When a Rabbi Was the Last Thing I Needed
Six years ago, I lost a friend to a drunk driver. I was a 19-year-old counselor at a sleepaway camp near Augusta, Maine, and I felt invincible. I had never experienced anything “bad” beyond some less-than-stellar marks on my college econ exams. Certainly no trauma. I knew nothing about death (beyond the passing of my great-grandmother) and I didn’t give it too much thought, because why would I?
It was late July and 10 or 15 of us were walking back to camp after a night off. The same walk we had taken countless times that summer, a stretch of 200 steps between “the docks” — empty docks along Echo Lake where counselors would hang out with guitars, S’mores, bug spray and good stories — and the campgrounds. The road was quiet and empty, but we always kept to the side. Just to be safe.
Then, Joseph Rouleau, a 35-year-old Fayette local, came around the bend so fast that his pickup truck flipped over. It landed on three of our friends. One wasn’t harmed. One broke a number of bones. And one, Corrie, who attended Northwestern University and was planning to start law school the following year, was killed.
Rouleau rolled out of his car, unscathed, jerking his arms and legs this way and that like a marionette. He waved his hands as if trying to flag down a helicopter. I saw him as if through a funhouse mirror, deformed and terrifying. His blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit, police said. He’d had so much to drink that he didn’t even know he had taken someone’s life.
The next morning, campers’ parents received an email with the subject: “Message From Camp.” It’s the oldest email in my inbox — from 2009 — but I still can’t bring myself to delete it. “We worked overnight to bring grief counselors to camp this morning to work with campers who need help coping with this tragic accident,” the formal, impersonal email said. “As we mourn her death as a camp community, we expect much of camp to resume normal camp activities today, while we work with others more directly affected to help cope with this loss in a healthy way. Our staff will meet this evening again to join together to share memories of Corrie and her time with us.”
I woke up that morning — 8 hours after the accident — with swine flu. (This was 2009 when the H1N1 virus ran rampant globally.) I had to vacate my bunk almost immediately and was quarantined in a drab, dorm-like room in the back of the camp’s infirmary. I sat alone in that dark room for nearly a week sleeping, eating minimally, and watching PG-13 DVDs until my eyes burned. I called my parents a few times, but they were hundreds of miles away and it felt like thousands. I lay there in isolation, replaying everything that had happened. I was too contagious to go to the vigils, memorials and group get-togethers. The camp also brought in some rabbis for support, but I missed that, too.
Once I finished my dose of Tamiflu and moved back into my cabin, “The Whippoorwills,” which was filled with 7- and 8-year old girls, I appeared to be okay. I braided hair, gave piggyback rides, and told bedtime stories for another few weeks before heading back to Philadelphia for my sophomore year of college.
But during the fall, the tragedy caught up with me. I began having flashbacks. I couldn’t get behind the wheel of any car. I could barely even ride in a passenger seat. I had so much trouble crossing the street that I missed lectures. I contemplated switching out of a small English class because one of my classmates wore the same thick-rimmed, black rectangular glasses that Corrie wore. I stopped drinking alcohol, and I couldn’t drink caffeine because it gave me an anxious, out-of-body feeling that was strangely similar to the way I felt the night of the accident. I was too scared to run outside. I couldn’t even enjoy an outdoor meal on Rittenhouse Square because I was sure I’d get run over.
I had never been to therapy before, and I didn’t want to go; I thought it was bullshit. When my parents, who are both doctors, finally convinced me to go, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As I continued treatment through the rest of that school year and the following summer, I’d hear this recurring comment from those around me: If she had seen the rabbis when they came to camp, instead of sitting in quarantine, she’d be okay now.
This really upset me. They spoke as if a rabbi had supernatural powers to heal the mind and erase a painful memory. As if I would not have been traumatized had I been more in touch with my spirituality? As if a rabbi would know what’s best for me, better than I would know myself, or better than my friends or parents might?
The assumption was that if I had some quality hangout time with a rabbi, the accident wouldn’t have traumatized me in the way that it did. I’d presumably still be able to drive today and drink coffee. I also wouldn’t feel the need to strap myself into a seatbelt every single time I hop into a taxicab.
It’s far too easy to use religion as a solution for any traumatic experience, to say that God is always watching. Situations like this car crash have me convinced that God is, in fact, not always watching. And quite honestly, that God might not exist at all.
To me, religion is my excuse to spend time with my family — my favorite people on the planet — and to pass along the stories and traditions of my great-great-grandparents and those of us who have followed. It is not a means of healing, and does not provide rational explanations or psychiatric solutions.
July 27 is always the hardest day of the year. There’s this unnerving overload of morbid thoughts and survivor’s guilt mixed with satisfaction that Rouleau is still behind bars mixed with disbelief that he’s already served roughly half his all-too-short sentence. Mixed with gratitude that a stranger in Maine, named Michael, puts down a beautiful bouquet of flowers every year without fail, in the spot by the docks where Corrie’s life ended. Mixed with appreciation of the enduring strength of Corrie’s family: Her mother still posts the most heartrending and inspiring notes on the wall of a Facebook group commemorating Corrie’s life. Being able to feel all those feelings has helped me move on.
Alexandra Levine is the Forward’s summer culture fellow.