One evening in early April, Katie McKenna was nestled into a corner seat at HiFi, a bar in the East Village. Between sips of her gin and soda, the 30-something-year-old was rehearsing an excerpt of her memoir, which she would be reading later that night as part of Lyrics, Lit & Liquor. Comprised of readings, trivia and performances, the event was featured by Time Out as one of its “Things to Do”—adding to McKenna’s half-joking, half-serious nerves. After one run-through, the friend she was practicing with advised her to speak slower, which reminded McKenna of a rapid-fire conversation she had with her father. “Slow the fuck down,” he told her, “I actually want to hear what you’re saying.”
Indeed, when McKenna talks, people want to listen. She draws in her audience with the skills she honed working as a professional fundraiser and performing as a stand-up comedian, both roles that require the gift of gab. But the biggest reason people pay attention to McKenna, whether live at events like Lyrics, Lit & Liquor or at a remove through her memoir, is because she has a compelling story to tell. Ten years ago, Katie McKenna was run over by an 18-wheeler. She not only survived—she lives.
The day of McKenna’s accident, in October of 2007, began as innocuously as the passage she read at HiFi, recalling how “the clouds looked as if they were whipped out of cotton candy.” She was taking an early morning bike ride before returning to her East Williamsburg apartment to change for work. Stopping at the intersection of Maspeth and Vandervoort, she noticed the truck to her left. It wasn’t signaling to turn, but just to be safe, she tried indicating to its side mirror that she was going to make a right. Yet, as she writes in her memoir, How to Get Run Over by a Truck: “He hadn’t seen any part of me. All he saw was a green light, and he turned.…Before I even really realized what was happening, I felt pressure and then heard a cracking sound. The realization that the cracking was my bones shocked me.” Caught beneath both the first and second sets of the truck’s tires, all McKenna’s ribs were broken, one of her lungs punctured, her pelvis fractured in five places, her bladder lacerated and the right side of her abdomen torn open.
If that sounds so viscerally horrific as to be nausea-inducing, even in print, know that McKenna tempers this tale with comic relief. In her memoir and her live performances, she’s sure to cut quickly from her gruesome injuries to her supposed chief concern at that moment of near-death: The fact that, beneath her shorts, she wasn’t wearing any underwear. “I had no cell phone, no ID, and, Jesus Christ, no underwear,” she writes. “If I didn’t manage to stay conscious, I would become a whorish Jane Doe who rode a bicycle. I couldn’t go out like that.”
While humor is an insuppressible part of her personality, shifting from tragedy to comedy also became a coping mechanism for McKenna. The memoir began as journal entries she kept during her two-month hospital stay and four-month recovery at her parents’ home. Because the entries were private, the writing comes across as both surprisingly honest (see: no underwear) and hilarious (again: no underwear). “Almost dying, and the healing that comes after it, is totally heartbreaking,” McKenna says while discussing her memoir after the HiFi reading. “But I would get so fucking bored talking about all of the sad stuff all of the time.…Making light of a dark situation didn’t just make others more comfortable, it made me feel more comfortable.”
How to Get Run Over by a Truck details not only McKenna’s physical recovery (following innumerable procedures and months of physical therapy, her injuries are no longer apparent, but the memoir also recounts the psychological and spiritual hardships along the way. She describes seeing a therapist to address the dozens of flashbacks she was experiencing daily. She discusses the difficulty of reconciling her Catholic faith with her new, often cruel reality. She explicitly states how she wants to tell off everyone who thinks she should “be grateful” for her survival: “Instead of being dead, hanging out in heaven with the angels and Jesus and all the other nice kids who died too young, I am lying here, unable to move, listening to you explain how grateful I should be.…Go fuck yourself.”
McKenna reveals how the recovery process can extend to long after patients are able to rise from their sick beds. Her perspective also rings true among those who have been in similar circumstances. Besides being praised by John Freeman (“One of of the funniest, bravest memoirs I’ve ever read,” writes the literary critic), How to Get Run Over by a Truck has gotten strong responses from a spectrum of readers, including everyone from bicyclists to medical professionals. “All of us feel like we have been ‘run over by a truck’ at some point in our own lives,” McKenna says, discussing her book. “That trauma can feel so lonely and isolating, like no one understands what we are going through. Finding a story that can speak to the trauma and the heartache that surrounds it with humor and honesty gives us hope.”
A recurring theme in McKenna’s book is the challenge of squaring the person she was before the accident—a supercharged 24-year-old—with her life afterward, which seemed to belong to a war-worn veteran. As far as her recovery allowed, she attempted to return to her former life, but juggling these two personalities proved impossible. Her solution is the neat, if extreme realization that “Old Katie” had indeed died during that accident, but that “New Katie” lives on. If that sounds macabre, it doesn’t come across that way in the memoir. In a particularly poignant scene, McKenna describes how every year on the anniversary of her accident, she gathers with family and friends at the intersection of Maspeth and Vandervoort to pop a bottle of champagne and toast to life. “As everyone talks,” McKenna writes, “I step away from them and I pour out some champagne onto the spot where I was run over. I pour it out for the girl I used to be. I know Old Katie gets thirsty too, and I wouldn’t want her to be at a party where she didn’t get a drink.”
At HiFi, you can see what this compromise between Old Katie and New Katie has borne. Judging by the laughter and the applause, McKenna manages to read slow enough for everyone to hear what she’s saying. Then, after she’s done, she takes a seat in the crowd to enjoy the following performers and another gin and soda. Even amid the packed crowd, she laughs harder and claps louder than anyone else.