Neurologist Robert Burton once wrote that the flaw of our brain is that it rewards us each time a story helps explain the world to us, even if our story is incomplete or wrong.
Gregory Orr’s and Darin Strauss’s memoirs — each detailing the author’s involvement in an accidental killing, and each taut, lyric, and disturbing in its own way — show what happens when a child’s mind settles on the wrong story. Orr, after inadvertently shooting his brother in the head on the first day of deer-hunting season, turns to the biblical story of Cain. Strauss, after hitting a high school classmate with his car, imagines a public ready to denounce him as a monster unless he can embody the perfect mourner.
Both memoirs do not simply recount events. Instead, they recreate worlds constrained by the ill-fitting stories people offer after accidental killings. Strauss and Orr then successfully discard the initial stories they’ve chosen, using art and writing to create new stories that are full enough to live by.
In the hours after he kills his brother Peter, Orr is offered three stories. His mother tells a secret she thinks will comfort him: when his father was 12, he shot and killed his best friend in a hunting accident. An acquaintance says the killing was part of God’s plan. A state trooper is the last visitor, and he pronounces Orr innocent. Alone in his room, Orr folds the three stories together: God has a plan, but it can no longer be called benevolent. God is destructive and has built a world of dark patterns. In this new world, Orr identifies as Cain, who after killing his brother Abel, was doomed to be shunned, yet was protected from punishment by God so his suffering could be prolonged.
The wrong story can save before it smothers. After Peter’s death, Orr’s father, an amphetamine-addicted doctor, temporarily leaves his wife for Inga, their teenaged babysitter. In an act of public penance, he moves the family (sans babysitter) to Haiti, where he can work at an underserved hospital. Just before the family is to return to the states, he encourages his wife to have a medically unnecessary surgery in the under-equipped, disease-ridden hospital, and she dies. To Orr, firmly identified with Cain, this violence seems normal, and part of the regular patterning of his life.
Ironically, it takes a different sort of violence to tear the story of Cain from Orr. Orr’s father marries Inga, who later stabs him in the ribs and chases after Orr in homicidal rages. The tenor of this violence is so disparate from what Orr has experienced that he feels unable to use the same story to comprehend it. Though what he’s called the “mask of Cain” no longer fits, Orr is unable to imagine living without it. He writes, “I believed it gave a shape and structure to my features, that if I ever removed it, the real me under its sinister surface would be revealed not as a face but as a single, huge teardrop. If anyone touched that strange, transparent globe, even myself, no matter how lightly, it would burst.”
For a brief moment after the mask of Cain is taken from Orr’s face, he turns toward a medium that would allow him to fashion his own stories to make sense of his past. While writing a poem for his high school English teacher, Orr has a transformative experience. For the first time since Peter’s death, he feels an immense sense of relief. He writes, “I felt as if the passionate and agonized inner world that I really inhabited was suddenly and precisely given form and objective reality.” Orr feels joyous at the realization poetry can create worlds complex enough to hold the experience of an inadvertent killing. But the joy is short lived. He decides it was pure luck that the poem he wrote held such complexity. Believing he lacked the skill and stamina to create his own explanations through poetry, Orr looks to the world around him to find a story for himself.
Orr finds his new story in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Standing in front of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Orr sees the portraits of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, three young civil rights workers who were murdered for their beliefs. Orr knows that these men must have been normal in life, but in death, history has turned them noble and radiant. Wanting the same redemption for himself — one of redemption through blood — Orr goes to the South to campaign for civil rights and die in service to others. He is jailed, beaten, and released, only to be kidnapped by white vigilantes and jailed again. The capital-letter History he hoped to find is eclipsed by the boredom of languishing in jail, the discomfort of hunger, the impotence of being a pawn in a fracturing movement. By the time he returns home, his 5’11” frame weighing 110 pounds, he has lost his belief in the simple story of blood for atonement, and in the power of history to transform death into martyrdom.
It is a return to poetry that finally provides a redemptive story for Orr. After he recovers from his time in the South, he visits the estate of the sculptor David Smith with his former English teacher. In the field behind his house are hundreds of metal sculptures. The field itself reminds Orr of the one where he shot Peter — the moment where he looked behind him and saw Peter face-down on the ground, the ruff of his parka reddening. That field held a single meaning at its center: destruction. But Smith’s field is alive and varied. To Orr, it seems as though Smith has dramatized both agony and exultation in the shapes before him. Some are vicious; others are peaceful; still others blend together pain and peace. Looking at the metal pieces, the need for a single, constricting story to give shape to his life vanishes. Orr writes: “The martyr’s cross I’d lugged the six years since Peter’s death — I saw it now alchemized and shining, metamorphosed before my eyes into a hundred expressive shapes. And each shape said: ‘Let’s live. Let’s endure. Let us even exult that we have survived.’ Here was my blessing. Not with a blowtorch and sheet metal, but with pen and pencil.” The blessing: to no longer insist on a single, deadening story; to feel the torment but also the blessing of his brother’s death. Orr goes on to write over a dozen books of poetry and criticism, including a book of poetics titled Poetry as Survival.
