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Director Neil LeBute's New Film Reveals a Grim View of Sexuality

Film critic John Powers reviews "Your Friends & Neighbors."


Other segments from the episode on August 21, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 21, 1998: Interview with Penn Jillette and Teller; Interview with Gavin De Becker; Review of the film "Your Friends and Neighbors."


Date: AUGUST 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082101np.217
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When a person turns violent and opens fire on people at work, kills a spouse, or rapes a stranger, that violence usually doesn't come out of nowhere, according to my guest Gavin DeBecker.

He's in the business of predicting who is likely to become violent or follow through on a threat. He consults on stalkers, death threats, domestic violence and violence in the workplace.

His clients have included Supreme Court justices, movie stars, athletes, elected officials, abortion clinics, corporations and police departments. He's also served on the Presidential Advisory Board at the Department of Justice.

DeBecker is the author of the bestseller "The Gift of Fear," which offers advice on protecting yourself from violence. It was recently published in paperback.

When we spoke last year, he told me he can't advise people to always comply with an attacker or to always resist. Every situation is different. What he does advise is: trust your intuition. I asked him why.

GAVIN DEBECKER, VIOLENCE PREVENTION SPECIALIST; AUTHOR, "THE GIFT OF FEAR": Well, because like every creature on Earth, you've got this astounding God-given ability to protect your own safety, to know when you're in the presence of danger.

And your intuition takes all the advice; the people who said always comply, always resist, the newspaper article you read, the story you heard from a friend, the advice you saw on the local news, it takes it all and applies it in the only context that really matters, which is the context of the situation you find yourself in then and there.

GROSS: Do you feel that people act on their intuition without even realizing that they're acting on it?

DEBECKER: Many people do, and certainly we act on our fear without realizing that we're really doing it, and without thinking about it first. I hope that my work gives people permission to listen to it more often without debate, because the other side of that coin is people hesitate to listen to it and, you know, while we're cleverly defying our intuition, we're ending up as very frequent victims of violence and accidents.

GROSS: You have a lot of, I think, really interesting signs to watch out for, signs that you're actually being set up by somebody and they're kind of trying to assess whether you'll be a good victim or not, and they're trying to set you up to be their victim.

I want to run through some of these warning signs, which I think are really interesting. You call one of them "forced teaming." What is this?

DEBECKER: Well, all of these strategies are strategies of persuasion, and they're used by predatory criminals and they're also used by other people in different contexts. But if it is used on a woman in a vulnerable situation or a situation where she is alone with someone that she doesn't know or doesn't want to be with, then they're all real important to know about.

And "forced teaming" is basically giving someone, or trying to give them the impression, that we share a predicament together, so that we have a kind of "we're in the same boat" attitude. An example would be: Hey, aren't we a pair, both stuck here in the rain without an umbrella?

Well, I would hope a victim would say or think, at least: you don't have an umbrella and I don't have an umbrella. There's no "we" don't have an umbrella.

And there's a story in the book of a man who says: Hey, we've got a hungry cat upstairs -- because he sees that a woman has cat food in her shopping bag. And, in fact, you know: I have a cat and you may have a cat, but we don't have a hungry cat.

He does that because it will make it harder for a woman to rebuff him when there is this sense of some shared experience or "we're in the same boat" kind of experience.

GROSS: I know I've been in the position sometimes of like turning down somebody who wanted to do a favor because I distrusted this stranger's motives. And the stranger can come back at you with something like: Oh, you're just, like, too stuck up to accept a favor -- or: boy, you're the most untrusting person I've ever met.


GROSS: And you don't know how to respond to that. Should you start being, you know, nicer because you've just been insulted and maybe you have unfairly dismissed somebody's courtesy?

DEBECKER: Well, that's certainly what he is trying to do. That strategy is called "typecasting," and it's where you give a woman a small insult that she can fix easily, like an example would be saying: you're probably too fancy a woman to go out with a guy with me. And now to prove that you're not too fancy a woman, then you'll continue to talk to somebody who you might otherwise not want to talk to.

Or somebody who says: you don't seem like the kind of woman who reads the newspaper -- and now a woman may feel like: oh, I have to show him how smart I am.

And what I tell people is that the nature of those little insults or typecasting is, you know, as a predatory strategy, he's just trying to continue and extend the encounter; and you may win the little point of demonstrating to him that, no, you actually do read the newspaper, but you lose the bigger war, which is that you still have someone in your environment who you don't want in your environment.

