Monday, April 12, 2010

Pulitzer Prizes

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners were recently announced and one of the most gripping, riveting, and heart wrenching stories that I've ever read won this year's prize for Best Feature Writing.
I remember reading Gene Weingarten's piece last year about parents who unintentionally kill their children by forgetting them in their car.  And after rereading it today, I could not imagine that any of the other entries could have stood a chance at winning this award. 

Reading the accounts of parents who have accidentally killed their children, such as Miles Harrison, whose heartbreaking picture of him clutching his child's toy accompanies the story, it is difficult to imagine a sorrow deeper than theirs.  Their stories are fairly graphic, yet are told as a warning that this can happen to anyone: parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, etc. 
"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.
Mr. Weingarten presents some of the legal questions such events pose:  to prosecute or not to prosecute.  Is this a crime?  If so, can it be a felony if there is no intent?  And, if it's not a felony, isn't the parent's internal punishment going to be greater than any that a misdemeanor might carry?  If a case goes to trial, is a jury going to convict? 

I'm certain that Mr. Weingarten began this piece intending to focus on the law and order aspect of such a rare event.  But the strenght of his writing, and what probably lead to his ultimately receiving the award, was how he treated these parents.  Another writer may not have been so kind.  Mr. Weingarten expertly allows some of these parents to explain how they are able to cope with the mental and psychological tole such a loss takes on them, their spouses, and their marriages.  Some parents put up a fight.  Others take flight.  Some parents avoid, others embrace.

I began this story wondering, "how could someone forget their child in a car?"  I ended this piece wondering, "would I have the strength that these parents have displayed and be able to face the rest of my life?"  Because he was able to get readers like me to move away from being judgmental of others and instead become introspective of themselves, Mr. Weingarten is $10,000 and a Pulitzer Prize richer.  

1 comment:

  1. The article is amazingly touching. This writer clearly deserved the Pulitzer.