Today’s post is one of the rare ones that discusses a book I’ve read. I’ve previously written about Dani Shapiro’s Devotion and Katie Rosman’s If You Knew Suzy. Today I share some thoughts I have after reading Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life. The book won The National Book Critics’ Circle Award. If you’d like to hear some excerpts, you can listen to an NPR podcast here. It’s gripping radio.
I’m not a book reviewer, and this post isn’t a review; I consider it more of a response piece. Half a Life touched me in many ways and I still find myself thinking about it weeks after closing the cover.
One reason I like to write about books is because our reading of them is so personal. We bring our own experiences to bear on an author’s words; passages which seem to have been written just for us may go unnoticed or unappreciated by others. Reading is a solitary activity, yet we are a community of readers. I welcome comments about this book and/or the general topics.
I think the Zilke family is lucky.
You might think that is a crazy statement if you know the story of how more than twenty years ago their teenage daughter Celine suddenly jerked her bicycle across two lanes of traffic and into the immediate path of fellow classmate Darin Strauss’s car. He couldn’t hit the brake in time; in truth, there was no time. Whether or not Celine intended to die on that day remains a mystery, we will never know what caused her to swerve. But die she did, with Darin behind the wheel, on that road, on that day, at that moment.
It wasn’t Darin’s fault; it could have been anyone in that particular place at that particular time. If his shoe had been untied and he’d taken a moment to tie it, if he’d forgotten his wallet upstairs, if he’d decided to use the bathroom one more time before heading out with his friends for a round of mini-golf, if… well, if anything… things might have been different.
If games are so common with grief: If only _____, things would be different. We create counterfactuals in our minds, imagining an alternate reality to the one that we just don’t want to accept. We hide away our truth, conceal the reality of pain. Darin did this for half of his life. For all that time he felt the pressure to live his life for two people; to make his life special, meaningful, and worthy of the fact that he lived while a schoolmate did not. Although Celine’s family originally absolved him of blame (and he was never criminally charged after the accident), they later sued him, settling out of court.
So why do I think they are they lucky?
Well, you have to know a little bit about me, and about my grief. If you’re a regular reader you know that my mother-in-law was killed in a car crash (I don’t ever call it an accident, unlike Darin’s case) when a man was driving in the wrong lane on a Wyoming highway in 2009. He was trying to pass an oversized load and was alongside that load at highway speed around a curve. His view obscured by the load, he didn’t know there was a car carrying my inlaws directly in front of him. The newspaper account appears here.
My mother-in-law was killed instantly; my father-in-law, seriously injured. The driver of the other car was charged with the misdemeanor charge of vehicular homicide and later sentenced to 90 days in jail. My account of that heartwrenching day and my visit to the crash site appears here.
Bruce Carter, the man who killed Barbara, didn’t say a word at the sentencing. He never said he was sorry.
I wonder if he thinks about her. I wonder if he thinks about us, the ones left behind.
I think the Zilkes are lucky because now they know. They know Strauss’s grief, some of his thoughts, his emotional shift from guilt to regret. Celine’s parents don’t need to worry, as I do, that their loved one has been forgotten by the person who took his/her life. Strauss’s agonizingly honest description of his thoughts about his actions and their aftermath resonate because they are so well-analyzed. Though the loss of a child in an accident is difficult, perhaps knowing that Celine’s life became a litmus test for so many events in Strauss’s own life would be a speck of reassurance. As Strauss grows older, Celine’s memory becomes his partner in a 3-legged race, bound together, their lives pulled awkwardly into tandem. I think the worst thing is to be forgotten. With this analysis of his life in the last 20 years, Strauss documents the changing nature of his grief.
The theme of living one’s life for two people– of making his life “count” for two after the accident is one that is especially intriguing. Eventually Darin realizes this is impossible. As a high schooler he had reflexively promised Celine’s mother that he would make his life count for two, but this is the knee-jerk automatic response of a young person agreeing with something he doesn’t understand. Just like the ineffective shrink who pigeonholed Darin’s responses (ultimately making therapy a worthless endeavor), Celine’s mother obtained the answer she wanted from a person unable to fully understand what he was agreeing to. In a similar fashion, when a child dies, a sibling often feels he/she now has to carry the added weight of the unfinished life of the deceased family member. This psychological burden can be overwhelming.
