I never got much out of reading Thoreau. Maybe because I read him in high school. An urban teenager doesn’t exactly fall for a guy who moves to the woods and talks to squirrels.

I do, however, remember one line he wrote. It struck me when I read it and it has stayed with me all these years: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

What did he mean by that, I wondered? Did grown-ups really have it so tough? Quiet desperation? Such contrasting words. Like “dying hope.” Or
“deafening silence.”

Or “I didn’t mean to hurt my babies.”

That last sentence has been in my brain since I read it in the police statement of a 29-year-old tire store manager named Lawrence DeLisle. Five months ago, on a warm summer night, DeLisle allegedly slammed his foot on the gas pedal and drove his station wagon — with his wife and four children inside — smack into the Detroit River. The adults escaped; they swam to the surface, gasping for air. The children drowned.

It was originally deemed a tragic accident. But one week later, in a rambling and confused conversation with a police investigator, DeLisle suggested he might have intentionally been trying to kill everyone in that car
— including himself. The reasons he gave were 1) the suicide of his father, something few of us have had to endure, and 2) the pressure from work, bills, screaming children and a wife — things many of us endure every day.

It is the latter that haunts me. Could everyday life become so intolerable that you might think of ending it all like that, in a river, the water rising, no way out?

“I didn’t mean to hurt my babies.”

Quiet desperation. Everyday cares

Chances are you read the transcriptions of the DeLisle tapes this week. Were you shocked? How could you not be? The horror. The senseless death. Here were four beautiful kids — they had just stopped at McDonald’s — and now they were at the bottom of a river.

We may never know the true story. Even DeLisle’s statements — in which he said, “I don’t even want to go to trial. Just lock me away” — were ruled inadmissible in his trial because of the interrogation methods used by police. (That ruling has been appealed.) Just the same, what disturbed me most was not DeLisle’s gruesome account of the incident, or his alleged attempt to kill his family by leaving a candle near a leaking gas pipe.

What got me were exchanges like these:

Police: What were you thinking about?

DeLisle: Peace . . .

Police: What were you thinking about?

DeLisle: Not having to pay bills every week. . . .

Police: At the time you wanted to be rid of everybody, didn’t you?

DeLisle: I just want it to be over . . . the constant repetition. Same thing day after day.

Is it possible that everyday pressures — a thankless job, credit card debts, sexual friction with a spouse — could push a man to such an unforgivable act? Can “normal” life be so awful? We distance ourselves from killers by believing they are sick creatures, out of the ordinary. What frightens me is how ordinary some of DeLisle’s pressures were.

And not just him. We read today of how a man in Boston may have murdered his pregnant wife, in part because the baby would have interfered with his career. We hear of children murdering parents for inheritance money, because their jobs don’t pay their bills. Horrifying. DeLisle said he loved his wife, he loved his children. He also said he sometimes wanted to escape them all.

Quiet desperation. Private demons

How many more Lawrence DeLisles are out there? Who knows? He could be a lone troubled man or one of an army of walking time bombs. In eight years of reporting, I have learned this much: We never know what is going on inside the head of the person next to us. Not even if we live with them, eat with them, work with them.

We never know. People bury their darkest thoughts; they appear perfectly normal. But inside, private demons — like DeLisle’s memory of his suicidal father — can chew at the heart, making the most simple parts of life seem too burdensome, and the most unthinkable solutions somehow appealing.

So we have men driving into rivers and parents selling babies and husbands injecting wives with poison to rid themselves of things such as debt or marital problems.

And we can only draw this conclusion: Perhaps surviving everyday life is more noble than we think. Perhaps we should ignore sports stars and actors and celebrate instead the husband or wife with two jobs and no bank account who still has time to hug the kids.

God knows not everyone is making out that well. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” OK, Thoreau. I get it now.

It scares the hell out of me.

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