On Rachel Attias

Black and white image of ghostly girl on black background

for Chris & Layla

Rachel Attias’s entire family died on May 22, 2012. Her six siblings, her mother, and her father. It was a car accident. Rachel, seven years old at the time, was the sole survivor. It was night, and they were going somewhere, or coming back from somewhere, but what matters is that they were all piled into the family’s Mitsubishi—I’m not sure what the model was. I’m not good with cars, and in every photo I’ve seen of it, it’s upside down and crumpled. But it was large, it must have been, to accommodate a family of eight. Let’s say it was a minivan, two full rows of seats in the back, cramped and warm, granola bar wrappers and coloring books stuffed between the cushions alongside a half-broken pair of headphones whose left ear one day quit the only job it ever had, which was to block out the din of younger siblings by piping music into Rachel’s sister’s ear. There was a prayer book back there as well, which will come into play in just a moment or two.

Rachel’s father was Rafael. Her mother was Yehudit. Rafael was behind the wheel as always; he was a bit of a traditionalist in the sense that there were some jobs only he was meant to do, and her mother wasn’t much of a driver, anyway. Afterwards, everyone talked about how cautious he was, how he’d done the best anyone could have in a situation like that. If he’d survived, would Rafael have blamed himself for what happened? This is a useless question. He died with the rest of them. But before that he piloted the Mitsubishi on a steep and winding road outside Tiberias at night.

If it hadn’t been dark outside Rachel could have looked out the window and seen dry, rolling hills of wheat-colored grass, the large expanse of it broken up occasionally by scraggly oak trees with rough bark and dark, coarse leaves. Further down the hill, toward the Sea of Galilee, the trees might have been eucalyptus, with smooth, striated bark and long, thin leaves. They could have passed an olive farm as well, trees in neat rows whose bushy tops always looked to Rachel like someone had hit pause on a whole green grid of fireworks just as they exploded. But it was dark, and Rachel was smushed in the middle of the back-most row of seats, so she could see nothing through the windows but slivers of her own reflection, partially obscured by her siblings’ bodies.

It was a bit too warm in the back of the car, and without the ability to look out the window and anchor herself to the scenery around her, Rachel was beginning to feel carsick. She closed her eyes, tried to fall asleep, or at least to quiet her mind to a near-sleep state, which usually kept the nausea at bay until the Mitsubishi pulled up to the curb outside their home. This time, though, with her eyes closed, she remained alert, and felt herself tune in to the car’s movements. The road Rafael drove on switchbacked at irregular intervals, and as the car curved around one of these Rachel felt just the hint of a gravitational pull, just a whisper that the car was going faster than it should have been. 

She opened her eyes as her parents spoke in the front seats, the thrum of the wheels on the road too loud for her to make out exactly what they said. There was an unmistakable note of fear in her father’s voice, unmistakable because she had never heard it there before. The car approached another switchback and Rafael steered around it, even faster than before, and this time Rachel’s brother, on her right, leaned his body involuntarily into hers, and she leaned into her other brother, who sat on her left, and who woke from his dreams with an annoyed grunt.

Now Rachel could see the faint glow of her father’s cellphone as her mother held it between them. She could hear what they were saying, because now they were shouting. Rafael had called the police, who were on speaker phone. He and Yehudit explained, in growing panic, that the brakes weren’t working, that they were speeding faster and faster down a switchbacking road outside Tiberias, that each turn Rafael had to make was more difficult than the one before.

As they skidded around another curve Yehudit turned to Rachel and her siblings in the back of the car and, still screaming, told them to read psalms. The sound of her mother’s last words—their frantic pitch like shattering glass, or maybe that was just shattering glass, which she’d hear a moment later, and the hope behind them, however small, that reading from a book might save them—will be Rachel’s most horrifically enduring memory of the next few seconds of her life. Somebody pulled the prayer book out from underneath their leg where it had been lodged for the duration of the trip. No one had time to recite anything, even if their throats, closed from fear, could have allowed it, because Rafael lost control around the final switchback and the Mitsubishi went barreling off a cliff.

One of the many news reports I read told me that afterwards, in the hospital, Rachel asked one question. 

“Everybody is dead?”

