CRF Blog

The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer

by Bill Hayes

In The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer for the New Yorker, Alice Gregory looks at the psychological burden of being responsible for accidentally killing another person, which Maryann Gray did when a child ran in front of her car in 1977.

Today, Gray, who is sixty-two, is a recently retired U.C.L.A. assistant provost. Divorced, but still friends with her ex-husband, she tends to an active social life and lives in a sunny two-story apartment in Santa Monica with her dog, Harvey. She never did have children. When I met her on a Saturday morning in April, Gray did not immediately strike me as a “vivid reminder of human fallibility and the capriciousness of fate,” as she has described herself in the past. Instead, she opened her front door in stocking feet, offered me coffee and fresh strawberries, and projected a generally cheerful demeanor. Trim, with curly blond hair, Gray is warm, self-reflective, and easy to talk to.

Gray’s lightness is the result of an unburdening that forced her to think differently about her accident. In July, 2003, not seven miles from where Gray was then living, an eighty-six-year-old man driving a Buick sedan mistakenly pressed his foot on the accelerator and plowed into the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Ten people died, and sixty-three were injured. His attorney called the crash an accident, but there was an outpouring of rage. “People were not just angry with the driver but called him a murderer,” Gray said. “To me, it was so obvious that he didn’t do it on purpose, and I thought the response was so cruel.” (Three years later, the driver, George Weller, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to five years’ probation.)

After reading about the reactions to the collision in the newspaper, Gray closed the door to her office and wrote a brief account of her own accident. She e-mailed the document, fewer than four hundred words in all, to the local NPR station, and got a call back within an hour. A producer wanted her to read a version of it on the air. “Like most people, I’m horrified and saddened by the devastating car accident,” Gray began. “My heart goes out to those who lost family members and friends. But, unlike most people, my deepest sympathies lie with the driver.” The segment first aired on “All Things Considered,” on July 18, 2003. It was broadcast at rush hour.

The producer warned Gray that she might receive hate mail, but the spiteful feedback she anticipated never came. Friends and colleagues she’d known for decades called her to express sympathetic surprise; she got e-mails from dozens of people who had caused accidental deaths, all of them grateful. One friend introduced Gray to her sister, who had killed a cyclist with her car in upstate New York. They discussed the morbid etiquette of whom you tell about the accident and whom you allow to remain ignorant, and the impulse to game out, pointlessly, alternate versions of the past. It was the first time that Gray spoke about her experience with another person who had accidentally caused a death.

Moved by the response to the NPR segment, Gray registered a Web site under the name Accidental Impacts. It included a link to the segment, reading recommendations (academic books about P.T.S.D., a few memoirs, some psychology-inflected guides to living a meaningful life in the wake of trauma), and short essays she had written on the subject. A few years later, with the help of her tech-savvy personal trainer, Gray opened it up to comments. [more]