I’ve had this memoir on my to-read shelf for far too long; I think someone gave it to me or I picked it up at a book sale. Still, I remember Darin Strauss telling a version of this story on This American Life a while ago—how one day near the end of his senior year of high school, he was driving some of his friends to play mini-golf and he struck and killed a girl on a bicycle. Darin knew this girl, Celine Zilke, because she was a year behind him in high school, but yet he didn’t really know her. A brief moment, 10 seconds or so, as Celine’s bicycle careened across two lanes of traffic and into the path of Darin’s car, changed everything for both Celine and Darin. For Celine, it’s obvious. She died. For Darin, it was (or rather has been) far more murky and complex.
In this memoir, Strauss attempts to look back at this moment in 1988 and explore how it shaped his life but how he does it is extremely compelling—in fits and starts, at once both brutally honest and self-conscious. He nails the weirdness and fictionality of grief and trauma in a way that both is very individual to his situation but also extremely relatable to anybody going through loss, particularly sudden and random loss (or at least it seemed so for me).
By the time he attempted to tackle this subject as a writer, Strauss had already published three novels—all of which has traces of the tragedy “salted” in them but none which tackled it head on. Strauss discusses how if he had written his story as fiction, there would be moments that needed to be pumped up for drama, and there would probably be a moment of “epiphany,” as there often are in novels and short stories. The protagonist picks up a leaf from the ground and ponders the inevitability of death, for example. However, in real life, Strauss argues, there is no ONE moment of epiphany:
Things don’t go away. They become you. There is no end, as T.S. Elliot somewhere says, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freed from the past, or from the future.
But we keep making our ways, as we have to. We’re all pretty much able to deal even with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult. I think that’s the whole of the answer. We make our way, and effort and time give us cushion and dignity. And as we age, we’re riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain.
So it’s an epiphany after all. You have it in your hands the whole time. (186).
As I read this book, I kept thinking about how Ethan Couch, the “affluenza teen,” seems untouched by guilt or remorse even after drunkenly mowing down four people while Strauss’s life is profoundly shaped by a moment that really was simply an accident. Yet, Strauss argues that there were “stories” he needed to tell himself about the accident for many years in order to survive so maybe Couch’s obliviousness/callousness is pure survival instinct. He has to tell himself a story where he is not to blame because to live with a full knowledge of what he did may be impossible. [That is not to say that he isn’t a totally horrible douche bag, but still even a**holes have inner lives.]
But I digress. One of the many things I loved about this memoir (which I devoured) is that it not only made me think about Darin Strauss and Celine Zilke but about so many other things: survival guilt, affluenza teens, grief, and the power of reflection and narrative. I remember being very affected by the This American Life piece I heard a number of years ago, but this offspring of that piece affected me even more.