Photograph by Brian Moody
In 1971 Kelly Connor, then aged 17, was responsible for the death of a 77-year-old woman in a road accident in Perth, Australia.
That morning my dad was due to drive me to my job at the telephone exchange but decided at the last minute to have a lie-in, so I drove myself instead.
As I climbed a steep hill, I saw a taxi waiting to pull out on the right and – concerned he’d pull out in front of me – I kept my eyes firmly fixed on him. At the brow of the hill I kept my foot firmly on the accelerator but suddenly on the pedestrian crossing in front of me I saw an elderly woman. As I slammed on the brake she looked up in terror and tried to run – but we collided.
In the silence which followed I could almost have convinced myself it hadn’t happened. But, shaking uncontrollably, I managed to get out of the car and drape a blanket over the woman. That’s as much as the efficient part of me could manage. Very quickly after that the police and ambulance arrived.
At the police station the officer gently guided me to say I’d been driving at a legal 35mph rather than the 45mph I’d really been doing. It was the policeman’s way of protecting me and it was the first time I experienced someone forgiving me. But it took me a long time to see it that way – for many years I wished I’d been imprisoned.
I was informed later that morning that Margaret Healey had died in hospital. At that moment I experienced myself in another dimension of time and space – a sense of total alienation from the rest of the world. That feeling stayed with me for years.
Two weeks later I came home to find Margaret Healey’s brother talking to my parents. He told me that he wanted me to know that neither he, nor his family blamed me, and nor – he was sure – would Margaret. Deeply generous as I knew this to be, I wasn’t in a position to accept his forgiveness. I didn’t feel I deserved it. In fact it just made things worse because I knew I’d given a false statement to the police.
The guilt was so bad that four years later I went back to the police station to confess that I’d lied about the speed I was driving, but the senior police officer I spoke to refused to take my statement. “Putting you in jail would turn a disaster into a tragedy” he said.
My family very quickly fractured. The accident happened on my sister’s 12th birthday, thus tainting her special day forever. My mother’s way of dealing with it was to lay down the edict that we would never talk about it, and my father felt a terrible guilt for not having driven me on that day. Four months later my parents’ marriage collapsed and shortly after that my father vanished. We never heard from him again until we were informed of his death ten years later.
For nearly two decades I didn’t speak about the accident at all. At one point I was so convinced I didn’t have the right to continue living, I tried to commit suicide. I avoided relationships and although I ventured into marriage I left when my daughter was two, taking her with me. But it was the birth of Meegan which made me want to live again.
When Meegan was four, I started on a journey towards self-forgiveness after reading a book about Creative Visualisation. I’d tried to imagine how my life would have been without the accident –and during the process I realised that I am who I am because of Margaret Healey. But, even allowing myself to consider forgiving myself brought up the full force of guilt again. How can you be grateful for your life when you’ve killed someone?
Meegan knew nothing of the accident but aged 14 I knew I had to tell her otherwise this secret between us would corrupt our lives. After I told her, she said, in a very matter-of-fact way, “so this is why we live such a peculiar life.” Her acceptance led me to start dealing with my past.
In 2001 I was asked to write a book about my experience. Going public terrified me but I knew I had to do it to help others who were traumatised by the guilt of causing a death. The book was a great success and the letters started flooding in. The first person to contact me was a woman whose young daughter had been killed as she stepped out onto the road, and her mother wrote, “every day for the last ten years I’ve worried about the driver.”
In that moment I suddenly realised that people have been more forgiving of me than I ever realised.
The moment I’ve fixed forgiveness, it’s no longer real. It has to be changing and constantly challenging. What I forgive myself for today, I don’t know will apply tomorrow.