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Police call them ‘dart-out’ deaths: car crashes where someone moves suddenly in front of an automobile. Insurance companies call them “no-fault fatalities.” Novelist Darin Strauss was 18 in 1988 when a bicyclist swerved across two lanes of traffic into the path of the car he was driving. It took him 20 years to write about the collision, funeral, and drama of a high-stakes court case. The police and eyewitnesses testified there was no way he could have avoided the accident. Still, he struggled with feelings of guilt and responsibility. He describes how he came to face the hard fact: we can try our human best in a crucial moment, and it might not be good enough.
- Darin Strauss author of "Chang and Eng," "The Real McCoy" and "More Than It Hurts You."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Darin Strauss is a critically acclaimed author of three novels, but his latest book is a memoir delving into the true story underlying all his fiction, his involvement in the death of a high school classmate and the psychological aftermath. Darin Strauss joins me in the studio to talk about his new book, it's titled "Half a Life." And you of course are invited to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Darin. I'm glad to have you here.
MR. DARIN STRAUSSThank you for having me.
REHMI know you have a cold, but I wonder if you would read for us from the first page of your book.
STRAUSSSure. I do want to apologize in advance for my voice. I'm a little Barry White today, but I'll read the beginning of the book.
STRAUSS"Half my life ago, I killed a girl. I had just turned 18 and when you drive anew post adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt putt. It was May, 1988. The breeze did its open window work on the hair behind my neck and ears. We had a month before high school graduation. I was at the wheel. Up ahead on the right shoulder, a pair of tiny bicyclists bent over their handlebars. The horizon was just my town's modest skyline done in watercolors. We all shared a four-lane road. They bicyclists traveled in the same direction as my car, bare legs peddling under a long sky. I think I fiddled with the radio. 'Hey, what song is this? So turn it up.' And then one of the bike riders did something. I remember only that a glitch on the right. My Oldsmobile stayed in the far left lane.
STRAUSSAfter a wobble or two, the bicyclist eased the wheel into the road, maybe 30 feet away. My tires lapped up the distance that separated us. Next, the bicycle made a crisp turn into the left lane and my sudden car, dark blonde hair appeared very clearly in my windshield. I remember a kind of mechanical curiosity about why this was happening and what it might mean. This moment has been for all my life a kind of shadowy giant. I'm able to tick my tock to remember each second before it, radio, friends, thoughts of mini golf, another thought of maybe just going to the beach, the distance between car and bicycle closing. Anything could still happen, but I'm powerless to see what comes next.
STRAUSSThe moment raises a shoulder, lowers its head and lumps away and then it's too late. My forearm hooks to protect my eyes. The front seat passenger shouts. I pictured my foot disappearing under the dash, kicking down for the brake, straining farther than any real leg can go, yet the hood of my Oldsmobile met slain Zoke at 40 miles an hour. Her head cracked the windshield. I remember the yellow reflector from her spokes, a useless spark, kicking up the glass incline and over the roof. My car bumped onto the grassy median and then I must have done all the normal driver things, put on the clonking hazards, rolled to a stop, cut the engine. I must have stepped onto the grass in my t-shirt and shorts. I simply have no memory of how I got there."
REHMDarin Strauss reading from his new book, a memoir titled "Half a Life." Do join us 800-433-8850. I know you told parts of this story, Darin, two years ago on "This American Life." What kind of reaction did you get?
STRAUSSYou know, I thought I would only write it for myself at first. I hadn't dealt with this problem. And the way I deal with things is writing them down, so I decided it was time to sort of see what I thought about it. So I just started writing it for myself to sort of figure out how I was thinking about it. And a friend said, you should submit something to "This American Life." And I hadn't thought about it, but I had about 10 pages of notes and I sent them to Ira Glass and they ran it. And I thought that'd be it.
STRAUSSBut I got so much good response. I got hundreds of e-mails of people who were going through grief or guilt of some kind, asking for the text of the piece. And so I realized if I had been able to read something like this when I was 18, it would have helped me, so I decided to write the book for my 18-year-old self.
REHMAnd how old are you now?
STRAUSSNow I'm 40.
REHMSo it's taken you a long time.
