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New Book Club Selection: The Safety Trap
We interview author and threat management expert Spencer Coursen on how staying safe means first embracing your fear
- May 03, 2021
Spencer Coursen’s bio reads like something out of an action movie. He’s led protection details for high-ranking clients, the likes of which include dignitaries, heads of state, CEOs and celebrities. As a former Army Ranger, he’s commanded more than 80 combat missions, working closely with U.S. Special Forces. He used to work under Gavin de Becker (author of The Gift of Fear) as the deputy director of Gavin de Becker and Associates’ protective services division. And if that doesn’t sound impressive enough, he’s also proficient in “offensive and defensive driving, escape and evasion measures, and surveillance and counter-surveillance operations.”
In other words, Kevin Costner’s character in The Bodyguard was based on him.
OK, that’s not actually confirmed, but it’s a theory. (In reality, he was the security consultant on the film Zero Dark Thirty.)
In 2012, he began his own company, Coursen Security Group, a security consulting group based out of Austin, Texas, with the goal of offering his protective prowess, once only attainable by the rich and famous, to the masses. “Everyone deserves to be protected,” he tells me. He also started a podcast, Coursen’s Corner where he delves into real-life safety and protection scenarios.
On May 18th, his first book will hit the shelves. The Safety Trap is a culmination of what he’s learned protecting hundreds of people and how we can apply it in our own lives. Broken down into 15 “safety traps” ranging from “Oversharing” to “Alarm Fatigue” to “Overconfidence,” Coursen’s book focuses on recognizing our blind spots when it comes to ignoring threats. Each chapter closes with key takeaways, called “Protective Preparedness” that give readers their homework.
For instance, in Chapter 11, ‘False Equivalency,’ one of his protective preparedness tips is to remember that predictable routines are risky. He writes: “Whenever possible, try not to make yourself so predictable. Any opportunity to introduce a new variable into your life is a positive protective practice. Change up your gym times….your workouts. Try not to have that one ‘signature’ thing that makes it easy for someone to pick you out of a crowd. Even the seemingly benign things like always carrying the same purse, or wearing the same hat at the gym, or parking in the same spot at the mall, may make you more identifiable to someone.”
DomesticShelters.org interviewed the author about what we can glean from his upcoming book and why it’s the natural next pick for the DomesticShelters.org Book Club. Do you have questions for Coursen after picking up The Safety Trap? Send them to Amanda@DomesticShelters.org and we’ll have him answer them in an upcoming article.
DomesticShelters.org: In The Safety Trap, you say always being afraid can be a positive thing. How so?
Coursen: One of the key differences between being afraid and being fearful is if you’re afraid, you have awareness and preparation on your side. If you’re always just a little bit afraid, you’ll always be safe. But if you’re always fearful, you’ll never be safe. It’s sort of that “no one fears that which they know” philosophy.
I equate it to one of the Avenger movies, when Bruce Banner is having a hard time controlling The Hulk. Because the Hulk will only come out when he’s angry. He’s living this complacent, carefree life trying to be nice to everyone, but he doesn’t know how to control his anger, causing him to become The Hulk. So, there’s a scene where he finally gets it under control and Captain America says to Bruce Banner ‘Hey, you may want to get angry now because we’re going to need the big guy,’ meaning The Hulk, and [Banner] gives Captain America this grin and says, ‘Well that’s my secret Captain, I’m always angry.’ And on a dime, he just tears off his shirt and becomes The Hulk. And I think what we can take away from that is, Bruce Banner thought the way to go about his life was to ignore that The Hulk lived inside him and then, when something happened, he was completely unprepared for what to do. That’s a very reactive approach to living his life.
And what we saw later in the movies was an acceptance that The Hulk was going to be a part of him, and there was a way they could live in harmony. And he was now in control of that anger.
DS: You’re saying it’s kind of like being in control of your fear rather than your fear being in control of you?
Coursen: Right. Fear is the monster. Sometimes we need fear. Fear tells us when hey, this isn’t right. When all of those internal self-defenses are in overdrive, you want that because that’s the next gear of being afraid. It’s kind of like, if you have your hand in a pot of water and the water slowly gets warm, you’ll notice when that water starts getting too hot to keep your hand in there anymore. But if that water is already boiling when you stick your hand in, you’re going to be surprised, like, ‘Why didn’t anyone warn me?’ If you’re always just a little bit afraid, it never lets your self-defenses go to sleep.
DS: How does one become an expert, like you’ve become, in detecting threats?
