Dorothy Says

Would You Survive A Serial Killer?

In Tell Me Your Secret, one of the characters survives a weekend with a serial killer. Would you manage to make it out alive?

When I was researching Tell Me Your Secret, I read a lot about what it takes to survive a traumatic experience. In case you don’t know, my fifteenth novel is about two women and their deadly connection to a serial killer. One of them, Pieta, is abducted by a man calling himself The Blindfolder and held for a weekend during which she is told: ‘If you want to survive this weekend . . . there is only one thing you must do – keep your eyes closed . . . For forty-eight hours you must not open your eyes. If you do, I will end you.’

When I began the book, I tried it out: I tried to keep my eyes closed for as long as humanly possible . . . and discovered I wasn’t very good at that. I could do it for a time – maybe fifteen or twenty minutes – but I’d inevitably fall asleep. And what was the first thing I did when I woke up? Opened my eyes, of course. That didn’t bode well for me, did it?

Then I went a bit deeper, thought about it some more – I wasn’t in a life-threatening situation lying in my own bed or on the sofa, I didn’t really have the motivation or terror that Pieta and the Blindfolder’s other victims had. So, would being in fear for your life cause you to do as you’re told or would it result in failing completely? Why do some people survive traumatic situations while others perish? And, would I be likely to make it in that sort of situation? I had to find that out before I could write the book.

I’ll be honest with you, I had to wade through A LOT of frankly unsettling stuff and ‘research’ to get the information that would help me find the basis for my story. (Pro tip: avoid anything labelled ‘survivalist’ unless you want to dive down that deep hole of people with questionable ‘politics’ planning for their version of the end of the world.)

What I found after wading through the scary stuff, gave me a lot to think and talk about. The main body of research I found came from ‘survival psychologist’ John Leach who has conducted a lot of work analysing the behaviours and patterns of those who actually don’t survive extreme and traumatic events.

His argument is that there isn’t such a thing as a ‘survivor personality’, more a way of responding to any given situation that will have a significant impact on your mental attitude going forward. He focused a lot on those who don’t survive these situations to give clues on what people can do to increase their survival chances.

He talks a lot about how the speed with which your brain can process and adapt to new information will help you to make the right decisions at the right time.

Basically, when something awful happens, how quickly can you assess the situation and react in a way that will save your life? Because, according to Leach and lots of other research, 70 to 80 per cent of people – the majority of us – will freeze in traumatic and extreme situations and will not know what to do. Only up to 15 per cent of people will actually react appropriately, immediately.

As one American social psychologist called Jerome Chertkoff told the BBC: ‘Being in a situation where your life is in danger increases your emotional arousal, and high arousal causes people to limit the number of alternatives they consider. That can be bad when trying to determine a course of action, since you may never consider the option most likely to result in escaping safely.’

This neatly explains, I think, why people don’t immediately run or fight back when they hear a fire alarm or if they’re attacked – they literally can’t. They are rendered inactive by, what psychologists have identified as shock, initial denial and disbelief at what is happening.

Not surprising, really, since very few of us are constantly prepared to be suddenly thrust into a life-threatening situation like a fire or, in the case of Pieta from Tell Me Your Secret, being abducted by a serial killer.

That’s why you should always take with a huge pinch of blarney anyone who claims they would absolutely respond in a particular way – ‘I wouldn’t sit around waiting to be told what to do, I’d do x, y and z’ or ‘I would totally fight if that happened to me’, etc – if their life was threatened.

The truth is, those people – just like the rest of us – have no clue how they would react. They can pontificate all they like, hoping that they’re right, but they can’t know until they are actually there.

Way back in 1999, I was doing work experience at the Independent on Sunday over in Canary Wharf, London. Trying to show how diligent and all round excellent I was, I decided to stay late to finish off the work I’d been given. That was the night a bomb was detonated nearby in the Docklands.

To me, it sounded like thunder, to a few people I was working with, it sounded like a bomb so they grabbed their stuff and ran: the 15 per cent who act appropriately, immediately. They found a nice pub nearby and spent the next few hours there. Me, I was still thinking it was thunder even though other people had screamed and some were crying in absolute terror. That was me, in denial because even though I’d grown up with the bomb threats most of my life, I still couldn’t comprehend it happening right by me.

A lot of people did the same: we stayed where we were because by the time we processed what was happening and tried to leave, it was too late – we weren’t allowed to exit the building because they weren’t sure if there were other bombs set to explode. So, we sat there, us in the 70 per cent group, anxious and scared, essentially waiting to be told what to do.

Interestingly, I don’t remember being with anyone who would be in the third group identified – the 15 per cent, who aren’t part of the 70 per cent, who act either immediately or after the shock has worn off, but actually cause more harm than good and ramp up the likelihood of not surviving, while putting everyone around them in danger.

Hours later, the alarms came on and over the PA system we were ordered to evacuate the building. All of us moved then – at speed. We – true to our 70 per cent-er roots – were spurred into action by someone telling us what to do. And all of us survived to tell the tale. In that instance, freezing or not acting didn’t do us any harm.

And sometimes, not acting is, according to the experts, much better than acting rashly and without any thought (the other 15 per cent I mentioned), which is much more likely to end your life. Taking a few moments to assess the situation and try to work out the best plan may look like freezing and it may actually come from inaction, but it’s probably the most likely way to escape safely.

In Tell Me Your Secret, Pieta does manage to survive her encounter with the serial killer called The Blindfolder, but not in the way people might expect – as she confesses later on in the book: ‘I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my eyes closed for forty-eight hours. I didn’t. I didn’t keep my eyes closed for forty-eight hours.’

I like to think I would be able to do what was necessary – calm down enough after the initial panic, denial and ‘freeze’ to work out a way to save my own life. But would I be able to do what Pieta does? I’m truly not sure.

How do you think you’d do? In a stressful situation, do you tend to panic and continue in a flap until someone calms you down? Do you always know exactly what to do at any given moment? Do you take some time to come to terms with things as they develop? Do you think, that given what you’ve read here, and what you’ve seen of the world, that you can never really know what you’ll do until it’s actually happening?

I really would love to talk about this. So drop me a line via the contact me section of this site or on social media.

Speak soon.

Dorothy X

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