By Courtney Crowder
11:27 AM EDT, October 16, 2012
On a bright spring day in 1988, Darin Strauss drove a carful of friends to play miniature golf. It was a month before graduation, prom was on the horizon, and with their college plans finalized, life seemed stretched out before them.
Suddenly a girl on a bicycle swerved into Strauss' lane. He couldn't stop, and Celine Zilke's head slammed into his windshield. He knew the girl, a 16-year-old student at his Long Island high school. Although police reports and eyewitnesses said that Strauss was not at fault, he spent the next 18 years haunted by the accident.
In September 2010, Strauss' aptly named memoir, "Half a Life," was published. The slender book recounted the accident and the torturous years of guilt that swallowed half his life.
The memoir spoke to a student at one suburban Chicago high school in such a life-changing way that "Half a Life" became required reading for students at that school and another. Students even got a visit from the author, who writes full time and is a clinical associate professor in New York University's creative writing program.
Here's how it happened.
In November 2010, Chris Pascoe, then 17 and a junior at Joliet West, was going through arguably the hardest year of high school, nervously awaiting the ACT and studying up on colleges. Two days before Thanksgiving, he stayed up late playing video games and enjoying the short fall break. The next morning he would find out that Colin, his 19-year-old brother and best friend, had died overnight without warning. (Pascoe declined to say how Colin died.)
For months Pascoe went on with his daily routine, scarred by his loss. In April, Pascoe heard a brief description of Strauss' memoir during teacher Mark Eleveld's English lecture. In its pages, Pascoe found solace and relief through Strauss' story of becoming successful despite a soul-shaking tragedy. "Half a Life" would help make Pascoe whole again.
Pascoe's connection to the memoir's inspirational story and the Joliet Township High School District's desire to have students read a nonfiction book prompted district officials to choose "Half a Life" as this year's summer reading selection for Joliet Central and Joliet West. Students discussed the book in the first weeks of school. The lessons culminated in a visit from Strauss to both schools, as well as other area venues, to share his journey. He did so with blunt honesty.
"Most of you guys read my book, so you know that I am here today at least in some part because when I was your age I killed a girl," Strauss told students at Joliet Central. "I am consequently supposed to impart some wisdom to you. The lie of these speeches, and it is a lie, is that there is one solitary truth tell-able by me that will prove worthwhile for everybody here. Don't believe it."
A week after Strauss' visit, Pascoe, 18, sat in a Starbucks close to the campus of Naperville's North Central College, which he now attends. Stylish, with a boyish face, he wore a Mockingjay pin, a reference to the bird from "The Hunger Games" trilogy. Pascoe said he wears it because "in the book when (a character) wears the pin, it means that nothing is ever going to hurt you."
"Colin was the closest person to me," Pascoe said. "I felt like we really understood each other. We could just hang out and do anything and it would be so much fun. We had all this history, all these inside jokes and plans that are just gone now."
Pascoe still thinks about his brother every day, of course, but he said he has more control over the thoughts now, due in large part to Strauss' book. Asked what he connected with, Pascoe rattled off exact passages: the incident when Strauss puts on a dramatic scene for some pretty girls in hopes that they'll take pity on him, Strauss' final days in high school, his feeling of rebirth in college.
"He wasn't trying to write a self-help book, which didn't make me feel like I was reading a self-help book," Pascoe said. "How honest he was with himself and with the situation through his reflections is what made (the book) so unique."
Strauss, 42, spoke for 12 minutes and then answered students' questions with the same candor that marked the book.
"There were a bunch of things that my editor said I should take out because it made me look bad," Strauss said in response to a question. Among them, he said, was that he went to the movies and slept soundly on the night of the accident.
"I thought if I take those things out, then the book is no longer literary, it's propaganda," he told the students. "It becomes a commercial for myself. Then, instead of helping people, the book would actually hurt people, because I think we all mess up in serious situations, and the human truth of shock is that you don't know how you are acting. I was just a kid who was confused and trying to do the right thing, and I think I didn't know how to act, so I acted like a jerk."
The audience, which during this session was made up of only freshmen, expressed appreciation for Strauss' honesty.
"It was really cool having him come out here and talk," said Quetzalli Jacobo, 14. "Like he said, some books just lie to readers (about what it's like to go through a tragedy), but his book was different. He was writing truth. That's really what made the book stand out to me."
Crystal Matamoros, 14, said Strauss' speech gave her the tools, should she need them, to handle adversity.
"It made me feel that if I have a problem, I can tell somebody about it and they can help me through it, or I can write about it and that can help me through it," she said.
Jack Martin, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, said young adults often find comfort by sympathizing with characters, whether fictional or real.
Finding a connection with a character "is all about experiencing feelings and emotions from a safe vantage point," Martin said in a phone interview. "So when a kid reads about someone dying, they basically get to experience what the character is experiencing, but it's not personal, it's not them."
Before his presentation, Strauss discussed the experience of publishing a memoir: "I write fiction usually, so I am not really used to people having such a personal reaction to a story."
"It's amazing how strangers just want to share their stories," he said. "I guess when you write a personal story people feel compelled to share their own stories."
After speaking to the freshmen, Strauss spoke to a group of upperclassmen. A book signing followed, and the line stretched across the front of the auditorium.
Many of the older students talked of connecting with Strauss' adversity because they had dealt with their own tragedies: A best friend committing suicide, a father killing himself, a cousin getting shot.
Some also said they left with the feeling of renewal, that if Strauss could overcome his misfortune, so could they — just as Pascoe had found in "Half A Life."
Strauss also gave a presentation at Joliet Junior College. Pascoe introduced the author, recounting the story of Colin's death and his discovery of Strauss' book. The next night, the two had dinner. Keeping in mind Strauss' anxiety regarding car accidents, which Strauss addressed during one of his presentations, Pascoe chose a restaurant that was near Strauss hotel.
"I couldn't stop smiling, because I was driving and eating with my role model," Pascoe said. "During dinner, we had a very intimate talk about college and whether I should tell people who I meet in college about Colin."
Pascoe said that, for now, he prefers not to tell classmates about his brother.
"I am just trying to make the most of my life and to remind myself that everyone has their tragedies," Pascoe said. "But it's not the tragedies that define us; it's how we go about living after."
Courtney Crowder covers the local literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
"Half A Life"
By Darin Strauss, McSweeney's, 204 pages, $22
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