In the Presence of Danger

 




To the two people who taught me the most about courage and kindness: my sisters, Chrysti and Melissa. And for my mother, and grandfather, and father.


Contents

 

Chapter 1: In the Presence of Danger

Chapter 2: The Technology of Intuition

Chapter 3: The Academy of Prediction

Chapter 4: Survival Signals

Chapter 5: Imperfect Strangers

Chapter 6: High-Stakes Predictions

Chapter 7: Promises to Kill (Understanding threats)

Chapter 8: Persistence, Persistence (Dealing with people who refuse to let go)

Chapter 9: Occupational Hazards (Violence in the workplace)

Chapter 10: Intimate Enemies (Domestic violence)

Chapter 11: “I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy” (Date-stalking)

Chapter 12: Fear of Children (Violent children)

Chapter 13: Better to Be Wanted by the Police Than Not to Be Wanted at All (Attacks against public figures)

Chapter 14: Extreme Hazards

Chapter 15: The Gift of Fear

 



▪ CHAPTER ONE ▪
IN THE PRESENCE OF DANGER

“This above all, to refuse to be a victim.”
Margaret Atwood

He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren’t sure—but what we do know is that she was not his first victim. That afternoon, in an effort to get all her shopping done in one trip, Kelly had overestimated what she could comfortably carry home. Justifying her decision as she struggled with the heavy bags, she reminded herself that making two trips would have meant walking around after dark, and she was too careful about her safety for that. As she climbed the few steps to the apartment building door, she saw that it had been left unlatched (again). Her neighbors just don’t get it, she thought, and though their lax security annoyed her, this time she was glad to be saved the trouble of getting out the key.

She closed the door behind her, pushing it until she heard it latch. She is certain she locked it, which means he must have already been inside the corridor.

 

Next came the four flights of stairs, which she wanted to do in one trip. Near the top of the third landing, one of the bags gave way, tearing open and dispensing cans of cat food. They rolled down the stairs almost playfully, as if they were trying to get away from her. The can in the lead paused at the second floor landing, and Kelly watched as it literally turned the corner, gained some speed, and began its seemingly mindful hop down the next flight of steps and out of sight.

“Got it! I’ll bring it up,” someone called out. Kelly didn’t like that voice. Right from the start something just sounded wrong to her, but then this friendly looking young guy came bounding up the steps, collecting cans along the way.

He said, “Let me give you a hand.”

“No, no thanks, I’ve got it.”

“You don’t look like you’ve got it. What floor are you going to?”

She paused before answering him. “The fourth, but I’m okay, really.”

He wouldn’t hear a word of it, and by this point he had a collection of cans balanced between his chest and one arm. “I’m going to the fourth floor too,” he said, “and I’m late—not my fault, broken watch—so let’s not just stand here. And give me that.” He reached out and tugged on one of the heavier bags she was holding. She repeated, “No, really, thanks, but no, I’ve got it.”

Still holding onto the grocery bag, he said, “There’s such a thing as being too proud, you know.”

For a moment, Kelly didn’t let go of that bag, but then she did, and this seemingly insignificant exchange between the cordial stranger and the recipient of his courtesy was the signal—to him and to her—that she was willing to trust him. As the bag passed from her control to his, so did she.

“We better hurry,” he said as he walked up the stairs ahead of Kelly. “We’ve got a hungry cat up there.”

Even though he seemed to want nothing more at that moment than to be helpful, she was apprehensive about him, and for no good reason, she thought. He was friendly and gentlemanly, and she felt guilty about her suspicion. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who distrusts everybody, so they were next approaching the door to her apartment.

“Did you know a cat can live for three weeks without eating?” he asked. “I’ll tell you how I learned that tidbit: I once forgot that I’d promised to feed a cat while a friend of mine was out of town.”

Kelly was now standing at the door to her apartment, which she’d just opened.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said, hoping he’d hand her the groceries, accept her thanks and be on his way. Instead, he said, “Oh no, I didn’t come this far to let you have another cat food spill.” When she still hesitated to let him in her door, he laughed understandingly. “Hey, we can leave the door open like ladies do in old movies. I’ll just put this stuff down and go. I promise.”

She did let him in, but he did not keep his promise.

▪ ▪ ▪

At this point, as she is telling me the story of the rape and the whole three-hour ordeal she suffered, Kelly pauses to weep quietly. She now knows that he killed one of his other victims, stabbed her to death.

