armed robbery rate is one hundred times higher than Japan's. In part, that's because we are a nation with more firearms than adults, a nation where 20,000 guns enter the stream of commerce every day. No contemplation of your safety in America can be sincere without taking a clear-eyed look down the barrel of that statistic. By this time tomorrow, 400 more Americans will suffer a shooting injury, and another 1,100 will face a criminal with a gun, as Kelly did. Within the hour, another 75 women will be raped, as Kelly was.
Neither privilege nor fame will keep violence away: In the last 35 years, more public figures have been attacked in America than in the 185 years before that. Ordinary citizens can encounter violence at their jobs to the point that homicide is now the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. Twenty years ago, the idea of someone going on a shooting spree at work was outlandish; now it's in the news nearly every week, and managing employee fear of coworkers is a frequent topic in the boardroom.
While we are quick to judge the human rights record of every other country on earth, it is we civilized Americans whose murder rate is ten times that of other Western nations, we civilized Americans who kill women and children with the most alarming frequency. In (sad) fact, if a full jumbo jet crashed into a mountain killing everyone on board, and if that happened every month, month in and month out, the number of people killed still wouldn't equal the number of women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year.
We all watched as bodies were carried away from the Oklahoma City bombing, and by the end of that week we learned to our horror that nineteen children had died in the blast. You now know that seventy children died that same week at the hands of a parent, just like every week-and most of them were under five years old. Four million luckier children were physically abused last year, and it was not an unusual year.
Statistics like this tend to distance us from the tragedies that surround each incident because we end up more impressed by the numbers than by the reality. To bring it closer to home, you personally know a woman who has been battered, and you've probably seen the warning signs. She or her husband works with you, lives near you, amazes you in sports, fills your prescriptions at the pharmacy, or advises on your taxes. You may not know, however, that women visit emergency rooms for injuries caused by their husbands or boyfriends more often than for injuries from car accidents, robberies, and rapes combined.
Our criminal-justice system often lacks justice, and more often lacks reason. For example, America has about three thousand people slated for execution, more by far than at any time in world history, yet the most frequent cause of death listed for those inmates is "natural causes." That's because we execute fewer than 2 percent of those sentenced to die. It is actually safer for these men to live on death row than to live in some American neighborhoods.
I explore capital punishment here not to promote it, for I am not an advocate, but rather because our attitude toward it raises a question that is key to this book: Are we really serious about fighting crime and violence? Often, it appears we are not. Here's just one example of what we accept: If you add up how long their victims would otherwise have lived, our country's murderers rob us of almost a million years of human contribution every year.
I've presented these facts about the frequency of violence for a reason: to increase the likelihood that you will believe it is at least possible that you or someone you care for will be a victim at some time. That belief is a key element in recognizing when you are in the presence of danger. That belief balances denial, the powerful and cunning enemy of successful predictions. Even having learned these facts of life and death, some readers will still compartmentalize the hazards in order to exclude themselves: "Sure, there's a lot of violence, but that's in the inner city"; "Yeah, a lot of women are battered, but I'm not in a relationship now"; "Violence is a problem for younger people, or older people"; "You're only at risk if you're out late at night"; "People bring it on themselves," and on and on. Americans are experts at denial, a choir whose song could be titled "Things Like That Don't Happen in This Neighborhood."
Denial has an interesting and insidious side effect. For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn't so, the fall they take when victimized is far, far greater than that of those who accept the possibility. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run, the denying person knows the truth on some level, and it causes a constant low-grade anxiety. Millions of people suffer that anxiety, and denial keeps them from taking action that could reduce the risks (and the worry).
If we studied any other creature in nature and found the record of intraspecies violence that human beings have, we would be repulsed by it. We'd view it as a great perversion of natural law-but we wouldn't deny it.
As we stand on the tracks, we can only avoid the oncoming train if we are willing to see it and willing to predict that it won't stop. But instead of improving the technologies of prediction, America improves the technologies of conflict: guns, prisons, SWAT teams, karate classes, pepper spray, stun guns, Tasers, Mace. And now more than ever, we need the most accurate predictions. Just think about how we live: We are searched for weapons before boarding a plane, visiting city hall, seeing a television show taping, or attending a speech by the president. Our government buildings are surrounded by barricades, and we wrestle through so-called tamper-proof packaging to get a couple aspirin. All of this was triggered by the deeds of fewer than ten dangerous men who got our attention by frightening us. What other quorum in American history, save those who wrote our constitution, could claim as much impact on our day-to-day lives? Since fear is so central to our experience, understanding when it is a gift-and when it is a curse-is well worth the effort.
We live in a country where one person with a gun and some nerve can derail our democratic right to choose the leaders of the most powerful nation in history. The guaranteed passport into the world of great goings-on is violence, and the lone assailant with a grandiose idea and a handgun has become an icon of our culture. Yet comparatively little has been done to learn about that person, particularly considering his (and sometimes her) impact on our lives.