STRAUSSYeah, I started writing when I was -- I started writing this, I guess, when I was 36. My wife was pregnant with our kids. I have twin boys. And I had sort of been in denial about it for a long time, to use a kind of a chancy phrase, and I thought it was time to examine it because I was having kids and I felt more, this really would be what it would be like to lose a kid and so I decided to really face this thing that I had put out of mind.
REHMDarin, what happened immediately after the accident?
STRAUSSSo she cut in front of my car and she died and I went to the funeral. Met her parents and they told me they knew that it wasn't my fault. Five cars of eyewitnesses and the police and everybody said they knew there was nothing I could've done. So her parents said, we'll never blame you, but whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well because you're living for two people. And I tried to take that very seriously. And then two months later, found out they were suing me for millions of dollars, her parents.
REHMDid you know her?
STRAUSSI knew her very slightly. She was a student at the high school I went to and she was a year behind me. We had taken a class together, but I didn't really know her too well. I gave her a ride home once in the same car, which is sort of eerie to think about.
REHMSo she's riding that bike in the right lane, you are in the far left lane.
STRAUSSShe's in -- she's on the right shoulder.
REHMShe's on the right shoulder.
STRAUSSThere are two lanes, the far left lane and the right lane. She cut into the right lane and then immediately after that darted right into my car in the left lane, so she swerved over two lanes of traffic and it was never explained why. And so for years, I thought, maybe she was committing suicide. And then a friend of hers told me that she had written in her journal that she was aware that she was gonna die. She wrote that the day before she died. She said, I know that I'm -- that I'm gonna die. So I clung to that and said, oh, she must have been committing suicide, but now I realize that that might have been something any adolescent writes in their journal.
STRAUSSAnd that I was clinging to that because I needed to think that and the truth is I'll never know why she did it. And it's not really relevant to my story, I realize.
STRAUSSThe thing that's relevant is she cut in front of me and so I just had to do the best I could to miss her.
REHMWas anyone else riding with her? Were there other cyclists?
STRAUSSThere was one other bicyclist and I hadn't talked to him in 20 years and he read the book and e-mailed me a couple weeks ago.
REHMWhat did he say?
STRAUSSHe said that he was glad I wrote the book and I put words to things he couldn't express and so he was very glad. I was really worried about the people like that, friends of hers, family, what they would think, so it's been very gratifying. Everyone from my high school who has read it and commented has been very kind about it.
REHMSo two months later, after literally and orally exonerating you, her parents decided to sue. Why do you think that was?
STRAUSSYou know, I'll never know. I don't blame them. People always ask me, were you mad at them? You know, I never, thankfully, lost a child, so I don't know what kind of stress that would put on you. I get angry at their lawyer. They had a very slimy lawyer who told them they could get a lot of money and then actually, probably took money from them in legal fees. They ended up getting almost nothing, a sort of pittance from the insurance company to make it go away because there was no case. And they probably could have gotten -- they definitely could have gotten that without the lawyer, so, you know, I don't know why they did and I can't really speculate.
STRAUSSI wrote the parents before the book came out. I hadn't talked to them since the lawsuit was dropped, but I thought I owed it to them to write them warning them about it because it was gonna be written about in their hometown paper. And writing the letter, even Googling them to find their address, was harder than writing the book.
REHMBut you did.
STRAUSSBut I did, yeah. I just thought I owed it to them. I actually dedicated the book to them, too.
REHMDid you hear back from them?
STRAUSSI have not heard back. I didn't expect to. I think they were -- you know, they were obviously going through a lot and I have a feeling they didn't want to sue and probably regret it now.
REHMWhat was that period of the lawsuit like for you?
STRAUSSIt was tough in a lot of ways. I think, of course financially, it was scary because I was a freshman in college. I mean, this happened and I went away to school. I treated college as a witness protection program. I left town, didn't tell anybody this had happened and so I was sort of living as an imposter, pretending that I had a normal high school experience and then this happened. And, you know, the financial thing was scary, of course, because I had probably $600 to my name and had this lawsuit hanging over me for five years where if I had lost and it was possible they could have gone beyond the insurance settlement and then I would have owed them money for the rest of my life.
