The day I accidentally killed a little boy

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Maryann Gray

In 1977 Maryann Gray was a 22-year-old college graduate with her whole life ahead of her, when a little boy darted out in front of her car. For years, Maryann didn't talk about Brian, but she thought about him constantly - and his death has had a lasting influence on her life.

I was in a terrific mood that day. I was moving from the little college town of Oxford in rural Ohio into a big old rambling house in Cincinnati with a bunch of other people. I was so excited.

I'd been in graduate school but I'd decided I was going to leave. I was happy not knowing what was coming next. I was going to get a job, have fun, see where my passions led me.

I was at the house - we called it an urban commune - painting the room I was moving into. When I finished I thought I'd drive back to my apartment in Oxford which was all packed up and ready for the move - it was a warm day in June and I thought it would be great to take a swim.

The road started out as freeway but quickly became a rural highway, one lane in each direction. The speed limit was 45 or 50mph, fairly fast for that kind of road, it was quite busy and I was in a line of cars doing the speed limit.

I passed a little outpost of houses whose mailboxes were on the opposite side of the street. As I passed the houses a little blond boy darted out, moving from the mailbox to his house. I saw him at the last second. I tried to swerve. There was no way to miss him.

I hit the little boy and he flew up into the air and then landed on the pavement. I pulled over and ran across the street.

I was so distressed that I don't really remember those minutes. I was hiding behind a bush and screaming. I heard myself and I thought, "What is that? Who's doing that?"

And then I realised it was me.

The boy was receiving first aid in the road. There were lots of people attending to him and people gathering on the side of the road.

I was very, very frightened. I knew I had done something terrible.

It took 20 minutes for the police to arrive. They didn't wait for an ambulance, they just put the boy in the back of a police car and left.

I'd hit the boy right in front of his house and some neighbours had gone to get his mother. She came out of her house screaming her son's name in agony. She wanted to go to him but the neighbours held her back. Then she started to collapse on her front stoop and they had to hold her up.

It was loud, it was confused, it was very upsetting.

I approached the police. I came forward, raised my hand and said, "I did it, I did it." They didn't know I was the one who hit him, I guess nobody saw it.

They sat me in the back of a police car and put a rookie up front to keep an eye on me. I wrote out a statement and talked to them at some length. They looked for skid marks on the road and took some measurements.

The lead officer came back and said, "I just have to tell you the boy died."

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Maryann Gray spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service.

You can listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

I'd been praying that maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked, that maybe he would be OK. I remember just leaning over and crying, and then trying very hard to get hold of myself.

The police agreed to let me wait in one of the neighbour's houses. She was so kind. She had a daughter just a few years younger than me and I think she knew that her daughter could just as easily have been the perpetrator, like me, or the victim - Brian was his name.

The lead officer came and told me that they were not arresting me - there was no indication that I was negligent or distracted or impaired in any way - but he gave me a little lecture saying, "This child died, that's a terrible thing, you need to make sure that you never do this again."

I was pretty angry because the idea that I would do it again was just beyond comprehension.

I called my parents in New York City and I told my mother what had happened. I was crying and I said, "It was an accident, it was an accident." And my mom said, "Of course it was an accident."

My father came out the next day. He made a condolence call to the family that had lost their child which must have been unbelievably painful. He stopped by the neighbour's house to thank them for being so kind to me. He dealt with the car which had to go to a body shop. He got a lawyer so that if there was going to be any legal action I would have protection.

He just tried to make sure that everything that could be taken care of was taken care of.

I spent the first night at a friend's house, compulsively telling the story of what happened, and then I went back to my apartment, the one that was all packed up and not a very cheerful place, and basically hid there for about a week.

I'd very much been a good girl who worked hard to get good grades and fulfil the expectations of my parents and my professors, but I think I grew up feeling like I always came up a little short and so after the accident I think I was deeply worried at a very unconscious level about whether I was a good person or whether I was a bad person.

There's a belief system that many people adhere to that we create the condition of our lives - so an angry person perceives an angry or hostile world, and a loving person experiences a kind, giving world. So I thought, "What kind of a person has this experience? I must be a very dangerous person."

When I got my car back I tried to drive but I kept hallucinating. I would be driving down the road and think I saw somebody walking into the street so I'd slam on the brakes, but there would be nobody there. That's a very dangerous thing to do - I was so frightened I gave up the car for about two years.

I had flashbacks that would pop into my brain unexpectedly. I could be in the middle of a conversation, washing the dishes, or doing the grocery shopping, and all of a sudden I would be visualising this child flying through the air after I hit him, or a puddle of blood on the road - horrible images.

I spent several years punishing myself by really pushing people away from me. I dated men who treated me very poorly, I didn't really have friends, I was irritable a lot, and my housemates didn't particularly enjoy having me around so I moved out of the commune into an apartment where I could just be by myself.

Two years after the accident I moved to California to start a different graduate programme in psychology and that really was a new beginning. I was intellectually engaged and doing work that I felt was important and helpful and that felt really good.

I pretty much stopped talking about the accident, on advice from my parents, who said that if people knew I had done this they would think about me differently.

I often refer to this little boy, Brian, as my ghost, because he became a part of me. His voice in my mind became this very punitive, angry voice that would say, "Don't get too happy, remember what happened the last time you got happy? You killed a child, you killed me."

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I heard that voice many times every day, and so although I enjoyed my studies and I loved living in California, there was always that voice holding me back. I had killed a child and I could never forget that.

