The Chronicle Review

Choosing Fear

Adolfo Valle for The Chronicle Review

October 01, 2017

I was driving home to Tacoma, Wash., on Interstate 5 after spending the evening with a childhood friend in Seattle. It was a clear summer night around midnight in 1996, traffic was light, and I was sober. But my mom’s SUV was of a vintage infamous for being unstable during sharp turns.

I don’t know where the dog came from. I tried to avoid it, instinctively jerking the steering wheel as soon as I saw the tiny orangeish mass streaking across the road. Recalling the feel of my front wheel rising slightly as it rolled over that poor creature still makes me shudder.

The car went into a fishtail. It veered sickeningly leftward across two lanes, then swooped back across them to the right as I fought for control of the wheel. By the next turn, I had lost control completely. The car started to spin.

When it stopped, I was in the far left lane of the freeway — the fast lane. Only now it was the far right lane because I was facing backward toward the oncoming traffic. Because the car had come to rest just past the apex of the overpass, it wasn’t visible to drivers coming toward me until they crested the hill, which left them little time to avoid me. Some of them came so close before they swerved that the car shook as they blew past.

The bridge was hemmed in by guardrails and my engine had died. I turned on the brights and the emergency flashers. But I knew that if I didn’t do something more it was only a matter of time until a car, or worse, one of the 18-wheelers barreling by, plowed into me.

I heard a rap on the half-open passenger-side window, on the side of the car nearest the guardrail. He seemed an unlikely candidate for a roadside hero. He was wearing sunglasses, despite it being the middle of the night, and an abundance of gold jewelry. His head was shaved and shone like a coffee bean. When he spoke, I thought I saw the gleam of a gold tooth.

"You look like you could use some help," he said. His voice was low and rumbling.

"Um. I think I do," I responded, my voice catching in my throat.

"All right. Then I need to get in your seat." He gestured to the driver’s seat.

After a pause, I nodded. "OK."

He walked around the hood of the car and watched the traffic for a moment. His head bobbed faintly leftward as each car passed, like a jump- roper finding the rhythm. With a gap in the traffic, in an instant he was outside my door yanking it open. I lifted myself over the center console to the passenger’s side in time for him to swing himself into the driver’s seat and slam the door shut behind him. He grasped the wheel and turned the key. Nothing.

A moment of terror shapes a psychologist's career.

His gaze landed on the gearshift, which was still in drive. He moved it back to park, then tried the ignition again. It caught. He watched again for a gap in the flow of traffic, and, when one appeared, floored the accelerator to launch us in a smooth arc across the freeway. A moment later we were on the diagonal stripes of the off-ramp. He eased to a stop behind his own car, a dark-colored BMW that gleamed orange under the sodium lights. He turned to me, taking in my jagged breathing and my face, which felt tight and drawn. My skin felt cold, and my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

"You going to be all right getting home? Need me to follow you for a bit?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No, I’ll be all right. I can get home," I said.

Did I thank him? I’m not certain. I think I somehow forgot.

"OK. You take care of yourself then," he said. He returned to his car, and the summer night swallowed him up.

I never learned his name. I know nothing about him. Well, I know this: In the second that passed between when he saw me and when he pulled over, he made an incredible decision — to risk his own life trying to save mine. He pulled onto the off-ramp, parked, then ran some 50 feet across four lanes of the busiest freeway in the state of Washington, in the dark, to reach me. He tested his luck against the traffic twice more: once to get around to the driver’s side of the car, and then again to launch the car across the freeway from a dead stop. All this for a young woman who found him frightening and couldn’t pull herself together enough to thank him. By not telling me his name, he guaranteed that no one would ever know what he had done.

In the aftermath, I was tormented by fear and regret. As time went on, though, a new kind of torment took hold. It wasn’t so much emotional as intellectual. Everyone has heard news stories about someone leaping into a river to save a drowning child or rushing into a burning building to rescue an old woman. What goes through these people’s heads?

The previous year I had entered Dartmouth College as a pre-med. It was a terrible fit. I had to fight to stay awake during my very first biology class. As luck would have it, I had also enrolled in an introductory psychology class. What is consciousness? How do we see in color? Why do we forget things? What is sexual desire? Where do emotions come from? "Is it really true," asked the professor as he strode up and down the aisles, "that tall people have better life outcomes?" Well, do they? I wondered frantically — all five feet of me. (They do.)

I devoured my textbook, festooning it with highlights and scribbling exclamation points and stars on nearly every page, marking the insights I wanted to commit to memory. Reading about teaching sign language to apes, I had an epiphany: Psychology research is something people can do for a living. I decided I was going to become one of those people, and to understand the basis of fear — and those who overcome it to come to the aid of others.

Abigail Marsh is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University, where she directs the Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience. This essay is adapted from her new book, The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between (Basic Books).