Educate the fear out of you
The New Straits Times - 08/19/1998
by Anusha Anantha

If I had encountered Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear sooner, today I would not be an indentured slave within Malaysia. Three years ago, I signed a document under intense fear. The man who made me sign it and his lawyer refused to let me read the document. No guns were held to me. I was abused verbally and life at the time was a barrage of harassment. When I had finally been locked out of the house and ridiculed by friends, neighbours, relatives and even the vendors, I decided that I had had enough. On hindsight, it boiled down to life or death, and life mattered more.

According to De Becker, the stakes are that high. This three-time American presidential appointee's pioneering work has changed the way the US Government evaluates threat to its highest officials. In his final chapter of The Gift of Fear, he cites Karl A. Menninger: "Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out."

Nothing summarises this book better. It is both a discussion of violence and a comprehensive handbook on how to protect ourselves by discerning real from imagined danger.

Few of us direct our minds to think about how to evaluate threat and survive violence. Over-whelmed by the high incidence of crime reported in the media, we deny the probability of it happening to us. But as De Becker asserts, the denying person knows the truth on some level and learns to live with the fear. In quelling the internal voice of fear, we ignore an important message. Fear, here, refers to the clear survival signals that got us on top of the food chain and into that lonely alley where the hunters are other human beings.

To elucidate his premise - that we are our own experts at predicting risks to personal safety - De Becker takes us through the experience of a rape survivor in the first chapter. His approach is unconventional in that it avoids the claptrap of why were you there, what were you doing, and how could you have been dressed that way. We learn enough during these meetings to echo the rape survivor's thought that there must be an easier way for people to learn to predict violence and evaluate threat. This reflection forms the impetus for the book.

The Gift of Fear is full of brilliant insights from the author's experience, as a victim, and as a professional who has testified on many legislative bodies and successfully proposed laws to help manage violence. He offers many practical considerations on what to do in the presence of danger.

In a chapter titled `Intimate Enemies', he discusses the O.J. Simpson case to show a concept of crime which is long-drawn and slow. The discussion concerns all those cases of spousal violence and murder which don't get to court. It is about how to predict and prevent tragedies. De Becker declines to address what he views as misinformation offered to the public by the paid advocates of one man. Instead, he provides a comprehensive list of pre-incident indicators associated with violence. Any situation which emits several of the signals outlined is cause for concern.

The Malaysian legislature, enforcement authorities, corporations and individuals will find this book enlightening and empowering. De Becker's discussion of violence in America and how intuition works for us, and denial against us, is as pertinent in this country.

The author, who won an award for designing MOSAIC TM (an assessment system now used for screening threats to justices of the US Supreme Court), maintains that the system had its roots in the mind of a 10-year-old. In developing the technology of intuition, he merely refined his inherent ability to break down individual elements of violence present in the environment. He contends that violence and homicide occur in all cultures. Just as the resource of violence is in everyone, so are the survival signals that safeguard.

The single most important feature of this book is that it explodes the myth about violence and who commits it. After reading The Gift of Fear, we come to accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people. As De Becker notes, when we describe an act of extraordinary horror and violence as "inhuman", we fail to recognise that it was committed by human beings, not intruders from another planet.

One good example closer home is the Mona Fandey case. Chances are that if one experiences fear and hears a voice whispering, "This guy doesn't look like a killer/rapist/violent person", that fear is a signal and the voice, denial. Who knows what Datuk Mokhtar's chances of survival could have been had he learned to act on intuition.

On hindsight, I know I distrusted and disliked the lawyer who drafted the document I was forced to sign. He had the fresh-faced good looks of a young graduate; he was around the house too much; was over familiar, and made himself distant and unavailable when I placed my signature on a document that, to all intents and purposes, stripped and condemned me to the mercy of another.

Still, I have survived. As De Becker would affirm, justice is swell if you can get it. Otherwise, safety comes first!

Anushka Anastasia Solomon was known as Anusha Anantha before coming to Jesus Christ.