When I wrote about fear and violence, people thought I might like to read more books about fear and violence. I didn't want to read MORE about fear: I'm scared enough ALREADY, and I was still recovering from the flu-like symptoms of the Sam Harris article I'd read. But I am susceptible to such pressures, and so eventually I put both The Culture of Fear and The Gift of Fear on my library list.
I tried The Culture of Fear first, but after two page-sides I didn't read any more. It was all questions, and I could answer all of them. Why oh why are we more afraid of airplane crashes than car crashes, when car crashes are more likely? Why oh why are we so bad at estimating the statistical likelihood of bad things happening to us? Yes, yes, I took Psych 101 too.
I put it into the library return bag and turned to the next book with a feeling of impending relief: I could perhaps dismiss this one just as briskly, and then I could turn my attention to more pleasing subjects. Yes indeed, the book opened with a Very Scary Story. I'm not reading this stuff, I don't need more scaredness, I can safely ditch it.
...But I skipped ahead, to AFTER the scary story, and within half a page I was reading it with no intention of stopping. And I just finished reading the whole thing, and here is my conclusion: it SEEMS like the book will be scary and will make you more scared, and that it will make you think about things you don't want to think about--but I ended up feeling a REDUCTION of fear (which is his goal/intention), as well as a dose of logic to counter future fears. There are occasional scary illustrative anecdotes, but you can skim/skip them if you want.
His main points:
1. It is very unlikely that anyone would want/try to hurt you.
2. If they DO want to, there are signals they're likely to send you first.
3. Here are the signals.
I found that within the first chapter I felt FORTIFIED against guys who seemed like they were just trying to be nice and yet gave me the creeps. The author says that a decent man will not approach a woman in a scary situation (deserted stairwell, dark parking lot), or try to convince her to accept help or whatever after her first "No"---and that if he IS a decent man but just beyond-clueless, he needs to be taught by your reaction that his behavior is scary. Before reading this book, I would have been the woman getting more and more anxious as I tried to be gracious and not look like a weird freak-out. Reading it was like that scene in The Matrix where people get teaching programs uploaded to their brains: I am SCHOOLED.
For those of us who are often fretful and anxious, he lets us know that we are indulging ourselves in magical thinking: we've unconsciously noticed that the things we worry about don't happen, statistically speaking, and so we unconsciously start to see a false correlation: if we worry about bad things, bad things don't happen! Meanwhile, such thoughts make us more vulnerable to the few things that actually could hurt us, since we're in the habit of thinking we're being silly by worrying. Already I've noticed a difference in my anxious thoughts: when one occurs to me, I try to evaluate it for legitimacy---and the thought "This is magical thinking" is embarrassing enough to help knock the thought out for a bit. I'm not sure if even over the long-term I'll be able to learn to effectively evaluate legitimacy, but it seems worth practicing.
Unlike in The Sociopath Next Door, the author doesn't point out a problem but leave it pointed-out-but-unsolved: he gives specific tests for determining the actual danger-likelihood of situations, and then specific instructions for how to handle them. (He claims not to like checklists, but BOY he likes acronyms.) I found that while/after reading it I would think "ALARMED THOUGHT AS I RECOGNIZE A DANGER SIGN!!!" followed by "Wait. Does this person meet any of the qualifications for actual danger? No."
My favorite new term is "Scriptwriter." It applies to people where you feel like it doesn't matter what YOU say, they go right on with the script in their head. I've noticed this in issue-based arguments: I can argue with what someone has just stated, but it bounces right off them and they go right on with their next point. Or someone is upset with me and I think "I just need to explain/clarify what I meant and then this will all be over," but instead everything I say adds fuel to their fire and they don't seem to be hearing me at all. It's a Scriptwriter: the person IS NOT hearing what you're saying, and it's safe to disengage from the discussion knowing nothing can be accomplished.
Now I'm going to say a whole bunch of complaining/critical things, so many that it will make it sound as if I didn't like / don't recommend the book. So keep in mind that I DID love the book and DO think you all should read it, and that sometimes it takes a disproportionate amount of space to mention small complaints/criticisms.
I did feel as if what he was trying to teach other people was something that came naturally to him---and that as with all things that come naturally to us, it's hard to teach someone else. "Here's how to draw perfect life-like portraits!" It reminded me of people who say they think people should "just be" less anxious: it first reveals to us that they don't suffer from that problem themselves, and secondly that the problem they DO suffer from is a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding about temperament. He thinks we should just learn which situations are genuinely dangerous---but I don't think he realizes that a good part of that may be something not everyone can acquire. He gets a little frustrated, I think, that we're not getting it. "Just draw it so it looks exactly her nose!!"
I also thought he was lacking some science/statistics for his anecdotes. He tells us the times when he thought danger was likely and it DID happen, and times when he thought danger was unlikely and it DIDN'T happen---but he leaves out times when he thought danger was likely and it DIDN'T happen, and times when he thought danger was unlikely and it DID happen. He might think this makes him more credible (because it seems to portray a 100% success rate), but it made me question his credibility completely (because I know he CAN'T have a 100% success rate, so it makes me wonder how much he's leaving out).