GROSS: There's something you call "loan sharking."

DEBECKER: Yes, "loan sharking" is probably the most common strategy and the one that people are most familiar with. That is basically offering to help someone when they didn't ask for help so that they then owe you at least the courtesy of continuing to talk to you.

I mean, the typical example is: can I help you with those groceries? And then whether or not you accept the help: I've done this nice thing, so you can't be rude to me now by rebuffing me or by excluding me from conversation. And it's another one of the strategies that is used all the time to extend the encounter and give a predatory criminal the opportunity to evaluate the situation and, above all, evaluate you.

GROSS: Women so much -- women so often don't want to be rude. And, I mean, sometimes on a bus or a train, someone will sit down next to you who's very frightening to you, even, and you won't change your seat because you figure: well, this person might be a very nice, unfortunate person and you'd be being rude.

What advice do you have to women who may actually be putting themselves in jeopardy by being polite?

DEBECKER: Well, rudeness is so relative. You know, if you -- what I hope to do is to give people a whole new way to think about that, because people are so concerned that being rude might make a man angry; you know, reasoning that they could turn someone whose intent was favorable into someone dangerous just by not being open to their discussions or their approach.

And I'm glad to tell people that it is impossible, in the context of an unwanted approach from a stranger, to transform an ordinary, decent man into a rapist or a killer. And then, on the other side, thankfully, it is possible to transform yourself into a person who responds to the signals and thus is a less likely victim.

You know, we teach kids now that a stranger who approaches you is a problem. And I want to teach adults that a stranger who approaches a woman in a remote area is, himself, doing something rude, because it is known, it is predictable, that that would cause her discomfort or fear. The approach is rude.

So in context, it's not rude to say to somebody: hey, I'd rather not talk.

GROSS: You know, you talk about relying on your intuition, but I think there are times when you might confuse intuition with deeply-ingrained stereotyping or racism. And you might find yourself in an encounter with somebody who is of a different ethnic group or race or religion than you, and you're -- you feel like: oh, you intuitively distrust this person -- when what's really happening is that you're just acting on deeply-ingrained racist feelings that you were brought up with. And you don't want that to happen.

DEBECKER: No, it's a great point. And what I hope people come away with here is that demographics are absolutely irrelevant to safety. Demographics are for pollsters and odds makers. It makes no difference to you in the situation you're in whether the person whose behavior concerns you is black or white; no difference whatsoever.

What matters is that you can see the pre-incident indicators. You can see the signals that human beings send each other prior to violence and as part of violent encounters, and it is about predicting human behavior, not demographics.

And it's a very good point you raise, because people do have in their minds all sorts of information from things they saw in the local TV news that aren't necessarily relevant to their circumstance and the context of their situation.

We may say: oh, well, this is one of those demographic groups that's more likely to hurt me, but while you're thinking about the, you know, the black man who may hurt you and you're focused on that, you will fail to see the strategies of the white or Hispanic or Oriental person whose behavior is the issue.

GROSS: I think that behavior is in some ways getting really hard to predict. For instance, you say that, like, if you're a woman walking alone and you feel like somebody might be following you, instead of furtively turning your head and giving them a kind of hidden glance to see if there's really somebody there or not, you should turn around and stare the person in the face in this really no-nonsense way.

I would argue, though, that then you risk this person feeling like you're dissed them in some way. And you know, how many times do you read in the paper or hear about on the news somebody who shot somebody because of the look that they were given?

DEBECKER: Well, the fact is that many people who act out violently use as their excuse later on: that person was rude to me -- or: that person did such and such -- which is a way of not taking responsibility for one's action. There's nothing that I could do to you with a look that would justify my being killed.

But with regard to your question, really I don't recommend that people turn around and stare at someone. What I do is recommend that you turn your head completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you, because it not only gives you information, but it communicates to him that you're not a tentative, frightened, you know, victim-in-waiting.

I want to tell people that you are an animal of nature that's fully endowed with hearing and sight and intellect, and that you're not easy prey, so don't act tentative, like easy prey. I do not, however, recommend staring someone down, by any measure; just looking at them and taking in the information.

And there is clearly a provocation that comes from staring at people. I mean, with a look alone I could get into a fight with another man. And that's not what I'm recommending, but I am recommending: don't be tentative; look fully at someone so they know you see them.

