Will Byrnes's Reviews > Half a Life

Half a Life by Darin Strauss
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May 11, 2016

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bookshelves: biography-autobiography-memoir, non-fiction, brooklyn
Read from February 16 to 18, 2011

** spoiler alert ** In May, 1988, at age 18, Strauss was driving on a highway with his friends when a sixteen-year-old girl on a bicycle veered from the right shoulder, crossing multiple lanes of traffic. Strauss hit and killed her. Half a Life is his story of how he came to terms with this.

It is reasonable to expect that any young person would be traumatized by such an event. How would one expect that trauma to manifest? In the usual ways, displays of public remorse, acceptance of responsibility, probably deep feelings of guilt, difficulty sleeping. But what if the person is truly blameless? What would be appropriate then?

It is as if one’s interactions with the world are court testimony and one carries around an internal prosecutor or defense attorney coaching us on how we want to come across to the jury. The young Strauss faces not only the issue of coping with what he feels or doesn’t, but what he perceives to be the expectations of others. The fact is that the author did not feel all that much about the accident. The event was not his fault. He was exonerated by all objective measures. Yet he thought that he was expected to feel huge guilt, huge remorse, not just behave in a socially appropriate manner following the accident

Was Strauss wrong in his perception of what the world expected of him after the accident? He is clearly a bright guy, and got it that the world would look askance at him should he follow his auto-trauma with, say, a night of gleeful carousing with his buds, or if he displayed indifference to the death of a young woman. It was appropriate for him to behave in certain ways as a matter of social self-preservation, or what we usually refer to as common decency. There was a role he thought he had to play, and he willingly joined the cast. However, like a method actor, he wanted to have actual, personal feeling to work with, and it was not there.
…sensing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands—fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who’s just won the US Open. This “plagiarized” emotional reaction, acted out for girls I’d never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon.
So it sets up a sort of feedback loop. There is no real feeling of guilt, but the author acts to satisfy what he sees as the public expectation. However, since he realizes, intellectually, that his actions do not have a legitimate emotional core, he then experiences actual guilt for not experiencing the guilt he is projecting out into the world.

It is not dishonest to observe social norms. One does not have to experience deep grieving in order to show respect for the victim of an accident. I felt like I wanted to sit this kid down, tell him to stop whining, perform his civic duty, get over it, grow up and move on with his life.

Of course we of the male persuasion have been known, particularly in our youth, to face some challenges without really knowing, let alone articulating what our feelings are. So another interpretation of Strauss’s experience was that he did not really know what he was feeling. Been there, done that, although under much less traumatic circumstances.

I thought this was an honest book, but one that could have been so much more. It might have offered a springboard to a wider look at how people cope in similar situations. Maybe even how society thrusts certain roles on us regardless of how we actually feel, forcing us into a place where what we feel is considered illegitimate. This is a world, of course, governed by externalities. One can hardly count on being rewarded for honesty, for example. Whistle blowers usually wind up fired and harassed. Joe Wilson pops to mind as the poster child for the consequences of honesty in the real world. How many rewards does our society offer for inner beauty? Far fewer than those given for the more observable sort. Evil, is, of course, regularly rewarded. How many Wall-Streeters are in jail?

As long as we do not feel a need for complete emotional transparency in the business of living we can continue on with our lives. You might want to tell your boss what you think of him/her/it, but that is not a formula for success.

Strauss does feint in this direction a time or two, but more in the area of coping with guilt than with managing in the world.
I think we all build superstructures in our heads, catwalks and trestles that lead us from acceptance of our own responsibility to the cool mechanics of the factory, where things are an interlocking mess, where everybody’s pretty unaccountable. (p101) [Are we sure this is not Don Rumsfeld’s book?]
But there has to be a core of actual feeling of responsibility for this notion to apply, and Strauss did not, at core, feel guilty about what happened. So his structure breaks down. It is not about cloaking guilt under a massive defense mechanism. Strauss’ experience is about guilt over the absence of guilt. He really was not responsible for the accident and internalized what he thought was expected.

So is there any larger view to be taken from this? Maybe it is that we can get so caught up in how we appear that we lose sight of who we are, and become a product of our attempt to manage our own image. It has a certain fractal beauty to it. Somewhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual there is probably a diagnosis of facing-mirror-infinitely-reflecting guilt syndrome.