And his stories about other people's encounters seemed to contain a self-proving "duh" element: If they felt a pang of fear and checked things out and found them okay but they weren't okay, DUH they didn't look hard enough. If they felt a pang of fear and thought it was real but it wasn't, DUH they were letting their imaginations run away with them. Whatever the outcome, the implication was that if it went well it was because they were following the author's ideas, and if it went poorly it was because they weren't.
In particular there was a story about a mother waiting with her son pre-surgery who kept having "CANCEL THE SURGERY" flash into her mind. She ignored that, and of course her son died in surgery. But...when Elizabeth was going to have her tonsils out, I REPEATEDLY had that same thought flash into my mind, and I didn't cancel the surgery, and Elizabeth is fine. Again, the self-proving: if her son had been fine, this anecdote wouldn't be in the book, or would be in the book as an example of us misinterpreting anxiety as actual danger; because he died, it seems as if it proves the author's point about listening to signals. But what percentage of the time are those signals right? A very small percentage, is my guess. And not always something we can evaluate for legitimacy: in this anecdote the doctor was incompetent, but how can I evaluate that as I wait with Elizabeth in pre-surgery? I can still kind of get his point, but it's undermined by the absolutely zero chance that I would in this case cancel the surgery and interview the doctors (at which point they would confess to me that they were covering for another doctor's problems), and by the high likelihood that both I and my child would be feeling/acting weird and uncomfortable in a pre-surgery situation whether the doctor was incompetent or not.
Furthermore, his lead story niggled at my mind. He tells about a woman who had been raped, who realized when her attacker closed her window that he intended to kill her (because why would he mess with her window if he was actually going to leave her unharmed as he had just claimed?). But my question is: Wouldn't he have closed her window before raping her? (Maybe he thought people would ignore rape sounds but not killing-with-a-knife sounds?) This bothered me throughout, and I felt similar issues with other anecdotes. They seemed overly obvious---which undermined their realness. I think the author hasn't realized what my children haven't realized: that presenting a 100%-in-favor-of-yourself/obvious story is actually LESS believable than a mixed story where you admit some error/doubt. His stories may in fact be true just as he's telling them, but I had to constantly battle thoughts of "Wait, that doesn't sound quite...true."
His attitude about violent children and children who grow up to be violent is like this: "I'm NOT saying parents are to blame for violent children...but all violent children have violent parents, and if you don't want violent children you shouldn't be violent to them DUH." And the problem is that the parents who were/are violent will not be reading this and thinking "Oh my goodness! I never realized! It's all my fault!"; and meanwhile the parents who are NOT violent to their children-who-nevertheless-turned-out-violent will take it to heart and feel even more blamed than they already feel, as well as perhaps wishing they WERE violent so they could deal out a beating or two to this guy. It reminds me of the school notices that come home sharply rebuking all of us for the actions of 1% of parents: the 1% doesn't care and isn't going to change their behavior because a memo tells them to, and the 99% gets hurt and upset and resentful at spanked even though they're being good.
He also does that thing that made me reject the first book: offering an incredulous "Why oh why??" that I feel has a reasonable answer. For example, he wonders why oh why a man would carry a gun and say it was so he could help others in an emergency, but not carry a trach tube. And when the man says he could never cut into someone's throat, de Becker mocks him for being perfectly willing to put a bullet into someone instead. But I think that IS reasonable: there is a huge difference between being willing to injure someone who's attacking us, and being willing to injure someone in a medical crisis. I would feel comfortable using a knife to cut a rapist, but that doesn't mean I feel comfortable performing an appendectomy or even a mole removal. These are completely different things, and it's not fair to accuse someone of being irrational if they're willing to do one and not the other. I get his point that we should try to rationally consider things---but it was hard to get past the way he made it seem like he was someone who seriously couldn't tell the difference between two very different kinds of intervention to two very different kinds of people. A better example would have been to tease someone for carrying a gun but not learning the Heimlich Maneuver.
One final objection: he interviews a stalker and asks him what the stalked person should have done differently, in order to avoid being stalked. But all the other anecdotes illustrated that it doesn't matter what the stalked person does: whatever they do, the stalker incorporates it into their excuse for stalking: "She was cold to me! She's a monster who must be destroyed!" "She seemed to be encouraging me! She's a tease who must be destroyed!" "She's perfectly nice! She's an impostor who must be destroyed!" It's Scriptwriting again: it doesn't matter what the stalked person does, the stalker goes on with their script.
Let's see, is that everything? Overall: GREAT book, and I want to go work for this guy, and I kind of love him, and I think he made very good points, and I feel like he taught me some very doable and easy methods for evaluating for actual danger. I think I'll be temporarily extra-jumpy, and only time will tell if the ideas WORK---but already I feel LESS fear rather than MORE fear. I think I'd like to own a copy of the book so that I can refer to it as needed. But I mention all my objections because I hate to think of you reading the book and thinking "She didn't object to this kind of arrogant attitude?" "Wait, does she think the parents are to blame??" "Did she not notice how he seems to think it's reasonable that a child who was one time shoved into a heater (perhaps by accident; it isn't clear) would grow up to shoot his parents in the head?"
Life-improving products, part 4 - (Continued from part 1, part 2, and part 3.) Stearns Youth Life Vest (photo from Amazon.com). I’d been too scared to take the kids to any body of water oth...