After his 8-year-old son Owen drowned on a family rafting trip, Stéphane Gerson ’88 was seized by a compulsion to write. His new memoir tells the story of his family’s journey through grief.
The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and sweat. —William Faulkner, 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech
Stéphane Gerson ’88 reads me the Faulkner quote before summarizing the dilemma he faced in writing his latest book: “I was nervous about sentimentalizing and I was nervous about intellectualizing.” Faulkner’s directive helped him, he says, along with the words of Herman Melville (“Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.”) and others who have articulated the value of writing honestly.
This is what he wanted to write honestly about: On July 27, 2008, Gerson’s 8-year-old son, Owen, drowned during a family rafting trip on the Green River in northwestern Colorado. The site of the accident has been known since 1869 as “Disaster Falls.” The book that Gerson wrote about the accident and its aftermath is also called Disaster Falls. The more revealing subtitle is A Family Story.
We are in his family’s Manhattan apartment just after the book’s publication last month, talking over prosciutto, crusty bread, cornichons, and rich, soft cheese. A philosophy major at Haverford and now a professor of French and French Studies at New York University, he lives in Greenwich Village, in faculty housing with a panoramic view.
At one point Gerson acknowledges a stroller propped against a wall. “It’s not Owen’s,” he says. He and his wife, Alison, now have a three-year-old son, Elliot. Their older son, Julian, is a junior at Middlebury.
The stroller disclaimer passes inconspicuously in the conversation. But listening later to the recorded interview, it pops out at me. I wouldn’t have thought it was Owen’s; there was no sense of a shrine in the common areas, and I already knew that he has a stroller-aged son. Did he assume that I might assume it was Owen’s, nonetheless? Have other people assumed that? Is that part of how your identity changes—that people believe you’re forever frozen in a terrible moment, or that you constantly need to reassure them that you aren’t?
I’m not sure I should have brought that up here. But I am nervous about sentimentalizing Gerson’s story, and I am nervous about intellectualizing it. So I might as well write about that, too.
The Gersons’ terrible moment was preceded by joy, even triumph. The entire (pre-Elliot) family had been together on the guided rafting trip (suitable for ages 7 and up, according to the rafting company’s brochure) when Owen died—just hours after he had proclaimed it “the best day of my life.” Owen had been struggling with anxiety; his parents and therapists wondered if he harbored subconscious trauma from 9/11, when as a toddler he fled downtown Manhattan with Alison, both covered head-to-toe in ash. But Owen’s confidence had blossomed on the rafting trip, and he was eager for more adventure. Stéphane and Owen were paddling an inflatable kayak called a ducky (calling to mind a toddler’s toy floating peacefully in a warm bath). Passing through Disaster Falls, the ducky capsized and both were knocked loose into a mercilessly churning current; Owen was swept away. His body was found a few hours later in a “sieve”—a narrow space between rocks that can pin a rafter in place while torrents of water rush over him.
Because of the remote location of the accident, Stéphane, Alison, and Julian, then eleven, spent that night together in a tent on the riverbank, Owen’s body resting nearby, as they waited until morning so they could continue rafting to an extraction point. It’s just the three of us now, Alison had said. We have to stick together.
Two weeks later, Gerson started writing. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt almost supernaturally compelled: “Part of me was kind of observing it as it was happening,” he recalls. “My other forms of writing have been much more premeditated.” In works like The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in 19th Century France and Nostradamus: How an Obscure Renaissance Astrologer Became a Modern Prophet of Doom, he had painstakingly researched and interpreted selected moments in history, but this book was different: “The writing itself was a level of awareness of the new reality which we had entered,” he reflects. “And part of that reality was my compulsion to write.”
Gerson describes this new reality in the prologue to Disaster Falls: This is what you become: a walking reminder of the nightmare that haunts all parents nowadays. In a world that promises children safety and happiness, such deaths become personal failures, crimes against civilization, an affront to our collective aspirations.
I ask him to elaborate. “Since the 19th century, there has been a movement toward the nuclear middle-class family, and the children as the repository of all hopes and investments, initially economic, but also emotional as well, and we’re very much of that world now,” he explains. “And I was part of that.”
I’m part of it, too. Gerson and I are both Haverford alumni who teach at NYU and have two children. So again, in the spirit of writing honestly, Gerson is a reminder of a nightmare that haunts me. But having read that he knows this, I try not to project that in words or affect during the interview. Whether I succeed, I don’t know.
In the days and months following the accident, Gerson discovered a previously invisible community of loss—friends, acquaintances, and even strangers revealed tragedies to him that he had never known about. But he felt strangely detached from those who had no firsthand experience with a parent’s grief and who feared that experience terribly. Friends and family were sympathetic, loving, and helpful, but, some, he sensed, were subtly and understandably self-protective. Even the first few Amazon user reviews acknowledge the radioactive subject matter. From one reviewer: “A friend asked me a short while ago why I was reading this book and how on earth could I finish it.” From another: “All the best to each of you who decide to dive into the pages of Disaster Falls.”
It’s as if even reading about the loss of a child poses a risk (which emotionally, perhaps it does).
To a large extent, Disaster Falls is about that subject of risk. “We live in a world in which risk is much more controlled to some degree,” Gerson says. Childhood diseases are rarely fatal; car seats provide near-military-grade protection; minor injuries trigger nationwide recalls of playground equipment that was already far safer than the monkey bars today’s parents grew up on. And yet, he adds, “Some forms of risk cannot be averted. And I think that the loss of a child really captures this. It’s very visceral to people. I can be the best parent. I can do everything, and still lose my child.”
