“There are self-help books written for seemingly every aberration of human experience: for alcoholics and opiate abusers; for widows, rape victims, gambling addicts, and anorexics; for the parents of children with disabilities; for sufferers of acne and shopping compulsions; for cancer survivors, asexuals, and people who just aren’t that happy and don’t know why. But there are no self-help books for anyone who has accidentally killed another person. An exhaustive search yielded no research on such people, and nothing in the way of therapeutic protocols, publicly listed support groups, or therapists who specialize in their treatment…”

Thus opens the second section of Alice Gregory’s recent tour de force in The New Yorker, “The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer”. As the title suggests, Gregory profiles a handful of people who’ve caused fatal accidents, exploring the various methods of coping they’ve found (or haven’t found) in the aftermath of such awfulness. True to the above quote, this is a group of sufferers who belong among “the last, the little, the lost, the little, and the dead”–an unglamourizable strain to say the least. It’s a group many of us prefer to avoid, their very presence a reminder of what’s possible when you get behind the wheel, or simply leave your house. Think Casey Affleck’s character in Manchester By The Sea.

What Gregory discovers in her conversations is staggering, not just for those involved in “soulcare” but for anyone interested in the intersection of empathy, trauma, sympathy, forgiveness and atonement. The usual therapeutic techniques tend to meet their limits among this population, primarily because the situations are so heavily and unavoidably freighted with morality, i.e. an immovable and almost transcendent guilt. Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford who is quoted in the article, characterizes the plight of the accidental killer as “people who are not culpable can nevertheless be responsible”. Needless to say, it’s a plight for which our current moment lacks vocabulary:

Mental-health workers who specialize in the treatment of veterans perhaps have the most relevant professional expertise. Accidental killers often report experiencing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, and what’s known as “moral injury.” William Nash, the Marine Corps’s director of psychological health, told me that such symptoms appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “as ‘pathologized, distorted, inappropriate responses’, and that’s crap in a situation like this. If you’re responsible for someone else’s accidental death, guilt and shame are appropriate emotions. They are telling you that you need to do something to atone or make amends for your error.”…

“People just don’t want to talk about it,” [Maryann Green, one such accidental killer] said. “When someone is raped, you can tell them, truthfully, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Well, in my case, that really can’t be said. My brother tells me, ‘You don’t deserve this.’ That’s nice and all, but it doesn’t fix it.” Green explained, “It’s a sob story, with no ‘and then.’

In June, 2012, a forty-two-year-old paralegal living in Illinois, whom I’ll call Patricia, was driving home in the early evening when the sun suddenly hit her eyes. “I felt an impact, but a very strange impact. I thought maybe it was a deer,” she told me. Her air bags deployed, knocking her glasses off and burning her forearms. She pulled over, and ran into the road. There was blood everywhere. Then she saw a man, crumpled; his motorcycle lay beside him. Patricia tried to stanch his head wounds with her clothing. She whispered to him and called 911. A truck driver came upon the scene and pulled Patricia away from the body. “I couldn’t understand what was happening,” she recalled. “He started praying, but he was praying for me. I heard him say, ‘God, protect her. God, look out for her. God, give her strength.’ At that point, I just completely broke down.”

For two nights, Patricia couldn’t sleep. Every detail came back to her: the curve of the road, the “pink matter” ground into the asphalt. Her husband, not knowing what to do, took her to the E.R. Within a few minutes of the initial consultation, she was sent to the suicide unit, where she remained for six days. After her release, friends visited—to cook dinner, to clean the house—but she couldn’t stand how they kept telling her it was “just an accident.” She went to “umpteen” different counsellors, but none were helpful. She sent a letter to the state’s attorney asking him to please put her away. “I spent my whole life volunteering—for animal shelters, for Make-A-Wish,” she told me. “This just negates everything good I’ve ever done.”…

Patricia, it would appear, cannot stomach attempts to “re-frame” her accident in ways that would reduce the moral burden she feels. As the “negates” language makes clear, what she wants is closer to expiation than consolation. Her friends and counselors are only trying to help, of course, but that somehow makes it worse, compounding the guilt with the helplessness of being misunderstood.

I know because I experience both ends of this dynamic all the time, in lesser ways. You probably do too. In most circumstances, compassion does help. Yet the accidental killer’s impasse goes to show that much of what passes for forgiveness in our culture is actually applied empathy. The damage we cause–and others cause us–is too great to tackle head-on, and so we marshal every resource we can to shrink the infraction down to a more manageable size. Preferably something so small that it doesn’t even require forgiveness. A shrug will do.

