The Gift Of Fear: How To Prevent Another Gym Rampage

The gym where George Sodini went on his shooting rampage reopened this weekend, and today, we look at a book that some believe could help prevent future violence there and everywhere: Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear.

It came out back in 1997, but many of our commenters mentioned The Gift of Fear after Sodini's shooting spree because it describes how to identify violent people and protect yourself from them. Sadly, these strategies are still very necessary today. Gavin de Becker is the founder of a consulting firm that helps a variety of public figures avoid stalking, harassment, and assassination — as a child, he was also a victim of domestic violence. His book offers tips for minimizing many different threats to personal and public safety, including attacks by disgruntled employees, parricide, and serial killing, but perhaps most relevant to the Sodini case is the chapter on date stalking. This isn't because Sodini necessarily stalked his dates — the women he killed seem to have been strangers to him — but because de Becker's points about men, women, and stalking may shed light on Sodini's psychology.

In a Broadsheet post on "Nice Guy Syndrome," Kate Harding asks, "How is it that so many guys like Sodini — the kind who routinely refer to women as "hoes" (sic) and "bitches," and act disgusted by the thought of women having sex with any other men — have heard, "You're really nice, but..." again and again in the course of being rejected?" The answer:

Telling a guy the real reasons you're not interested — you don't find him attractive, he's way too old for you, you get a distinctly creepy vibe off him, whatever — or offering no explanation at all, because you just met this guy and owe him nothing, would be "rude."

de Becker identified a very similar problem in 1997. He writes,

True to what they are taught, rejecting women often say less than they mean. True to what they are taught, men often hear less than what it said. Nowhere is this problem more alarmingly expressed than by the hundreds of thousands of fathers (and mothers), older brothers (and sisters), movies and television shows that teach most men that when she says no, that's not what she means.

He advocates for "a high school class that would teach young men how to hear 'no,' and teach young women that it's all right to explicitly reject." By "explicitly reject," he means avoiding phrases like "it's just that I don't want to be in a relationship right now," or "you're a great guy and you have a lot to offer, but I'm not the one for you." Statements like these, de Becker says, may cause men with poor boundaries to think, "she really likes me; it's just that she's confused. I've got to prove to her that she is the one for me." They may then escalate their pursuit, even resorting to violence.

de Becker doesn't mention it, but a culture of complimenting men while rejecting them fuels Nice Guy Syndrome and various professional enablers as well. Would Sodini still have turned violent if the women in his life had followed this advice? Maybe. But a whole cottage industry of lesser misogynists, built on the theory that women actually like being mistreated and "negged," might have a lot less business.

de Becker has advice for women about dealing with strangers as well as dates. He tells the story of a woman who was raped by a man who insisted on helping her with her groceries, and says women should respond with clear refusal to any unwanted offers of help from strangers. He writes,

I encourage women to explicitly rebuff unwanted approaches, but I know it is difficult to do. Just as rapport building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in the culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. [...] Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises expectations, increases investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.

The most disturbing lesson of The Gift of Fear is that women are constantly receiving cultural messages that not only threaten their autonomy, but actually put them in physical danger. Our culture, our families, and the general soup of social influences that enforce our gender norms teach us to be polite and solicitous even we don't want to talk to someone — in so doing, we may unwittingly welcome our rapists. de Becker offers several antidotes to this socially-constructed politeness — he teaches not only firm refusal, but also a series of techniques for improving our intuitive sense of danger. He makes a persuasive case that everyone has such an intuitive sense, and that learning to listen to it rather than to our social conditioning may save our lives.

Of course, all these techniques put the onus for preventing crime on its potential victims. de Becker writes,

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.

de Becker offers plenty of criticisms for the police and security companies later in the book, but his advice for private citizens basically takes as its premise that no one else will protect us from harm — we have to do it ourselves. This is, of course, true — police can't follow us around all the time, and even a perfectly equitable society would probably have some crime. However, "the police, the government, and the security company" should be trying a little harder to earn our confidence.

Several times in the book, de Becker criticizes those who are in a position to prevent violence but, after a crime, throw up their hands and say, "who could have known?" He lists many warning signs that someone will become violent — sadness and depression, purchasing weapons, paranoia, "blaming others for the results of his own actions." George Sodini exhibited many of these signs in public — on his blog, and possibly even on a bus before the attack. Still, Pittsburgh police said "nobody could have stopped him." After the incident, several commenters mentioned giving The Gift of Fear to female friends or relatives. Maybe someone should send a copy to the Pittsburgh police department as well.

The Gift Of Fear
Gym Reopens After Deadly Shootings [AP, via NYT]
No More Mr. Nice Guy [Broadsheet]

Earlier: Gunman Murders Gym-Going Women; Misogynists Approve