While one may or may not find the person of the author particularly to one's liking, it is easy to admire his writing skill. The book is rich with imagery and smile-inducing turns of phrase.
I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.
And it is a very fast read. There is a bounty of white space in these pages. While it may list as 191 pages, it is easily only half that. But it is definitely a whole story.
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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Jill Let me know. I read Chang and Eng and this one DID catch my attention...

Will Byrnes I finished reading it yesterday. I have some ambivalence. I like his writing, but I am not so sure about the person. It may take me a bit to sort it all out. Oy!

Jill Outstanding review, Will. I would not have anticipated that the book was about guilt over the absence of guilt. Very perceptive.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Jill. It is an interesting read, and really is only about 90 pages long. I will be interested to see what you think when (if?) you get around to reading it.

Will Byrnes Wow! I am highly honored.
The book is fascinating. The guy clearly had to deal with a very difficult event. And I liked the writing, although his imagery did not always stand up to close scrutiny.
Yes, a worthwhile read.

It must be difficult indeed to have to offer unpleasant truths to patients. One would expect that while it might never become easy, it becomes manageable with time.

Will Byrnes That personal touch can make a great difference. Although I already loved Edgar Sawtelle, attending a Wroblewsky reading certainly enhanced the experience. And many of the books my wife and I read find their way into our home after seeing the author on Daily/Colbert/MSNBC or hearing them on WNYC.

Jill I loved Edgar Sawtelle, too, Will -- seems we're in the minority. I thought it was brilliant. I've been to a number of author readings and it always enhances my experience and gives me that added dimension.

Will Byrnes You might try


In the reading I attended, he said that Shakespeare was very much a part of his upbringing and that he had loved The Jungle Book as a kid.

Jill Will, I'm going to revisit this with you, now that I'm reading it. My "read" is already markedly different from yours. I don't think he DIDN'T feel anything; I think he went into shock and denial and repressed everything he DID feel. The accident appears to have shaped his entire life. I keep thinking of Gilda Radner's quip, "We're all in this together -- alone." To expand the ramifications beyond his own experience would have been a different book entirely. But give me a day or so to post my own thoughts and you can see where we converge...or not...

message 10: by Marita (new)

Marita Good review, Will. What an awful thing to have to live with.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Marita

message 12: by Brit (new)

Brit Cheung 1 Really detailed and thought-provoking review, mentor.
Of the social norms thrust on a person or the self-imposed guilt, I don't know which one can afflict or mould people more. More likely to be Kidnapped by those externalities? But it seems many have become too unencumbered of norms/morals when doing really bad deeds.

2."How many rewards does our society offer for inner beauty? Far fewer than those given for the more observable sort. Evil, is, of course, regularly rewarded. How many Wall-Streeters are in jail? " It seems to have reminded me of the "Big Shot Heat" you mentioned in an email, though I still didn't know much about that movie(E-crisis)(have already seen it;one thing to be sure, the ordinary people ALWAYS suffer the consequences.

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Thank you, Brit.

I think you are referring to The Big Short. Book and movie are both outstanding. and yes, the ordinary folks always seem to suffer the most when the wealthy and the powerful make a mess of things.

I am not sure that anything the author did was actually bad. The accident was just that, an accident. And while there is certainly discomfort in how he presented himself afterward, a bit of dishonesty. I don't think it rises to the level of bad behavior.

As for social norms, while they may not always function in the best manner possible, there is still merit to having a system that informs public behavior. Such systems exists, in large measure, to reduce the conflict inherent in large numbers or people living in close proximity.

message 14: by Brit (new)

Brit Cheung Thanks,mentor. my fault of oblivion:)

I didn't mean the author is bad. on the contrary. I like to say , as an accident, the author manifested his guilt, so he shall not impose overwhelming agony and pressure on himself and the social externality should not criticize him on a higher "moral ground" with a condescending attitude.

"many have become too unencumbered of norms when doing really bad deeds." I mean those who caused devastating social consequences and should have conscientiousness for what they had done but let other people clean the mess (eg: financial criminals).

Am I right?

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes those who caused devastating social consequences and should have conscientiousness for what they had done but let other people clean the mess (eg: financial criminals).

Am I right?


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