STRAUSSSo that was terrifying, but maybe even worse was what you'd mentioned before, that they had exonerated me and that was really important to me because I had thought, I know I wasn't at fault and that was something that I really leaned upon. And then to have them go from saying they knew, they would never blame me to saying, well, we're blaming you and can maybe impoverish you was very emotionally difficult, too.
REHMDid you come face to face with them in a court room?
STRAUSSWith the father, I did. The mother would never show up. The case was dropped before it went to full trial, but there were a number of preliminary hearings where there attorney would try to accuse me of being drunk or the cop who was on the scene, the lawyer said, maybe he was drunk. He tried to say that the five cars of eyewitnesses were all friends, as if there was a caravan of 25 people on the street that day, so it was -- he was very desperate just trying to do anything to rattle me or get money or something.
REHMDarin Strauss, his new book is titled "Half a Life." Do join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMWelcome back. Darin Strauss is with me, he's the author of three very successful novels "Chang and Eng," The Real McCoy" and "More Than it Hurts You." He's also a screenwriter and is adapting "Chang and Eng" with Gary Oldman for Disney. He's associate professor at New York University's Creative Writing Program and his latest book, a memoir, titled "Half a Life," which begins when Darin Strauss and a cyclist collide.
REHMHere's our first e-mail from Jose. He says, "Please do not let this discussion turn into a cyclist bashing opportunity. This was merely an accident. It sounds as though the cyclist was most likely at fault. Here in Dallas, a pedestrian wearing headphones recently jogged in front of a passing cyclist. While tragic because the pedestrian died, the cyclist was blamed and introduced an all out hatred of us cyclists." Isn't that something?
STRAUSSYeah, people have very strong reactions to these kind of things. I mean, you can't generalize. I don't know this -- the story behind the one in Dallas or in my case, I'll never know why she did it or what happened, but each accident, I'm sure, is particular to itself.
REHMI want to go back to the accident itself once more. There were two cyclists you said and only one made that left turn. The other stayed in the right-hand shoulder?
STRAUSSThe other told me just weeks ago by e-mail that he never knew what caused her to do that. He was confused. They were riding to the beach and then all of a sudden, she was in the middle of the street. He has no idea why she did it and I think that has been very hard for him, probably as hard for him -- or almost as hard for him as it was for me. And, you know, I don't want to valorize myself. I know it's harder for her family than it is for me. It was -- I don't want to seem self-pitying here, but it's just a story about how to deal with certain things you feel guilty about in your past and I think that that is maybe what makes it kind of a universal story.
REHMHow did the guilt, how did the recollection, how did the emotional aftermath affect your life at college?
STRAUSSWell, it was interesting because everyone said, hey, you're fine. You know, you were not at fault and you walked away unscathed, so you're fine, so I believed them. I said, okay, I guess I'm fine. And so I wouldn't allow myself to admit how -- how damaged this had made me and it was -- I was in bad shape.
REHMDamaged in what way?
STRAUSSUnable to get over it, I think, blaming myself. You know, I found in writing this book that there are 2000 of these accidents a year called dart-outs or no-fault accidents where a driver's not at fault and someone else dies. And the people who are driving, the ones who are called blameless, are more likely to suffer post traumatic stress syndrome then are people who are drunk drivers. And I think it's -- no one really knows, but I think it's because if you're a drunk driver, you could probably look back and just say, well, if I hadn't had that drink, you could focus on that. But if there's nothing you could do differently, your mind plays over that instant over and over and over. And if there's nothing you can think to do differently, it's hard to move on.
REHMDid you seek therapy while you were in college?
STRAUSSNo. I went to a therapist right before I left for school who was a really terrible therapist. He was a piece of work. He drove me to the accident site in his Porsche. I think he just wanted to show off that he had a fancy car. And he just liked to speed and show me and say, look, this is not so bad. So that turned me off to therapy for quite a long time.
REHMSort of trying to deal with it almost as a phobia, taking you to the site of the accident.
STRAUSSA couple of days later, speeding by in a Porsche, didn't seem the best therapy. You know, I mention in the book -- it's Long Island, so maybe Long Island therapy is different. Maybe it's just anything is -- anything that can get you good traffic time in the (word?) is worth visiting.