I thought about Brian the day I got married. I thought about Brian the day my father died. I thought about Brian the day I defended my dissertation. I thought about Brian the day I started a new job. He lived with me.

I married in my early 30s. I told my husband that I'd had this accident but we never talked about it. He didn't ask and I didn't want to impose my pain on him - this was my issue to deal with and I didn't really feel I had the right to ask for comfort.

Before the accident I couldn't have imagined a life without children. I was the most in-demand babysitter in the neighbourhood when I was at high school. I loved doing it - I would rather babysit than go out with friends.

During that first week after the accident when I was hiding inside my apartment, I heard a voice. I call it an auditory hallucination. The voice said in this very biblical, Old Testament, angry way, "You have taken a child from his mother and as your punishment you can never have your own child".

I didn't talk about that for at least 20 years. For all that time.

I was very fearful around children - all I could see were the sharp corners that they might fall against, or the pool where they might drown, the stairs that they might fall down, the knife that they might cut themselves with.

I didn't want to raise a frightened child and I didn't think I would be a good mother, so I decided against having children which is a huge regret, but was the right decision for me. I think I would have had a very hard time mothering.

I wanted to get through a set of life benchmarks that are pretty typical - finish my education, get a good job and find a life partner - and soon after, in the mid to late 90s, I decided it was time to go into therapy.

I had carried these memories around with me and they had taken over a large part of my inner life and kept me separate from other people. My friends knew I was a nervous driver, but they didn't know why. I might be feeling down one day and the accident would be on my mind but I couldn't talk about it.

People thought they knew me but I didn't talk about probably the most significant event in my life.

In 2003 there was an accident at Santa Monica Farmers Market. An elderly man had ploughed into a group of people with his car and lots of people had been killed and injured. I lived nearby and we were watching the news coverage on TV and could hear the helicopters overhead.

It was just carnage, it was a terrible scene.

People were on the TV screaming that this 86-year-old man was a murderer, but the idea that he meant to do it just horrified me.

I was distressed by the accident and it was on my mind so much that I closed the door to my office and banged out some words about the empathy I felt for the driver as well as the victims, about my experience, and about the lack of support for people who have accidentally killed other people.

At the time I was in a writing workshop, and I sent what I'd written to the woman who led my group. She called and said, "You should send this to National Public Radio."

If I had thought there was any chance that they would actually run it I'd probably never have done it. But I sent it off and the next thing I knew NPR were calling, asking me to come in and record the piece.

I was very anxious about it but I thought somebody needed to show some compassion for this guy and others who had accidentally killed.

The piece was broadcast two or three days after the accident.

Where to get help

Accidental Impacts is a website run by Maryann Gray that offers information and support for people trying to cope with causing a serious accident

I was told that I should be prepared for hate mail, for negative comments on the internet, for people calling to harass me. But what happened was completely positive, there was a huge outpouring of support. Close friends that I had never told heard me on the radio and were uniformly compassionate and supportive. They told me I was strong for speaking out and that they were so sorry I had suffered.

Something flowered inside, I felt a great sense of relief and much more connected to the people around me, and to the world. It was like coming out.

I also heard from other people who had accidentally killed people and who'd had experiences similar to mine, the post-traumatic symptoms - the flashbacks, feeling disconnected, difficulty concentrating, and, of course, guilt and shame.

It was very powerful because none of us had ever talked to anybody who'd had the same experience.

I had thought about contacting Brian's family for years but had held back because I wasn't sure that they would want to hear from me. I didn't have a lot of money, but I did make an anonymous donation of several thousand dollars to his brother's college to pay part of his tuition.

Then about 10 years ago I went to Israel on a trip. I'm Jewish and I went with my rabbi and other people from the temple that I belonged to. While I was there I took a Hebrew name, Bracha, which means blessing. I chose it in honour of Brian.

When I got home I wrote a letter to Brian's mother. I told her I had taken this name to honour the memory of her son, that Brian lived in my heart as I knew he did in hers.

I sent the letter.

It turned out that she had died, so her mail was being forwarded to her surviving son, Brian's older brother.

One day I was sitting in my office, I picked up the phone and it was him. He'd read the letter and found me online.

We spoke for about 45 minutes. It was an emotional conversation. He was very angry, he told me how much his family had suffered.

They had stopped celebrating Christmas because it was too close to Brian's birthday and all the usual happy family occasions were muted for them forever. They never changed Brian's room, they kept it the same, so there was a constant reminder of their son.

None of them ever really stopped grieving.

As we talked he really softened. He hadn't known I'd made a condolence call and had a brief conversation with his father in the days after the accident. His father had been very kind to me and that had a big impact on him.

At the end of the conversation I said, "What do you want to ask me? You can ask me anything."

He said, "Were you speeding?"

And I said, "No, I wasn't speeding. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but your brother darted out into the road."

He said, "I know. Wrong time, wrong place."

In that moment I felt forgiven and I think perhaps he was able to feel a kind of pure grief, untinged by the anger that had coloured his mourning.

When we got off the phone I certainly didn't feel like we were friends but I felt like we had this amazing bond, because we were still mourning this child, and we will always have that in common.

I do forgive myself, but I'm terrified that I'll hurt somebody else. I live in Los Angeles and I drive all the time, but I'm very cautious.

I have tried to honour Brian, his family and my own experience by reaching out and being a better person, but I don't think I'll ever be at peace with the fact that I killed a child. I will never cease to be horrified by that.

All photographs courtesy of Maryann Gray.

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