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Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss

February 29, 2012

When Darin Strauss was 18 years old, a month before his high school graduation, he was driving some friends to the miniature golf course. Ahead of him on the road were two bikers. As he was nearing to pass them, inexplicably and without warning, one of the bikers swerved in front of his car. Her name was Celine Zilke, a junior at his school. She was rushed to the hospital where she died later that day. The title of the book refers to the next half of his life, the next eighteen years when Darin was haunted by this moment.

There are so few moments in our lives, Strauss observes, where our actions and decisions are irrevocable. He wasn’t drinking. He wasn’t speeding. He was cleared of any wrong-doing by the police, courts and everyone else. In the days after what came to be called “the incident,” he even researched the neuroscience of split-second decision-making and determined that, with all the physics involved, it was physiologically impossible for him to react in time. Even science acquitted him. Still, he couldn’t help wonder about what he could have done differently in that instant.

And what weighed on Strauss even more over the years was something that Celine’s mother said to him at the funeral. After telling him that they didn’t blame him for what happened, she said, “But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now. Because you are living it for two people.”

In the weeks following the accident, Strauss was hyper-aware of his behavior, constantly second-guessing every little movement and gesture, trying to display an amount of grief equal to the moment. In the years that followed, he fought between two opposite forces—the need to give the moment the importance it deserved, to try to give Celine the rightful proportion of his thought, the correct reverence in his actions, the appropriate place in his identity—while not allowing it to become his identity. This was a nearly impossible task. Everything was filtered through the lens of “the incident.” When he walked into a classroom, he was that guy who killed Celine. He went away to college, and when he dated girls, he felt compelled to tell them about the accident. It was an important part of who he was, and the reaction of the girls determined in part if their relationship would proceed.

He thought about Celine constantly, at times ordinary and important. “Celine will never experience this,” he thought at both his wedding and in an everyday moment when he noticed how cool a can of soda was. Celine would miss every day, the important ones and all the others in between. In his moments of achievement and moments unremarkable, he’d return to the same question: am I doing enough for two lives?

“We’d had the accident at the age when your identity is pretty much up for grabs,” Strauss says. And this speaks to one of the central themes of the book. This book isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a thought-provoking meditation on the shaping of our identities. Our own actions shape who we are, of course, but oftentimes it’s the random actions of the world that forever change us. In this case, Strauss’s life was forever linked with a random girl from his class. The accident was theirs.

This book could have become mired in lament, either for Celine’s death or for Strauss’s haunted life. But instead, it is a thoughtful, genuine and insightful look at Death, a death, and a life it affected. As Strauss describes and is sometimes embarrassed by his past actions, thoughts and feelings, he confronts that on the page, his face turning red as he writes. His meditation is also a confession. Most of all, it is an act of healing shared bravely and eloquently with us.

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