REHMOf course, you were 18 years old, there were other people in the car, you did move to raise the sound on the radio. Had you been drinking at all?
STRAUSSOh, no. This was 10:00 in the morning.
REHM10:00 in the morning.
STRAUSSAnd I don't know for sure that I -- I say maybe I fussed with the radio. I don't remember, I mean, exactly what happened before. I do remember being very aware of this bicyclist on the shoulder and reacting to her turning. So I -- you know, I used to ask myself, if I were a perfect driver would I have missed her. If she had cut in front of Mario Andretti, would she have lived? And I don't think so. I think any driver in that situation would've hit her, but then I realized, that's a stupid question, because she didn't cut in front of Mario Andretti, she cut in front of me and I did the best I could.
REHMYou did the best you could.
STRAUSSYeah, I tried to avoid her and didn't have the time to do so. And the police told me if had I swerved another way, I would've died. The car would've flipped or I would've gone into traffic, so it could've just as easily cost me my life.
REHMSo if you had moved to the left abruptly or moved to the right abruptly, you would have hit other cars.
STRAUSSI would've hit other cars had I swerved to the right. And if I had failed to brake and just swerved left, I would've flipped the car over. See, I hit the brakes and then swerved, so -- so you never know what the right thing to do is, but you try your best.
REHMAt 18, you're hardly an adult. You're pretty much still in the formative years. How do you think that accident affected your formative years?
STRAUSSWell, yeah, I certainly wasn't an adult. It -- it may be more introspective. As I mentioned in the book, I didn't have anything to introspect about, really. I don't think I would've become a writer had this not happened. I was a not so thoughtful a guy and then this happened. And it certainly changed me. I mean, I -- it's one of those things you never know how specifically it changed you because you are the person who is changed, but it certainly would've made me a different person.
REHMWhen you say you weren't so thoughtful a guy, what does that mean?
STRAUSSWell, I'm not saying that I'm the most thoughtful guy now, but I wasn't so introspective. I didn't read as much, I didn't think about things. I don't mean thoughtful as considerate, I mean thoughtful in terms of a thinking being. And so it just made me different. I was thinking about becoming a lawyer and then had such an awful experience with that lawsuit that I was turned off to the profession.
REHMHow did it affect your studies at college?
STRAUSSWell, I was always bad at math and science, but I would seek out books in the library to read about things like reaction time and the physics of accidents, to make sure that I was exculpated. And I think my studies show that I was exculpated by 20 milliseconds. There was nothing I could've done because...
STRAUSSYeah, so -- so that was pretty -- that was one way that it affected me. I would say, oh, I'm fine with it and then I'd find myself in the stacks of physical sciences reading these books. So clearly, it was a formative experience. I mean, I'm with -- she's with me all the time. So when I got married, when my wife got pregnant, when I had my kids, I was very conscious that I'm here and she is not and she doesn't get to experience these things.
REHMLet's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Therese in Dallas, Texas. Good morning to you.
THERESEGood morning, Diane. Darin, my son three years ago was hit by a car. He did not die, but consequently, he does have severe brain damage. He was skateboarding at an intersection. The boy was -- the driver was fiddling with his radio and sadly, it was, you know, the perfect accident. My question to you is years later now, had she lived, what do you imagine your relationship might be with her, say, knowing well, that she had traumatic brain injury?
STRAUSSWell, first of all, I just wanna say how sorry I am about your son. That must be so difficult. But I'm sure I would've been a big part of her life. I mean, I didn't know her well before and again, I was declared totally blameless, but I didn't feel blameless, you know. And so I wish she had lived, of course, and I'm sure I would've been as big a part of her life as her family would've let me be. You know, I went to the funeral because I thought that was the right thing to do, but that seemed the right thing to do by society's lights, but I don't think it was the right thing to do in retrospect because it was very hard for me, obviously. But I'm sure it was hard for her parents to have me at the funeral. So, you know, it's -- there's always a conflict between what you think is right and what society thinks is right and what is actually right.
REHMHow did they treat you at the funeral?
