In journalism, we’re taught to ask the Five Ws and the Sixth H:
1. What happened?
2. Who was involved?
3. Where did it take place?
4. When did it take place?
5. Why did that happen?
6. How did it happen?
It’s always the Fifth W that is the hardest to answer.
April 17, 1985 (When)
You wake up earlier than usual that morning because you want to impress a boy at your junior high school. You walk past your parents’ bedroom and notice that your mother (Who) isn’t there, that her side of the bed is empty, an abandoned shell—crumpled-up sheets and a feathery impression of her torso, the salmon pink comforter still tucked in tight. Those army corners. Your father is snoring heavily, and you watch him through the crack in the door, the steady rise and fall of his chest. You wonder where your mother is. Your parents don’t get up until 7:30am. It’s 6.
You shuffle across the hallway carpet—little brown balls of fuzz catching between your toes—past the eggshell colored walls covered with your ballet and soccer photos. Your mom stopped vacuuming, mopping, and dusting a month ago. Which is also when she stopped changing out of her turquoise blue robe.
The bathroom door squawks as you push it open and step onto the cold, white tiles. You sit on the toilet while the water gets hot; and when the mirror is finally foggy, you pull back the shower curtain and step inside. The heat hits your neck, gushes down your back. You’ve already started shaving your legs and armpits, even though you don’t really have any boobs yet. All you have are puffy nipples, and last week you begged your mom for a training bra so you could be like the other girls in PE.
The boys at school call you a Madonnabe, but you call yourself a New Ro. The back of your hair is cut short and layered into steps, and the front is long and requires a lot of maintenance. Your mom says you’re not old enough to get it dyed, so you spray Sun-In to lighten it, then use a curling iron to feather it into a perfect wave, finally sealing your hair helmet with a healthy dose of Aquanet and pink Dippity-Do for the sides. And don’t forget the neon blue eyeliner and shiny lip-gloss. Your beauty routine is ridiculous.
An hour later, you emerge from the bathroom, and walk back to your bedroom to put on the new clothes your mom just bought you this past week. It was one of the best weeks you can remember and a rare occasion, spending every day with her. She had even offered to take you anywhere you wanted to go, so you took her up on her offer and went shopping. Black parachute pants with multiple side pockets, a neon lace tank and an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, ankle socks and gladiator slippers, a tower of arm bangles—all this fabulousness—you want to show your mom. You don’t smell any breakfast cooking, so you search the house:
Living room: nope.
Family room: nope.
You wonder if she left. Nope. Her black purse is lying under the floor lamp in the family room, where she always leaves it. Her car should be parked in the garage (Where), so you go check. It’s dark when you open the door, but you can see the outline of her sapphire-blue Nissan Sentra in the background. Your eyes adjust to the darkness, and then you see her. Your mom right in front of you, hanging from a noose. (What) She’s tied to the rafters with rope, wearing her blue robe, head tilted to the side, toes dangling at eye level, a ladder beside her. (How) The walls cave in, your vision spirals. Now, all you see are white specs, and all you feel are cold, piercing needles. Your body, a stalk cut at its roots. The specs grow larger and larger and larger until complete whiteout.
Somehow, you move and scream your way back down the hallway to your parents’ room. You enter.
And you are still screaming NoNoNoNoNo when you hear your dad open the garage door and make a strange unintelligible sound. He takes her down and her lifeless body lets out a groan. He asks you to wait with her while he calls an ambulance. Sitting next to your mom on the floor, you hold her limp hand and ask her to stay with you. Your orange cat paces anxiously across her stomach until you shoo her away. You don’t know it yet, but she is already dead. (But why?)
Through the bedroom blinds, I watch dust motes dance in the sunbeams. My husband is unpacking his suitcase from a trip to San Francisco. He tells me about a conversation he had with his friend Rodney who manages a skate shop on Geary Street.
“Rodney’s kind of mystical,” he says. “He told me Robin Williams used to come into the shop every week to get custom skateboard decks made. Robin owned a house down the way in China Beach. I walked past it when I was there.” He pulls up a photo on his phone of himself standing in front of the trapezoidal stone marker that Chinese Americans placed there in 1981. “I didn’t get a photo of the house,” he says, but finds one on the Internet.
