Fatal distraction

I read an article from the Washington Post Magazine called “Fatal Distraction.” Only rarely have I read an article like this.

When I wrote about Grand Torino, I described how the film gradually led me to like the main character, who initially appeared utterly unlikeable. They did this without changing the character at all. I said that it took great writing to make this happen. This article has that same kind of writing. It takes something you can’t believe, something you will immediately have strong feelings about, and makes you less certain about your feelings by the time you finish reading. At least that’s what it did for me.

“Fatal Distraction” describes something you would never believe could happen:

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.

He forgot. Forgot his child in the car. Forgot and his forgetting killed his son.

You can imagine what I thought. You’re thinking the same things right now. How could this possibly happen? I could never do such a thing. Something must be wrong with that guy. But nothing is wrong with Harrison, and this does in fact happen. In the United States, it happens between 15 and 25 times every year. No, I can’t imagine it either.

Each instance has its own macabre signature. One father had parked his car next to the grounds of a county fair; as he discovered his son’s body, a calliope tootled merrily beside him. Another man, wanting to end things quickly, tried to wrestle a gun from a police officer at the scene. Several people … have driven from their workplace to the day-care centre to pick up the child they’d thought they’d dropped off, never noticing the corpse in the back seat.

Then there is the Chattanooga, Tenn., business executive who must live with this: His motion-detector car alarm went off, three separate times, out there in the broiling sun. But when he looked out, he couldn’t see anyone tampering with the car. So he remotely deactivated the alarm and went calmly back to work.

The article nearly made me cry at my desk. I’ve got very particular ideas about children. Playing into this is the fact that it’s becoming increasingly likely that I will not have any of my own despite adoring them completely. I also have very particular ideas about personal responsibility. Combine these, and I’d certainly be the guy trying to get the police officer’s gun.

In the midst of all this, the article quotes Harrison saying something I completely understand:

I hurt my wife so much, and by the grace of whatever wonderful quality is within her, she has forgiven me. And that makes me feel even worse. Because I can’t forgive me.

Being forgiven by my wife would make it worse. I can’t imagine how I could go on. We’re stronger than we realize, but I just can’t imagine.

A friend of mine sometimes astonishes me. We can be talking about a moral or legal issue that appears absolutely obvious to me when she’ll pause and then say, “I try not to judge.” Every time, it stops me dead. I am quick to judge. I know it. My only saving grace is that I won’t often voice my conclusion. Still, I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

I started reading  “Fatal Distraction” feeling utterly incredulous and angry. By the time I got to the end, I thought to myself, “Try not to judge.”

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One Comment

  1. harmony
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 15:25 | Permalink

    I read that article as well, at 9 weeks pregnant, full of fears of all the things that can go wrong on top of the joy and total elation of being pregnant and the thought of starting a family.

    My reaction was much the same. “How could anyone?!?” became “Oh, god, it could happen to anyone.” It’s horrifying to contemplate. And it reminds me to slow down a little and remember the important things.

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