STRAUSSThey were kind and that's when they came out and said, you know, we know you weren't at fault and we know we'll never blame you, but you have to live your life for two people. And in one of those weird coincidences that life hands out more realistically than fiction can, my first book was about conjoined twins and so I was dealing with that issue, I guess. And then I had twin boys myself, so, you know, living for two, I guess.
REHMI presume they're healthy.
STRAUSSKnock on wood, yes, they are healthy.
REHMKnock on wood. Therese, I'm so sorry about your son. Thank you for calling in today. To Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Ray.
RAYGood morning, Diane, good morning. And I would like to say that I had an experience where two people on a motorcycle had collided into me head-on. I had gone into the guardrail to avoid them on the right side of the road and nothing that could be done and I had to go through accident reconstruction specialists and New York State Department of Transportation investigation. It was quite a lengthy thing, but back to you, I think it was really an awful thing to have happen to you in your life and to have the parents put on you the request to live your life for two people. Just what a terrible thing to place on an 18-year-old in your situation and I empathize with you and what you've gone through.
STRAUSSWell, thank you and I you as well. It sounds very difficult, too. In thinking about it, they said they would never blame me and then said that and I guess that is a type of blame, you know, having said that, but, you know, Lord knows what it's like to lose a kid, so again, I can't judge.
REHMThanks for calling, Ray. Let's go to Winston Salem, N.C. Hi, Jim.
JIMGood morning. I think I was drawn to your story when I first heard it as a rebroadcast this summer on another NPR program. I'm an avid cyclist, have been so most of my adult life and have actually been hit by a car twice and hit another bicyclist. I was taken to court, I was not at fault. But back to your story, I heard it this summer for the first time and I sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes awaiting to go into the dry cleaners. And then I got home and my wife said, you would not believe what I heard on the radio. And she had sat in a parking lot again for 20 minutes, both of us listening to a station we rarely ever listen to, so we came upon it by coincidence.
JIMBut I also e-mail that rebroadcast to friends periodically. It's an emotional thing and I think almost every 16, 17, 18-year-old kid should listen to your story, read your book. And again, I hope you're doing okay. A remarkable story and it's one that will stay with me forever.
STRAUSSThank you, thank you very much for saying that. I did get a really great response to the radio thing. It's funny. You know, that was a rough sketch of it, so I think that the things about it that I'm embarrassed about now, like the ending, I think was a bit too glib. The book is a much deeper meditation on that, I think, but thank you.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, I thought he raised an awfully good point, namely the idea of talking with young teenagers about driving and what driving means potentially both positively and negatively.
STRAUSSWell, I think the paperback publishers of my book are actively working to try to get it into schools. I mean, some of the people I've heard from are, surprisingly enough, driver's ed. teachers who say that they've given the book to their students. I didn't set out to write a self-help book or a driver's ed. Manual, but I think that if I did my job right, I guess it's self-helpful and maybe has some driving warnings.
REHMJeff in Orange Park, Fla. wants to know what you plan to do with the profits of the book.
STRAUSSWell, you know, I did this book with a small press. I usually -- my first three books I did with Penguin and I did this book with a much smaller press in large part so I could be clear of the charge of doing it for the money. I mean, I got this for one -- I made 1/25th of what I made from my last book on this one, so I wanted just to make sure that I was doing it for pure reasons and also to avoid the charge of profiting.
REHMThis is published by Mc Sweeney's in San Francisco. Surely, however, there will be profits.
STRAUSSYeah, I think -- well, we'll see how the paperback does. Yeah, I haven't really thought about that. I mean, there is an award that my school gives out -- my old high school gives out named after the girl that died, which I thought I would donate something to that, but I haven't solidified my plans about that.
REHMYou have to think that one through.
STRAUSSYeah, I think that's true.
REHMSo much, it would seem to me, is going to continue to royal in your mind having now put this down on paper, especially considering responses from people such as you've already heard from.
