A funny, perhaps illustrative story. During a worryingly lengthy gap between sessions, two therapists, myself one of them, walk along a strip mall, drinking coffee, fretting over a pre-holidays downturn in business. I turn to my right to see a car roll away from its parking spot—nothing unusual in that, I’d think if I were to give this event the headspace to generate such words. My eyes turn upwards to the driver, in this case a dog—a Doberman, I think—staring back at me, undisturbed. I scroll my gaze about the animal, in search of a human being. What? The dog appears to be saying with its stolid expression. Is there a problem?
“Holy shit!” I say usefully. I point to the car, now rolling silently into traffic, its emergency brake having been released by the dog, it seems. My friend does more than exclaim, he responds. Launching himself into the lot, he wades into the area behind the vacated spot, a space of about fifteen yards, and begins waving his arms to alert drivers, pedestrians crossing the stretch to enter the mall. Thankfully, there is no one moving behind the car as it pulls out. As I follow my friend, a woman behind me, shepherding two children, shrieks in horror at the disaster in progress, only it isn’t that exactly. Moving about one mile per hour, the car rolls backwards onto a curb and rather anticlimactically comes to a halt, bumping up against a vehicle fronting another row of cars.
Despite the absence of crashing sounds, the spectacle of a driverless car rolling a curb has drawn a crowd. A handful of voices stand behind me making plaintive sounds, nothing constructive. “What kind of car is that?” I ask aloud, collecting my wits. I’ll need to poke my head into shop doorways, call out for the owner. “A Mini Cooper,” someone responds. Moments later, this woman and I are making brief rounds of the local stores, making announcements, being confronted with more stolid expressions, though not those of dogs. Soon I give up this endeavor and return to the car, now perched atop a curbed island, its driver, the dog, still looking out at me, wondering what the fuss is all about.
By this time, my friend has ventured farther afield, towards the supermarket across the way, where the search for the Mini’s owner may yield better results. I take out my cell phone and call local police, and within moments, as a store manager approaches looking inconvenienced, I am talking to a dispatcher, describing the event. Meanwhile, I ask the manager a stupid question: “Are you the owner?” He frowns. “Of course not,” he replies irritably. Away from the store, the customers are not always right. He gets out a pad, takes down a license plate and heads back to his store, resolved to find the car’s owner should he or she be in the market. Thereabouts, the owner of the struck vehicle, a genteel, elderly woman, appears behind me, scrutinizing her car. The front of the offending vehicle is fused to her right anterior headlight, leaving at least one visible scratch, but the elderly woman seems quite grounded, her priorities more humanely focused.
“Is anyone hurt?” she asks, apparently not seeing the dog in the driver’s seat. “I don’t think so,” I say, after which I explain about the dog, the rolling; my slow response to the unfolding of this, uh, accident.
A minute later the bad-tempered manager, flanked by an anxious looking woman, returns. I feel poised to ask if she’s the owner, as if I’m in charge of the situation, but I hold my tongue, as if not wanting to risk being wrong again, thus eliciting more ridicule from the manager guy. “Oh my God,” says the anxious woman, though more in common surprise than shock or horror. She looks inside the compartment of her car, sees that her dog is unharmed, and still unperturbed. By this point the crowd has dwindled. The spectacle, absent its comic, supporting narrative, is suddenly unremarkable. It just looks like a car parked really badly, with a few onlookers studying the problem. For the next few moments I go quiet, having intuited the brittle defenses of the rolling car’s owner. They begin with the elder woman’s innocent query: “Are you the driver?” The other woman flicks her head about, as if fielding a cat-calling. “I’m not the driver, I’m the owner,” she retorts. I suppress a smirk and flippant rejoinder. Technically, she right. The dog is the driver, the culprit, I want to say. My friend, determined to intervene, affects a sober voice and tells the story from the witness point of view. His explanation of averted consequences befits his style as a therapist: “Someone could have been badly hurt,” he says.
“I don’t need to be counseled,” the woman replies tersely. My friend denies trying to counsel—a lie, albeit a well-advised one at this stage. He turns away, not wanting to deal with her further. Shortly, the Mini owner woman turns to the elder woman, who visibly recedes, not wanting a fight, it seems to me. The other woman inspects the back of her Mini Cooper, gives a cursory look at the elder woman’s vehicle. “That’s not so bad,” she comments presumptively. She gives me a glance as I am positioned centrally—appearing significant, if quiet. I turn to the elder woman, feeling protective, and deciding to make implicit my importance. “I may have to leave soon, but I can give you my name and number if you want a witness.” The elder woman thanks me. At that point the Mini owner asks what’s happening and I explain that police are expected soon. “What did you tell them?” she asks suspiciously. I give a brief, just-the-facts description, which she rewards with the words, “of course it rolled. I didn’t drive it”. Duh, she exudes.
Later I reflect upon a few meanings, about denial, projection, even codependency (the owners of the two cars hugged as my friend and I moved away—conflict avoidance, we thought). I thought further about my own denial: the seconds of disbelief, regarding the surreal time-suspended roll of the dog-driven vehicle. I thought of the Mini owner, that anxious, embarrassed woman, who acted punchy when feeling surrounded, her possible neglect evident to several witnesses. In retrospect, it’s not clear that she acted neglectfully. Accidents happen, or dogs are smarter than we think, and eager to drive. Who knows whether that event could’ve happened to anyone? But it’s the persecutory anxiety that really strikes me: the impulse to defend, deflect, even find fault with those observing problems. Minutes prior to this happening, my friend had been explaining that he’s powerless over his clients, whether they will let him help them. His exchange with the Mini owner mirrored his earlier commentary. Whether or not that woman felt lucky to have avoided disaster, we’ll never know. At the time she couldn’t deal with the feedback, let us help. She couldn’t acknowledge what might have happened.