GROSS: Do you think that people should carry Mace to protect themselves?

DEBECKER: Well, Mace is a product name for a particular kind of tear gas. If one is going to carry that type -- you know, these are irritants that, you know, burn the eye and the face and affect the breathing -- I prefer pepper spray, which is a better product in my opinion in that it works on a wider number of people in the population.

I think it's a perfectly good thing. It gives you a slight advantage of removing someone's ability to see and it causes a great deal of discomfort and it's non-lethal. So I certainly don't oppose pepper spray.

GROSS: If somebody is obviously addled because they're high on drugs, do you think that it's easy to assess what their behavior is going to be? Or are all bets off there?

DEBECKER: Well, I don't think in any circumstance all bets are off, because, really, if someone is in your environment who is a stranger, who makes you feel uncomfortable, and who's also high on drugs or alcohol, your prediction is done. Now, it's a matter of what strategies you apply, but the element of predicting human behavior couldn't be any easier than when you have somebody in your environment who causes you discomfort and is high or drunk.

GROSS: But, I mean, in terms of deciding whether you should comply or find any way to run for your life; even if that person is threatening you with your life if you try to flee.

DEBECKER: Well, it usually isn't a decision, interestingly Terry. One of the premises of my work is that fear, true fear, which is the signal that occurs in the presence of danger, is a gift because it guides people through dangerous situations. I mean, I've got case after case of people who did extraordinary things, even literally a man who fights with a great white shark and wins, on the basis of doing what fear told him, without decision-making.

So many people talk about having completed their self-defense strategy, whatever it was, without even thinking about it. And there's a woman who tells me about following a man who would murder her silently down the hall. He doesn't know that she's behind him. And she told me later: I was a passenger moving on my own legs. I had nothing to do with it.

Because fear says, in effect: shut up and do what I say, and don't debate. And it's usually -- the strategies when it's true fear are over before people get to the decision-making mode. It's smarter than we are, in other words.

GROSS: My guest is Gavin DeBecker, author of "The Gift of Fear." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Gavin DeBecker, an expert on how to protect yourself against the threat of violence.

You've consulted with many people about stalkers. When do you typically get called in on a stalker case? How far has the situation usually progressed by the time you're called in?

DEBECKER: I think the cornerstone characteristic of a case that involves our office is fear. When a victim feels in fear for their safety that's usually when we're called. Unless it's a prominent public figure, in which case they are often already clients because they are experiencing so many cases and, really, there our chore is to identify which cases rise to the level of concern and which cases don't. But usually, people involve our office when they are afraid.

GROSS: Does the stalker typically want to be known or want to be invisible?

DEBECKER: Both, depending on which type. I think there's a bold line that we can draw between two types of stalkers: those that pursue media figures, which are the ones we read about often in the paper; and those that pursue regular people.

And talking about those that pursue regular people, they are not usually attention-seekers. They are usually attachment-seekers; and, you know, the most common form of stalking is by estranged ex-husbands or people in relationships.

And I know Americans are fascinated when a public figure is attacked by a stalker, but that happens about once every three-and-a-half years. A woman is murdered by a stalking ex-husband or ex-boyfriend once every two hours in America. And that's why you'll see in my work a great deal more focus on those kinds of stalking cases than on the ones that generally are interesting to the news media.

GROSS: Well, if you're being stalked by an ex-husband or boyfriend or something, then the idea of "ignore them and they'll go away" is not going to work for you.

DEBECKER: That's absolutely correct. I think if you -- if you are at a circumstance with an ex-husband or an ex-boyfriend where the pre-incident indicators that are associated with escalations of violence or even homicide are present, then you're in a situation where you need to make yourself unavailable to your pursuer, and there are many strategies for doing that. None of them are easy.

The problem is, we want someone to tell us: oh, it will be all right -- which is what our denial is telling us very often. And so, you know, literally several times every day, women are murdered in America who knew full-well that they were in danger of being killed, but took advice that was easier to take than going to a battered women's shelter, which is really usually the thing to do if you're in a situation where you have a real safety hazard.

GROSS: How effective do you think restraining orders are?

DEBECKER: Well, I think it's a real serious part of this problem, because if you went to a doctor and he said: you've got to have immediate heart surgery because your life is in danger -- or: you can carry this piece of paper -- of course, most people would say: oh, I'll take the piece of paper, doc.