 

All the while, since soon after we sat down knee to knee in the small garden outside my office, Kelly has been holding both my hands. She is twenty-seven years old. Before the rape, she was a counselor for disturbed children, but she hasn’t been back to work in a long while. That friendly-looking young man had caused three hours of suffering in her apartment and at least three months of suffering in her memory. The confidence he scared off was still hiding, the dignity he pierced still healing.

Kelly is about to learn that listening to one small survival signal saved her life, just as failing to follow so many others had put her at risk in the first place. She looks at me through moist but clear eyes and says she wants to understand every strategy he used. She wants me to tell her what her intuition saw that saved her life. But she will tell me.

“It was after he’d already held the gun to my head, after he raped me. It was after that. He got up from the bed, got dressed, then closed the window. He glanced at his watch, and then started acting like he was in a hurry.”

“I gotta be somewhere. Hey, don’t look so scared. I promise I’m not going to hurt you.” Kelly absolutely knew he was lying. She knew he planned to kill her, and though it may be hard to imagine, it was the first time since the incident began that she felt profound fear.

 

He waved the gun and said, “Don’t you move or do anything. I’m going to the kitchen to get something to drink, and then I’ll leave. I promise. But you stay right where you are.” He had little reason to be concerned that Kelly might disobey his instructions because she had been, from the moment she let go of that bag until this moment, completely under his control. “You know I won’t move,” she assured him.

But the instant he stepped from the room, Kelly stood up and walked after him, pulling the sheet off the bed with her. “I was literally right behind him, like a ghost, and he didn’t know I was there. We walked down the hall together. At one point he stopped, and so did I. He was looking at my stereo which was playing some music, and he reached out and made it louder. When he moved on toward the kitchen, I turned and walked through the living room.”

Kelly could hear drawers being opened as she walked out her front door, leaving it ajar. She walked directly into the apartment across the hall (which she somehow knew would be unlocked). Holding a finger up to signal her surprised neighbors to be quiet, she locked their door behind her.

“I knew if I had stayed in my room, he was going to come back from the kitchen and kill me, but I don’t know how I was so certain.”

“Yes, you do,” I tell her.

She sighs and then goes over it again. “He got up and got dressed, closed the window, looked at his watch. He promised he wouldn’t hurt me, and that promise came out of nowhere. Then he went into the kitchen to get a drink, supposedly, but I heard him opening drawers in there. He was looking for a knife, of course, but I knew way before that.” She pauses. “I guess he wanted a knife because using the gun would be too noisy.”

“What makes you think he was concerned about noise?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” She takes a long pause, gazing off past me, looking back at him in the bedroom. “Oh… I do know. I get it, I get it. Noise was the thing—that’s why he closed the window. That’s how I knew.”

Since he was dressed and supposedly leaving, he had no other reason to close her window. It was that subtle signal that warned her, but it was fear that gave her the courage to get up without hesitation and follow close behind the man who intended to kill her. She later described a fear so complete that it replaced every feeling in her body. Like an animal hiding inside her, it opened to its full size and stood up using the muscles in her legs. “I had nothing to do with it,” she explained. “I was a passenger moving down that hallway.”

What she experienced was real fear, not like when we are startled, not like the fear we feel at a movie, or the fear of public speaking. This fear is the powerful ally that says, “Do what I tell you to do.” Sometimes, it tells a person to play dead, or to stop breathing, or to run or scream or fight, but to Kelly it said, “Just be quiet and don’t doubt me and I’ll get you out of here.”

Kelly told me she felt new confidence in herself, knowing she had acted on that signal, knowing she had saved her own life. She said she was tired of being blamed and blaming herself for letting him into her apartment. She said she had learned enough in our meetings to never again be victimized that way.

“Maybe that’s the good to come from it,” she reflected. “The weird thing is, with all this information I’m actually less afraid walking around now than I was before it happened—but there must be an easier way people could learn.”

The thought had occurred to me. I know that what saved Kelly’s life can save yours. In her courage, in her commitment to listen to intuition, in her determination to make some sense out of it, in her passion to be free of unwarranted fear, I saw that the information could be shared not just with victims but with those who need never become victims at all. I want this book to help you be one of those people.

Because of my sustained look at violence, because I have predicted the behavior of murderers, stalkers, would-be assassins, rejected boyfriends, estranged husbands, angry former employees, mass killers, and others, I am called an expert. I may have learned many lessons, but my basic premise in these pages is that you too are an expert at predicting violent behavior. Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.

I’ve learned some lessons about safety through years of asking people who’ve suffered violence, “Could you have seen this coming?” Most often they say, “No, it just came out of nowhere,” but if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: “I felt uneasy when I first met that guy…” or “Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me,” or “I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day.”

