09.17.10

"I Killed a Girl"

In his devastating new memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss tells of how an accidental death in his teens changed his life forever. He speaks to Molly Guinness about how it made him the writer and person he is.

When he was 18, Darin Strauss killed a girl. A few weeks before finishing high school, he was driving some friends to play mini-golf when a cyclist swerved into his path. His car struck her at 40 miles an hour and her head cracked the windshield. It turned out he knew her; she was a couple of years below him at the same school.

“This moment has been, for all my life, a kind of shadowy giant,” Strauss writes in his memoir, Half a Life. That moment, he tells me, has so completely formed him that, given the chance to go back and switch places to the passenger seat, he wouldn’t. Half a Life is Strauss’s fourth book and first nonfiction; his last book, More Than It Hurts You, was a U.S. bestseller and he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his writing.

I met him at the Paris branch of New York University, where he teaches creative writing each summer. Strauss is in the courtyard giving advice to a student who hurries off with his files when I arrive. Jeans and dark gray hair, aviator sunglasses and a strong jaw, the 40-year-old Strauss is a center of stillness surrounded by gossiping, flirting students. He keeps his sunglasses on throughout the interview, but it’s not rude because he responds to each question so thoughtfully. He talks fluently and without gestures. It’s not quite perfect paragraphs; sometimes he goes back and redrafts one, but his pace and tone do not change as he does it as if the revisions are written in to the internal script—but this is material he knows well.

“It’s so important a thing in shaping who I’ve become that I can’t imagine it not having happened,” he says.

Strauss was exonerated from blame for the accident straight away, but was still tortured by guilt. When he moved to college he used to often find himself in the physics section at the library, checking the mathematics of the accident: “You’re doing 40, and the girl with the bicycle cuts 10 feet in front of you—impact will arrive in something like 700 milliseconds. Human perception time is generally accepted to saw off some 220 milliseconds. Next, the mostly neural job of getting foot to brake demanded another 500 milliseconds. It seemed I was exculpated by 20 milliseconds.”

It turns out that being exculpated makes you more rather than less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress.

book-cover---guiness-half-life
Half a Life By Darin Strauss 204 pages. McSweeney’s. $22. ()

“If you’re guilty of something, you can focus on that,” says Strauss, "but if something terrible happens and you can’t imagine how you could have changed it, that’s very difficult for the mind. In some ways, it’s more difficult not to be at fault because it’s a subtler thing.”

Half a Life is not self-pitying mis-lit though. “This tragedy isn’t mine to own. It’s hers,” he writes like an epiphany at the end of the book, but from the beginning he expresses moral anxiety about having the right to feel anything at all, hating pity, part of him yearning for pure hatred from the girl’s friends. He doesn’t even blame her parents for suing him for millions of dollars (the case dragged on for years and eventually went away).

“There were times when the size of what had happened felt like a kind of nauseated grin: I’d done something this incalculably big, and here I was, still alive.”

He says the task of writing something interesting and true threw up unexpected moral problems, too. He didn’t want to over-aestheticize anyone’s death. One of his motives for writing the book was that there were kinds of grief he had never seen written about before.

“We’re always aware of how we’re performing,” he says. “Part of you is feeling sad, another part of you is watching you feel sad, and another part of you is grading your reaction and saying ‘is this authentic, is this fake?’”

It’s the kind of grief we don’t really like to admit to, insidious self-consciousness undermining what we’d like to think of as the purer emotions. Strauss recounts unflinchingly how he collapsed in a Hollywood pose of grief when some sexy girls came and asked him about the accident and how he made a public exit from a school assembly when the death is mentioned to show people how deeply he was affected.

He says writing this book was a way of dealing with the accident, and that only after finishing it did he realize that this experience had informed all of his fiction up till now.

“It’s something I thought I would never write,” he says. “For 20 years or so, I didn’t tell anybody about it. I hadn’t realized it until I wrote this book but all my other books are about this in ways that I didn’t know.

“This was my subject all along. I never would have realized I was obsessed with the self and how we hide things if I hadn’t written four books about it. Every time I have this eureka moment where I think ‘oh, obviously, it’s about the same thing I’ve always been writing about; that’s silly that I didn’t realize that before.’”

His first book, Chang and Eng, is about conjoined twins: two people can’t escape one another, which, he says, is how he feels about the girl he killed. His second and third books are about hiding the truth.

“It’s so important a thing in shaping who I’ve become that I can’t imagine it not having happened so I think it probably was good for me that it happened,” he says. “That sounds really crass but it made me the person I am today. Had it not happened I probably wouldn’t have become a writer because I wasn’t very introspective before that. I didn’t have anything to introspect about.”

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Molly Guinness has written for The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and Literary Review, among others. She works at Radio France Internationale and writes a newspaper for children and is based in Paris.