STRAUSSYeah, I mean, it's interesting. Having it publicly out there is a lot easier than I thought it would be. This was something I was ashamed of and didn't tell anybody about for years. I mean, good friends didn't know about it 'til it aired on the radio and then is in the book. And so now everybody knows. Strangers come up to me and I saw someone reading the book in the subway and look up and he said, you know, you're the guy in the car accident. So that is something I would've thought was unfathomably hard as a kid, but now it's interesting. I think I stumbled upon the basis of AA therapy. I mean, saying something that's humiliating in public is actually a way of getting control over it.
REHMDarin Strauss and the book we're talking about is titled "Half a Life." I must say, there are some wonderful comments on this book. I think it is very special.
REHMStay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to my conversation with Darin Strauss. His new book, a memoir, is titled "Half a Life" in which he tells a story of his collision, he in an automobile, she on a bicycle, a young girl died and he's had to live with that. He's -- how old did you say you are?
REHM...now. And that happened when you were 18?
REHMAnd she would've been 17, 16?
STRAUSSShe was a year younger than I am, so she would've been...
REHMA year younger.
STRAUSS...she would've been 39. I think she probably would've been 38, 39.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Arch asks, "Can you also empathize with Mrs. Bush's recent confession in her book of the accident that she caused in her youth?"
STRAUSSWell, yeah, we were just talking about that off the air. I could empathize, but I bristle a little bit when people compare it, my accident to hers, because she ran a stoplight -- a stop sign and was at fault. And if I'm not mistaken, she then ran -- drove off and didn't stop. I mean, I was found to be not at fault and then went to the funeral, so it was -- it was quite different, but I'm sure, yeah, there are difficult things that happen to a lot of us. I mean, I actually sent the book to her publisher's publicist who had -- we had a correspondence. And so I'm not sure if Mrs. Bush read the book, but I know that her publicist wanted to have a copy.
REHMAre you still going over and over and over that moment?
STRAUSSYou know, I bristle -- I don't like the word closure because I don't think that anything like this ever gets closed, but you -- I think you get to a place where you realize that this changed you and you acknowledge that it changed you and continues to affect you, but will not ruin you. And so I think that it's sort of healthfully -- or healthily in place in my life. It's sort of in the tapestry of my life where before it was just a sort of ragged stitch outside of the weave of my life. Now it's just part of it.
REHMHow do you think it affects your relationship with your wife and children?
STRAUSSI like to think it doesn't, but, you know, you never know. I think that when my kids get to be bicycle aged, it'll be tough for me, but I have three-year-old twin boys, as I mentioned. You know, I think I have maybe a better appreciation than a lot of people about how fragile life is, how quickly things can change. My wife was a great hero of my -- of the book. I think she's the one who sort of brought me into health, so I think that it made us closer, which, you know, is a sort of -- as I mentioned in the book, it's kind of a terrible fate for a ghost to have to be there to make the other person's relationship better, but there it is.
REHMLet's go back to the phones, 800-433-8850. To Saginaw, Mich. Good morning, Les.
LESDiane, I'm very -- yeah, hello.
REHMYes, sir, go right ahead.
LESThanks for taking my call first and...
LES...I'm an avid listener of your program and thank you for doing what you do.
LESI really empathize with -- had to be a terrible thing to be happening in your life, however, what I wanted to say was I think these books or this sort of books should be required reading for people who have to go to, like, traffic school or something like that to say how something like this can affect your life. My particular situation is that I do a tremendous amount of driving and I see things on the expressway that people just don't think about. I mean, they just -- they drive like crazy maniacs without any kind of consequence as to what might happen there and how it would change their life.
REHMYou know, Les, I must say I agree with you. I avoid freeways as much as I possibly can because it's as though people forget they're on high speed lanes and travel as though they were in the city with cars very close to each other.
STRAUSSYeah, there was a Seinfeld joke from when he used to do comedy where he talked about being in a cab where it's like you're watching a TV show and you don't realize that it's actually moving. I think there's something to that and on the highway as well. But one of the -- and thanks for the call. One of the nice things about the book for me is that I thought -- I knew I would hear from people who had been in car accidents, but I've heard from all sorts of people who are going through grief and have guilt about things.
STRAUSSI heard from someone coming back from Iraq who's PTSD. I heard from someone whose brother committed suicide when she was college. I think we all have these things that we feel guilty about, even if we shouldn't. Even if we know we're not culpable, it doesn't mean we don't feel guilty. And so that's -- I think the story is more universal than I realized.