Of course, if they realize it now, they knew it then. We all see the signals because there is a universal code of violence. You’ll find some of you need to break that code in the following chapters, but most of it is in you.

▪ ▪ ▪

In a very real sense, the surging water in an ocean does not move; rather, energy moves through it. In this same sense, the energy of violence moves through our culture. Some experience it as a light but unpleasant breeze, easy to tolerate. Others are destroyed by it, as if by a hurricane. But nobody—nobody—is untouched. Violence is a part of America, and more than that, it is a part of our species. It is around us, and it is in us. As the most powerful people in history, we have climbed to the top of the world food chain, so to speak. Facing not one single enemy or predator who poses to us any danger of consequence, we’ve found the only prey left: ourselves.

 

Lest anyone doubt this, understand that in the last two years alone, more Americans died from gunshot wounds than were killed during the entire Vietnam War. By contrast, in all of Japan (with a population of 120 million people), the number of young men shot to death in a year is equal to the number killed in New York City in a single busy weekend. Our armed robbery rate is one hundred times higher than Japan’s. In part, that’s because we are a nation with more firearms than adults, a nation where 20,000 guns enter the stream of commerce every day. No contemplation of your safety in America can be sincere without taking a clear-eyed look down the barrel of that statistic. By this time tomorrow, 400 more Americans will suffer a shooting injury, and another 1,100 will face a criminal with a gun, as Kelly did. Within the hour, another 75 women will be raped, as Kelly was.

Neither privilege nor fame will keep violence away: in the last thirty-five years, more public figures have been attacked in America than in the 185 years before that. Ordinary citizens can encounter violence at their jobs to the point that homicide is now the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. Twenty years ago, the idea of someone going on a shooting spree at work was outlandish; now it’s in the news nearly every week, and managing employee fear of such events is a frequent topic in the boardroom.

 

While we are quick to judge the human rights record of every other country on earth, it is we civilized Americans whose murder rate is ten times that of other Western nations, we civilized Americans who kill women and children with the most alarming frequency. In (sad) fact, if a full jumbo jet crashed into a mountain killing everyone on board, and if that happened every month, month in and month out, the number of people killed still wouldn’t equal the number of women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year.

We all watched as bodies were carried away from the Oklahoma City bombing, and by the end of that week we learned to our horror that nineteen children had died in the blast. You now know that seventy children died that same week at the hands of a parent, just like every week—and most of them were under 5 years old. Four million luckier children were physically abused last year, and it was not an unusual year.

 

Statistics like this tend to distance us from the tragedies that surround each incident because we end up more impressed by the numbers than by the reality. To bring it closer to home, you personally know a woman who has been battered, and you’ve probably seen the warning signs. She or her husband works with you, lives near you, amazes you in sports, fills your prescriptions at the pharmacy, or advises on your taxes. You may not know, however, that women visit emergency rooms for injuries caused by their husbands or boyfriends more often than for injuries from car accidents, robberies and rapes combined.

Our criminal justice system often lacks justice, and more often lacks reason. For example, America has about 3000 people slated for execution, more by far than at any time in world history, yet the most frequent cause of death listed for those inmates is “natural causes.” That’s because we execute fewer than 2% of those sentenced to die. It is actually safer for these men to live on death row than to live in some American neighborhoods.

 

I explore capital punishment here not to promote it, for I am not an advocate, but rather because our attitude toward it raises a question that is key to this book: Are we really serious about fighting crime and violence? Often, it appears we are not. Here’s just one example of what we accept: If you add up how long their victims would otherwise have lived, our country’s murderers rob us of almost a million years of human life every year.

I’ve presented these facts about the frequency of violence for a reason: to increase the likelihood that you will believe it is at least possible that you or someone you care for will be a victim at some time. That belief is a key element in recognizing when you are in the presence of danger. That belief balances denial, the powerful and cunning enemy of successful predictions. Even having learned these facts of life and death, some readers will still compartmentalize the hazards in order to exclude themselves: “Sure, there’s a lot of violence, but that’s in the inner city;” “Yeah, a lot of women are battered, but I’m not in a relationship now;” “Violence is a problem for younger people, or older people;” “You’re only at risk if you’re out late at night;” “People bring it on themselves,” and on and on. Americans are experts at denial, a choir whose song could be titled, “Things Like That Don’t Happen in This Neighborhood.”

Denial has an interesting and insidious side effect. For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn’t so, the fall they take when victimized is far, far greater than that of those who accept the possibility. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run, the denying person knows the truth on some level, and it causes a constant low-grade anxiety. Millions of people suffer that anxiety, and denial keeps them from taking action that could reduce the risks (and the worry).

