11 April 2019

Half a Life by Darin Strauss

A couple of years ago a friend recommended I sign up for this email subscription from Longform. They're a website dedicated to gathering the top longform articles of the day and sending out a daily list of usually five articles from all sorts of online publications. A year ago I clicked on a suggested story from the New Yorker (linked here) about accidental deaths in America and found that there's a memoir written by Darin Strauss about such an event. I ordered it from Indigo and got it last Christmas.

What I was truly struck by was how little self-help material there is for something so prevalent. The New Yorker article lists all the different types of human experiences that have self-help books and how shocking it was that there's so little for those involved in fatal accidents. The article talks about how these events have been depicted in a few movies (specifically Kenneth Lonergan films) and then references Strauss' story.

An accident isn't necessarily ever over." - Diane Williams

What really hooked me was when Strauss told the New Yorker, "I became aware, at eighteen, that the world is a cruel place, that the randomness of life is profound." And how interested Strauss was in the concept of "moral luck" which philosophers have described as a "situation in which we hold people morally responsible for events that are not entirely within their control."

Strauss was in his senior year of high school when he was behind the wheel heading to the beach with some friends. Suddenly his schoolmate Celine Zilke turned her bike and collided with his car. She was rushed to the hospital and died later that evening. He spends the next twenty years trying to cope with this fatal accident and the ramifications it had on his life.

The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. This openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there." 

Darin Strauss
Half a Life is a very short read. The book is only 224 pages and is divided up into very small chapters. I flew through it in about three days. It really reminded me of C.S. Lewis' memoir A Grief Observed (which I reviewed here) that chronicles his wife's death from cancer. Both memoirs are very observational and introspective, but almost feel clinical. They are so straightforward and account for every thought/emotion felt, regardless of how painful. What I loved about Strauss' writing was that he NEVER shied away from telling the unflattering truths of his story. Here is one particularly cringe-worthy story:

Having acknowledged my own centrality and drama, and sensing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands - fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who's just won the US Open. This plagiarized 'emotional' reaction, acted out for girls I'd never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon."

What is also so interesting about Strauss' story is that this event happened to him in his adolescence. The passage above is so clearly something a young person would do. And it really adds an interesting edge to the memoir as you see how he grows older and matures under a traumatic past.

I also obviously loved this because of some of the research Strauss included. A lot of it has to do with stuff like survivor's guilt, but it also covered blanket terminology like complicated grief disorder:

A September 2009 item in The New York Times said that every U.S. death affects, on average, four other people profoundly. Of these affected survivors, something like 15 percent can 'barely function.' And this decisive suffering - which lasts and lasts, and offers 'no redemptive value' - has been given a name, to distinguish it from what used to be called sorrow: Complicated Grief Disorder."

Something I found shocking in the New Yorker article was how little protocol there is for psychiatrists, counselors, etc., in dealing with these individuals. This is made abundantly clear when Strauss goes to see a therapist immediately after the accident. The therapist makes him drive to the scene of the accident and their conversation is so clunky and clearly unhelpful. Strauss mentions a study from George Washington University that talks about the psychological fallout of accidental deaths:

In the United States, some two thousand drivers a year survive 'dart-outs.' And these drivers are more likely to get laid out by post-traumatic stress syndrome than are those who are irrefutably to blame in fatal accidents. No one knows why. Probably the brain prefers a sturdy error to fixate on. It's hard to learn so viscerally that the question of guilt and worth are managed with indifference, by nasty chance."

I guess the whole point of this memoir is that no one can possibly know what it's like to experience something like this. It is so horrible and unimaginable that we can never really relate to their experience. I enjoyed reading this because I feel like I got to plainly see Strauss' thought process. I can't understand what it means to be involved in the loss of someone's life and I'm thankful for that, but if I was ever faced with such a situation I can see myself turning to Strauss' book.

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