“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”
That’s how author Darin Strauss begins his confessional autobiography, Half A Life. In this magnificent book, Strauss, who was already a best-selling, award-winning author of three novels, including Chang and Eng about the famous conjoined twins, decides to tell his own story. It’s a tragic, yet redemptive tale in which Strauss finds a way to see the past in a different light and in doing so sheds much of the guilt and self-doubt that he’s been carrying around for more than two decades.
Half A Life is a profoundly personal story of an accident in which a teen-aged cyclist veers into traffic and is struck by the car Strauss was driving, causing a collision which takes the young woman’s life and leaves Strauss with nothing but questions, guilt and self-doubt. But what makes this book so evocative is the author’s ability to remember and recall the “tic-by-tic second” sequence of events that happened one fateful day long ago and followed Strauss for the next two decades. Strauss is not afraid to detail every horrifying, guilty-ridden, grieving moment and the myriad ways the accident continued to haunt him. Half A Life is a courageous recollection of a tragic accident, rendered in an intimate and fearless fashion by the man behind the wheel.
Half A Life begins where it must begin — at the scene of the collision, with a detailed description of every move, thought and emotion. Strauss recounts the tentative moment in which he emerged from the windshield-cracked car, walked over to the side of the road and peered into the “lifeless” eyes of Celine Zilke’s, her body twisted like a ragdoll on the street:
“The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. The openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles-arms bent out and up, foot settled under the knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.”
Strauss takes the reader along with him on a seemingly never ending string of events; the distraught visit to the police station, the author’s unsteady attendance at Celine’s funeral and Strauss’ awkward return to classes. Darin Strauss recalls the wildly insensitive and inappropriate comments made to him by classmates and family members in the wake of the accident. He remembers with vivid recall his interaction with the victims family and how he was told that he would now have to live not one, but two lives, in Celine’s absence. Throughout “Half A Life” Strauss’ inner voice resonates and with each mile marker he passes he remembers new doubts, questions and uncertainties.
As if his own shame and irresolution isn’t enough, Strauss also relates the endless litigation brought by the victim’s family, including mortifying court appearances in which he is asked questions like, “Were you drunk?,” or “With five other cars around, why did she swerve into your car?”, and perhaps the most incredulous, “How far did her body fly?”
“Through all this, there was the courthouse threat of financial devastation — a thief taking up ominous position outside every job, every apartment, rubbing his hands together. Everything could at any moment be taken away…to keep Celine with me forever.”
When the author goes to college he remembers not knowing who to trust or whether to tell new friends and lovers about the accident. Years later, Strauss writes of the absurd tension and embarrassment of attending his 10-year high school reunion, all of it a haze of embarrassed baldness and pot bellies. The author enters therapy (doesn’t help), gets married (helps tremendously), and has some kids (helps some more). In the end, Strauss finally takes an emotional journey during which he experiences an essential epiphany of self-knowledge.
“Half A Life” is a somber reflection by Darin Strauss into how we are all connected to one another, yet at the same time, still seperate and apart. It is a redemptive realization rendered in a series of almost poetic pondering and exquisite beauty. Half A Life demonstrates this great writer’s ability to finally make sense of an event which for so long made no sense.
But more than anything, Half A Life, is a heartfelt confession in which the author allows himself a healthy dose of long-deprived self-forgiveness.
Meanwhile, in the fascinating new documentary, “I Am,” Director Tom Shadyak came himself to understand how all living things are intrinsically connected to one another, after he was involved in a near fatal cycling accident.
Shadyak, is best known for being behind the camera for nearly a half-dozen wildly successful, albeit lightweight slapstick comedies. Films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor. Not necessarily highbrow material. But every thing’s different in I Am. Shadyak narrates this hopeful documentary that he says he conceived while recovering from the cycling accident that almost killed him. He says that during this period he began asking himself more serious questions like, “What’s wrong with the world” and “What can I do to make it better?”
Shadyak says he realized during his convalescence that problems like poverty, hunger, and war (to name just a few) needed to be addressed soon or else our species would be doomed. So he set out to ask experts around the world, people like Desmond Tutu, the late historian and sociologist Howard Zinn and linguist, philosopher and political theorist Noam Chomsky, as well as many other scientists, physicists and big thinkers the big question: How do we leave our quest for greed and excess behind and replace them with lives spent improving the planet Earth and its inhabitants?
Shadyak quickly found, as expected, that there are no easy answers, but in I Am he takes us around the world to ponder things like, maybe there are limits to how much we need, perhaps less actually is more and perchance the whole quest for more, more, more is a giant lie. Shadyak portrays isolated, indigenous people sharing and helping each other (oh, what a concept,) as do just about every species of living things. The now enlightened Shadyak illustrates that most breeds of animals behave on a model of what is called “consensus thinking”: in other words, the majority decides. For example, if the majority of a flock of birds decide to fly in one direction, then they all fly in that direction.
Perhaps most critically I Am reveals to viewers how problems like war, hunger, and poverty are merely symptoms of a much larger endemic problem, whose solution is not competition and capatalism but cooperation. Shadyak uses his own sense of fun and humor, his curiosity, and his masterful storytelling abilities to portray the simple mystery and magic of our universe – a universe which we can either learn to work in concert with or be seperated from through extinction?
The message for all who see this remarkable film is that the answers to all of these complex questions which will define our future are within us all and it is up to us to recognize our basic connection to all living things. Shadyac shows how his own journey has transformed him into a new and better man, who has given up his expensive, wasteful and ultimately destructive lifestyle.
The films shows, in the end, that the real answer to the question is:
(For more information visit the films web site: http://www.IAMTheDoc.com.)
(Special thanks to the beautiful Janet Graham for her assistance and inspiration with this blog.)