Culture

Reality TV Show Recaps Amazing Survivor Stories

For me, survival can best be summed up with the phrase: "Don't be where bears are." I am a huge fan of the disaster-avoidance method. I don't scuba dive, skate on ponds, snowmobile, rock climb and though I can ski, I usually try not to. I struggle with even the most vaguely dangerous task, such as climbing ladders or household chores of any kind. Climbing stairs with cuffed pants and high heels? That makes me downright panicky.

The point here is that absolutely anything can kill you under the right circumstances. In England, where they keep track of these things, dozens of people have been found to die by zipper! Trust me, if it can kill you, it will. So I was thrilled to discover a show tailor-made for a person who worries about what would happen if I, say, tripped while walking to the subway and impaled myself on the wrought iron fence surrounding my local church. It's called "I Survived" and airs every Monday at 9 p.m. on the Bio Channel (formerly the Biography Channel). For 60 minutes, "I Survived" presents first-person stories of people who not only endured some of the most horrible accidents and crimes I've ever heard of, but survived to tell the tale.

On the face of it, "I Survived" seems like any of the documentary shows out there that highlight gory realities and mayhem but in fact it's quite different. "I Survived" doesn't glamorize murder, glorify serial killers or eroticize high-risk behavior. By keeping their cameras squarely on the subjects and allowing them to tell their stories in their own words, it shows them as the brave, determined and fortunate people that they are. The tales themselves are truly horrifying: there are Derek and Colin, both survivors of the Virginia Tech campus shooting, who calmly explain how they struggled to control their fear and panic in order to play dead; and Alberto who tries who describes how he simply didn't understand how a friend of the family could be trying to kill him.

If you're unfamiliar with the program, it may seem gruesome or unsettling to listen to tales of torture and extreme injury but I promise you, it's not. Debuting in March 2008, "I Survived" is the Bio Channel's No. 1 show, I think, because it's not manipulative. Done without reenactments, the survivors describe their ordeals while any other details that may be needed as background run along the bottom of the screen.

Rob Sharenow, senior vice president of nonfiction programming at Bio, says the simplicity of the show is also the secret of its success. "These stories are the show and we wanted them to paint the most vivid picture. We really wanted to stitch the story together in as simple a way as possible so that you cannot ignore it. Looking [the survivor] straight in the eye as they tell their story, viewers get pulled into the story. They're forced to confront their own humanity and think; 'What if it were me?' Your mind is actively living through this scenario that is presented to you."

"I Survived" is part of a move by the Bio Channel toward shows about ordinary people—a departure for the network which used to be known mainly for documentaries of the famous and infamous. At least in this case, the new focus is a success. It's hard to describe how deeply compelling the subjects of these episodes are: I dare you to change the channel while Nell explains how she used a branch to fight off a mountain lion who attacked her husband and had its teeth sunk into his neck or when Debbie calmly relates how she spent five days in the home of an attacker who not only raped and beat her but had killed her husband as well.

As their tales unwind, you're searching the faces of these men and women, parsing their words, looking for clues as to how they survived. Sometimes it's just luck as in the case of Kevin who was impaled by a four-inch steel tow hook that missed his jugular by fractions of an inch, or Jennifer who manages to lock herself in the bathroom when her attacker becomes distracted.

In some cases, survival comes down to the simple fact that people don't die as easily and as quickly as they'd have you believe in the movies. Take Jerry, who is alive after spending two days trapped in a ravine with a tree branch lodged in his throat. Or Christi, who survived because she played dead after being savagely beaten, stabbed and assaulted by a gang of criminals. In all of these situations, it is crystal clear that you do not need to be a super hero to survive. These are normal everyday folks who were in the wrong place at the wrong time but somehow summoned up extraordinary reserves, most often inspired by the desire to see their loved ones, and stayed alive.

As riveting as the show is, you do wonder why these people would want to relive these incredibly traumatic events for a TV audience. Alan Hall, supervising producer of the series, explains that by "sharing their survival experience, they feel they are unburdening themselves of their experience and sharing it in a positive way with the audience." He explains that many of the show's subjects (especially those who were victims of vicious criminal assaults), believe their stories could provide lessons for others should they ever be confronted with similar experiences.

And strangely, though I watch a lot of documentary television that purports to teach, "I Survived" is one of the few that actually has changed my life. I still worry about accidentally stabbing myself or falling out of a window but I have begun to take control of my safety. Thanks to this show, I can proudly say that I know to never, ever do any of the following:

1. Pick up a hitchhiker.

2. Go skiing, snowmobiling or hiking without preparing for extreme weather, charging my cell phone and sliding some matches into my pocket.

3. Answer the door if I don't know who's on the other side of it.

4. Forgo my seat belt, life preserver or helmet.

5. Walk alone to my car in a deserted parking garage.

Honestly, I should have known not to do these things all along, but as Ben Sherwood notes in his new book "The Survivors Club" (Grand Central Publishing, 2009), it's really easy to assume that such things will never happen to you. Does anyone (besides me) imagine that while walking with her boyfriend, he or she may become the only living victim of the "Rail Road Serial Killer" as Danielle explained on "I Survived?" Or that they might wind up like Wayne and Mary who awaken one morning to find their farm house surrounded by chlorine gas and their appliances "melting before their eyes." But even if you are not an armchair survivor like myself, "I Survive" is a worthwhile show that succeeds in revealing the humanity behind the headlines—an art that has been forgotten by the glut of 24-hours news channels and endless episodes of "CSI."

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