* * *

I first found Rachel Attias while Googling myself, which is an embarrassing but common habit I entertain. I have another habit—which I believe is also common, though many of us might not like to cop to it—of deriving morbid pleasure from imagining worst case scenarios that are not actually happening: What if my cat died? What if my brother died? My mother? What if my entire family died? I’ve spent hours of my life living through these situations in my mind, often in the shower or on long car rides. I receive a phone call with the news. I scream, I cry, I go silent (I haven’t decided yet how I might respond, so I try out different things). I make funeral arrangements. I eulogize my loved ones. My imaginary self writes such kind, generous, and honest things that tears well in my actual eyes; these are things I have never said to my family in real life. And then I remember that no one has died—not yet at least—and I am not behind the pulpit of some synagogue dressed in mourner’s black, and the flood of relief is intoxicating. Real life has never looked so good. If you’ve really never tried this, I suggest you do.

So it felt cosmically important to have found a version of myself to whom the worst case scenario had actually happened. I could learn something from her, I was sure. I became mildly obsessed. As I read more about Rachel Attias, I tried to develop a sense of kinship or sameness. I stared hard at our name on the screen, trying to summon some magical hyperlink that would allow us to feel each other’s presence. I felt nothing.

* * *

I used to be a member of this liquor store. You sign up, and when you make a purchase you tell them your name and phone number so you can earn points. When you have a certain number of points you get money off your next purchase. One day one of the guys who worked there asked me, “Did your dad direct The Sopranos?”

I knew why he asked. I watched the show, too. At the end of the credits, as Tony Soprano pulls into his suburban New Jersey McMansion and exits his vehicle and the theme song tells the listener, once again, that “you woke up this morning/ and you got yourself a gun,” the words appear at the bottom of the screen: “Directed by Daniel Attias.”

The man is not my father, and I told the guy as much, though I do have a second cousin by that name, which I didn’t tell the guy, and after that day I never had to tell anyone in the liquor store my phone number again; they saw me walking up to the register and typed my information in for me. I was convinced they were all in love with me—Daniel Attias only directed three of the show’s eighty-six episodes. It made sense that his name in the credits stuck out to me, but for them? Come on, it could only have been love—though it probably didn’t hurt that I was there almost every day, either.

The point of this digression is that Daniel Attias has a daughter. Her name is Rachel Attias. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. At one point she wore a lot of eye makeup, but she seems to have toned it down in recent years. For a long time I let myself Google her but refused to click on any link about this Rachel Attias. She wasn’t interesting to me. I found her looks, so specific and so different from my own, repellent. I’d never seen a photo of the Israeli car crash Rachel Attias, so I was free to imagine her as I pleased, and in my mind she looked a bit like me.

After a long time, when I started writing this essay, I looked into the blonde Rachel Attias. She went to a boarding high school in Connecticut and lives in New York City now. She does the sort of brand marketing consultation work that I don’t understand, but which pays very well. She is married and has a young daughter. On her wedding day, Rachel and her husband had a professional photoshoot done that involved standing in the open doors of a Manhattan bus bound for Harlem, which they must have stalled for the occasion, counting on the effervescent excitement of their nuptials to convince the bus driver to pause in his route for just a few minutes.

“New York buses are always late,” Rachel’s husband might have rationalized. “No one will even care.” Perhaps he’d never taken the bus in his life, and so had no idea how wrong he was.

In the photo, Rachel’s husband holds up the hem of her wedding dress in one hand and leans down to kiss her. The driver watches somewhat impatiently, and an old couple in those seats with the extra leg room look on, confused. I imagine that when Rachel saw the pictures afterwards, she was mildly disappointed with their less-than-pleased faces being in the shot but didn’t complain. By all appearances, she lives a full and happy life. She is not a complainer.

Once, in an interview, Daniel Attias said that “everything was extremely easy for [our daughter Rachel].” This statement was in the context of Daniel’s other child, Rachel’s brother. David.

On February 23, 2001, David Attias got into his car. It was a black Saab; his father bought it for him. I’ve read this is a very nice car, but again, I don’t know from cars. David drove the Saab around the UC Santa Barbara campus, where he was a college freshman. He drove the car into five people and four of them died. Afterwards, in the palm tree-lined street, in front of a growing crowd of onlookers, David shouted something that all the news reports would seize on. 

“I am the Angel of Death.”

The incident has since been dubbed “The Isla Vista Killings.” In subsequent reporting, fellow students told of how David always acted strange and clingy, had barged into dorm rooms uninvited or followed people into elevators to make incoherent conversation. He sometimes asked people for drugs or aggressively hit on women in ways that crossed the line of normal college freshman behavior.

