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The Gift of Fear

I never really struggle to find books to read. There are loads of them and I’ve read hardly any. For me, it’s more about not buying all the books I see that I think I’d like to read. Sometimes I try to resist. Honestly. Then a book will come into my awareness and I’ll think I should read that, but I manage to exercise some self-control and don’t buy it. But it will keep popping up in articles that I’m reading or people around me will talk about it, and if that book keeps making its presence known, I’ll think I am meant to read it. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is one of those books.

de Becker works with a wide range of people and organizations to predict when someone will become violent. He discusses all sorts of situations including dates that turn into stalking, the fired employee who won’t let go, assassination threats against public figures, helpful strangers who are really predators, and people obsessed with a single issue. In many cases these situations won’t become violent, but sometimes they will and this book explores how to determine the ones that will.

Violence is predictable. And many of us know when it’s going to happen. We tell ourselves not to listen to our intuition. We don’t want to say no, or to risk offending someone, or to be melodramatic, so we ignore the signs that our subconscious has picked up. Much of the advice in this book is based around listening to yourself and taking notice of what we’re feeling.

Some of the advice is about how to respond so as to shut down potentially violent situations. For example, how to say no. Women particularly, although not exclusively, are socialized to believe that saying no makes them a bad person, or even that saying no will invite an aggressive response. In fact, not saying no communicates that you can’t say no and are an easy target. Another example is not responding. We’re tempted to think that if we just explain clearly, once and for all, the reasons why the person can’t have their job back, or that their accusations are unfounded, then they will respond like a rational person and back off. If you’ve done that once already and it didn’t work, then it’s not going to. Because that person is not rational and all you do is show them they can get a response. Also, we probably need to let go of having the last word.

There is a list of warning signs that tell you when someone is not safe. These are:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.”
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt you.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

I’m really, really glad I read this book. I can look back on a lot of times when I thought someone or something was iffy and I acted on that, and then felt guilty for being rude, not giving someone a chance, or unwilling to accept help. In most of those cases at least one of the indicators of violence was present. Knowing that I know what to look out for and that I can trust my instincts is empowering. Unlike many things you read, this book is meant to help you be less afraid because your intuition can’t help you if you’re afraid of everything. It’s amazing and everyone should read it.

The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity

I’m interested in identity and exploring aspects of personality and how we play parts in the various areas of our lives. All of us have different ways of being depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Who I am at work is not exactly the same as who I am with family, or with various groups of friends. For some people the differences are subtle and more about emphasising certain qualities than about being a completely different person. For others, it’s more a matter of playing a part. In my roleplaying group, I’m interested in how much the characters we create are related to who we really are. So, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity by Sarah Lynne Bowman really appealed to me.

The book covers the evolution and development of roleplaying, both as a leisure activity and as a training tool in military and corporate environments. It looks at the skills that can be developed and how scenarios can be used as learning tools, and refers to studies that show that learning through simulations or role-playing is more effective than book study and classroom teaching. Bowman also considers the link between play and learning in childhood and the social pressure to move on from these activities in adulthood, and what we may lose from doing so.

Bowman considers live-action roleplaying, tabletop roleplaying and computer games with roleplaying elements. She looks at the two dominant systems, Dungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness and uses personal examples to demonstrate her points. Bowman has conducted in-depth interviews with a small number of long-term roleplayers, examining their experiences and the benefits they get from roleplaying.

In the last chapter, Bowman discusses types of identity alteration as categories of character that players are likely to create. The nine types are:
The Doppelganger Self, a character very close to the player’s personality.
The Devoid Self, the player but lacking an essential quality that the player possesses in real life.
The Augmented Self, the player, but better, with some quality that the player doesn’t possess.
The Fragmented Self, a subdued aspect of the player’s personality forming the central concept of the character.
The Repressed Self, an outlet for the player’s Inner Child, a naive, innocent version of themselves.
The Idealized Self, a character with qualities the player wishes to have.
The Oppositional Self, a character completely opposite to the player’s personality.
The Experimental Self, when a player is experimenting with outlandish or bizarre concepts to see how that would work.
The Taboo Self, incorporating themes the player cannot address in real life and often directed at exploring morality.

The book as a whole was very interesting and I found it more readable than I expected to. The part I was especially drawn to was the discussion of the types at the end and the different ways in which ways of being can be explored. My observation is that some people engage with this more consciously than others and that I can see that in future I might use these ideas to explore certain themes and concepts. I would have liked more quantitative data, but I appreciate that the studies haven’t necessarily been done. I would also have liked more in-depth consideration of the nine types of character, as I found them disappointingly brief. These things aside, I really enjoyed this and would recommend it for anyone interested in psychology and identity.

The Noonday Demon

I bought this book about ten years ago at a time when I was very depressed. It seemed like The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon might be relevant but actually I found it too upsetting to read.

The sub-title of the book is An Atlas of Depression. It starts with  the author’s own experience and an overview of depression in the US today. It is quite heavily focussed on the US but does occasionally talk about other parts of the world. Then Solomon covers current treatments for depression, how it appears in different populations, its relationship to addiction, poverty and suicide, attitudes to depression in history and current politics, and how it might fit with evolution.

Reading it at this stage in my life (I’m not currently depressed; episodes tend to be shorter and less severe; and I have an effective strategy for dealing with it), was easier in the sense that it wasn’t triggering, but it’s not an easy read. It’s full of fascinating facts, stories of the experiences of lots of people, and some interesting theories. I particularly liked the chapter on suicide and the revelation that feeling suicidal is not that well linked to being depressed.

The chapter on depression in history was also interesting – depression is not a modern problem – and gave some insight into how the attitude that depression is weakness of character has developed. I also liked that while this is hung around the story of the author’s experience he presents a wide range of other stories. Solomon looks at how behaviours such as aggression and violence might have a root in depression. The section on poverty has some thought-provoking ideas about how treating depression could have an impact on solving social problems.

What I didn’t like so much was what was missing. Somewhat inevitably, not every experience of depression is related here. While I found much that I could identify with, I didn’t find my experience. I’m one of those depressives that does a really good impression of not being depressed and while there were a couple of passing references to that experience, it isn’t given the same focus as other experiences such as being hopsitalised, or confined to bed for months at a time. Reading it now, that’s fine, but if I’d made it through the book the first time I’d have found that invalidating.

Another little niggle is that the author dismisses being a woman living in a male-dominated society as a cause of depression. As Solomon seems to be able to get his head around the concepts of internalized racism and homophobia, it is a little galling that he can’t extend that to internalized sexism.

However, these are small-ish points and I still found a great deal to enjoy in the book. If you live with depression, or are close to someone else who does, and are prepared for a moderately hard read, this book will provide a lot of insight. It’s not the whole story but it’s a good place to start.