Mrs. Laura Bush recently released an autobiography. In it, she tells the story of a terrible car accident she was involved in when she was 17 years old. Reading this reminded me again that so many people have so much pain in their lives. As one of the Puritans said, “Be kind, everyone you meet is in a battle.”
But it is her description of the deadly accident, and its subsequent impact on her life and her faith, that is the subject Mrs. Bush had most shied away from speaking about in her public life. On a November night in 1963, Mrs. Bush and a girlfriend were hurrying to a drive-in theater when Mrs. Bush, at the wheel of her father’s Chevy Impala, ran a stop sign on a small road and smashed into a car being driven by Mike Douglas, a star athlete and popular student at her school.
“In those awful seconds, the car door must have been flung open by the impact and my body rose in the air until gravity took over and I was pulled, hard and fast, back to earth,” she says. “The whole time,” she adds later, “I was praying that the person in the other car was alive. In my mind, I was calling ‘Please, God. Please, God. Please, God,’ over and over and over again.”
Mrs. Bush concedes that she and her friend were chatting when she ran the stop sign. But she also suggests a host of factors beyond her control played a role — the pitch-black road, an unusually dangerous intersection, the small size of the stop sign, and the car the victim was driving.
“It was sporty and sleek, and it was also the car that Ralph Nader made famous in his book Unsafe at Any Speed,” she states. “He claimed the car was unstable and prone to rollover accidents. A few years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration went so far as to investigate the Corvair’s handling, but it didn’t reach the same grim conclusions. I was driving my dad’s much larger and heavier Chevy Impala. But none of that would ever ease the night of November 6. Not for me, and never for the Douglases.”
Mrs. Bush reveals that she was wracked by guilt for years after the crash, especially after not attending the funeral and for not reaching out to the parents of the dead teenager. Her parents did not want her to show up at the funeral, she states, and she ended up sleeping through it.
“I lost my faith that November, lost it for many, many years,” she says. “It was the first time that I had prayed to God for something, begged him for something, not the simple childhood wishing on a star but humbly begging for another human life. And it was as if no one heard. My begging, to my seventeen-year-old mind, had made no difference. The only answer was the sound of Mrs. Douglas’s sobs on the other side of that thin emergency room curtain.”
Mrs. Bush goes on to say that in her public life, she has encouraged young drivers who have been in serious accidents to speak to loved ones, counselors or spiritual or pastoral advisers.
“But while I give this advice in my letters, I didn’t do any of that,” she reveals. “Most of how I ultimately coped with the crash was by trying not to talk about it, not to think about it, to put it aside. Because there wasn’t anything I could do. Even if I tried.”