When I was sixteen and just about to get my driver’s license, my friend’s mother made a surprising confession. When she was a young adult, she made a right-hand turn on a green light when a woman on a bicycle suddenly rode in front of her moving car. She hit the woman, launching her body into the road. The woman died there on the scene before the ambulance arrived.
At the time, the story felt to me like a cautionary tale. My friend’s mother knew I was excited to be getting my driver’s license, but I should realize that cars are dangerous, and anything can happen at any time. She had killed another person while just trying to get to work. A lightning bolt second in time that completely changed her own life and robbed another of theirs.
I remember being surprised by her story and sorry for my friend, who I could tell was embarrassed by her mother’s admission. Even at sixteen, I knew there was a significant amount of shame involved in this family tale. I assumed my friend wished this was a horrible experience that her mother never, ever spoke of. I assumed this because my friend never talked to me about it again. I felt terrible for her, her embarrassment. I felt sad for her mother, who was obviously still carrying the weight of this accident with her. But I was also awed by the tragedy of it all. I had never before known a person who killed another, at least not one who admitted it to me. And it turned out that the mom who I’d always thought of as incredibly nice and cool and who made the best homestyle macaroni and cheese I had ever eaten was a killer.
At sixteen years old, her confession changed the way I viewed her.
According to the National Safety Council, there were approximately 173,000 accidental deaths that occurred in the United States in 2019. There is no way to know for sure exactly how many of these accidents involved a single individual as both the cause and result of their own death, and how many involved another person, but the number of people that become accidental killers every year surely numbers in the thousands.
When you write books for a living, your research can often lead you down some interesting rabbit holes in the quest to get the story right. Writers are always encouraged to write what we know, but even when we stick to this age-old advice, the fact is that we always run into elements necessary to our story that we actually don’t know.
For my most recent book, The Secret Next Door, one of those elements happened to be the psychological experience of the accidental killer. What is the world like, both the external and the internal, for a person who has quite unintentionally taken the life of another?
In the modern, first-person-shooter world where we regularly consume the latest blockbuster that celebrates the improbably skilled human of mass destruction, it is easy to assume we as a culture have largely become desensitized to the killing of others. Throats are slashed wide, and gore gets dragged across the cinematic floor for entertainment.
It would be easy to believe that something as mundane as an automobile accident, or any event that could reasonably be described as an accident at all, would have the power to utterly disassemble the accidental-killer’s life. It was, after all, “only an accident.”
But the truth is that humans, the vast majority of us anyway, are not wired to take the life of another. According to a study by University of California researchers at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, even those that choose professions in the military and train for life and death scenarios frequently find that once they have committed an act that carries them over the moral line of taking another life, they may struggle to identify and come to terms with the consequences. Even if they felt they had no choice in the moment or that the act was carried out as an expectation in the line of duty, the act of taking another life negatively impacted their own lives and relationships.
And if the most highly trained among us have a hard time with being on the giving side of death, what must this experience be like for everyday citizens who stumble into it?
As it turns out, it can be terrible. In David Peter’s personal account in the Guardian (November 29, 2028) What Happens to Your Life After You Kill Someone he shares that, “People suffering from moral injury wonder if they can ever be part of normal human society.” When reading online threads where accidental killers share the painful details of their experiences, some report struggling to deal with tremendous guilt and shame even though their actions were not negligent in any way. The stigma of taking a life stays with them, often for years, sometimes for their whole lives. Some have reported that the accident becomes an integral part of their life narratives, and they often feel it’s necessary to confess to others, particularly when meeting someone new. The internal debate of who to tell, and when, and then dealing with the fallout from that confession if and when they have to face judgment, blame, and sometimes the loss of relationships with those who can accept that a person really can, and has, killed another human through no fault of their own.
I was surprised to learn that there are few self-help resources for the accidental killer. Of course, individual therapy is always an option and can help an accidental killer begin to work through their own trauma and grief, but when it comes to realizing you are not alone and that others have had the same experience, accidental killers often have to turn to the online community. There are message boards and firsthand articles written by accidental killers, but for the shared sense of community and a chance to heal, many accidental killers find the website created by Maryanne Gray, Accidental Impacts (www.accidentalimpacts.org).
Gray’s own story of how she became an accidental killer was central to an article written in The New Yorker (The Sorrow and Shame of the Accidental Killer. September 11, 2019). In 1977, Gray’s car struck a young boy who ran into the road ahead of her. Her own long journey toward recovery includes the creation of the site, Accidental Impacts, an island of internet support, facts, and links to additional resources for those who have unintentionally taken the life of another and now have to cope with managing their own lives while bearing the burden of incomprehensible shame, guilt, grief, and sometimes blame.
It’s been thirty years since my friend’s mother shared her story of hitting a cyclist with me. I realize that what I considered at the time to be a cautionary tale for always practicing safe driving techniques was actually a completely different warning about the capricious nature of life itself. She had been driving safe. She still killed another person. Sometimes your only fault was leaving your house at the exact moment you did. There are thousands of people every year who become accidental killers. If I’m ever again called to bear personal witness to one of their stories again, I would like to accept their confession with an open mind and heart before asking them about the rest of their life. What else defines them? Because it shouldn’t forever be one terrible accident.