If we studied any other creature in nature and found the record of intra-species violence that human beings have, we would be repulsed by it. We’d view it as a great perversion of natural law—but we wouldn’t deny it.

 

As we stand on the tracks, we can only avoid the oncoming train if we are willing to see it and willing to predict that it won’t stop. But instead of improving the technologies of prediction, America improves the technologies of conflict: guns, prisons, SWAT teams, karate classes, pepper spray, stun-guns, TASERS, Mace. And now more than ever, we need the most accurate predictions. Just think about how we live: We are searched for weapons before boarding a plane, visiting city hall, seeing a television show taping, or attending a speech by the president. Our government buildings are surrounded by barricades, and we wrestle through so-called tamper-proof packaging to get a couple aspirin. All of this was triggered by the deeds of fewer than ten dangerous men who got our attention by frightening us. What other quorum in American history, save those who wrote our Constitution, could claim as much impact on our day-to-day lives? Since fear is so central to our experience, understanding when it is a gift—and when it is a curse—is well worth the effort.

We live in a country where one person with a gun and some nerve can derail our democratic right to choose the leaders of the most powerful nation in history. The guaranteed passport into the world of great goings-on is violence, and the lone assailant with a grandiose idea and a handgun has become an icon of our culture. Yet comparatively little has been done to learn about that person, particularly considering his (and sometimes her) impact on our lives.

 

We don’t need to learn about violence, many feel, because the police will handle it, the criminal-justice system will handle it, experts will handle it. Though it touches us all and belongs to us all, and though we each have something profound to contribute to the solution, we have left this critical inquiry to people who tell us that violence cannot be predicted, that risk is a game of odds, and anxiety is an unavoidable part of life.

Not one of these conventional “wisdoms” is true.

▪ ▪ ▪

Throughout our lives, each of us will have to make important behavioral predictions on our own, without experts. From the wide list of people who present themselves, we’ll choose candidates for inclusion in our lives—as employers, employees, advisers, business associates, friends, lovers, spouses.

 

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. As we send our children off each morning, we assume the school will keep them safe, but as you’ll see in chapter 12, it might not be so. We trust security guards—you know, the employment pool that gave us the Son of Sam killer, the assassin of John Lennon, the Hillside Strangler, and more arsonists and rapists than you have time to read about. Has the security industry earned your confidence? Has government earned it? We have a Department of Justice, but it would be more appropriate to have a department of violence prevention because that’s what we need and that’s what we care about. Justice is swell, but safety is survival.

Just as we look to government and experts, we also look to technology for solutions to our problems, but you will see that your personal solution to violence will not come from technology. It will come from an even grander resource that was there all the while, within you. That resource is intuition.

 

It may be hard to accept its importance, because intuition is usually looked upon by us thoughtful Western beings with contempt. It is often described as emotional, unreasonable, or inexplicable. Husbands chide their wives about “feminine intuition” and don’t take it seriously. If intuition is used by a woman to explain some choice she made or a concern she can’t let go of, men roll their eyes and write it off. We much prefer logic, the grounded, explainable, unemotional thought process that ends in a supportable conclusion. In fact, Americans worship logic, even when it’s wrong, and deny intuition, even when it’s right.

Men, of course, have their own version of intuition, not so light and inconsequential, they tell themselves, as that feminine stuff. Theirs is more viscerally named a “ gut feeling,” but it isn’t just a feeling. It is a process more extraordinary and ultimately more logical in the natural order than the most fantastic computer calculation. It is our most complex cognitive process and at the same time the simplest.

 

Intuition connects us to the natural world and to our nature. Freed from the bonds of judgment, married only to perception, it carries us to predictions we will later marvel at. “Somehow I knew,” we will say about the chance meeting we predicted, or about the unexpected phone call from a distant friend, or the unlikely turnaround in someone’s behavior, or about the violence we steered clear of, or, too often, the violence we elected not to steer clear of. “Somehow I knew…” Like Kelly knew, and you can know.

The husband and wife who make an appointment with me to discuss the harassing and threatening phone calls they are getting want me to figure out who is doing it. Based on what the caller says, it’s obvious he is someone they know, but who? Her ex-husband? That weird guy who used to rent a room from them? A neighbor angry about their construction work? The contractor they fired?

