Laura Bush’s deadly car crash and my own

As the former first lady opens up about her past tragedy, I know too well that you can never fully forgive yourself

Topics: Laura Bush,

Laura Bush's deadly car crash and my own

Somewhere in the hard drive that sits on my desk next to a rolling Jesus action figure there are 17 different iterations of the fourth chapter of my memoir. The number of times I rewrote the first paragraph probably scrapes close to 100, but eventually, I settled on plain-speak: “Two days before my father’s sixty-second birthday, I killed an old man with my car.”

I go on to describe the details of the accident, the whole ugly, sad unfurling of events: how I’d been driving down a main thoroughfare in Quebec City when a human form appeared out of nowhere in front of my windshield. The sound his body made as it ricocheted off the hood of the green GMC Jimmy, a loud, lone pop of a firecracker. My babble as I asked my boyfriend over and over whether I’d hit him. Peter’s queerly calm answer that yes, I had.

Laura Bush has a similar story in her memoir, “Spoken From the Heart,” which comes out today. It is the most profound revelation in the book and an event she has avoided talking about openly until now.

Mrs. Bush was four years younger than I was, 17, when she ran a stop sign in her father’s Chevrolet Impala, as she was rushing to make a show at a local drive-in theater. Her car collided with another, a smaller, much lighter Chevrolet Corvair. At the wheel was her close friend, Mike Douglas, a popular boy from her high school. She was thrown from the vehicle. She writes of begging God for Mike’s safety, and how she lost her faith in the months after he was pronounced dead at the hospital, after hearing her prayers answered with “the sounds of Mrs. Douglas’s sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain.”

I imagine these were difficult passages to write. I fiddled incessantly with my own retelling. I wanted to ensure that my description of the event was as honest as could be. If this sadness existed in the world, and if I was going to commit it to publication, wasn’t it my responsibility to the old man, to his family, to describe it with truth and care?

I talked about standing over his crumpled body and watching the blood leak from his ear, panicking that the ambulances weren’t coming fast enough to save him from what I’d done. He was wrinkly, his body curved like a croissant and dressed entirely in navy blue. His pant leg had scrunched up, revealing a few inches of thermal underwear that matched the rest of his winter outfit. The bags of groceries he’d been carrying had shot up and scattered all over the pavement and on the meridian. Each item was a package of breakfast cereal. One of the boxes was Special K, my college nickname.



My primary reason for all the tinkering, however, was that I was desperate to convey to my readers the cowardly, self-preservational thing I’d yelled as I barreled out of the car moments after I’d hit the man: “Did anyone see this was not my fault?”

And it wasn’t. The man had been jaywalking 20 feet past a traffic light that was green. Even writing this now, I want to throw a telephone at you and implore you to call the Quebec police, to talk to the sensitive officer who took down my report and those of the witnesses. She’ll tell you that I have no reason to feel as guilty and regretful as I continue to feel. Maybe she’d say that the access point I’ve gained to profound depression is needless, and that I should once and for all silence the small voice that cries out for my own life to be traded for his.

In the recounting of her own accident story, Mrs. Bush admits that she was engaged in a conversation with her friend when she went through the stop sign. But she then goes on to describe the mechanics of the accident, and how perhaps they absolve her of at least some of the agency she had in the crash. The stop sign was small, the night dark, the intersection one that was known to be particularly unsafe.

I understand her impulse to sterilize the event with extenuating circumstances, to cry out to her reader, “But wait, just wait and listen to me, please, there’s more …” It takes a patient and elastic mind to discern what is accident and what is negligence, particularly when the variables include a big car driven by a woman who is alive and a little car driven by a boy who is now dead. Or a gentle 83-year-old former pharmacist from France and a journalism student in a truck. 

A few months ago, I was at home visiting my parents. In the middle of dinner, I made a crass joke about being a murderer. Later that evening, my mother offered me a cup of tea and asked me why I’d phrased it that way, why I’d made the joke at all. Looking down at her lap, she began to cry quietly. She said, “I wish you’d let yourself off the hook.” I started crying too and explained that the joke was not to make light, but to serve as a kind of universe-directed proclamation, a reminder that nine years later, I still haven’t stopped atoning. Putting it in the book wasn’t enough. 

On Tuesday, Laura Bush will appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where for the first time she will speak publicly about the accident. I wonder if making permanent record of it has provided her with some solace, or if she feels the same way I do: that the death is as alive as ever.

Kathryn Borel is a Toronto-based journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in the Walrus magazine, the Globe and Mail and the UK Guardian. Borel’s memoir, “Corked,” is published by Grand Central. 

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>