The house, a pinkish mansion with an ornate metal gate, is perched on a sea cliff. I ask him if Robin Williams was getting skateboard decks for his kids.
“Not sure,” he says. “But he loved the shop, the colors of the place, the vibe. Rodney said he was the nicest guy. He couldn’t believe he killed himself. He actually had an interesting theory on that.”
Here we go. The why question.
“Oh?” I say.
“Yeah, did you know he got a heart transplant? He thinks there could be some energy carried over…you know, from the previous person.”
I think of the 1981 movie The Hand, where Michael Caine gets his hand chopped off in a car accident and the severed hand runs around killing people. “I thought he suffered from depression,” I say.
My husband shrugs. He tells me about a woman who received a heart transplant and started drinking beer and craving Chicken McNuggets. When she tracked down the donor’s family, they told her that the guy loved beer and had been on his way home from McDonalds when he got in a motorcycle accident, a bag of McNuggets found in his leather jacket’s breast pocket.
Later that day, I look up Robin Williams’ Wikipedia page.
On August 11, 2014 [when], Williams [who] committed suicide [what] at his home [where] in Paradise Cay, California, at the age of 63. In the initial report released on August 12, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office deputy coroner stated Williams had hanged himself with a belt [how] and died from asphyxiation. [But why?] The final autopsy report, released in November 2014, affirmed that Williams had committed suicide as initially described; neither alcohol nor illegal drugs were involved, while all prescription drugs present in his body were at “therapeutic” levels. The report also noted that Williams had been suffering “a recent increase in paranoia.” An examination of his brain tissue revealed the presence of “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” which had been misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. Describing the disease as “the terrorist inside my husband’s brain,” his wife Susan Schneider stated that “however you look at it—the presence of Lewy bodies took his life.”
The Wikipedia entry also confirmed that he suffered from depression, but it is evident that the Lewy body dementia, which causes paranoia and hallucinations, ultimately led to his suicide desire. In The Hand, Michael Caine’s character also suffered from paranoia and hallucinations.
So did my mother.
• Before my mother died, she grabbed me frantically by the shoulders and told me that the house was “going to freeze over” and that I needed to go away for the weekend. I was thirteen and it was Southern California and it was 86 degrees.
• Before my mother died, she accused my father of cheating on her with several women at the Christian Japanese church, including the pastor’s wife. My father had never been to the Christian Japanese church.
• Before my mother died, she told me that the world had gone bad again, that she needed to die for everyone’s sins.
On May 18, 2017, I open Yahoo news and read that Chris Cornell hung himself in a Detroit hotel room shortly after Soundgarden performed a concert. There are over 3,000 comments. The top up-voted being:
So a guy that’s been sober since 2002, had a wife and 3 kids, a successful career, a full bank account, a half done upcoming album hanged himself for a few hours after giving a great concert and Tweeting about how excited he was for the next show? Anyone else think that sounds awfully suspicious?
Yeah, if you’re a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist who’s never heard of depression. And then several comments like this:
Could it have been accidental? Autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong like the guy from INXS?
Michael Hutchence died of suicide. His last phone call was to his personal manager’s voice mail that said, “I’ve fucking had enough.” The coroner’s report said he hung himself while depressed and under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.
Anyone know where Courtney Love was Wednesday night?!
I saw that documentary Kurt & Courtney, too, that accused Courtney Love of hiring a hit on her husband. It was never proven.
And then unfortunately, a lot of these:
He found a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Lovely, someone finally admitting that Cornell was depressed but having no idea what mental illness is.
And finally, lots on selfishness:
COMMITTING SUICIDE IS A SELFISH ACT. COMMITTING SUICIDE AND LEAVING CHILDREN BEHIND TO STRUGGLE WITH SUCH TRAGEDY IS FAR BEYOND SELFISHNESS. ONCE YOU HAVE CHILDREN YOU LIVE FOR THEM NOT FOR YOU.