When we’re needing to forgive ourselves, we do this by talking about our motives. We didn’t mean to hit that person with our car, after all. Or sleep through that phonecall (for help). It could’ve happened to anyone. And there are two people involved here, are there not? The blame isn’t all on my shoulders.

When we’re the ones who are trying to forgive another person, we talk about backgrounds. “If you only knew how bad his childhood was you might understand that he can’t help __________.” Or “if you put yourself in her shoes, and you might’ve done the same thing”. Maybe we’ll talk about society itself. “This only hurts because we’ve been conditioned for it to hurt. If we lived in the 19th century (or in North Korea), this kind of thing would happen all the time”. You see, no big deal.

I don’t mean to disparage empathy, by the way. It’s a wonderful thing, certainly a whole lot better than its opposite. What we’re talking about here are laudable attempts to re-frame misfortune, and they usually work, thank God. Except, of course, in those cases where the wrongdoing is so egregious that empathy proves impossible, where we can’t come up with any mitigating facts or potential motives that might allow us to identify with the perpetrator. In those cases, forgiveness simply doesn’t happen. Barring a miracle, that is.

So perhaps the predicament of the accidental killer is so difficult because you know yourself too well to impute motives pure enough to diminish the offense. Your friends’ kind words only make you feel less known and/or not taken seriously. Or could it be that, like it or not, forgiveness requires authority, and we lack the authority in ourselves to self-forgive, sometimes by virtue of what we’ve done to warrant forgiveness in the first place? I’m not sure, nor would I ever want to find out.

But I do know that forgiveness, at least in its biblical sense, is different than applied empathy, both more daunting and more beautiful. The offense tends to be made larger rather than smaller, the loss involved more concrete (less subject to contextualization), and the resolution more complete. Sweeping even.

I’m thinking here of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Matthew 18:21-35), which Jesus tells immediately after shutting down his disciples’ attempts to place an upward limit on interpersonal forgiveness. It is his most radical statement on the subject.

In the parable, a king confronts a servant who has racked up a debt of 10,000 talents, an intentionally absurd and therefore unrepayable amount (upwards of a few billion dollars). I can’t help but wonder if Jesus chooses a monetary offense because numbers are harder to quibble with than deeds/behaviors. Meaning, there is no doubt about how much this man owes, and consequently his guilt, just as there is no doubt about his ability to repay. Coins cannot be empathized out of existence.

Forgiveness is the only way out, yet it rests entirely on the only one qualified to grant it. And his decision is not to refinance the debt(!) or pare it down, but to absorb the loss himself, thereby releasing the servant from the tyranny of the balance sheet.

The servant cannot conceive of a life without the economy of deserving and promptly throttles his colleague (who owes him a pittance). Not a happy ending for him, or for any of us who insist on living according to the balance sheet, presumably. Then again, to take Jesus at his word, were the servant to come back the next day and beg the king once more…, two is a lot less than seventy seven.

What does this have to do with accidental killers? A lot, thankfully. The article ends in almost as unexpected a place as the parable with Maryann Gray, the main accidental killer in question, stumbling upon something that looks a little like hope and a lot like grace:

In the Book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that they are to designate six cities of refuge “so that anyone who kills someone inadvertently may flee there.” The accidental murderer will be protected from the wrath of the “blood avenger,” a family member of the deceased… According to Talmudic commentary, assembled in the twelfth century, the roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be well marked, free of obstacles, and wider than regular roads, so that those who have killed another unwittingly could proceed there without delay.

When Maryann Gray, a secular Jew who grew up celebrating Easter and Christmas, first learned of the concept of cities of refuge, she was overcome with gratitude. “The Torah was talking about me,” she remembers thinking. Gray was struck by the specificity of its prescriptions, which suggested that lives like hers were once contemplated with sophistication by the highest authorities.

“If I had been exiled to a city of refuge, I might not have needed exile from myself,” [Gray] once wrote. She was moved by the idea that, in such cities, a person like her could participate fully in society without shame. “I love that there was a way of recognizing the true devastation that’s been wrought, the harm that’s been done, without condemning the individual,” she said. “That’s what I’m looking for—to live in the world with acceptance and with opportunity, but also with the acknowledgment that in running over this child something terrible happened and it deserves attention.”