The niceness paradox. O’Toole worked as a profiler for the FBI for 30 years, headquartered in Quantico. She interviewed the Unabomber. She worked on the Polly Klaas abduction, the Red Lake school shooting and the investigation of David Parker Ray — the Toy-Box Killer who tortured women in a high-tech homemade dungeon. What she found was that the most dangerous criminals were often the ones who came across as the most harmless. That’s how they were able to continue harming people.
“Over the years, I used to hear this all the time.” Other investigators would explain to her why they had disregarded suspects: “I just looked at him, man to man, and I could tell” that he was a good guy.
“Really?” she scoffs. “Really? That’s what you did? I was so put off by this mystical concept” of infallible gut instinct. “It’s a cop-out.”
It bothered her enough that she decided to write a book whose premise goes against everything humans want to believe about their hunches. Your gut instinct? It is wrong.
“Dangerous Instincts,” released two weeks ago, takes anecdotes from O’Toole’s serial killer investigations and exports them to suburbia, reading like a mash-up between a self-help manual and a Thomas Harris novel. What can O’Toole’s experiences with the Baton Rouge Serial Killer teach you about analyzing the effectiveness of your decision-making? What can Phillip Garrido, the man who held Jaycee Dugard captive for nearly two decades, teach you about which sleepover invites your children should accept? Is it possible to tell whether the lawn guy is a psychopath, or just overcharging you on fertilizer? The lambs are screaming, and they are in your cul de sac.
“If there’s a strange, dark figure in your yard, that’s an easy one,” O’Toole says. “You’re calling the police.” But boogeymen are rarely so neatly packaged. People put themselves in physical or emotional danger in dozens of less obvious ways every day, from sussing out an online dating profile to hiring a financial planner.
Reading the book is likely to do one of two things. If you tend to be lackadaisical about things such as door-locking, then the book will introduce you to the deadbolt. If you’re already vigilant, then it will make you purchase a Navy SEAL dog with bionic teeth.
Several years ago, security expert Gavin de Becker found success with “The Gift of Fear,” a book-clubby selection that told readers to be afraid of everything their Spidey Sense told them to be afraid of. “Dangerous Instincts” goes beyond: Those things that didn’t trigger your Spidey alarms? Be afraid of them, too. Abandoning gut instinct is, in itself, a terrifying concept. Isn’t it the very thing that kept our ancestors from eating poisonous plants and petting saber-tooths?