We don't need to learn about violence, many feel, because the police will handle it, the criminal-justice system will handle it, experts will handle it. Though it touches us all and belongs to us all, and though we each have something profound to contribute to the solution, we have left this critical inquiry to people who tell us that violence cannot be predicted, that risk is a game of odds, and that anxiety is an unavoidable part of life.
Not one of these conventional "wisdoms" is true.
Throughout our lives, each of us will have to make important behavioral predictions on our own, without experts. From the wide list of people who present themselves, we'll choose candidates for inclusion in our lives-as employers, employees, advisers, business associates, friends, lovers, spouses.
Whether it is learned the easy way or the hard way, the truth remains that your safety is yours. It is not the responsibility of the police, the government, industry, the apartment building manager, or the security company. Too often, we take the lazy route and invest our confidence without ever evaluating if it is earned. As we send our children off each morning, we assume the school will keep them safe, but as you'll see in chapter 12, it might not be so. We trust security guards-you know, the employment pool that gave us the Son of Sam killer, the assassin of John Lennon, the Hillside Strangler, and more arsonists and rapists than you have time to read about. Has the security industry earned your confidence? Has government earned it? We have a Department of Justice, but it would be more appropriate to have a department of violence prevention, because that's what we need and that's what we care about. Justice is swell, but safety is survival.
Just as we look to government and experts, we also look to technology for solutions to our problems, but you will see that your personal solution to violence will not come from technology. It will come from an even grander resource that was there all the while, within you. That resource is intuition.
It may be hard to accept its importance, because intuition is usually looked upon by us thoughtful Western beings with contempt. It is often described as emotional, unreasonable, or inexplicable. Husbands chide their wives about "feminine intuition" and don't take it seriously. If intuition is used by a woman to explain some choice she made or a concern she can't let go of, men roll their eyes and write it off. We much prefer logic, the grounded, explainable, unemotional thought process that ends in a supportable conclusion. In fact, Americans worship logic, even when it's wrong, and deny intuition, even when it's right.
Men, of course, have their own version of intuition, not so light and inconsequential, they tell themselves, as that feminine stuff. Theirs is more viscerally named a "gut feeling," but it isn't just a feeling. It is a process more extraordinary and ultimately more logical in the natural order than the most fantastic computer calculation. It is our most complex cognitive process and at the same time the simplest.
Intuition connects us to the natural world and to our nature. Freed from the bonds of judgment, married only to perception, it carries us to predictions we will later marvel at. "Somehow I knew," we will say about the chance meeting we predicted, or about the unexpected phone call from a distant friend, or the unlikely turnaround in someone's behavior, or about the violence we steered clear of, or, too often, the violence we elected not to steer clear of. "Somehow I knew . . ." Like Kelly knew, and you can know.
The husband and wife who make an appointment with me to discuss the harassing and threatening phone calls they are getting want me to figure out who is doing it. Based on what the caller says, it's obvious he is someone they know, but who? Her ex-husband? That weird guy who used to rent a room from them? A neighbor angry about their construction work? The contractor they fired?
The expert will tell them who it is, they think, but actually they will tell me. It's true I have experience with thousands of cases, but they have the experience with this one. Inside them, perhaps trapped where I can help find it, is all the information needed to make an accurate evaluation. At some point in our discussion of possible suspects, the woman will invariably say something like this: "You know, there is one other person, and I don't have any concrete reasons for thinking it's him. I just have this feeling, and I hate to even suggest it, but . . ." And right there I could send them home and send my bill, because that is who it will be. We will follow my client's intuition until I have "solved the mystery." I'll be much praised for my skill, but most often, I just listen and give them permission to listen to themselves. Early on in these meetings, I say, "No theory is too remote to explore, no person is beyond consideration, no gut feeling is too unsubstantiated." (In fact, as you are about to find out, every intuition is firmly substantiated.) When clients ask, "Do the people who make these threats ever do such-and-such?" I say, "Yes, sometimes they do," and this is permission to explore some theory.
When interviewing victims of anonymous threats, I don't ask, "Who do you think sent you these threats?" because most victims can't imagine that anyone they know sent the threats. I ask instead, "Who could have sent them?" and together we make a list of everyone who had the ability, without regard to motive. Then I ask clients to assign a motive, even a ridiculous one, to each person on the list. It is a creative process that puts them under no pressure to be correct. For this very reason, in almost every case, one of their imaginative theories will be correct.
Quite often, my greatest contribution to solving the mystery is my refusal to call it a mystery. Rather, it is a puzzle, one in which there are enough pieces available to reveal what the image is. I have seen these pieces so often that I may recognize them sooner than some people, but my main job is just to get them on the table.
As we explore the pieces of the human violence puzzle, I'll show you their shapes and their colors. Given your own lifelong study of human behavior-and your own humanness-you'll see that the pieces are already familiar to you. Above all, I hope to leave you knowing that every puzzle can be solved long before all the pieces are in place.
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