Robert Fulford's column about Philip Roth, The Gift of Fear, and wife-killers

(The National Post, July 4, 2000)

After spending a lifetime as a storyteller and a professional brooder on the human condition, Philip Roth has learned one thing. He has learned, he believes, that we cannot learn. Or, at least, that we cannot hope to know much about the origins of passions that startle and change us or violence that abruptly ends lives and sends waves of trauma spreading in all directions.

A potential domestic murder hangs over the protagonists in Roth's latest novel, The Human Stain. Early in the story we learn that a man may kill his former wife and her new lover, and Roth leads us into the lives of the husband and his potential victims. Recently I was reading his brilliant book with special attention because, like many people in my part of the world, I was also thinking about Ralph Hadley, the Pickering, Ont., man who murdered his wife, Gillian, in a wild rage and then killed himself. In that case, too, the former wife had made a connection with a new man.

In the same period, I was reading a remarkable book I've heard about for years, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker, a Los Angeles security consultant. De Becker's company is hired to protect celebrities such as Madonna, Tina Turner and Cher, but his book concerns itself more with the multitude of anonymous individuals who are stalked, raped and sometimes murdered.

The Gift of Fear, essentially a how-to book for those hoping to protect themselves from persecution by the mad and the violent, was a hardcover best-seller in 1997 and has since appeared as a Bantam paperback. It states a view sharply different from Roth's. While Roth insists that there's little to be known about such things, de Becker argues that there's much valuable knowledge available.

Roth's narrator says we can never comprehend "what underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs." All we know is that nobody knows anything. "Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don't know is astonishing."

But de Becker says experience has taught us to predict behaviour; he thinks, for instance, that O.J. Simpson's crime was clearly predicted by his previous behaviour. He says we know from experience that temporary restraining orders (such as the one intended to inhibit the actions of Ralph Hadley) often fail. They "work best on the person least likely to be violent anyway," the individual who turned brutal at some point but fears the law more than he desires revenge. In the truly dangerous cases, a restraining order gives the potential victim a false sense of security and perhaps further enrages the abuser.

A woman under serious threat of violence, de Becker believes, must concentrate on making herself absolutely unavailable to the man pursing her. That's her main job. This is profoundly unfair, and many believe the police "should" watch over people like Gillian Hadley, but there's no reason to think they will ever be able to do so. It is the woman herself, or her friends and relatives, who must ensure her safety. The friends must treat her the way they might treat someone with terminal cancer -- as a group responsibility; they must move her to a shelter or refuse to leave her alone for a moment.

To those who imagine that restraining orders have power, de Becker points out that many such murderers also commit suicide. Defeating their wives matters more than life itself, so they are unlikely to be deterred by a judge's signature. In a study of 179 stalking cases in San Diego, Calif., about half the victims felt their cases were worsened by restraining orders.

Gillian Hadley also changed her phone number three times to avoid calls from her husband -- a mistake, de Becker would say. Stalkers always discover the new number. Instead, he says, get a second, unlisted number for friends and put voice mail on the first. "The stalker won't realize you've changed, and you'll have a record of his calls if you need it."

There's something strangely poetic about de Becker's approach to this arena of terror. At various times he quotes from Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha ("one should not make friends with evil men" -- a point that's not nearly so obvious as it seems) and Margaret Atwood ("This above all, to refuse to be a victim"). The Gift of Fear lavishes praise on a faculty that's more useful than a platoon of cops: intuition.

De Becker designs systems based on logic, like a computer program that police departments use to analyze risks to public figures. He can cite 17 signals predicting a worker's turn to violence or 30 characteristics pointing to wife-murder. But he puts his most earnest effort into telling readers to respect their own intuitive responses. Intuition is a way of swiftly gathering and processing information. If intuition makes you think someone in an elevator looks dangerous, don't reject its advice, de Becker argues -- wait for the next car. Don't say, "I refuse to have my life ruled by fear." Instinct isn't fear, it's a form of wisdom. Intelligently deployed, it's "the exact opposite of living in fear."

Intuition works far faster than logic or judgment. It's a cognitive process, but radically different from the measured thinking we usually rely on. "We think conscious thought is somehow better ... in fact, intuition is soaring flight when compared to the plodding of logic." On this point, de Becker grows rapturous: A mind using intuition becomes miraculously graceful. Intuition "is knowing without knowing why."

In Roth's book, one character makes a specialty of denying his instincts -- and suffers grievously. Roth works a much richer social vein than I've suggested here, and he crams The Human Stain with so many surprises that anyone planning to read it should carefully avoid looking at detailed reviews in advance. It would be preposterous to call it a study of spousal violence when it is so much more; but it is worth noting that the great master among contemporary American authors has now added to his vast portrait gallery that omnipresent figure in modern life, the anger-drenched wife-killer.

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