Abby Sunderland and Tragedy’s Perverse Incentive

Last week the world held its breath, wondering if 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland had lost her life in the southern ocean. Luckily, she had not, and was plucked from her stricken sailboat two days after its mast was knocked off by a storm. But in the wake of her  rescue relief quickly turned to outrage at Sunderland’s parents (who earlier this year had signed a reality-show deal) for allowing a legal minor to risk her life in such a dangerous undertaking. It all seemed too dismayingly similar: Bad parenting plus fame-seeking equals a call out to search-and rescue teams. Call it Balloon Boy 2010.

If one were to find a bright spot in this lamentable interlude would be that the tsunami or criticism might force other parents of would-be circumnavigators, and the children themselves, come to their senses, and so prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

But I suspect that the reverse will be true. Tragedy, and near-tragedy like Sunderland’s, have a way of teaching some people exactly the opposite of the right lesson. Perversely, disaster can glamorize insane recklessness.

In his book Into Thin Air Jon Krakauer writes of his experience in a storm atop Everest which killed eight people in 1996. He laments the mentality of the achievement-seeking tourists who recklessly pursued their dream of climbing Everest with no respect to the actual danger. In his account, he describes the unlucky climbers’ gruesome fate in detail, and expresses hope that their example will put a stop to such foolhardiness in the future.

But the book  only encouraged more people to climb. The year Krakauer went up Everest, 98 people reached the summit. In 2004, after his book became a bestseller and was turned into a movie, more than 300 did. Once considered the ultimate feat of mountaineering, summitting Everest had taken on something of the spirit of a fun run; in the public imagination it has become a feel-good expression of self-empowerment, an achievement to demonstrate that with a bit of pluck, anybody can achieve anything. In 2003, a blind climber reached the summit; this past May, a 13-year-old boy did.

Indeed, the mountain has become so crowded, the achievement of climbing it so devalued, that an even more arcane benchmark has been established: the Seven Summits. To claim that laurel, a climber must ascend the tallest peak on each continent. Until adventurer Richard Bass accomplished the feat in 1985, it seemed an impossibly arcane and daunting idea. But it caught on, and today nearly 300 people count themselves Seven Summitteers. Nevertheless it remains a fraught undertaking: This past May 26, Briton Peter Kinloch was left to die near the summit of Everest after he became blinded and was unable to make his way down. He had just reached the last of his Seven Summits.

I’ve experienced something of tragedy’s perverse incentive myself. A few years back I traveled out West to take part in a survival training course with a company that was known for its purist approach. Key to its pedagogical approach was the idea that the human body can survive for far longer without food and water than most people realize. Indeed, just the year before, one of his clients had died of dehydration, a tragedy that had attracted a great deal of media attention. Personally, I assumed that the death was a fluke, a one-off, and wasn’t deterred by the accident. But what surprised me was that three out of the eight other people in my class had actually been attracted by news reports of the death. “When I heard that, I knew this had to be a hardcore school,” said a fellow student in his 20s.

Part of the effect is no doubt down to simple publicity. Tragedy makes for a gripping narrative, which means that more news outlets will do more stories, and more people will learn about the hazardous activity in question. But there’s a deeper reason, too. Though we don’t like to admit it, tragedy can be darkly attractive. Hearing that someone else has died in an undertaking, a certain part of our mind calls out: “That wouldn’t happen to me. I could survive.”

And so the worse an experience is, the more a certain kind of person is drawn to it. A person who needs a challenge, an affirmation, an achievement to which they can point and say: “I did this, and therefore I am an extraordinary soul.”

Adolescents, who are still struggling to form their self-identity, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thinking. A little encouragement might be all that’s needed to turn an idle childhood fantasy into a real-life game of Russian Roulette. In the case of teen sailors, that encouragement came from their own attention-seeking parents. And that, to my mind, is the real tragedy.