Survival Signals

woman with groceries
photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The situation described by the writer of a recent letter to Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist, sounded to Hax like “abuse.” I would never have guessed that, which is why she writes a successful newspaper column, and I don’t. One of the sources she suggested her correspondent consult was Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. At least I’d read the book! And grateful to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s timely to repeat my review. The cover says, “This book can save your life,” and, whether that’s true, it sure can save the lives of the characters you’re writing about and suggest ways to put them in peril.

The Gift of Fear is a 1997 classic on recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer, people say, “We had no idea. She didn’t seem the type . . .” This book, like a 2018 FBI report, says baloney to that. There are signs. You just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime fiction writer, I hope those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the annoying “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying the bags for her. He followed her into her apartment, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on, and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Order it here on Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

6 thoughts on “Survival Signals

  1. I spent my entire adult life in police work and would advise people, especially women, not to trust any stranger. As the book and above blog state, these predatory individuals are very adept at engaging their victims in conversation and putting them at ease. They use all ploys, including appealing to guilt, or better yet, the implication that the potential victim is somehow guilty of endorsing a stereotypical belief. Thus the young man with the long hair and shabby clothes who offers to help, or the polite member of a minority group who approaches to appear helpful may have less than honorable intentions. Look up the I-57 murders from about 40 plus years ago in Illinois for an example. Ted Bundy is another classic example of a person who could engender trust while harboring sinister intentions. I worked a case involving a pair of serial killers and believe me, there are individuals out there who will kill you without the slightest compunction. Unfortunately, with the groundswell of anti-police attitudes promulgated by the press of late, many potential victims fall into harm’s way because they don’t want to appear prejudicial toward someone who approaches them with seemingly benign intentions. Mike Tyson, who had a less than trouble-free childhood, once related a story of an older woman who was trying to be kind to him and all he was thinking about was how to steal her purse. My advice is to be wary of any stranger, regardless of his race, creed, or color and don’t put yourself in harm’s way, if you can help it. Don’t worry about offending someone, worry about getting assaulted or injured or killed. Don’t trust strangers, and if you find yourself in need of assistance, call the police. Regardless of the way they’re currently being vilified by certain groups and a good portion of the news media, the police are there to help you.

  2. Almost fifty years ago I moved to a strange city to start university. I arrived too late to catch an intercity bus to the college, so opted to stay in a hotel. The cabby was quite charming, pointed out sites of interest, and volunteered to take me on a guided tour after I checked in to the hotel. I said no thanks, too late, tired, etc. He was quite insistent and as a young female I picked up that he was “interested” in me. I said no, and in the end, he carried my bags into the hotel, offered to carry them up to my room, but I said no the porter would do it. Yet, that night, I was so nervous, I actually pushed a large dresser in front of the door, after all, by carrying my bags in he knew my room number. I swear that in my sleep that night I heard someone rattle the knob, trying to get in. To this day I am not sure.
    What I am sure of though, is that several years later he was caught and convicted of being a serial killer. His MO was picking up women at the airport, late at night, offering them a guided tour, from which they didn’t return. And so I tell people, Never, Never, Never, if for any reason someone gives you a bad feeling, Never discount that feeling. Scientists can only quantify the subliminal cues we pick up on, but the reality is that on an instinctive level, we know we are threatened. I lived because I listened to my fearful self, other young girls didn’t. He died in prison.

  3. I once worked in an organization with a guy in a professional job. Very little interaction. But I would tell people I worked with that there was something not right about him. On the last day I saw him, he dropped by my office and was totally charming. I told my boss I must have been wrong about him. Why was it the last time I saw him? Over the weekend he was arrested on multiple counts of assault and rape. At his trial, one of his victims called him a monster. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years but died in prison after six. I don’t know what vibe I was getting from him for a couple of years but he was able to win me over in a fifteen minute visit.

    • It seems wrong to be immediately suspicious of other people. Yet, the worst ones can be utterly charming, as your colleague showed. Your initial impressions of him were spot-on. I commuted to graduate school with a doctor who was always appropriate, but I’d have these dreams about him in which he was totally creepy. I said to a friend, “What is it about him that my subconscious mind is responding to in this way?” and he said, “What is it about you that you’re blocking out what your subconscious mind is trying to tell you?” Very wise.

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