Rachel was still in high school, in Connecticut, when everything happened. Let’s say she was doing homework and listening to CDs when her cell phone rang. Her father’s voice sounded unfamiliar through the clunky old Nokia, and she could hear that he was trying not to cry as he told her what David had done. They’d bought her a plane ticket. She had to come home.

Let’s say that afterwards, hands shaking, Rachel switched off the music. She’d never been close with David. All throughout their childhoods she’d seen him at his worst, throwing tantrums and flying into rages, or withdrawing into himself for days at a time. Though now she knew that his worst was something very different from what she’d thought it could be. 

Later, in the courtroom, Rachel probably heard people say things about David that she’d never known. David’s psychologists said that he’d shown signs of mental illness from infancy. She knew he’d been on and off medication, and in and out of residential treatment facilities and developmental schools for years. But some of her classmates must have been to places like that, or else to rehab for eating disorders or drugs. Maybe she’d come to think of these stints of institutionalization as vacations from life, when rich teens got to spend a few weeks away from school, hanging out in the pool or going to the gym. She’d even considered dabbling in bulimia just to go to Rosewood Ranch, where she heard they let you ride horses and pet goats. For David, she was learning, it hadn’t been like that.

She learned that each time he was sent somewhere new David asked to be brought home, but wasn’t. He’d asked this from UC Santa Barbara as well and was denied, not long before he got behind the wheel of the Saab for the last time. Most disturbing for Rachel was hearing her father say, in a choked voice, that he regretted his enduring belief that if David could just keep trying, could just put in the effort and get his degree, that sooner or later things would click into place. That maybe, someday, through sheer will, David would end up like Rachel, for whom everything had been extremely easy.

* * *

Sometime after Rachel Attias’s brother committed murder, but before Rachel Attias’s family passed away outside Tiberias, I was in a car accident. A small one. No one was injured. Except for me. My boyfriend at the time drove a Geo Prism, which has since become one of the few cars I can recognize on sight. When the Geo swerved into a parked car next to the ice cream shop on the corner and my face hit the back of the seat in front of me, I sustained a concussion, which I didn’t realize until a few hours later, when the dizziness and vomiting set in. At the time of the accident, I was so convinced I was all right that I told the paramedics I didn’t need their help, and they went off somewhere else, to help someone who did. A friend who worked at the ice cream store came out and offered us water in paper cups. He looked at me strangely. Years later, at a party, he told me that while we spoke my eyes were vibrating. He hadn’t had the heart to tell me at the time. Involuntary eye movement, from side to side or up and down, is called nystagmus. It is a symptom of vertigo.

After that, I was fine for the better part of a decade, when suddenly I became a perpetually dizzy, nauseated person. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night to incapacitating dizziness, as if a ghost plucked my sleeping body out of bed, spun me around a few thousand times, and tucked me back in before slapping me awake. I can’t move my head an inch when I’m like this; if I do, everything will spin again.

I spend the whole night and the following day vomiting and crying, my stomach devoid of anything that might make the retching smoother, though in the moment what I am doing is not vomiting, can only be called barfing. I heave violently, loudly. The sludge that spews from my mouth is thick, and it takes effort to draw it out. I hack like a cat with a hairball, or else I spit up what little water I can drink in wet projectiles, like a lizard. It hurts my throat and makes my nose drip snot. It is only later, when my vision has stilled and I can lay my thoughts down and smooth them out, that what happened to my body becomes much more abstract vomiting.

While vomiting and spinning, I am barely able to think, wholly incapable of speech, and movement is out of the question. I am no longer Rachel Attias; I am not even human, but a mewling, pitiful thing trapped in an inhospitable body. The ripples of this can last for days, over which time I slowly regain my faculties: first, the ability to sit up, then to crawl, then to ask rhetorical questions about why this is happening to me, and even to make a wry, miserable joke. After more time, I can look at a book for a few minutes. When my eyes stop vibrating, I can take in a screen. Slowly, over the course of days, I become a human again. I can go months, perhaps even years, without a vertigo episode. But even during these stable times I wait for the next time my humanhood will spin away from me again.

What might have happened if I’d worn my seatbelt? If we’d driven by the ice cream store fifteen seconds earlier or later, when our friend hadn’t been outside so that my boyfriend wouldn’t have taken his eyes off the road to wave to him? If I’d never been in the car at all? If I’d never loved him? These are useless questions. I crashed with the rest of them.

