Self Defense Reading: De Becker, Miller, and Others

During winter break I caught up on some reading that I’d gotten behind on. One was Rory Miller’s Facing Violence, one was a book about avoiding social problems that I quit half-way through, and one was Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I probably should have read de Becker first. Mostly, I read him because I was curious why so many well-intentioned people tell others not to read him because “he is triggering.” One sentence, as it turns out, is the problem. One sentence in the entire book. Now, I had other problems with him, and not that one sentence.

De Becker runs a company that specializes in protecting people, notably VIPs, actors, businesspeople and their families, and so on. One of his long-term interests is “Why do people let themselves get into trouble? And what warns other people away from trouble?” If your internal alarms are shrieking, and something seems increasingly “off,” why do you not run, or slam a door in people’s faces, or scream for help, or start fighting back? Conversely, what signals do put you on alert and cause you to leave the scene before something bad happens? De Becker looks at the types of risks women face, the hints inside of us that serve as alarms, and the things that signal “predator” and “prey.” A lot of what he writes about I’m already familiar with, some from painful learning experiences, others from reading a lot and talking to people who have been there and survived that. Female socialization plays a role, although I think that is changing. We are no longer trained that we must be polite and cooperative with everyone.*

The problem the activists have with De Becker is the sentence where he says that the first time a woman [or man] is beaten by a partner, she is a victim. The second time she is an accomplice. Screeeeeech crash! OK, back up here. De Becker’s job is to keep people out of danger and get them away from those trying to harm them, like stalkers and former spouses. He sees no reason why a woman would 1) not flee at the first opportunity and stay away, or 2) get the heck out of danger and never return. Intellectually, I sympathize with his argument, BUT I’ve never been physically and emotionally engaged with an abuser. There’s an enormous amount of evidence that abused partners go back, or stay, for lots and lots of reasons, some of them “better” than others. De Becker watched his entire family stay in an abusive situation with his mother, so he’s been on both sides.

My problem with De Becker is 1) I knew most of what he said already. 2) His strong feelings against individual self-defense with firearms. He’s from California, and his job is protecting people. If you have not trained how to work with bodyguards and who does what, I can see that trying to use a firearm in a pinch might not be a great thing.

For someone who has NO experience with street-smarts and trouble and wants an intro, I would recommend De Becker with the caveats listed above. I personally found Rory Miller’s book more useful. He looks at the legal concerns, the physical things, and the steps of conflict, with emphasis on avoiding trouble. If you cannot avoid, then what? Then he goes into responding, breaking the “freeze” that comes with first blow, how to get away, and how to start coping with the aftermath – physical, psychological, legal. De Becker talks about avoiding trouble and knowing the signs to watch and listen for. Miller deals more with “OK, you tried to avoid trouble and it leaned on the doorbell, then kicked in the door. Now what?”

I’d recommend Miller’s book for someone who has decided to take their immediate defense into their own hands, or for someone who wants to know about all that violence entails, at least the very general sense. Miller writes for people who are clear-eyed about trouble, which is partly why the legal aspects and cautions come very early in the book. Yes, you survived the mugging/attempted rape/assault. Now the bastage is suing you, or his family is suing you because he was just turning his life around/you should have known the knife was fake/you should have run instead of trying to protect the other person… De Becker doesn’t worry about that. That’s not his point. It is a serious point for those of us who choose to take our protection into our own hands rather than trusting that a peace officer will be thirty seconds away and have his radio turned up and not be answering another emergency call.

Miller focuses on police and civilians, not military. The military has its own way of training. Miller’s concerned about the rest of us. I found his section on breaking the freeze especially useful. You are going to freeze. Peter Grant and others have talked about freezing despite training. They lived to tell the tale. Others don’t. How do you break the “Oh sheepdip, he hit me/that’s a real knife/the dojo’s nothing like this/ that’s a really big gun” and respond? Knowing that you’re going to freeze is part of if. The first time I was attacked by an individual, I froze, then my body reacted and got a book up between us (500 page hardback. You use what you have.) Then you continue on and process later.

For someone who has never been around violence, I recommend De Becker as a starting point. For people who have learned to listen to that little inner voice screaming “Get the h-ll out of here, run, run!” Miller is a better book.

*However, the argument that girls should be taught to be rude as a form of protection is going overboard, in my opinion. You can be polite and respectful without making yourself a target or victim. You can also assert yourself without being a jerk.

FTC Disclaimer – I purchased all three books mentioned here with my own funds for my own use. I did not receive any remuneration for this review.

18 thoughts on “Self Defense Reading: De Becker, Miller, and Others

  1. Miller sounds interesting, De Becker sounds like his book would hit the wall rather rapidly. I think I’ll skip him.

    • FWIW, he has a good reason to be irrational about guns (short version, totally bugnut child abuse) and it kind of ties into the spouse abuse angle. I rolled my eyes, but the rest of the stuff was rather good and kind of useful to try to figure out how to describe that kind of stuff for stories.

  2. It’s a progression of an ancient principle. One starts with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that doesn’t work, one progresses to the Degraded Golden Rule: “Do unto others what they’re trying to do unto you – but do it first.”

    I’m here to tell you, it works a treat. That’s why I’m still standing.

    Also, be aware of the tell-tale signs that someone’s targeting you. Greg Ellifritz just published a very good article on this, that I referenced on my blog this morning: . Recommended reading.

  3. Agree with Peter, and De Becker has a vested interest in your NOT learning how to use a weapon, that takes business away from him. Miller is good! Matt Graham also does some excellent classes on force on force, along with a number of others. Mas Ayoob’s MAG 20 and MAG 40 are excellent for the legal and shooting sides of it too.

