Reader W.S. e-mails to complain about my treatment of the story of Shelby Huck, a 15-year-old girl who died after crashing a brand-new Volkswagen Jetta at 100 m.p.h. into an embankment while being chased by police at 4 a.m. on her apparent way home from a tryst with a boyfriend. Her divorced mother had bought Shelby the car–even though Shelby was too young for a driver’s license and didn’t even possess the learner’s permit for which she legally qualified at her age. (See my “Requiem for an Unsupervised Teenager,” Jan. 19.) Here’s W.S.’s reprimand:
“Charlotte Allen should be ashamed of her ruthless slander of a young deceased girl who does not even possess the simple ability to defend herself.
“Shelby made some mistakes; she was 15 years old, and that is what young people do. She should not have been out that late, and she should not have been speeding. Unfotunately, these mistakes led to her death. This, in no way, gives Ms. Allen the right to stain her character on a public forum. Ms. Allen does not know Shelby Huck, nor does she know what her reasons were for being on the road that night.
“However, attacking Shelby’s character seemed to not be enough for Ms. Allen; she had to fudge the facts as well. Shelby was not thrown from the car because she carelessly did not wear a seat belt. The paradmedic on the scene found Shelby on her car floor. Further, Shelby’s fatal wound was a collapsed lung, which is likely the result of the front airbags never going off.
“Making up these facts still did not seem to be enough for Ms. Allen. Not only does she heartlessly attack this young girl’s character, but she falsely accuses the grieving relatives left behind. Shelby’s parents were married and divorced, which is unfortunate. Does this give Ms. Allen the right or the justification to accuse those two people of somehow aiding in the tragedy that befell her? The fact that she would insinuate that makes me pity her undoubtedly cold, compassionless soul. I would like Ms. Allen to step down off her high horse, take a minute, and put herself in the shoes of the two grieving parents. How would you feel if you just lost your only daughter to a car accident, and, to make matters worse, you have to read stories by a stranger claiming you are at fault?
“That must be heartbreaking, and I know as a fact that Ms. Allen’s reasoning is false. It was late and Mrs. Young had seen Shelby go to her room to go to sleep, so she also went to bed. Is it her duty as a parent to have a 24-hour-a-day monitor on all of her child’s activities? How is she supposed to suspect that her daughter would sneak out in the middle of the night? To imply that she made any sort of mishap that night is ludicrous.
“Ms. Allen’s other claim, that these are rivaling, divorced parents I know as a fact to be false. Although Shelby’s parents were divorced, she was adopted by two families and treated as a daughter and a sister. I know this as a fact because my girlfriend is her stepsister and tells me of all the time her family spent with Shelby. I also know this because I was at the funeral, and heard one of her closest friends, my girlfriend’s sister, give a beautiful bittersweet eulogoy. I also know this because I held her weeping stepmother in my arms. So, Ms. Allen, do not sit there and lecture an unknowing audience on matters that you are completely oblivious and ignorant to. You d o not know Shelby Huck and you do not know her family and you have no right to judge them.”
I stand corrected on my erroneous report that Shelby was thrown from the car–although it’s difficult to figure out what she was doing on the floor of the car if she had been wearing a seatbelt. Of course her death was a tragedy, and of course 15-year-old girls who are otherwise fine, lovable human beings make dreadful mistakes. It goes with being a teen-ager to think that you will never die. That’s why we have laws setting age thresholds for driver’s licenses and requiring a learner’s permit–and the presence of an adult in the car–if someone Shelby’s age wants to get behind a wheel. We know that most 15-year-olds lack the requisite maturity to be on the road alone.
That’s why I called Shelby a “victim”–for there were adults in her life who could have prevented this tragedy. Granted, her mother couldn’t monitor her whereabouts 24 hours a day (mothers have to sleep, too), but the fact remains that Shelby’s mother bought a new car for her to drive and let her drive it illegally (that is, without the learner’s permit that the law requires). The fact remains that Shelby had access to the keys of the car and knew the roads in her suburban neighborhood well enough to maneuver them in the middle of the night by herself. She knew how to make a late-night (or early-morning) date with a boyfriend at his home, and she knew how to get there and back. (And it was her mother, not I, who hypothesized that Shelby was visiting the boyfriend.)
If Shelby’s mother and father were indeed working together to set up Shelby in an automobile without a learner’s permit, and if they both thought it was perfectly fine for their 15-year-old daughter to be hanging out with a male friend who was so immature that he let her drive around by herself in the middle of the night, that seems to me only to make the situation worse. Adults are supposed to look out for their children’s welfare, not to facilitate their mistakes of judgment.
Of course, I am sorry about Shelby’s death, and I share her family’s grief over the loss of a promising young life. But shouldn’t something be learned from tragedies like Shelby’s? Are we really supposed to suspend all judgment and pretend that her death was just something that came out of the blue?