We become responsible for others in many ways– as their friends, siblings, children, and especially as parents– but we do not truly understand these obligations when we first enter these relationships, most certainly when we are young. Growing into the recognition and acceptance of these responsibilities is part of the process. In so many ways we are wholly unprepared for the roles we step into both personally and professionally.
Others had been quick to forgive Darin– to tell him it couldn’t have happened any other way. Like the legal standard of the “reasonable man,” Darin had passed the test; there was nothing he could have done to avoid hitting her. However, his own timetable of forgiveness was much longer. While others instantly granted it to him, it took twenty years for Darin to forgive himself.
Regret and guilt play a large role in Strauss’s book, I did often disagree with his frequent interchangeable use of the terms. Regular readers may remember the guest post my mother (a psychologist specializing in grief and loss, death and dying) wrote about the difference between guilt and regret (full post here). I have certainly come to accept those distinctions and to use them accordingly:People use the word “guilt” more often than is appropriate. Improperly using the word “guilt” can result in unnecessary emotional distress and harsh self-criticism. The word “guilt” refers to something you did, something which you feel you shouldn’t have done because it was morally or legally wrong. But what if the experience you feel guilty about was not something you caused or had control over? Then you would feel regret, not guilt.
Througout the book Strauss uses the terms interchangeably. He ends up with a painful stomach disorder requiring surgery. He later suffers from IBS and then CPPS (chronic pelvic pain syndrome) summarizing, “That’s the force of guilt for you.” I’d argue that it’s regret he feels; the accident wasn’t his fault. I wonder if Strauss would describe the book as I do, one which documents the evolution from guilt to regret; a journey toward making peace with the fact that things couldn’t have been different on that day.
I couldn’t help but wonder if counseling could have helped him see his actions in the proper light and helped to relieve some of this literal gut-eating self-criticism he’d been experiencing for years. At various points, Strauss believes Celine may have committed suicide, there are clues that this may have been the case. In the end, the only emotion Strauss is justified in feeling is regret; he writes, “Regret doesn’t budge things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can’t amend a moment, can’t even stir a pebble.”
Given my upbringing, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the lack of good psychological support for Strauss after the accident– could an insightful therapist trained in grief counseling have helped him negotiate some these feelings? Strauss says in a footnote, “I’d started going to therapy… though not (I really don’t think) as a response to the accident. I’d gone with pretty boilerplate stuff: your typical mid-thirties complaints… my therapy attempts had always been near-misses, fizz-outs if not outright failures.” A psychologist specializing in grief would have certainly been able to show that while Strauss may not have himself seen that he was seeking therapy as a response to the accident, it certainly could not be removed from his problems. While the problems in his thirties may have been boilerplate, the accident which haunted him for twenty years until that point was not.
Writing about grief, regret, shame, and inner turmoil can be difficult. By their very nature our most personal and private thoughts can be difficult to express. However, they can also be the most rewarding to document, for these are challenges most people face at some point in their lives. The road maps we have for navigating life’s challenges are some combination of our own instincts, observations of others, and advice along the way.
I would think Strauss has heard hundreds, if not thousands, of stories since he finally began sharing his own. Tragedy invites sharing, camaraderie. I have found a similar experience with cancer; there is a natural tendency for others to connect and say “I have been there too.”
Strauss is now a father. I wonder how Celine’s death will impact his next twenty years. Will he be more safety-conscious? What will it be like the first time his sons drive a car? Ride a bike on a busy street? How will he navigate parenthood differently because of this experience? And what are the triggers now for making him think of Celine? There must certainly be a pattern to those. Perhaps because therapy was ineffective in his youth, I was left wondering if parenthood will cause some of these unresolved emotional landmines to crop up yet again.
While time has a way of allowing us to move into a different stage of grief where we can go through minutes, hours, and days without being consumed with emotion, the feelings are always there, just below the surface, ready to rise at a moment’s notice. We can’t possibly always know what might trigger the flood, but it will come.
I started this post saying the Zilkes are lucky; they have a window into the mind of the person who accidentally killed their child. My own unanswered questions about Barbara’s death certainly affected my reading of this book. If I can’t have my own answers, I wanted to read Strauss’s. The truth is that we have to find our own answers, our own ways of weaving experiences into the tapestry of our lives so that we are resilient for what is yet to come.
I really enjoyed reading this book and grappling with some of these difficult questions as I read. The themes of death, regret, perseverance, responsibility, and decision-making are endlesslessly fascinating to me.