* * *

In my dreams, every single time I am behind the wheel of a car, I cannot get the brakes to make me stop. In my dreams, I have rolled, always slowly, into other cars, electric poles, streetlights, curbsides, people, and even puppies, countless times. It was like this even before I became a dizzy person.

I know this is not a worst-case scenario; it would be a disservice to those other Rachel Attiases to think that it is. But try telling that to me when I’m spinning.

* * *

Eight or so years after my car accident, I finally see a doctor about my vertigo. I go into the appointment with the grim certainty that there will be no magical cure, no way to snap my fingers and make the world stop moving around me–which is exactly what the doctor tells me. I almost cry as I describe, or fail to describe, the precise way the world spins out of control when an episode takes me over. I do cry, just one tear that goes unnoticed, very romantic, like a character in a story, when the doctor tells me that he, too, suffers from vertigo, and has for nearly thirty years. I file that little tidbit away for later use.

The doctor tells me about another patient of his, a ninety-year-old woman whose dizziness keeps her from gardening, which is the only thing she still likes to do. He reminds me that at least I’m young, not like her, and I laugh politely, though I also wonder, aren’t I getting older every day? Perhaps when I’m ninety years old, splayed out on wet grass next to my trowel and the earthworms, I’ll remember her. I wonder what her name is.

More than a year after the Attias family’s Mitsubishi fatally malfunctioned, Rachel received some deeply unsatisfying news. The Israeli State Prosecutor’s Office investigated the crash for any evidence of wrongdoing and found none, despite the fact that Rafael had had the Mitsubishi inspected just three months before, and the brake system got the OK, as well as the fact that this was not the first time this model of Mitsubishi had brake issues. The Attias family vowed they would not rest until they had answers, or at least someone to blame. No blame, for whatever that may be worth, has ever officially landed on anyone’s shoulders. And, of course, the only person who can tell us just how much that blame may have been worth is Rachel Attias, but she’s not talking.

By now, I have seen a photo of this Rachel’s face just one time. I won’t look at it again. It was taken a few months after the accident. She does look more like me than the blonde Rachel Attias. Her skin is the same brown as mine, but her hair is a few shades lighter, and curlier. It was pulled into a ponytail. She wore a pink shirt with a small bow in the center of the neckline. She looked directly into the camera and frowned. Her eyes were very large.

More than a decade after the Isla Vista Killings, David Attias was released from the psychiatric institution he’d been sentenced to live at, having successfully pled not guilty by reason of insanity. During that time, Daniel Attias confidentially settled a lawsuit with the parents of the victims. They sued him for negligence, having been the one who supplied the murder weapon. Many people have things to say about David Attias, most of them perhaps deservedly unkind. But not Rachel Attias, at least not in writing.

* * *

Really, there isn’t much on the internet about either of these Rachels that is not related to their respective vehicular tragedies, and even then the details are sparse. I have had to invent quite a lot to bring them this close to me.

There are whole swaths of their lives that I can’t know, so many small happinesses, or large ones, I’ll never have access to. Blonde Rachel has her life in New York; if Facebook is any indicator, she and her family are very happy there. Israeli Rachel must be a teenager now. If I could, I would buy her and all of her friends some beer, because that’s what I would have wanted when I was a teenager and so she must want it, too. In a few years she will serve her mandatory time in the IDF. Maybe she, unlike me, is a Zionist. After what she’s been through, I can’t blame her for clinging to the dominant narrative of her world, one which offers the illusions of home, belonging, camaraderie, family. Still, maybe over these beers I’m buying we’ll talk politics, and I can change her mind.

I don’t know how Rachel feels now about her family’s death. I don’t know how Rachel feels about her brother’s crimes. I could imagine their respective journeys toward healing or closure, but I don’t think that I care to. This was never about them. If this was at first an exercise in vanity and curiosity, in the writing and the spinning and the living in between it’s become something else. Maybe an attempt to stabilize my dizzy self by grasping at a flimsy connection I have with anyone who shares my name. In the end, I’m not sure these threads can hold my weight.

The truth is that their names don’t matter. It’s the car accidents that link us. Or is it the car accidents that don’t matter, and the names that do? These questions will only send me spiraling so I’ll leave them behind and the Rachels, too. I apologize for having detained them this long. If I can say one last thing in parting, let it be this: Rachel, Rachel, perhaps your silences can teach me how to shut the fuck up and stop reliving the things that can’t be fixed. I’ll try that, in a moment or two.

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