Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I'm repeating myself, but I'm really elated that Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, because the winning piece is one of the most harrowing and haunting and extraordinary stories I've ever read. The piece, "Fatal Distraction" ran in the Washington Post magazine in March of 2009, and it describes the aftermath of parents who, in a searing moment of forgetfulness, left their children in the backseat of their car, to die.
"Death by hyperthermia" is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.
Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.
The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.
It's hard stuff to read about. The deaths are lurid and the pain felt by all involved comes rushing off the page. In the hands of a lesser writer, this is the type of story where it would be easy to drown the reader in grisly details, and easier still to simply stoke the reader to outrage at the foolish parents who made this mistake. But rather than suggest that leaving a child in a hot car comes about due to some tragic flaw unique to misfortunate or stupid people, Weingarten rather eloquently builds the case that this type of tragedy could happen to anyone. Where another writer might strive to not allow the subjects off the hook, Weingarten puts his readers on it.
It's a masterpiece. And it's brutal. If you're having a wonderful day, and are in high spirits, maybe you shouldn't read it. But it's a deserving winner, and while we'll never know for sure, I personally prefer to believe that this piece has already saved many lives. That's a fine thing to be able to say about a piece of writing!
Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? [Washington Post]
Pulitzer Win: Chatting with Gene Weingarten [Washington Post]