 

The expert will tell them who it is, they think, but actually they will tell me. It’s true I have experience with thousands of cases, but they have theexperience with this one. Inside them, perhaps trapped where I can help find it, is all the information needed to make an accurate evaluation. At some point in our discussion of possible suspects, the woman will invariably say something like this: “You know, there is one other person, and I don’t have any concrete reasons for thinking it’s him. I just have this feeling, and I hate to even suggest it, but…” And right there I could send them home and send my bill, because that is who it will be. We will follow my client’s intuition until I have “solved the mystery.” I’ll be much praised for my skill, but most often, I just listen and give them permission to listen to themselves. Early on in these meetings, I say, “No theory is too remote to explore, no person is beyond consideration, no gut feeling is too unsubstantiated.” (In fact, as you are about to find out, every intuition is firmly substantiated.) When clients ask, “Do the people who make these threats ever do such-and-such?” I say, “Yes, sometimes they do,” and this is permission to explore some theory.

When interviewing victims of anonymous threats, I don’t ask “Who do you think sent you these threats?” because most victims can’t imagine that anyone they know sent the threats. I ask instead, “Who could have sent them?” and together we make a list of everyone who had the ability, without regard to motive. Then I ask clients to assign a motive, even a ridiculous one, to each person on the list. It is a creative process that puts them under no pressure to be correct. For this very reason, in almost every case, one of their imaginative theories will be correct.

 

Quite often, my greatest contribution to solving the mystery is my refusal to call it a mystery. Rather, it is a puzzle, one in which there are enough pieces available to reveal what the image is. I have seen these pieces so often that I may recognize them sooner than some people, but my main job is just to get them on the table.

As we explore the pieces of the human violence puzzle, I’ll show you their shapes and their colors. Given your own lifelong study of human behavior—and your own humanness—you’ll see that the pieces are already familiar to you. Above all, I hope to leave you knowing that every puzzle can be solved long before all the pieces are in place.

▪ ▪ ▪

People do things, we say, “out of the blue,” “all of a sudden,” “out of nowhere.” These phrases support the popular myth that predicting human behavior isn’t possible. Yet to successfully navigate through morning traffic, we make amazingly accurate high-stakes predictions about the behavior of literally thousands of people. We unconsciously read tiny untaught signals: the slight tilt of a stranger’s head or the momentarily sustained glance of a person a hundred feet away tells us it is safe to pass in front of his two-ton monster. We expect all the drivers to act just as we would, but we still alertly detect those few who might not—so that we are also predicting their behavior, unpredictable though we may call it. So here we are, traveling along faster than anyone before the 1900’s ever traveled (unless they were falling off a cliff), dodging giant, high-momentum steel missiles, judging the intent of their operators with a fantastic accuracy, and then saying we can’t predict human behavior.

 

We predict with some success how a child will react to a warning, how a witness will react to a question, how a jury will react to a witness, how a consumer will react to a slogan, how an audience will react to a scene, how a spouse will react to a comment, how a reader will react to a phrase, and on and on. Predicting violent behavior is easier than any of these, but since we fantasize that human violence is an aberration done by others unlike us, we say we can’t predict it. Watching Jane Goodall’s documentary showing a group of chimpanzees stalking and killing another group’s males, we say the unprovoked attack is territorialism or population control. With similar certainty, we say we understand the cause and purpose of violence by every creature on earth—except ourselves.

The human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call “random” and “senseless,” is neither. It always has purpose and meaning, to the perpetrator, at least. We may not choose to explore or understand that purpose, but it is there, and as long as we label it “senseless,” we’ll not make sense of it.

 

Sometimes a violent act is so frightening that we call the perpetrator a monster, but as you’ll see, it is by finding his humanness—his similarity to you and me—that such an act can be predicted. Though you’re about to learn new facts and concepts about violent people, you will find most of the information resonating somewhere in your own experience. You will see that even esoteric types of violence have detectable patterns and warning signs. You’ll also see that the more mundane types of violence, those we all relate to on some level, such as violence between angry intimates, are as knowable as affection between intimates. (In fact, the violence has fewer varieties than the love).

A television news show reports on a man who shot and killed his wife at her work. A restraining order had been served on him the same day as his divorce papers, coincidentally also his birthday. The news story tells of the man’s threats, of his being fired from his job, of his putting a gun to his wife’s head the week before the killing, of his stalking her. Even with all these facts, the reporter ends with: “Officials concede that no-one could have predicted this would happen.”

That’s because we want to believe that people are infinitely complex, with millions of motivations and varieties of behavior. It is not so. We want to believe that with all the possible combinations of human beings and human feelings, predicting violence is as difficult as picking the winning lottery ticket, yet it usually isn’t difficult at all. We want to believe that human violence is somehow beyond our understanding, because as long as it remains a mystery, we have no duty to avoid it, explore it, or anticipate it. We need feel no responsibility for failing to read signals if there are none to read. We can tell ourselves that violence just happens without warning, and usually to others, but in service of these comfortable myths, victims suffer and criminals prosper.

