To be a woman is to know fear. Walking alone at night, even in a "good" neighborhood, on high alert, perceiving your own shadow or the echo of your chunky boots on the pavement as threats. The spike of adrenaline when a big guy with a wide gait walks your way, followed by the dip of relief (and then guilt) when you realize he's just a tired citizen trying to make his way home like you are. The sense that if, no, when someone decides to invade your space, you won't have recourse, skills, any power but your own yell.
Recently, I was traveling in Japan and found myself out at night alone, near midnight, looking for a small bar. It was hot: nearly 90 degrees with the sun down, and I wore jean shorts, a crop top, a backpack, and platform shoes. As I walked down an empty street whose name I could not pronounce, I felt something akin to joy, a lightness I didn't recognize. And then it hit me: I felt safe. At night. By myself. It was an experience I hadn't enjoyed in my hometown of New York, in my college town in Ohio, in my adopted city of Los Angeles, or in the Connecticut woods around my grandma's house. It was new and it was exhilarating. It is nearly impossible to find.
When I spoke to Gavin de Becker, he confirmed what I had intuited: that Japan's crime rate is almost comically low compared to any of the places I named, any place in America at all. He has made a science out of violence, studying patterns of culture and behavior that breed and promote it. I initially came into contact with Gavin, a man known for his expertise in protecting celebrities and political figures from threats of all kinds, when I was experiencing some nice low-grade stalking.
I had long been a fan of de Becker's seminal book on self-protection: The Gift of Fear. The thesis of the book, which is too full of practical and empowering information to distill here, is that we (the human race and especially women) have lost our essential connection to fear and that this connection, when properly heeded, can protect us. But de Becker's true passion lies in teaching women to protect themselves from violence of all kinds, particularly partner violence, which is more pervasive and insidious than any boogeyman could ever be and which so many of us forget to recognize or fear.
Speaking with de Becker, understanding what is ultimately his radical-feminist take on safety and violence, has made me an acolyte more than a client. Despite an aversion to press in recent years, the warm and generous de Becker sat down to talk to Lenny on Christmas Eve of 2015. He was Skyping from a breezy room at his home in Fiji, where he spends part of every year. Here, he discusses his upbringing, trusting your intuition, and the universal code of violence.
Lena Dunham: You talk, in your book The Gift of Fear, about how you were affected by the violence your mother, a heroin addict, experienced and sometimes perpetrated herself. It allowed you to consider violence, to do research on violence, and ultimately to protect people from violence. Often people who grow up in environments like that become violent because they are enacting the things they've seen. What is it that you feel internally or that you saw that lifted you out of that circumstance? Why are you sitting in Fiji rather than jail?
Gavin de Becker: I became a kind of ambassador between the two worlds of violent and not violent. I've been in jail a lot, not as a prisoner but as a visitor working with various groups of people. There's a line in Gift of Fear, and I'm quoting somebody else, I don't remember who it is, but where two brothers are speaking. One of them says, "Our dad was an alcoholic. Why didn't you grow up to be an alcoholic?" He says, "Because Dad was." Then that brother says to the other, "Why did you grow up to be an alcoholic?" And he says, "Because Dad was." You can have the same raw material and people use it differently. I don't know.