The New York Times is reporting that Laura Bush will, for the first time, discuss the tragic car accident she had in Midland, Texas when she was 17.
In her new book, “Spoken From the Heart,” Mrs. Bush describes in vivid detail the circumstances surrounding the crash, which has haunted her for most of her adult life and which became the subject of questions and speculation when it was revealed during her husband’s first presidential run [...]
On a November night in 1963, Mrs. Bush and a girlfriend were hurrying to a drive-in theater when Mrs. Bush, at the wheel of her father’s Chevy Impala, ran a stop sign on a small road and smashed into a car being driven by Mike Douglas, a star athlete and popular student at her school.
“In those awful seconds, the car door must have been flung open by the impact and my body rose in the air until gravity took over and I was pulled, hard and fast, back to earth,” she says. “The whole time,” she adds later, “I was praying that the person in the other car was alive. In my mind, I was calling ‘Please, God. Please, God. Please, God,’ over and over and over again.”
Mrs. Bush concedes that she and her friend were chatting when she ran the stop sign. But she also suggests a host of factors beyond her control played a role — the pitch-black road, an unusually dangerous intersection, the small size of the stop sign, and the car the victim was driving[...]
Mrs. Bush reveals that she was wracked by guilt for years after the crash, especially after not attending the funeral and for not reaching out to the parents of the dead teenager. Her parents did not want her to show up at the funeral, she states, and she ended up sleeping through it.
“I lost my faith that November, lost it for many, many years,” she says. “It was the first time that I had prayed to God for something, begged him for something, not the simple childhood wishing on a star but humbly begging for another human life. And it was as if no one heard. My begging, to my seventeen-year-old mind, had made no difference. The only answer was the sound of Mrs. Douglas’s sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain.” [...]
“But while I give this advice in my letters, I didn’t do any of that,” she reveals. “Most of how I ultimately coped with the crash was by trying not to talk about it, not to think about it, to put it aside. Because there wasn’t anything I could do. Even if I tried.”
To feel responsible for the death of another human being is an awful burden. I've seen a few people in therapy with similar stories. Unlike most other experiences that may cause us to feel guilt, there is no way to make the victim whole; no reparative effort can ever be adequate. There is atonement, but death can never be undone.
The reaction to such an event varies from one person to the next. Some become self-sabotaging, inflicting a lifetime of punishment upon themselves. For others, the reaction is more positive and creative. I worked with a man who was transformed by his guilt, becoming a truly exemplary spouse, father, friend and citizen.
I don't judge a person for the direction that guilt takes them. Psychologists want to explain everything, but there is something mysterious, perhaps even unknowable, about the reasons one person opts for a lifetime of self-punishment while another atones through a lifetime of good works.
What I do know is that the decision to share one's story after such an experience can have healing power. The guilty often feel that they will lose options in life if others know what they have done. But the psychological cost of maintaining a guilty secret is often far worse than any cost that others would impose if they knew the truth.