Op-Ed: The anguish of unintentional killing — and how Alec Baldwin can learn to cope with it
Even as he is surrounded by loving friends and family, actor Alec Baldwin may well feel all alone in the world. In a split second, he learned how capricious life can be, and how we have far less control over ourselves and our world than we like to believe.
By his own account, Baldwin is traumatized, in the grip of shock, grief and guilt after firing a prop gun Thursday on the New Mexico set of the film “Rust,” killing the film’s cinematographer and injuring the director. The actor had been assured the gun did not contain live ammunition, law enforcement officials said.
Horrible images of the shooting and the aftermath are likely dominating his consciousness. He may feel numb or spacey, then crash back down to earth in a sea of despair. In a statement on Twitter on Friday, Baldwin wrote, “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours.”
At least one of the camera operators complained last weekend to production managers about gun safety on the set.
Those who care about him are probably trying to relieve his distress by saying things that may be true but are beside the point such as “it wasn’t your fault,” or “it was just an accident.” The fact is, he was the agent of terrible harm. It is a heavy burden to bear, apart from the potential legal ramifications of being one of the film’s producers.
I know this because I, too, am an unintentional killer. Many years ago, an 8-year-old boy named Brian dashed in front of my car. I tried to swerve, but I hit him. He died before he reached the hospital.
As part of my own healing, I formed a nonprofit called Accidental Impacts, an organization devoted to helping those who have unintentionally killed or seriously injured other people. Our research indicates that at least 30,000 people in the U.S. alone accidentally kill someone each year. So many of them are devastated. Yet they may keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves because they don’t believe they deserve support, they fear retaliation or they cannot find support.
I do not mean to suggest that those who accidentally kill another are victims. We are not. But neither are we evil or uncaring. These tragedies do not define us. In fact, the depth of our despair is evidence of our caring and humanity.
Many people who have inadvertently killed someone and seek support from Accidental Impacts have carried the weight of trauma, guilt and loneliness for decades. But we can and do find our way back to peace.
The first step is dealing with the aftermath of experiencing a terrifying event. Many unintentional killers develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder while others experience some of the symptoms. These include being haunted by images of the incident; experiencing fear, shame, guilt, grief and anger; being easily startled; and having difficulty sleeping and concentrating. Fortunately, in the 41 years since PTSD became a recognized diagnosis, psychotherapists have made great strides in studying it and treating it.
Before the revolver fired, Alec Baldwin was rehearsing how to point it toward the camera, says an affidavit laying out new details of the shooting.
The next step is dealing with moral injury — the anguish, guilt and alienation we experience when we fail to live up to the moral standards we have set for ourselves. Signs of moral injury can include thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, a sense of worthlessness, shutting down positive emotions and isolating oneself.
Often, people receive psychological counseling that tries to lessen the guilt or make it go away, but such feelings are appropriate when we harm someone. Instead, there is value in “moral repair,” when we acknowledge the harm we caused, learn to treat ourselves with compassion rather than contempt and recognize the potential to live a virtuous life going forward, according to Matthew Gray, a professor of psychology at the University of Wyoming who has researched the subject.
The third step toward finding at least some peace is trying to honor our victims. We cannot ever make up for taking a life. We can, however, resolve to make the world a better place. We can commit to living with compassion and kindness. We can create safer and more caring communities. In so doing, we regain a sense of agency and efficacy, we restore our sense of belonging, and we find a measure of self-respect.
I can think of no better way for Baldwin, and for all those who unintentionally kill or injure others, to honor their victims than by choosing to live courageously, with full awareness of the fragility of life. As he begins his journey of coping and healing, I hope he can hold this intention. Although he may feel alone, he is not alone. He can derive courage and hope from the thousands of people who have found their way to self-acceptance and self-respect after accidentally killing someone.
Maryann J. Gray is a social psychologist and the founder and president of Accidental Impacts.
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