Fatal distraction

In July 2008 two diligent, caring French fathers set off for work, intending to drop their children with relatives or childminders en route, and simply ‘forgot’ that their children were in the car.

In May this year, the same thing happened to two equally loving fathers in Italy. The pregnant wife of one insisted: ‘He is not guilty of anything. He is an exemplary father.’

In America, according to a Pulizter Prize-winning article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post, there are on average 25 such deaths each year.

Anecdotally, it also happens here in the UK, but, with our cooler climate, seldom with fatal consequences.

Among these absent-minded European men were a pharmacist, a university lecturer and one who worked at a nuclear plant. I have also been told of a British neurosurgeon who, distracted at work, forgot both kids and car, and took the train home: they were recovered safe and well.

My father was a surgeon. Having grown up with the kind of single-minded focus he brought to his work, I don’t find it impossible to comprehend that kind of ‘distraction’. Indeed, the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who wrote about the state of ‘Flow’ – a merging of action and awareness involving loss of self-consciousness and time distortion – based his work on surgeons.

I saw how deeply my father enjoyed that optimal state of being, how concentrating fully on the task in hand calmed him, and how his ability to drive out all other thoughts also involved ‘forgetting’ everything else. Facing various emotional difficulties as a young man, he may well have developed it as a successful and ultimately rewarding coping strategy.

Surgeons require what an 18th-century anatomist called a ‘necessary inhumanity’ in order to take a knife to someone. I believe it involves a similar kind of forgetting, a shutting out of all human vulnerabilities – both the patient’s and the surgeon’s own – in the interests of science. It was what made my father able to be ruthless.

He was not a coward; but when I wanted to write about the ruthlessness towards other people that stems from emotional cowardice, to dramatise how my character, Patrick Hinde, in Out of Sight, went about shutting out unbearable thoughts, it didn’t seem at all far-fetched to use the kind of tragic incident that I had read about in France in July 2008.

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