Can we have more caps, please? This comment pulls me in different directions. I know the suffering I’ve gone through; yet, I know my mother wouldn’t have done anything to intentionally harm me.
In a not-so-strange coincidence, I learn that Linkin Park’s frontman, Chester Bennington committed suicide by hanging on July 20, 2017. Bennington, who had battled addiction and depression and was a survivor of sexual abuse, was close friends with Chris Cornell. Bennington committed suicide on Cornell’s birthday. The comments are in a similar vein, but this time the top up-voted comment talks about the two of them:
So the guy mourns the loss of his friend who hung himself and then hangs himself? Do you not remember how much pain that brought you? Did you think maybe that pain you felt would be felt by your family?
Who are you talking to? Bennington is dead, and you can’t argue with a dead guy. Imagine the darkness he was in for those thoughts not to have deterred him. A recent study explains that people bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member are 65% more likely to attempt suicide if their loved one died by suicide rather than natural causes. Suicide has a devastating effect on those left behind.
On the kitchen counter by the wall phone with the long Napoleon Dynamite telephone cord (which isn’t a movie yet and won’t be for another nineteen years), next to the set of Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks, sit two letters written in Kanji. One is my mother’s will, the other, a suicide letter. They are dated April 16, 1985, one day before my mom killed herself. I have them translated. I think these letters will have the answer to the why question. But still, I set them aside for thirty-two years.
Thirty-two years after my mom dies and my dad emotionally abandons me and I grow up alone, thirty-two years spent with any man who won’t leave me even if he is abusive, thirty-two years spent not really searching for answers but more like drowning my feelings in a bottle, in a powder, in a pill, I bring these letters to my therapist and I read them out loud while she takes notes. “Could it be possible that your mom was sick?” she asks. “You’d mentioned she was coughing a lot, and she mentions that in her letter.”
I re-read the passage she’s talking about:
I have been in the health condition of easy to catch cold and cough a lot from childhood. This made me worry about possibly having some kind of lung illness and even go see a doctor a month ago. Despite my worry, luckily, I am in the best health condition as ever.
We are officially grasping at straws.
In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron, the novelist famous for books like Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, recounts his crippling battle with suicidal depression in 1985. In the book, he talks about how upset he was with the media coverage of author Randall Jarrell’s suicide, who on a night in 1965, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was struck by a car and killed. The indications were that Jarrell had deliberately let the car strike him, and the early conclusion, as reported by Newsweek and other publications, was that his death was suicide. But that didn’t sit well with Jarrell’s wife, who wrote a letter to the magazine, along with a cry from many of Jarrell’s friends and supporters, and a coroner’s jury eventually ruled the death to be “accidental.” Yet, Jarrell had been suffering from severe depression and had been hospitalized—which is where, just a few months before his death, he slashed his wrists.
Randall Jarrell most likely killed himself, but because his wife and fans didn’t want that to be his story, they decided to change it. Styron was upset over this and wrote a short piece for an op-ed page of the Times.
The argument I put forth was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.
When one [who] is in the darkness of depression [when], there may seemingly be no escape [where] from the pain [what]. One may feel like the only way out is with pills, a gun, or a rope [how]. [But why?] Likening the disease to terminal cancer is a strong comparison, but it is apt. We don’t chastise terminal patients for ending their suffering, but we can’t face the reality of suicide. We’d do anything to find another reason why than the one right in front of us, dangling in front of our face. We make excuses and invent conspiracies, bring shame and selfishness to an act that is really a symptom of mental illness—and all of this does nothing for the person on the brink of suicide, or the family and friends of suicide victims. Us left-behinds, the ones left with solutions like drinking the pain away and hiding the shame of what our loved one did or even doing it ourselves. If we can’t speak honestly about the Who, What, Where, When, and How, then Why bother speaking at all?
 Pitman A, Osborn DPJ, Rantell K, King MB. Bereavement by suicide as a risk factor for suicide attempt: a cross-sectional national UK-wide study of 3432 young bereaved adults. BMJ Open. 2016