Words to save lives

A book once helped me, quite possibly, save a life dear to me.

Someone I love had suddenly gone almost completely off the grid. She’d done so soon after meeting a new man.

I hadn’t met her new fella. She barely spoke of him on the now-rare occasion we did talk. I didn’t need to meet him or talk to her about him to be alarmed, especially when she told me she’d moved a long way from home to be with him.

I didn’t need to know him to be concerned. The changes in her behavior told me a lot about his role in her life.

My childhood was practically defined by extensive violence and predation, so that I implicitly recognized its symptoms. I didn’t once need to see violence in action to know something was very wrong.

Unfortunately, implicit knowledge is hard to share. This kind of knowledge, which is intuited instead of learned from books and seminars, is hard to voice in words. It’s a knowing that happens in the body, not the intentionally focused brain, and can thus live in a place where words seldom reach.

When I told my sister-by-love I was concerned, then, I could only say, “I’ve seen this story before.”

What do such words even mean, to someone who hasn’t lived the story?

This is where The Book comes in.

A friend had once told me she’d found The Gift of Fear life-changing.

Since I hadn’t then met a genuinely life-changing book, I was skeptical of her claim, and any like it. How on earth could a book change a life?!

As luck would have it, I soon enough decided to read the book anyway. Someone else I knew had described it as life-changing and, hey, I was out of interesting fiction. Why not give it a shot?

Giving it a shot ended up being a fateful choice.

I was two-thirds of the way through the book when my sister called. Unlike the other times we’d spoken, I now had words with which to vocalize my fears borne of implicit knowledge.

Specifically, I had the words of a checklist in Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I asked if I could read her the checklist, which was prefaced by the words, “Despite the misinformation offered to the American public by paid advocates in service of just one man, there are many reliable pre-incident indicators associated with spousal violence and murder. They won’t all be present in every case, but if a situation has several of these signals, there is reason for concern.”

After I finished reading the checklist, she told me almost every single one applied to her situation. Her boyfriend had pulled a gun on her.

Thanks to de Becker and The Gift of Fear, my implicit knowledge had found explicit words.

My explicit words became her explicit words.

Thanks to these shared words, she left, driving more than a thousand miles south to stay with me and my husband while building a new life out of that danger’s reach.

It’s been six years, and I still cry thankful tears every time I remember this.

The Gift of Fear is, indeed, a life-changer. While the checklist above was the most immediately impactful, another of its lists has come in handy for me numerous times since. When I’ve remembered it’s there, which isn’t always as quickly as I’d like, it’s given me words for these bad feelings I sometimes get.

That list? It’s a list of the methods used by the “capable face-to-face criminal” to keep “his victim from seeing survival signals” that could help her. As de Becker promises, awareness of these methods can help bring survival signals to the forefront.

These predatory methods of silencing a victim’s survival signals are as follows:

  • Forced teaming – He (for it’s usually a “he”) creates a “we” where there isn’t one, “an effective way to establish premature trust.” The “simple defense” here is “to make a clear refusal to accept the concept of partnership: ‘I did not ask for your help and I do not want it.'”
  • Charm and niceness – “Think of charm as a verb, not a trait. If you consciously tell yourself, ‘This person is trying to charm me,’ as opposed to ‘This person is charming,’ you’ll be able to see around it.”
  • Too many details – “Every type of con relies upon distracting us from the obvious.” Using this method, a predator drowns out survival signals with a waterfall of distracting words.
  • Typecasting – “A man labels a woman in some slightly critical way, hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove that his opinion is not accurate.” For this, the defense is silence, since “it is the response itself that the typecaster seeks.”
  • Loan sharking – He gives you something you didn’t ask for with the expectation you’ll feel compelled to give him something back. “The defense is to bring two rarely remembered facts into consciousness: He approached me, and I didn’t ask for any help.”
  • The unsolicited promise – Promises “are the very hollowest instruments of speech, showing nothing more than the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.” When faced with a promise, it’s good to ask: “Why does this person need to convince me?”
  • Discounting the word “no” – “Declining to hear ‘no’ is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it.” So: “When someone ignores that word, ask yourself: Why is this person seeking to control me?”

I now know that books can be life-changing. 

My life has been changed, repeatedly, by The Gift of Fear.

Thanks to this book, I now have words for these “bad feelings” I sometimes get.

de Becker’s words, over and over again, affirm how those “bad feelings” aren’t out of the blue. Nor are they silly, for “when it comes to danger, intuition is always right in at least two important ways:

  1. It is always in response to something.
  2. It always has your best interest at heart.”

I learned many things from the violence I endured in childhood. But for de Becker, I might never have had words for the lessons violence taught me. My knowledge might have remained implicit, never capable of benefiting anyone but–in my wiser moments–myself.

Now, I have the words. Now, when I’m still enough to notice my “bad feelings,” they aren’t stranded in the often nebulous realm of feelings.

Critically, I’m able to identify and name the very specific behaviors that are unsettling me.

Intuition isn’t magic. It’s responsive, and it has words.

Where squishy-sounding matters like intuition are concerned, there’s power and possibility in a word: the presence of the right ones reminds you that you’re not alone. What you’re facing isn’t about you.

When there’s a pre-defined word, or two, for what you’re facing, the illusion of alone-ness is broken.

Not everyone needs to know or understand the words for them to be invaluable.

Having them when someone, self included, needs them is priceless.

I have those words, and they are priceless.

Books–words–can indeed change, and even save, lives.


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