Anyone who has ever faced a survival situation or studied stories of rescue and survival in extreme conditions can attest to the fact that there are no hard and fast rules about survival. There is no gear, no training, no support system that will guarantee your survival. Gear can fail, training can fail or be forgotten and 9-1-1 isn’t really available at 19,000 feet. There are endless stories about highly trained, well prepared individuals dying in the wilderness when all the cards were stacked in their favor. Why? There just as many stories of ill prepared, unequipped, injured people (sometimes children) who miraculously find their way out of horrendous situations. Why? How?
In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, Laurence Gonzales tackles this subject with intense scientific scrutiny. Gonzales has spent his entire life obsessed with survival. His father, a pilot in WWII, was shot down over Germany and survived not only falling from 27,000 ft and breaking nearly every bone in his body, but also survived 3 years in a German Prison Camp. Since childhood, Gonzales was quite literally obsessed with his father’s survival story. He has spent his life pushing his own limitations, studying gruesome accident reports, interviewing accident victims and their rescuers and chasing the elusive secret that makes some people survivors and some people…dead.
“Psychologists who study survival say that people who are rule followers don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit.”
Gonzales talks in length about the mental, physical and emotional responses to stress in survival situations. He equates the human reactionary system to a “jockey and his horse” where the conscious mind (thought, logic, reason, memory) is the jockey perched atop the overwhelmingly powerful and reckless horse, representing emotion. It is our ability to control the balance of power between reason-memory-training and the instinctually emotional fight-or-flight response that determines who is better equipped to survive.
“To live life is to risk it. And when you feel the rush of air and catch the stink of hot breath in your face, you enter the secret order of those who have seen their own death close up. It makes us live that much more intensely.”
Gonzales reaches deep in to the popular lexicon of survival stories to support his findings. He uses examples from books like Alive, Adrift, Into Thin Air and Touching the Void to illustrate how people react in survival situations. He then breaks down some of these individual stories step-by-step, dissecting the psychological and emotional transformations the survivors had to make in order to come to terms with their situation and overcome impossible odds.
“Your experiences, education, family, and way of viewing the world all shape what you would be as a survivor.”
At the end of the book, we aren’t just left hanging with harrowing stories of death and survival. Gonzales is nice enough to break down his decades of research into a simple 12-step guide he calls “The Rules of Adventure” with simple, common-sense tips like Avoid Impulsive Behavior or Be Humble. He breaks down each suggestion with examples and explanations drawn from earlier in the text. It reads like a summary of the lessons you were supposed to have picked up by reading the book (which is why it’s an Appendix and not part of the main text I guess).
Gonzales wraps up Deep Survival talking about his father’s survival story. He finishes strong drawing the conclusion that real survival is a lifelong endeavor and the way we live our lives after the near death experience is as vital, if not more so, than our survival of a single event. This concept seems to parlay well in to his new book Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience.
Ultimately, I found this an insightful book that had me engaged from very early on. I really enjoyed the author’s style of storytelling and his scientific approach to understanding survival. I think most of us realize that survival is a mental game, but he takes that discussion to another level entirely and gives the reader a better understanding of WHY survival is a mental game. And how instinct and emotion can either wreck havoc on the survival process or be harnessed to fuel your escape.
Gonzales talks about something the U.S. Air Force, and one of his survival school instructors, calls “Positive Mental Attitude”. He explores in length the mystery and meaning behind this phrase. Many can’t, or won’t, explain what it means. He grabs on to this phrase as the Holy Grail of what it takes to be a survivor and eventually finds his own definition of what it means (I would tell you but you really should read the book).
Deep Survival was a wonderful read, I enjoyed it. I think I probably enjoyed it more because I had already read many of the survival stories he referenced. If you haven’t read these books, you will want to read them when you finish Deep Survival.
“The perfect adventure shouldn’t be that much more hazardous in a real sense than ordinary life, for that invisible rope that holds us here can always break. We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we’ve done everything we can.”
Written by Laurence Gonzales
About the Author:
Laurence Gonzales won the 2001 and 2002 National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors for National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Since 1970, his essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Smithsonian Air and Space, Chicago Magazine, San Francisco Magazine, and many others.
Check out this Video Interview with Laurence Gonzales.