Strauss has enough time to see Celine’s hair — dark blonde — before the hood of his Oldsmobile strikes her. Smothered by the “big muffling blanket” of shock that settles over him after hitting her, Strauss does not attempt to figure out what he thinks or feels about the accident. Instead, he is driven by the need to act correctly, to seem appropriately upset in the face of Celine’s death.
The need to craft his image — what Strauss calls his “marketing decisions” — comes from Strauss’s belief that if he doesn’t seem properly affected, people will think he is a monster. Whether at larger memorials or in small conversations, Strauss performs for his schoolmates as he thinks he should: bereaved, tortured, and guilt-ridden. Each moment of public acting pushes Strauss farther away from his own understanding of the accident. He writes, “With each ritual performed successfully, another wall came up between me and the people I might have gone to and said: I don’t know how to feel about this. Because if I admitted that, it would mean my public self had been a lie, and that lie would become their lasting thought of who I was.”
During his freshman year of college, Strauss studies physics and psychology, trying to find solace in the stories numbers tell. He calculates the speed he was driving, the time it takes to perceive a hazard, the distance between him and Celine, the time required for the mostly neural job of pressing the breaks. He concludes he is guiltless by 20 milliseconds. But his equation offers only temporary relief: when he sees a friend going through the school library’s microfiche, which contains a record of his accident, he panics, afraid she will find it. His sense of guiltlessness evaporates. Numbers alone can’t tell him how to feel.
When Strauss learns that Celine’s parents are suing him for millions of dollars, part of him is relieved. The burden of living without knowing how to feel about Celine’s death has taken a toll on his body. He’s needed stomach surgery to prevent acid from spewing from his stomach into his esophagus, then developed IBS, then chronic pelvic pain syndrome. With an official verdict, Strauss hopes to have an official story about how he should feel.
Devastatingly for Strauss, Celine’s parent’s settle the day of the trial, leaving him without a judgement. Yet there is no indicator another official story would have helped him. He has already been found criminally innocent and shown that the accident was not his fault. Not even the thought that Celine may have committed suicide gave him a sense of resolution — in college, he discovered that just before Celine veered across two lanes of traffic into his car, she wrote Today I realized that I am going to die in her diary. Each external story of innocence gives him a sense of resolution only temporarily. None of them can compete against the density of Celine’s death and his inability to process it within himself.
Unlike Orr, Strauss doesn’t come upon a dramatic tipping point of realization that the stories he believed no longer fit; there is just the press of guilt against his body and the force of time passing. After he is married and his wife becomes pregnant, Strauss realizes that the accident occurred half his life ago. Haltingly, he decides to formulate his own story of what happened.
Strauss uses his memoir to review and discard his beliefs about how a mourner should act, and what the accident demanded. After discarding these stories, Strauss is left with something very simple: a young man, worried he will be viewed as a monster.
Strauss connects his own practice of writing the memoir to recent research on grief and mourning. The most promising cure for Complicated Grief Disorder — where grief is so debilitating that its sufferers can barely function — is for the bereaved to record the minutia of their pain, and to listen to their tape every day. The point, researchers say, is not about listening to the tape. It’s about possessing the full story, about having it in one place so it can be set down, physically and mentally.
Of course, Strauss cannot simply set down the accident — it has formed him. But with the story recorded in one place, Strauss can finally move on. And now, he writes, “I can say no to the hectoring, blistery hurt. I can say to myself: It’s all right to take in the winter beach and grass smells, and crackle back across the sand of the road, and smile at the faces you love.”
No one knows the exact number of people who have killed another person accidentally — there is no group in the United States that keeps these statistics. However, we do know that in 2016, about 145,000 people were killed in unintentional accidents. If a quarter of these accidents involve other people — a conservatively low guess — then 36,250 people kill inadvertently in 2016. During this same period, the total number of homicides just under 18,000.
This would mean that for every American who committed murder in 2016, there were at least two who killed accidentally. Yet in a culture where almost any misfortune generates a slew of self-help books, there are no self-help books on this subject. There are no support groups, no therapists who specialize this, and virtually no studies on the long-term psychological impact of causing an accidental death. If you kill a person by accident, the world will not give you a story you can stomach, and there are almost no resources to create your own.
Our brains, posed as they may be to make explanations, find something particularly intolerable about accidental killings. Strauss describes a study in support of this: researchers at George Washington University have found that no-fault drivers in fatal accidents are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome than drivers who are unequivocally at fault. The researchers do not know why these “dart-out” accidents are more disturbing. Of this, Strauss writes: “Probably the brain prefers a sturdy error to fixate on. It’s hard to learn so viscerally that the questions of guilt and worth are managed with indifference, by nasty chance.”
We all reach for stories, and we will often reach for the wrong ones. The best books help us by offering stories truer than the tales we’ve heard. It is a rare gift to find two books that succeed to writing a new story — a story that is, perhaps, for some 36,250 Americans a year, life-saving.