Coursen: The experience comes on the job. But when you’re a child of trauma and things from a very early age don’t go as you sort of hoped they would go, your mind naturally just looks for pre-incident indicators of that ever happening again. You naturally just become more vigilant, more observing. You look for the tells and the tales of someone who’s becoming agitated … you just really, from a very early age, start to pick up on nonverbal communication. You can see the fist clench, the vein on the head starting to bubble.
DS: You came from childhood trauma?
Coursen: I don’t like really getting into it, but my dad was an abusive alcoholic a**hole. It wasn’t just physical trauma, it was also emotional trauma. When you’re 5, 6 years old … it reframes your worldview to be a bit more cynical. I’m sure that was the steppingstone to being the big brother who looks after my sisters. I remember my grandfather coming over to our house and saying, ‘You’re the man of the house now [after his parents split up], it’s your job to look after them and keep them safe.’ [Laughs.] I’m 6, like, what am I really going to do here? Also, I wanted to be protected. I started watching Lone Ranger, Air Wolf, A-Team—all of those shows premised around a white knight coming out of the population to save you.
DS: So this naturally led to you joining the military as an adult.
Coursen: I did an internship at the Justice Department in 1999 and I wanted to go work for the FBI or Secret Service or something like that, but trying to get post-schooling experience, I thought, oh, wouldn’t it be fun to go into the military? So I literally walked out of the federal building to the recruiting building and signed up, and five blocks and three weeks later I was in the Army.
I got to go to Airborne School, Ranger School … and then September 11 happened and we were sent to Afghanistan. When we got back, my time was up so that’s when I got into the diplomatic security space. I started working for Gavin de Becker and Associates, and that helped me with the celebrity side of things.
Like I talk about in the book, the Sandy Hook tragedy was really like the turning point. Both of my parents were teachers, my sister’s a teacher, my uncle’s a superintendent, I have a niece who’s a teacher. When you have friends and family reaching out to you for help, you want to help them stay safe. What I realized is what I’d been doing was really putting my skill set to use for the top 1 percent of the population and I wanted to … finally take that skill set and make it readily available for the other 99. While not everyone will know the luxury of having their own security detail, everyone deserves to be protected.
DS: Is it natural for you to be on the lookout for threats everywhere you go?
Coursen: Yes. But because I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know how to do it any other way. It’s really just being mindful. Or situational awareness. Another person might call it being present in the moment. The more you can live in the moment, not only will you be more present emotionally and mentally, you’ll also be much more safe. You’re going to notice the distractions. You’re going to notice what doesn’t look right–those pre-incident indicators of harm that like to hide in the shadows.
I think the reason some people don’t see them is because either they’re completely distracted by their phones or because they don’t know what to do if they do see something. They’re afraid of what they’ll find if they look.
DS: Many of your stories in the book focus on single-event threats, like the Uber driver who starts creeping you out or the risk of a random shooter walking into your place of employment, which are important situations to be aware of. But how can survivors of ongoing abuse, or those at risk for falling victim to an abuser, read your book and apply your advice to avoiding being manipulated by an abuser or escaping from one safely?
Coursen: The first chapter of The Safety Trap is ‘Avoidance.’ When I have worked with or in support of a survivor of domestic violence, when they look back at the history of the relationship and the interpersonal dynamic, they can almost always tell you where it broke down. Where they saw the warning signs but chose to ignore them, or where [the abuser] did something they thought was more controlling than sincerely protective. Whether that be wanting to move in too soon or love-bombing right away and then all of a sudden shifting, or wanting to take control of their finances. That very slow but noticeable turn that goes from the recruitment phase [sometimes called grooming] of an abuser to the entrapment phase of an abuser. I think the avoidance [comes from] that we don’t want to see the warning signs, or an overconfidence where we think we’re more capable than we are of getting out of that relationship, or how we were socialized as children, which has a very real impact on our decision making when we’re under stress.
You can fight, flight, freeze or fawn in these situations. A lot of us think we’re flight or fighters, but the reality is a great many of us will either fawn or freeze. A fawn wants to be a people-pleaser – we can make this better, we can get through this—while people who freeze are incapable of doing anything in a high-stress moment, making them at greater risk of being a victim. They try to run on instinct alone, but since they don’t have the best instincts, it can leave themselves defenseless.
I think the best advice I can give to anyone is [to have] a healthy dose of skepticism and a moderate dose of vigilance. So, if something seems too good to be true, look into that. If someone tells you they’re in love with you after three months, they’re not in love with you. That’s lust.