The truth is that every thought is preceded by a perception, every impulse is preceded by a thought, every action is preceded by an impulse, and man is not so private a being that his behavior is unseen, his patterns undetectable. Life’s highest-stakes questions can be answered: Will a person I am worried about try to harm me? Will the employee I must fire react violently? How should I handle the person who refuses to let go? What is the best way to respond to threats? What are the dangers posed by strangers? How can I know a baby-sitter won’t turn out to be someone who harms my child? How can I know whether some friend of my child might be dangerous? Is my own child displaying the warning signs of future violence? Finally, how can I help my loved ones be safer?

 

I commit that by the end of this book, you will be better able to answer these questions, and you will find good reason to trust your already keen ability to predict violence.

How can I say all this so confidently? Because I’ve had four decades of lessons from the most qualified teachers.

When I called and told Kelly I had decided to devote a year to writing this book (it turned out to take two), I also thanked her for what she’d taught me, as I always do with clients. “Oh, I don’t think you learned anything new from my case,” she said, “but which one did teach you the most?”

With many to choose from, I told Kelly I didn’t know, but as soon as I’d said good-bye and hung up the phone, I realized I did know. Thinking back, it was as if I was in that room again.

▪ ▪ ▪

A woman was pointing a gun at her husband, who was standing with his hands held out in front of him. She was anxiously changing her grip on the small semi-automatic pistol. “Now I’m going to kill you,” she repeated quietly, almost as if to herself. She was an attractive, slender woman of thirty-three, wearing black slacks and a man’s white shirt. There were eight bullets in the gun.

 

I was standing off to the side in a doorway, watching the scene unfold. As I had been before and would be many times again, I was responsible for predicting whether or not a murder would occur, whether or not the woman in this case would keep her promise to kill. The stakes were high, for in addition to the man at risk, there were also two young children in the house.

Threats like hers, I knew, are easy to speak, harder to honor. Like all threats, the words betrayed her by admitting her failure to influence events in any other way, and like all people who threaten, she had to advance or retreat. She might be satisfied with the fear her words and actions caused, might accept the attention she had garnered at gun point and leave it at that.

 

Or, she might pull the trigger.

For this young woman, the forces that inhibit violence and those that might provoke it were rising and falling against each other like stormy waves. She was by turns hostile, then silent. At one moment, violence seemed the obvious choice; at the next, it seemed the last thing she’d ever do. But violence isthe last thing some people do.

 

All the while, the pistol stayed steadily pointed at her husband.

Except for the rapid, shallow breaths he was taking, the man in the gun sights didn’t move. His hands were held out stiffly in front of him as if they could stop bullets. I remember wondering for a moment if it would hurt to be shot, but another part of my mind jerked me back to the job I’d taken on. I could not miss a detail.

 

The woman appeared to relax and then she became silent again. Though some observers might have viewed this as a favorable indicator, I had to assess if her quiet pauses were used for a rallying of reason or a contemplation of murder. I noticed that she was not wearing shoes, but discarded the observation as irrelevant to my task. Details are snapshots, not portraits, and I had to quickly determine which bore on my prediction and which did not. The mess of papers on the floor near an overturned table, the phone knocked off the hook, a broken glass likely thrown when the argument was more innocent—all assessed and quickly discarded.

I then saw a detail of great significance, though it was just a quarter-inch movement. (In these predictions, the gross movements may get our attention, but they are rarely the ones that matter most.) The fraction of an inch her thumb traveled to rest on the hammer of the gun carried the woman further along the path to homicide than anything she had said or could have said. From this new place, she began an angry tirade. A moment later, she pulled the hammer of the pistol back, a not-so-subtle underscoring that earned her new credibility. Her words were chopped and spit across the room, and as her rage escalated, it might have seemed I had to hurry and complete the prediction. In fact, I had plenty of time. That’s because the best predictions use all the time available. When effective, the process is completed just behind the line that separates foresight and hindsight, the line between what might happen and what has just happened.

 

It’s like your high-stakes prediction about whether the driver of an advancing car will slow down enough to allow safe passage—a fantastically complex process, but it happens just in time. Though I didn’t know it that day, I was automatically applying and re-applying the single most important tool of any prediction: pre-incident indicators.

