Darin Strauss was 18, a month from graduating high school, when he climbed into his father’s Oldsmobile and picked up some friends to play miniature golf. He drove in the left lane of a four-lane thoroughfare in Long Island, New York, shooting the breeze, enjoying the watercolored scenery, not a care in the world. Up ahead, on his right, two girls pedaled bicycles on the shoulder.
Suddenly, one of the girls swerved left across the road. Strauss, with no time to react, hit her at 40 miles per hour. The girl — Celine Zilke, a student at Strauss’ high school — died.
Strauss was exonerated by the legal system. His friends, for the most part, were supportive. But he privately carried around the memory of Celine Zilke’s death for decades. After a poor experience with a therapist, who seemed as determined to impress Strauss with his sports car as help him past the guilt, Strauss went off to college and essentially buried the incident except to a few intimates.
“They said I wasn’t to blame,” Strauss recalls in an interview at an Atlanta coffee shop.
But he could never let go. The words of Zilke’s mother — “You’re living for two” — echoed in his brain. He became a well-reviewed, best-selling novelist. His books include “Chang and Eng” and “The Real McCoy.” He married and had children. But it wasn’t until he entered his late 30s that he decided to revisit the car accident and its effect on his life. His memoir, “Half a Life,” won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and was recently released in paperback.
Though Strauss, now 40, said he was sometimes challenged to dredge up details, the emotional power of the accident never left. “(The incident) was branded into my brain,” he says. And letting go, he adds, hasn’t come easily, either. “For a long time, I was in denial. Everyone told me I’m fine, so I must be fine.”
Life is an adventure in forgiveness, the writer Norman Cousins once said, but few things come so hard as forgiving oneself.
Yes, there are websites, such as PostSecret.com and SecretRegrets.com, that allow people to expose their pain anonymously. The radio show “This American Life,” on which Strauss first told his tale, did a whole show on blameless guilt. And there are therapists and clergy by the score ready to lend a willing ear.
But it’s not like the clouds suddenly lift after someone like Robin Williams’ “Good Will Hunting” shrink utters “It’s not your fault” a half-dozen times.