REHMThanks for calling, Les. Now, to Eric in Orlando, Fla. Good morning to you.
ERICGood morning to you, Diane. Darin, I appreciate your putting your thoughts down and your feeling and sharing them everybody. Before I ask you a question, though, I just wanted to say, Diane, I heard your story about a week ago and it really made me appreciate what you've gone through as a person as well as your journalistic capabilities.
ERICDarin, as a teacher, something struck me when I was listening to you speak before and that was I try to help out to kids all the time, other faculty members. I do it because I believe it's the right thing to do, but I'm always surprised when somebody really extends themselves and they don't get a response. And I remember you saying that there was a teacher who stood up at your school and specifically pointed out that you were a victim as well and people should be conscious of that. And then you kind of dismissed it and said, but I either never thanked him for it or I waited years before I said anything. And I was wondering why that was and if you've ever thought about that in retrospect?
STRAUSSYeah, thanks for that. I think it was too painful to acknowledge at first. I did write him a thank you when I became more of an adult and more cognizant of what a nice thing he had done. And I'm very grateful to him and I did reach out to him, yeah, and mentioned him in the book and heard from friends of his who said he liked the book. But yeah, I think it was just no one was thinking about me and it was the -- it was -- there's an assembly at the school and everyone was talking about how angry they were and so he stepped forward and did this really generous act. And I think I was just -- I was just too scared and wanted to make it go away, but then, you know, as I became an adult, I did feel a great gratitude to him.
REHMHow soon after the accident did you leave for college?
STRAUSSMonth and a half.
REHMAnd during that month and a half, what were you doing?
STRAUSSI went back to school. I finished up. I went to the prom. I tried to pretend that I had a normal life at the school and...
REHMHow did people treat you?
STRAUSSYou know, people treated me pretty well. There were some who were -- had prurient ghoulish interests, you know, looking at me as this specter of death. I mean, there were some Goth kids who sort of looked at it as kind of this weird cool thing that I was close to death, which was disturbing. And then there were kids who probably blamed me but didn't say anything. And then the most -- for the most part, people were nice. I mean, I actually didn't remember certain things. I heard from a guy who was on the football team who said, do you remember when the football team came to your house and brought you a cake or something? I had no memory of that at all.
STRAUSSI put it out of my mind. So I guess, you know, it didn't fit into my narrative of, well, let me feel bad for myself.
REHMWell, and I think you were so involved with your own guilt that it was perhaps hard to receive any generosity because you were so into self-blame.
STRAUSSSelf-blame and self-pity. I think that there were some things certainly selfish about my reaction, too. I was worried a lot about, would this affect me, would this ruin me forever, which is a sort of selfish thing to think when someone else is dead.
REHMHow did your parents deal with it?
STRAUSSThey dealt with it the best they could. They tried to forget it. They said, yeah, he seems okay, so let's not talk about it. So we never talked about it after it happened. And I wasn't okay and they had no way of knowing of that. And so I sort of wish they had extended that, but they really tried the best they could and they were great in their own way.
STRAUSSI mean, when my first book came out -- I heard from a woman a couple weeks ago who went to my high school and said that when my first book came out, the week it was reviewed in The Times, she was at a wedding. And someone said, did you hear what happened to Darin Strauss, meaning did you hear he has a book that just got reviewed. And she said she panicked because she thought, oh, no, he's homeless or he's a drug addict because she just assumed the accident had ruined me forever. So my parents must've done something right because I didn't end up homeless or a drug addict.
REHMAre they still living?
STRAUSSThey are, yeah. The book was harder for them than I realized and I think it's because of that. My mom said she was not gonna read the book and actually did end up reading it, but yeah, it's been hard for them.
REHMAnd your dad?
STRAUSSHe read it, too. It's hard for both of them.
REHMTo revisit that time.
STRAUSSTo revisit it, to think about me being that upset, to question whether they did all they could've done, but, you know, people do the best they can in these situations. I think that's the lesson that I learned. It's a very cliche thing, but that's -- you know, in our moments of difficulty, we try our human best and that's all we can do. I tried to avoid her when she swerved in front of me and I couldn't. My parents tried to raise me as well as they could and I think they did a pretty good job.