The morning after I write the above paragraph, I learn that a man was struck and killed the previous day by an Uber driver at an intersection near my home in Queens. The intersection is on my son’s route home from middle school. I text my wife: We should remind him not to use his phone while he’s walking home. I calculate the probability that he will listen, and it’s not high. I could go back to walking him home, but for how long? And in the grand scheme of things, what quantifiable difference in the risk of Anything Happening To Him would it really make?
Gerson might have reduced Owen’s risk that day. At the time, he asked the guides if he and Owen could safely ride a ducky through the Falls, and the responses were nonchalantly affirmative, almost as if it were strange that he was asking. After the family filed a lawsuit, the rafting company’s director acknowledged in a deposition (which Gerson did not attend and read only to complete the book) that a ducky has a 25 to 35 percent chance of capsizing in rapids like Disaster Falls, compared with 5 percent for a raft. The guides had never shared these statistics, or anything similarly specific, with the families on the trip. In fact, the director admitted there was no formal protocol to assess the skill level of the guides, and that the trip leader’s swift-water rescue certification had expired months prior to the accident. He also refused to acknowledge that the trips, which the brochures touted as “open to ages seven and up,” were marketed to families with young children, and argued that a guide’s primary purpose was to “provide a quality experience,” not to ensure safety. (The company settled the case.)
Still, riding these falls in the ducky was Owen’s choice, and the permission was Gerson’s to give. “I very much wanted to make it clear that even though he was 8 years old, Owen was an actor in his own life,” Gerson says. “Another kid would have said no. And he said yes because of his own personal psychological history that led him to overcome some of his fears. And if you say no to that, it’s all part of a context of a certain life. And negotiating, as a parent, how much you control.” Despite wanting Owen to succeed in the face of a challenge, Gerson sensed that day that the falls posed a somewhat greater risk than he had expected, but lacking expertise, he deferred to the guides’ assurances: “The question for me had to do with trusting my instincts, vis-à-vis trusting the information I was given. And at some point I didn’t want to trust my instincts. I let [the information] override them.”
For any parent, these little conflicts between instinct and information are unrelenting. Sometimes it turns out your instincts are wrong, irrational, off-base—perhaps even that your own neuroses are in some small way at odds with your child’s development. Other times it turns out your instincts are right, attuned to something you couldn’t even articulate logically. Usually, one choice doesn’t matter much in the long run. But sometimes it does.
At one point during the interview, Alison arrives home from a run. We talk briefly about small things; we mention the book, but not the subject of the book. She heads off to shower, change, and pick up Elliot from preschool. The interaction is friendly, pleasant, and unremarkable if you don’t think about what I’m doing here.
Alison’s commitment to holding the family together held fast, even during the first hard years, when each person’s grief took a different form, and those forms occasionally clashed. “Her response to grief was so much more physical than mine … and it was so much more social,” Gerson says. “It was so much more spiritual, too, even though she’s not a very religious person.”
For Gerson, Alison’s openness to adapting the journal into a book was essential. “Her response for me was a real sign of love, of trust,” he says. “She kind of gave me a blank check, trusting that what I would produce would be something that she would be satisfied with.”
Or maybe she saw the real value in the process, not the product. Back when the book was still a personal journal, Gerson recalls a historian friend telling him, “You know, whenever you’re writing, even something private, you’re not alone. You’re writing with others, or for others, to some degree.” The insight stuck with him. “I remember at one point I told Alison, ‘If I write this [book], Owen will be less alone.’ And she said, ‘If you write this, you’ll be less alone.’ And perhaps there’s a lot of that as well.”
She did read the manuscript, but offered corrections or a different perspective mostly on factual, concrete details. Owen’s older brother, Julian, also contributed: “His notes were sometimes a little more forceful than Alison’s, but also funnier. … There were times that he told me I should cut things, or that I was being too tough on myself, or that wasn’t quite the way he remembered things, or I got his batting average wrong. At the same time, the biggest compliment he paid me was when he said there were certain moments when I managed to express what he felt but couldn’t put into words.”
Part of the book explores Gerson’s strained relationship with his own father, who had never been emotionally demonstrative. “He had a hard time talking about Owen, and that silence was very difficult for me, and again made me feel like I had a father who wasn’t even there,” says Gerson, who was born and raised in Belgium. After his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, though, things shifted. He eventually chose to end his life in Belgium, where medically assisted euthanasia is permitted. Unlike with Owen, Gerson and his father were able to see ahead, clearly, to an end point, and they spent his last three days together, finally communicating openly after a lifetime of avoidance. “It felt to me that during those three days he became my father again,” Gerson says. “He taught me things, he brought me closer; I didn’t feel any anger or resentment toward the past, because he listened to what I told him. [How] he parted with me then has stayed with me, and will stay with me until I die myself.”
When Elliot was born—unexpectedly; Alison became pregnant at 46—the Gersons’ friends, co-workers, and neighbors shared in their joy, but Gerson also sensed, in some of them, a tinge of relief: that on some level, the universe had atoned for Owen’s death. Perhaps it lifted some of the lingering shared grief that always re-announced itself in their presence. I ask Gerson if parenting felt different this time around. He pauses, unsure. He says there is “a sense of being less anxious, of projecting myself less into the future, of approaching child-rearing with lesser ambitions for the child. With Julian and Owen, I remember wanting to impart so much, there was so much I wanted to teach them. And now, it might sound a little hokey, but I feel like I have much more to learn from them.”
I ask him about healing, a word I’ve always found a little suspect in this context. He agrees that it’s not quite the right description of his life since the accident. “It was finding a way to keep on living,” he reflects. “It’s finding a way of living, but with the presence of Owen and with the memory and acceptance of what happened that day. And in that way, I think the writing for me was pivotal. For other people, I think there might be a different way. It’s finding a language within yourself that enables you to see what happened in all its dimensions.”
I can’t know for sure, and I honestly hope I don’t find out, but that seems true.