The scene is now familiar to most American TV viewers: In a circle lit by torches, a tribe of castaways votes to expel one of its comrades from a tropical island. With the decision made, the outcast walks down a path into the darkness.
But what most Americans don't know is that the first person who greeted each outcast on that dark path was consulting psychologist Gene Ondrusek, PhD.
A private practitioner in La Jolla, Calif., Ondrusek wore many hats as the consulting psychologist for the TV show. During the taping of "Survivor," Ondrusek lived for 39 days part-time on the tropical island in the South China Sea with the production crew and part-time on Malaysia's mainland. Not only did he provide psychological support and counseling for the crew, he helped those who were cast off the island to cope with any disappointment or negative feelings.
"There was no one single reaction once the castaways were voted off the island," he says. "Some people were happy to get back to civilization, clean up and have some food and relax. Others were surprised and some were quite aware they knew it was their time to go."
As part of the CBS production crew, Ondrusek had access to food, water and shelter, but he was vulnerable to monsoons and aggressive animals.
"On this island at one level something will try to kill you, from the flora to the fauna," says Ondrusek.
Perhaps the most harrowing moments for Ondrusek was when a boat meant to take him and three of the castaways from the "Survivor" island to the mainland ran into a monsoon and experienced rudder problems. Ondrusek and one of the castaways caught a rescue boat back to the island, while others stayed on the main boat. The sea was too rough for the rescue boat to dock, so Ondrusek and the castaway dove into the ocean and swam the rest of the way. Soon afterward, the rescue boat capsized and sank.
Ondrusek was also involved before the taping of the show began: He screened the 48 semifinalists with the help of his associate, Richard Levak, PhD, a well-known MMPI-2 specialist. Levak and Ondrusek designed the testing protocol--which included the MMPI-2, the California Psychological Inventory, the FIRO-B and an assessment for emotional intelligence for stress resiliency--to create personality assessments of the semifinalists for CBS production to select the final 16 contestants. CBS wanted to find people who could handle the interpersonal and environmental issues without giving up prematurely, explains Ondrusek. And since people would eventually be voted off, CBS wanted to know that people could cope with the disappointment without undue reactions, he adds.
Life on the island and being voted off were not the only stressors Ondrusek discussed with the castaways. He also talked about the new fame and attention, and the lack of privacy the castaways would face once the show aired. Hate mail, negative correspondence, Web sites, fan clubs or people who see the castaways as characters instead of real people were some of the examples Ondrusek explained as likely possibilities.
"Not everybody has the chance to go from being an unknown one day to being on 'Letterman'," he adds.
Ondrusek is continuing to provide follow-up with all the castaways via telephone to see how they are adjusting to the whole process. He admits this is an unusual role for a psychologist.
"It's not a road that's been traveled well," he says. "This is as deep into a media production psychology has gone--from casting all the way through filming and follow-up."
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