The science of survival

Like Glenn, Regina Calcaterra beat long odds by staying hopeful; unlike Glenn, her trauma was decades long.

Calcaterra said her mother was mentally ill, and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. She ended up having five children with five different men, but focused all her rage on her middle child -- something you'd hardly guess from Regina's brave little smile in her childhood photo.

"She would pick up my body and throw it into a wall, throw it into a door," Calcaterra said. "And she would pick it up from the floor and bang it down. She would lift up the back of my hair and then bang my head into the ground. And while I was down, as this child, she would be kicking me in the ribs and kicking me in the back."

School was a safe haven, but as Calcaterra writes in her recent memoir, "Etched in Sand" (Norton), she often was homeless and couldn't go.

"Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island" by Regina Calcaterra HarperCollins

How did she survive? How did she feed herself? "We stole food to eat," Calcaterra said. "I was drinking vinegar to survive. . . I figured out that it just suppressed my appetite and I would be less hungry with it."

By eight, she realized her situation was neither her fault nor hopeless. By 14 she had won legal emancipation from her mother.

She went on to college, then law school. Today she is a top aide to the Governor of New York.

Does she consider herself a resilient person? "Yes, absolutely, I do," she replied. "If I'm pinged or knocked down, I get up very quickly and just move forward, and I always have."

"Do you think you're unusual?" Spencer asked.

"Do YOU think I'm unusual?" she laughed.

Psychology professor George Bonanno, of Columbia University's Teacher's College, probably would answer no to that. He says his studies show people are a lot more resilient than they think.

"We just did a study on spinal cord injury, and the resilience was over 50 percent," Bonanno said.

That's right: More than half the people he interviewed in the hospital showed no signs of depression or anxiety. Another study of trauma centers had equally impressive results:

"People were minding their own business, suddenly were injured in a single incident trauma -- you know, bells, and whistles, and ambulances, and required emergency surgery. Very scary stuff," said Bonanno. And more than half of the people in the study -- 60 percent -- showed people who were resilient.

All these years later, Micki Glenn and Regina Calcaterra look back at their experiences almost philosophically.

"Do you get annoyed at people when they get all upset about life's little issues?" asked Spencer.

"Absolutely, I do," laughed Calcaterra. "I actually think that it's good that they get upset about the small things, because then they didn't experience such pain and suffering. So then they've had a good life, if the little things set them off."

Spencer asked Micki Glenn, if she could magically erase the shark experience from her life, would she do it?

Glenn said no. "I learned so much through it. I learned about being positive and how powerful that is. I learned that you are who you are on the inside and it doesn't matter how scarred you are, it doesn't matter what happens to you on the outside. Those are life lessons that most people don't get to learn."

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