REHMI wonder if you will be as forgiving of yourself in dealing with the mistakes you make about your own children.
STRAUSSYeah, I think that I'm harder on myself than on anyone else, especially in this book, because I thought, I have to show the moments where I was inappropriate. I have to show the moments where I was selfish or doing the wrong thing because there's no reason to do the book otherwise.
STRAUSSThere's something in the beginning of the book where at the accident site, I must've been in shock and these very pretty young girls came over and I started kind of flirting with them right at the accident site, which is something I felt awful about for years on reflection. But then I realized I had to tell that part of the story. And my editor said, take that out, it looks too bad for you, people will come after you. And I thought, the only reason to do the book is if I make myself look bad because I wanted this book to be out there for people who were going through things to read it and say, oh, I guess we all think inappropriate thoughts at these moments. If I cover that up, then the book is just propaganda.
REHMSomething you certainly did not want to write. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Mike in Nelson, N.H. Good morning to you.
MIKEHi, good morning, good morning. Diane, you're in such good voice this morning.
REHMThank you, after two weeks out with the flu.
MIKEOh, well, I had that, too. And Mr. Strauss, you're not in good voice, but I hope that's a temporary thing.
STRAUSSI hope so, too. Thank you.
MIKE(laugh) Anyway, I just wanted to say, Mr. Strauss, that I was a bicycle rider and I did pretty much what this girl did 22 years ago and however, I survived because it happened in a city and went to the hospital with a dislocated shoulder. But I can understand what I did was simply just not paying attention and turning left right in front of a car. And the driver didn't have a chance, as you didn't have a chance, either, so I just wanted to throw that in there. I don't have a question. I'm anxious to read your memoir.
STRAUSSWell, thank you. I appreciate you telling the story. You know, she swerved against two lanes, so I'll never know why there wasn't just one. It was two quick turns, but I think this happens much more frequently that we realize and that's why -- another reason I wanted to write the book was because I hadn't seen anything written about this and there are 40 -- or I'm sorry, 20,000 automobile deaths a year in this country.
REHMPretty extraordinary number. To Stephen in Kernersville, N.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
STEPHENThank you for taking my call.
STEPHENAnd Mr. Strauss, I enjoyed your "Chang and Eng" book and I just wanted to pass on my experience that was similar, yet the outcomes were completely different. I actually was in a car accident where an elderly man in another car turned left out in front of me, later became apparent that he had some sort of heart episode and I was never really comfortable with this part of it, but they -- when I hit him -- hit his car, it kind of restarted his heart, but that accident changed my life profoundly and that's the parallel I drew with your experience. He and I became fast friends. I was his healthcare power of attorney. He'd lived a lifetime by the time I met him and it was just an incredible experience and I just kind of wanted to share that parallel, if that makes any sense.
STRAUSSYeah, that's an amazing story that you ended up being friends with him. I mean, a caller asked before how I would've reacted if she had lived. I think, you know, these things bind us and so I probably would've been very close with her.
REHMI think you would have, too. I think you having -- on the other hand, had she lived, you might have not gone through what you have been through and perhaps not become the person you now are.
STRAUSSI think that's true. Obviously if I could go back and change it, I would because someone died, but if I could go back and change it so I was the passenger and my friend was driving, I'm not sure I would because I would've been a different person and I'm fairly happy with the person I ended up being. So if it made me -- I think it made me a better person, so it's a weird paradox. I mean, of course with something like this, you have to acknowledge that it's terrible and you would go back and change it if you could, but it's also made me who I am, so I can't imagine it not having happened.
REHMAnd it's made you do you believe a better writer as well?
STRAUSSOh, I certainly think so, yeah. I'm able to imagine other people much better than I would've been able to because I tried -- I put myself in her parents' shoes every day.
REHMDarin Strauss, his new memoir is titled "Half a Life." He's also the author of three novels, but this a memoir. Congratulations, Darin.
STRAUSSThank you very much.
REHMThanks for being here. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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