Surviving Survival

“Surviving survival – The Art and Science of Resilience” by Laurence Gonzales  (W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition 2013)

This book contextualises resilience in terms of avoiding or recovering from post traumatic stress disorder after a severely traumatic event.

The traumatic events survived in Gonzales book are extreme.  His first book, “Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies and Why” published in 2004, explored how some people survive extreme events.

Some of the events recounted are deeply disturbing and raised the question for the reviewer of whether there are any recorded cases of individuals developing PTSD from reading traumatic anecdotes.

“Surviving Survival” acknowledges that surviving does not in itself ensure a happy outcome and some people are so traumatised by their experiences that they are never able to return to a normal life.  In response to this some people make a new life, deliberately changing previous habits and routines.  The book also acknowledges that sometimes people are so debilitated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that despite surviving, they later take their own lives.

Graphic descriptions of traumatic events make for gripping reading, and provide excellent examples of factors which increase chances of survival and recovery, but the vast majority of destructive events are not so dramatic but may be just as damaging.  For example, a road traffic accident, a bereavement, a childhood of abuse and neglect where no one died but no one thrived, can all be utterly devastating.  Focussing on the most dramatic events obscures the paradox that less dramatic events can be more difficult to recover from.  Losing a child, for example, cannot really be weighed against losing your whole family as if trauma is multiplied by the number of loved ones you have lost.

Gonzales 12 rules of life are useful and incorporate much current theory on developing resilience, and there is a lot of honesty and genuineness in his style.  The word “rules” implies something that should be obeyed, and obviously nothing will work for everyone and some people will find solutions to their extreme distress that no one has ever heard of or thought of before.

Despite these criticisms, the book is worth reading not least for the range and variety of experiences recorded in it and recovered from.  Gonzales describes responses which have a sound scientific basis, as well as mystical and unique ways people have dealt with their difficulties.  All of these potentially have value.