But where we are with a lot of these cases is that some of them involve women who are in immediate danger and their life is at risk, and yet they take a strategy which is the one that sounds simple and easy: carry this piece of paper.

The fact is this, based on as many studies as I've been able to locate, about two-thirds of cases improve after getting restraining orders. About one-third do not improve, and in that population there are some that escalate to homicide.

So it's very, very important that anybody who has the opportunity to communicate with potential victims makes this point clear: restraining orders are right for some cases, very wrong for some cases; and the challenge is to know which kind of case yours is.

GROSS: Is that what your job is?

DEBECKER: Absolutely. Both my job in my work and in my work with -- I'm the co-chair of the Domestic Violence Council Advisory Board, and my job in public education, which I'm doing that job right now: is to make clear that restraining orders are right for some cases, very wrong for others; and to identify the characteristics associated with where it will help.

And the answer is, usually it resides in the victim, which is asking the victim: how do you think he's going to react to this? And if the victim says: I think he's going to be afraid to be arrested and he's going to leave me alone forever, then that is the right strategy. But if the victim says: I think he's going to react angrily and possibly escalate -- then it is the wrong strategy.

And we really -- we've got a country now that is recommending restraining orders wholesale -- 1,000 a day issued in the United States. And news agencies and local news always saying: here's how you get a restraining order if you're being stalked -- instead of: should you get a restraining order if you're being stalked? -- because it's not right for every case.

GROSS: Do you think it's as simple as asking the person who's being stalked what they think the impact of the restraining order will be on their spouse or boyfriend?

DEBECKER: No, it's not as simple as that, but that person -- in that person resides the best information in terms of intuition, and then there are about 40 other things that I talk about that one would measure in these cases to determine if a restraining order is the best strategy.

The real problem is that we can't, and yet we do, too often diagnose a situation on the basis of one characteristic. I mean, can you imagine if a caller called in and said: I have chest pains -- would any doctor in the world say: oh, OK, here's what you do -- and give a prescription or a treatment plan?

Yet, ironically, women are calling, you know, radio shows and police departments and lawyers all over the country and saying: I'm being stalked by my angry ex-husband, what should I do? And people are actually willing to give a treatment plan without a diagnosis.

And that's why women every day are being killed, and in their, you know, personal effects is a restraining order. So clearly it's not right for every case.

GROSS: I'm wondering, because you deal with so many violent people, do you walk out of your house and just see the potential violent person wherever you are? Or you're always like picking that person out whose behavior is clueing you that they might erupt?

DE BECKER: Terry, it's a good question, but the answer is it's literally the opposite. I am blessed to live a fairly fear-free life, because my philosophy about fear is that it is a signal that will sound in the presence of danger, so I needn't invent nor have worry or anxiety about things that might happen.

You know, people who are focused on what might happen, instead of what is happening, tend to not only be more anxious and have a lot more worry and anxiety in their lives, but also less safe. Because if you're saying: gee, somebody could climb out from behind that bush or behind that car, you're not perceiving what's actually going on.

And unwarranted fear will kill more Americans this year than violence will. Striking to say, I know, but the fact is there is more fear in America than there is danger. And what I've really focused on in my work is how you tell the difference between true fear, which you want -- that's a survival signal in the presence of danger -- and unwarranted fear, which is anxiety and worry and all of those things that you don't want.

And in this culture, it's very, very hard to do, because the local news is selling us a diet of all the ways we might die and the urgency, you know, with which they tell us: you must learn this information.

GROSS: Gavin DeBecker. He's the author of "The Gift of Fear," which was recently published in paperback.

Coming up: a review of the new movie "Your Friends and Neighbors."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Gavin Debecker
High: Gavin DeBecker is a violence prevention specialist. He deals with risk assessment for the U.S. government and corporations. He also advises on domestic abuse, stalkers and workplace violence. He is author of the new book "The Gift of Fear." He heads a 46-member Los Angeles company called Gavin DeBecker, Inc.
Spec: Violence; Women; Crime
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.

Date: AUGUST 21, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082102NP.217
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:56

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Your Friends and Neighbors" is the new dark ensemble comedy written and directed by Neil LaBute, whose first film was "In The Company of Men."

John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC, "VOGUE": Is it possible to dislike a movie and still think it's good? That's what I found myself asking after I saw "Your Friends and Neighbors," the new movie by Neil LaBute, who scored a scandalous success with "In The Company of Men;" the overpraised tale of two misogynist businessmen who set out to break the heart of a pretty deaf secretary.

