Writing SHAME / The Gloaming

In 2002, errors by air-traffic controllers in Zurich caused the mid-air collision of a DHL cargo plane and a Russian airliner.  Seventy-three people were killed, including fifty-three children on a school trip.  The father of one of the children tracked down the primary controller, and stabbed him to death in his garden on a summer evening.

The two men, it seemed to me, had been on their own collision course.  As the father desired revenge (his wife has been killed, too), surely the controller had been wracked by guilt and shame.  Though formally cleared, he must have replayed, over and over in his head, those seconds that led to the crash. 

This story began to obsess me – the idea of such tragedy that had no point, from which nothing could be salvaged.  But the more I dwelled on it, the more complex it became.  That moment when the father thrust in the blade: did he feel the relief of justice?  What of the controller?  Perhaps there was relief for him, too.  Some kind of moral payback that only they understood was being made between them.  Not necessarily karma; but its stranger companion:  human conscience.

I came across other stories with similar themes.  A man who had foolishly set a brush fire that destroyed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of forest came down with a crippling auto-immune disease.  A bus driver who’s poor decision to drive across a flooded river resulted in the death of fifty people was drowned in the sea.

More personally, I was at that time in Tanzania covering the trail of Kerstin Cameron, a German woman accused of murdering her estranged husband, Cliff.   Initially, the authorities had declared the death a suicide:  Cliff, who was an alcoholic and an adulterer, had shot himself in front of Kerstin after an argument.  His family, back in New Zealand, refused to believe their son capable of such despair, and pushed the government to reconsider.  The trail took place in the dilapidated Arusha municipal courthouse, within sight of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the trial venue for the architects of the genocide that left a million people dead in less than 100 days.

The Cameron case was complicated by culture clash; hasty police work, a shockingly erroneous post mortem, mishandling of the body – all normal in Tanzania – were, naturally, interpreted by the Cameron family in New Zealand has conspiracy to cover up their son’s murder.  On the other hand, there was Cliff, a larger-than-life character who’d made a series of choices that left him facing divorce and bankruptcy.  He was sleeping with his best friend’s wife, drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, threatening suicide.  He was out of control. 

Everyone had a Cliff story, but one in particular struck me:  he’d been flying into a bush strip at dusk and hit a heard of goats.  Only they weren’t goats, they were children.  I never knew Cliff, but whatever his failings, he wasn’t a psychopath.  He would not have been able to walk away from such an incident unscarred.  I always wondered how much this tragedy had led to his downward spiral.

As I began to write, I considered the moment of impact:  when Cliff, the air-traffic controller, the bus driver became killers.  There was the before, and the after, and these were separate lives.  In creating Pilgrim, I sought to undo a woman who’s sense of self was already fragile.  Abandoned by her domineering husband, isolated in a small Swiss village, she had no one to turn to after the accident.  She was ripe for dissolution.

Paradoxically, I also wanted to explore the good that might come – unintended – from terrible acts.  In my own life, I’d suffered a long series of miscarriages, and had finally turned to IVF.  When my daughters were born, I considered that without the loss of the other babies, these two amazing, beautiful children would never have been born.  “Every sin already carries grace within it,” wrote Herman Hesse, and what I wanted, ultimately, for Pilgrim and the other characters was more than atonement but a way of living in the world again.

 Most of us don’t accidentally kill children, but we all face emotional, physical and spiritual crises.  We all grapple with existential angst.  Why?  For what? As Gloria says, “Life is full of sorrow and general shittiness.  But it’s what you make of it.”