  4. I have read several of Miller’s books, and they are very useful indeed. So let me get this recommendation in early: Read his “Conflict Communications”. In fact, read it before you read any of this other books on self-defense, Kindle format is only $8 on Amazon, which is a bargain.

    Miller’s background is as a smarter-than-average prison guard who had to deal, sometimes by himself, unarmed, with a lot of violent people inside a space that he could not necessarily quickly exit. He had to work on a) not getting in to a fight in the first place, and b) if he did, ending it quickly. The first part required a lot of thinking and research into violence, which being a human behavior, means figuring out what makes people tick. You get some of this in “Facing Violence”, (which IIRC is the follow on to “Meditations on Violence,” which you should also read).

    He and Mark MacYoung (who also deals with self-defense and violent conflict issues) developed a seminar series on communicating with potentially violent people with an eye to avoiding a complete blow-up into violence (which Miller will point out is not always possible). This involved a model for understanding how potentially violent people think (or don’t think) and respond in their interactions. While the focus was on dealing with criminals in prison or on the street, he noted that a lot of cops came to him and said, (quoting from Miller’s book)”Sure, this should work on the street, but you guys just explained my boss!” This led him to realize that the model was more general than he realized, and he expanded on it for this book.

    It really did provide an insight that I wish I had had decades ago. This should be required reading in all the military schools instead of the usual “communications” texts we got. Recommend it highly.

    (BTW, he also wrote “Violence: A guide for writers” for authors who want to provide a realistic portrayal of violence.)

    Now, about De Becker: He provides useful tools and insights to recognize impending violence, but he seems stuck on the idea that somehow you can avoid violence if you’re just smart enough. Hence his opposition to using firearms in self-defense. There are enough examples that firearms work when all else fails that it undercuts his claimed expertise. But his book is a valuable read, and Rory Miller refers to it in his books (with caveats: Miller will tell you that sometimes talk doesn’t work and you have to fight with all you have).

    Rory Miller’s writings (including the ConCom book) point out the why to De Becker’s “The second time she is an accomplice” statement. Miller notes that people value fitting in and knowing their place in the family/tribe/society, above even life itself. They know the rules, even if the rules are terrible. Leaving and losing even toxic relationships is emotionally equivalent to death, or worse. Hence the reluctance to leave an abusive relationship, and the for similar reasons why the abused spouse stabs the cop in the back when he tries to arrest the abusive spouse.

  5. Just an observation – that’s quite a lot of very useful knowledge to digest in the comments.

    Eric, thanks for the expansion on Miller’s books; sounds like it’ll be a big help. I volunteer as a fraternity advisory, so there’s a lot of high energy and sometimes short fuzes; this may help sort things out and buy time to calm things down, especially while cabin fever hits at this time of year. Males tend to act more directly and overtly than females (… checks behind back, hoping not to find cat carrying an RPG launcher).

    • No worries. *runs nail file under tips of claws* I believe in a fair fight. I tangle your ankles at the top of the stairs, then we’ll fight once you’ve fallen a fair way down the steps. *smiles sweetly, baring all teeth*

  6. Larry Gonzales’ Deep Survival is a good take on survival mindset.

    Anyone have an opinion on Branca’s Law of Self Defense?

  7. Gavin DeBecker’s Gift of Fear and his book Protecting the Gift formed the genesis for my exceedingly successful prosecution of domestic violence cases. His work was the foundation for a training program I created and taught throughout my state to not only law enforcement and prosecutors, but also victim advocates and community members. Domestic violence homicidality and suicidality are predictable based on relationship dynamics that are tangible and recognizable, but they are not necessarily dynamics that result in criminality. That’s why some domestic violence cases that appear to be low level crimes are in fact bell weathers of potential homicide. If you are taught to recognize these dynamics you have the opportunity to intervene before serious harm occurs. An understanding and appreciation of these dynamics also allows for a reasoned analysis of the potential for homicidality in cases of stalking. Also there is the ability to actually empower a victim when you understand the underlying dynamics at work. I have had so many occasions to have done this. I thought his books were no longer published. They are gems and pay no attention to those who dissuade you from considering his work. There is an entrenchment among some for the continued disempowerment of victims because that gives their lives reason. They cannot navigate the area between “blaming the victim” and empowering a victim to make the choices he or she can actually made in their lives to move their existence to safety.

  8. DeBecker’s anti-gun stance was almost enough to make me throw his book down. But I didn’t and I am glad because buried under his biases are some very good insights. Insights I was able to use in my job (LEO), particularly in regards to stalkers. And, as uncomfortable as it may make people, I am onboard with his First time victim, second time accomplice philosophy.

    Rory Miller’s stuff, all of it, is every bit as good as people say. Fantastic. He knows where he’s speaks.

    I’m guessing the third book, unnamed book was Creepology, which has been getting a fair amount of recommendations lately. I quit halfway through it myself.

  9. What was wrong with Creepology?

    I’ve read DeBecker, and found it useful for giving permission to act on instinct that I knew I should act on, but was reluctant, to do so. And when raising the kid it helped when explaining when to be wary to her.

    • It was repetitive, and didn’t seem to give good, solid advice. These “creeps” are low-level predators (the author’s term), the sort of people who like to get a reaction from others without escalating to blatant harassment and assault. Perhaps because I tend to have a rather forceful personality, I kept saying, “Yes, and you tell him to go away. You avoid that situation if possible. You tell him to go away. You don’t respond to him. You stick your elbow out so he can’t get that close. You tell him to go away. You state loudly and firmly ‘I do not have time for this. Leave me alone and go speak with So-and-so. That problem is his job.'”

      But I’m very predator-aware. Other people might find the book valuable.

  10. Also try Mark Mac Young”s What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You and see Steve Morris’s (the British marital arts instructor) videos on You Tube. Morris knows a lot about street fighting from personal experience.

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