"Your Friends and Neighbors" is also about twisted sexual relationships, but LaBute has upped the ante. His canvas is broader. His message even darker, this time the women are nasty, too.

The movie's a baleful modern version of a restoration comedy. It traces the amorous escapades of six people, all with rhyming names. Ben Stiller is Jerry, a garrulous drama professor who lives with Terry, played by Katherine Keenan (ph), an acid-tongued writer of ad copy. He decides to cheat on her with Mary, played by "NYPD Blue's" Amy Breneman. Mary's the dissatisfied wife of Jerry's best friend Barry, played by Aaron Eckert (ph), a paunchy lug who finds his own greatest satisfaction in masturbation.

Meanwhile, Terry -- are we getting lost yet? -- falls into bed with Nastassja Kinski's character Cheri, a soft-spoken gallery worker, she's the antithesis of Cary -- that's Jason Patrick, a woman-hating womanizer who reviles one lover for getting menstrual blood on his designer sheets.

Over the course of the movie, these six constantly rub up against one another, joking, bickering, philosophizing, selling each other out, and engaging in some of the most joyless lovemaking this side of a Graham Greene novel.

It's a bleak portrait of sexual life and it held me rapt. The movie marks a real cinematic advance for LaBute. It's far better shot and edited than "In The Company of Men." And it's filled with pungent performances like Stiller's Jerry, a wannabe lothario who talks a good lay, but can't cut the mustard; and Keenan's hilariously exasperated turn as Mary, who wishes Jerry would just shut up when they're having sex.

LaBute has a knack for doing loathsome, and the movie's filled with crisp, lacerating set pieces, crackling with wicked jokes and malicious twists. The most loathsome moments belong to the macho jerk Cary, as when he explains to Jerry and Barry his theory of morality.


JASON PATRICK, ACTOR: This girl tried to dump me once, so I got my hands in some hospital stationery and I sent her this letter informing her that she had appeared on a list of previous partners of a patient of mine who had just tested HIV positive.

ACTOR: You did not do that.

PATRICK: Oh, yeah.

ACTOR: Come on.

PATRICK: So you decide: the bitch deserved it? She never understood me and it was a good joke. But am I good for doing it? (EXPLETIVE DELETED) if I know. All I do know is I did it. And I find a certain clarity in the gesture.

ACTOR: Don't you think you have to, you know, like pay for all of this in the end?

PATRICK: Possibly. I mean, in terms of being a God or something like that whole eternity thing out there, then, yeah, probably so. I don't know. We'll see. But until then, we're on my time. OK? The interim is mine. OK? The intern is mine.


POWERS: "Your Friends and Neighbors" is about people who use sex to find themselves, but get lost in their own slippery, tortured often solipistic psyches. And it's well-worth seeing precisely because it tackles subjects that most American movies ignore: male self-hatred, women's desire, power relationships in sex, the difference between sleeping with someone and knowing who they are. These are real things that affect all our lives, not simply those in the Oval Office.

There are enough true moments in "Your Friends and Neighbors" that I wish I could take seriously LaBute's grim diagnosis of sexual life. But frankly, it doesn't strike me as the work of a conscientious artist who has looked intently at human nature and discovered to his great regret that life is sordid.

Too much of the movie's cynicism is cheap. It has the snide glee of a high school kid who keeps saying naughtier and naughtier things in order to shock us. LaBute's forever stacking the deck to make his characters uglier or more pathetic. If a husband genuinely loves his wife, LaBute will make sure that he can't help her achieve orgasm. If a guy can't perform in bed, LaBute will make sure that his partner is bitchy about it.

He's like a heartless god who first compels his characters to be weak, then punishes them for their weakness.

The movie ends with the thuggish Cary in bed with a woman we never dreamed would consent to sleep with him. Why is she there? Not because of anything the movie has shown us about her, but because LaBute needs this final coupling to complete his pattern, to seal his idea that sexual relationships are inescapably soiled.

The movie's champions might claim that such hyperbole is artistic license, but "Your Friends and Neighbors" uses such license to make sexual life seem crummy and hopeless. If these really are my friends and neighbors, then I'm the best lover on the planet.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Washington DC
High: Film Critic JOHN POWERS reviews "Your Friends and Neighbors."
Spec: "Your Friends and Neighbors"; Entertainment; Movie Industry
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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