DS: You write in the book, “Almost every school shooting is identical to the one before it.” Do you think there’s some similarity there for domestic violence in terms of a pattern?
Coursen: Yes. It’s very rare in a domestic violence dynamic for everything to have been perfect one second, and the very next second there’s violence. In almost all cases of intimate partner violence, there was a build-up, an attempt [by abusers] to socially, financially and emotionally control, and then ultimately, physically control. I would say all four are [often] present in domestic violence, though the steps they take may go out of order.
Many domestic abusers have some history of unresolved shame in their life that they can only displace through violence later in life. The warning signs of harm are out there and once you know what to look for, they’re unmistakable, but for so many of us, it just doesn’t occur to us that they would be so obvious, so we never look for them.
DS: I feel like Chapter 14, “Being Too Polite,” is a must-read for not only victims of domestic violence, but all of us women who are often raised to be polite first and foremost, sometimes to the detriment of our safety.
Coursen: There’s a difference between being polite and being disagreeable. Being disagreeable is not about being mean or selfish, it’s really about standing up for yourself and advocating for control of your own agency.
Being selfish is when you want someone to do what you want to do more than you want them to do what theywant to do. It’s often thought it’s OK for boys to be rude but girls should always be prim and proper, and that kind of docility is a very slippery slope to passivity. The more disagreeable you are willing to be, the less likely you are to fall into the safety trap of being too polite.
DS: There’s a story in your book of a woman in an Uber whose driver was creeping her out but she hesitated to ask him to pull over the car for fear of being rude.
Coursen: Look, the number one threat to women is men. I couldn’t imagine if, like, some hulking gorilla came up to me and was like, wanna have dinner? Like, I guess so…don’t hurt me.
If a guy feels intimidated by a woman emotionally he can almost always resort to physical intimidation. And a woman doesn’t always have that option. But men, ultimately, like most predators, don’t want to go after someone who sticks up for themselves. They want to go after easy targets. The more that women are able to promote a positive protective posture, the better, which starts with being disagreeable … if you’re willing to be disagreeable about the little things, you’re definitely willing to be more disagreeable about the big things. It’s what predators do—they’ll test your disagreeableness.
In the movie Bombshell [the film based on the sexual harassment allegations against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes], what is the very first thing Roger Ailes [played by John Lithgow] does to Margot Robbie [who plays a fictional journalist at Fox]? She says, I want to be on TV. He says, stand up and give me a twirl. You can see by the reaction on her face that she knows that’s a bad request. But she does it, and then he pushes it further. It’s not until she’s almost to the point of tears that he relinquishes his control. What he’s doing is testing her defenses to see how disagreeable she’s willing to be. Because if she’s willing to stand up and twirl, that’s a very slippery slope to her allowing herself to do what he wants more than what she wants. And a ‘yes’ to someone else should never come at the cost of a ‘no’ to yourself. Predators are always going to be probing your defenses, your disagreeability. Predators like Roger Ailes know what weaknesses to look for because they’ve done it a thousand times before.
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DS: If you see a situation escalating, or get the sense violence is about to break out—I’m thinking of your irate passenger at the airport terminal story in Chapter 5— what can the average person do? How can they safely intervene and help?
Coursen: Observe and report. Whenever you have the opportunity to be a witness or start recording or call for help, do that. Obviously, if someone is being physically violent against another person, unless it is your calling to intervene physically, then the best thing you can do is to get someone who’s calling it is to intervene physically.
DS: And by “calling” you mean?
Coursen: Just like in nature, there are wolves, which are the predators, there are sheepdogs, which are the protectors, and then there are the flock. There are the bad people who are willing to bring violence against the flock, and then there’s a small group of people, the sheepdogs, who are willing to use violence to protect the flock.
Most of the flock are not capable of being violent or being violent against violence.
So, the number one thing that the average person can do when they see violence take place is to get out of the area as quickly as you can, put as much time and distance between you and harm as possible. You are your own authority; your job is to save you first.
If you’re in a mall and see one person fighting another person down below and it looks like that fight is just going to stay contained and then you see the guards rushing up to break it up, you’re perfectly fine. But if you’re in a crowded bar and you see two guys hitting each other in the face with bottles, then you want to get out of that bar and down the street as fast as humanly possible. The likelihood of that turning into an all-out brawl pretty quickly, and you getting caught in collateral concern, is high.
At the end of the day, no matter who or where you are, keeping yourself and your loved ones protected comes down to a very simple formula: Awareness plus preparation equals safety.
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