Pre-incident indicators are those detectable factors that occur before the outcome being predicted. Stepping on the first rung of a ladder is a significant pre-incident indicator to reaching the top; stepping on the sixth even more so. Since everything a person does is created twice—once in the mind and once in its execution—ideas and impulses are pre-incident indicators for action. The woman’s threats to kill revealed an idea that was one step toward the outcome; her introduction of the gun into the argument with her husband was another, as was its purchase some months earlier.

 

The woman was now backing away from her husband. To someone else, this may have looked like a retreat, but I intuitively knew it was the final pre-incident indicator before the pulling of the trigger. Because guns are not intimate weapons, her desire for some distance from the person she was about to shoot was the element that completed my prediction, and I quickly acted.

I backed quietly down the hall through the kitchen, by the burning and forgotten dinner, into the small bedroom where a young girl was napping. As I crossed the room to wake the child, I heard the gunshot that I had predicted just a moment before. I was startled, but not surprised. The silence that followed, however, did concern me.

 

My plan had been to take the child out of the house, but I abandoned that and told her to stay in bed. At two years old, she probably didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation, but I was ten, and knew all about these things.

▪ ▪ ▪

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that gun go off in the house; my mother had accidentally fired it toward me a few months earlier, the bullet passing so close to my ear that I felt it buzz in the air before striking the wall.

 

On my way back to our living room, I stopped when I smelled the gunpowder around me. I listened, trying to figure out what was happening without going back into that room. It was too quiet.

As I stood straining to hear any tiny sound, there came instead an enormous noise: several more gunshots fired quickly. These I had not predicted. I quickly rounded the corner into the living room.

 

My stepfather was crouched down on both knees, my mother leaning over him, seemingly offering care. I could see blood on his hands and legs, and when he looked up at me, I tried to reassure him with my calm. I knew he’d never been through anything like this before, but I had.

The gun was on the floor near me, so I leaned over and picked it up by the barrel. It was uncomfortably hot to the touch.

 

In terms of predicting what was coming next, the scene before me was good news. My initial thought had been to grab the gun and run out the back door, but because of a new prediction, I hid it behind a cushion on the couch. I had concluded that my mother had discharged much of her hostility and frustration along with those gunshots. At least for the moment, she was not only reasonable, but was shifting to the role of supportive wife, nursing her husband’s injury as if she’d played no part in it. Far from being someone to be apprehensive about, she was now a person we were grateful to have in charge. She would make sure my stepfather was all right, she would deal with the police and the ambulance, and she would put our lives back in place as surely as if she could draw those bullets back into the gun.

I went to check on my little sister, who was now sitting up expectantly in her bed. Having learned that the time after a major incident offered a period of safety and the best rest, I lay down next to her. I couldn’t take a vacation from all predictions, of course, but I lowered the periscope a bit, and after a while we fell asleep.

 

By the time our family moved from that house a year later, there were nine bullets embedded in the walls and floors. I imagine they are still there.

▪ ▪ ▪

When the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of the FBI gave me an award for designing MOSAIC™, the assessment system now used for screening threats to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, I am certain neither realized it was actually invented by a ten year-old boy, but it was. The way I broke down the individual elements of violence as a child became the way the most sophisticated artificial intuition systems predict violence today. My ghosts had become my teachers.

 

I am often asked how I got into my work. If viewed in cinematic terms, the answer would cut quickly from scene to scene: running at eleven years old alongside a limousine, clamoring with other fans to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, would cut to me inside that limousine working for the famous couple within eight years. Watching President Kennedy’s inauguration on television would cut to standing with another president at his inauguration twenty years later, and with another twelve years after that. Watching in shock the reports of Kennedy’s murder would cut to working with our government on predicting and preventing such attacks. Watching in shock the reports of Senator Robert Kennedy’s murder would cut to developing the assessment system now used to help screen threats to U.S. Senators.

Trying unsuccessfully to stop one of my mother’s husbands from hitting her would cut to training hundreds of New York City police detectives on new ways to evaluate domestic violence situations. Visiting my mother in a psychiatric ward after one of her suicide attempts would cut to touring mental hospitals as an advisor to the Governor of California. Above all, living with fear would cut to helping people manage fear.

 

My childhood wasn’t a movie, of course, though it did have chase sequences, fight scenes, shoot-outs, skyjacking, life and death suspense, and suicide. The plot didn’t make much sense to me as a boy, but it does now.

It turns out I was attending an academy of sorts, and though hopefully on different subjects, so were you. No matter what your major, you too have been studying people for a long time, carefully developing theories and strategies to predict what they might do.

 

Even some of my clients will be surprised to learn what you just learned about my earliest training, but those who visit my office are surprised in many ways. It is, after all, a very unusual firm. The clients of Gavin de Becker & Associates are a wide-ranging group: federal government agencies (including the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Central Intelligence Agency), prosecutors, battered women’s shelters, giant corporations, universities, television stars, television stations, police departments, cities, states, movie studios, cultural figures, religious leaders, champion athletes, politicians, recording artists, movie stars, and college students. Clients include the world’s most famous and the world’s most anonymous.

People from my office attend Presidential Inaugurations on one coast, the Oscars and the Emmys on the other. They stroll observantly through crowds of angry protesters one day and are whisked into an underground garage at the federal courthouse the next. We have toured Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the South Pacific learning about violence in those places. We have flown in Gulfstream jets and hot-air balloons, paddled down the Amazon, been driven in armored limousines, ridden on elephants and rickshaws, been smothered by hostile crowds, and smothered by adoring crowds. We have testified before Senate committees and toured secret government installations. We’ve had staff meetings while floating down a jungle river in the dead of night. We’ve ridden in presidential motorcades one week and in busses used to transport prisoners the next. We have advised the targets of assassination attempts and the families of those who were assassinated, including the widow of a slain foreign president. We have been chased by tabloid reporters and we have chased them right back. We’ve been on both sides of the 60 Minutes cameras, hiding out with their crews for one story about a national fraud, answering Ed Bradley’s probing questions on a murder case for another.

 

We are called by our government when some zealot shoots an abortion doctor or opens fire on federal employees. We are called by Larry King when he needs a guest to discuss whether O.J. Simpson fits the profile of a stalking spousal killer, and we are called by Simpson’s prosecutors for the same reason. We visit murder scenes to counsel frightened survivors—sometimes just minutes after the crime. We advise people who have been threatened, and we have ourselves been frequent targets of death threats. As I said, it is an unusual firm, one that could only exist in America and, in most regards, need only exist in America.

What binds all of this together is prediction. My firm predicts human behavior, behavior in one category mostly: violence. It’s methods are highly confidential on the one hand, yet played out i. What binds all of this together is prediction of one thing: violence. Far more often, we predict safety. We counsel cultural and religious leaders on how to navigate between being hated too much and being loved too much. We advise corporations and government agencies on managing employees who might act out violently. We advise famous people who are the targets of unwanted pursuers, stalkers, and would-be assassins. Most people do not realize that media figures are at the center of a swirl of desperate and often alarming pursuers. Fewer still realize that the stalking of regular citizens is an epidemic affecting hundreds of thousands every year.

 

Among all the weird ventures in America, could you ever have imagined a literal warehouse of alarming and unwelcome things which stalkers have sent to the objects of their unwanted pursuit, things like thousand-page death threats, phone book-thick love letters, body parts, dead animals, facsimile bombs, razor blades, and notes written in blood? Would you have imagined that there is a building containing more than 350,000 obsessive and threatening communications? Many of my forty-six associates work in just such a building. There they cast light on the darkest parts of our culture, seeking every day to improve our understanding of hazard, and every day helping people manage fear.

Though fewer than fifty of our twenty-thousand cases have been reported in the news, and though most of our work is guardedly nonpublic, we have participated in many of the highest stakes predictions that individuals and nations ever make. To be the best at this, we have systematized intuition, captured and tamed just a tiny part of its miracle.

 

You have some of that miracle, and through an exploration of high-stakes predictions—those involving the outcome of violence or death—you’ll learn ways to have a safer life. After discussing how intuition works for you and how denial works against you, I’ll show that fear, which can be central to your safety, is frequently misplaced. I’ll explore the role of threats in our lives and show how you can tell the difference between a real warning and mere words. I’ll identify the specific survival signals we get from people who might harm us.

Since the signals are best concealed when an attacker is not known to us, I’ll start with the dangers posed by strangers. This is the violence that captures our fear and attention, even though only 20 percent of all homicides are committed by strangers. The other 80 percent are committed by people we know, so I’ll focus on those we hire, those we work with, those we fire, those we date, those we marry, those we divorce.

 

I’ll also discuss the tiny but influential minority whose violence affects us all: assassins. Through the story of a man who didn’t quite complete his plans to kill a famous person (though he did kill five other people), I’ll provide a look at public life you’ve never seen before.

In chapter 15, you’ll see that if your intuition is informed accurately, the danger signal will sound when it should. If you come to trust this fact, you’ll not only be safer, but it will be possible to live life nearly free of fear.







THANKS FOR READING FEARFIGHTER!



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