A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.
“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”
He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.
I trashed that journal in my early twenties, embarrassed by my childish writing, thus symbolically killing the boy who wrote of killing himself. Yet something of that boy, strangely resilient for someone so fixed on self-annihilation, survived.
I know a number of aging punks who, to this day, despise Kurt Cobain, because, they say, he made punk palatable to the masses and so ruined it; but I loved Kurt Cobain, since the arrival of Nirvana seemed to promise an overhaul of the mainstream culture that, for better or for worse, had shaped me. I gorged myself on Nevermind in the spring and summer of ’92, eager for Nirvana’s follow-up album in a way that’s hard to imagine a person in 2010 sweating a forthcoming record (or movie or, mirabile dictu, book) as he or she would the latest gadget from Apple, technology being the twenty-first-century rock star.
Finally, in the fall of ’93, In Utero was released, and I rushed out to buy it, despite my usual poverty; and seven months later, Kurt Cobain was dead. I was then in the middle of a media blackout, depressed about a novel I was fruitlessly struggling to finish; and my Echo Park neighbor Meg—a Seattle native and fellow Nirvana fan—called and listened, oddly subdued, as I whined about my book, until she managed to insert that Kurt Cobain had killed himself.
“They found him a few hours ago. I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, would you and Dad please take some flowers to Kurt’s house and leave them there for me?”
She choked back a sob when she said that; and later, when Courtney Love read Cobain’s suicide note aloud to mourners at a vigil in Seattle Center, she could barely speak for sobbing. My knowledge of Love’s hellcat theatrics predated her celebrity. I’d heard firsthand tales of scrapes and lacerating phone messages (“You know you were the ugliest girl in high school,” one of the latter went in part), but, hearing her break down on television, I forgave her everything, though I personally had nothing to forgive.
Conventional wisdom holds suicide to be selfish and cowardly. I’m sure this is a view that extends far back, but I don’t remember hearing it when I was growing up. The prevailing view then, at least in my native Virginia, was of suicide as irredeemable sin. But the notion of sin no longer exists for many. To sin is to offend God, the ultimate authority. We’re now more concerned with the offense done to ourselves.
Meanwhile, the current age—the age of ūberconsumerism and omnipresent, peek-a-boo screens—strikes me as selfish and cowardly indeed, so maybe it’s a matter of the pot and the kettle, or, as Freud might have it, projection. As for me, I never sweepingly saw suicide as cowardly or selfish. I understand its legacy, and I’m sympathetic to the near and dear forced to live with it; but every choice is idiosyncratic, including the choice to die, and I try to bear in mind that I’m never going to know everything I’d need to know in order to judge.
In fact, I’m friendly with a woman who attempted suicide, and when I told her I couldn’t judge her for it, she cried because so many had judged her for it. And why did she attempt suicide? Because she’d decided she was a poor excuse for a mother, and felt her children deserved better—how selfish is that?
And how selfish is this? In 1940, a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds named Willard Hershberger became the only baseball player ever to kill himself during the regular season. Here’s an account from Diamonds in the Rough, a history of the game by Joel Zoss and John Bowman:
Talented and well liked, Hershberger had descended into a deep melancholia that included insomnia, extended periods of depression, headaches, brooding over team losses, and fears that his teammates disliked him; he even told manager Bill McKechnie that he was going to kill himself. McKechnie became alarmed the next day when Hershberger failed to turn up as promised between games of a doubleheader with the Boston Bees, and dispatched businessman Dan Cohen, who was traveling with the team, to see what had become of him. Cohen discovered that Hershberger had spread towels on the bathroom floor, removed his shirt, and slit his throat as neatly as possible into the bathtub.
[…] Hershberger’s father had killed himself in a considerably bloodier fashion with a shotgun in the family bathroom when his son was eighteen years old and, as the psychologists say, young Willard probably felt responsible for a death he did not understand. His response—the morbid fear of disappointing people, which helps explain his vow never to marry while his mother was alive—was manifest in an abnormal sense of responsibility that left him unable to forgive himself once he determined that he had let his teammates down. He even tried to mitigate the mess he knew his death would make by spreading towels on the bathroom floor.
For somebody selfish, he was nothing if not considerate. Meanwhile, here’s the unfortunate coda:
Mr. Cohen, the man who discovered [Hershberger’s] body, later committed suicide, too.
As I said, I do understand the legacy. Suicide appears to be something of a meme, which explains its occurrence in clusters, and renders it a subject largely avoided, particularly in thanataphobic America.
For a long time after Kurt Cobain’s death, I couldn’t listen to Nirvana, since Cobain’s final act, I thought, was tantamount to saying that he wanted to be forgotten. It was too painful, anyway, to hear fraught lyrics like “I don’t have a gun” from “Come As You Are,” a song I used to love.
Then, one night three years ago, I was at my friend Pete’s place, watching TV with Pete and his roommate, Larry, who asked if we’d seen the DVD included in the Nirvana box-set retrospective, With the Lights Out. I hadn’t, and Larry played it, and the Nirvana magic revived. Our friends Wade and Bryce dropped by, pulling up chairs without a word. Some clips we watched repeatedly, and afterward we talked about the impact that Nirvana, and Cobain specifically, had on each of us.
“He’s what caused me to become a musician,” Larry said. “I saw Nirvana and told my parents, ‘I know what I want to do now.’”
“I stopped listening to my parents,” Pete said. He also read a Cobain biography—one of just two books he claims to have read from start to finish. He loaned me his copy of the Cobain bio before I left that night, and I’ve yet to return it. But I still can’t bring myself to listen much to Nirvana.
During one of many troubled periods in my life, I saw a psychotherapist who told me that suicide has to do with “a loss of self,” citing, by way of example, the stock-market crash of 1929, when former millionaires, paupers overnight, allegedly killed themselves in droves. The sudden poverty, my therapist explained, wasn’t the cause so much as what it spelled in terms of identity: if I’m not a millionaire, then who am I?
Or maybe the cause isn’t a loss of self so much as self-surfeit. Mary Richert, another contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, once noted her wariness of first-person narrative in her blog, No Titles, in part because, if I recall correctly, she heard or read that people with a fondness for the word “I” are the ones most inclined to kill themselves. Elsewhere, I’ve encountered arguments for first-person narrative as “problematic,” and while I forget the reasoning, I think it usually boils down to a distaste for egotism.
By contrast, I find third-person narrative problematic. Only God is omniscient—if, that is, God exists. Meanwhile, I don’t see how anyone can write without egotism, as the Internet corroborates, with so many opinions expressed—too many, to express still another opinion. The Tower of Babel has been built anew.
Obviously, there’s no single cause of suicide, which isn’t always accomplished decisively, in a conscious act. People court death in myriad ways—unhealthy habits, reckless hobbies, dangerous occupations—and they aren’t tallied as suicides when the Reaper responds to his summons. I once dropped acid and sped around Manhattan on a motorcycle. Later, dodging traffic in Los Angeles, I was mowed down by a car. Still later, I snorted heroin while smashed on alcohol—a dicey combination—though the first time I did it, I was unaware of the risk, and the second time, I thought I was snorting coke, not heroin. Even so, in reflecting on that occasion, and numerous others, I recognize that I was inadvertently suicidal.
For the most part, though, when the abyss beckoned, I think I was fully cognizant of it; and never much for secrecy, I confided in friends. Some hotly told me never to speak of such things, effectively ending the conversation. Others recommended psychotropic drugs, which I refused to consider, unwilling to live—full-time, at least—in a chemical haze. Still others patronized me. People who kill themselves, I was lectured, don’t talk about it beforehand; they just do it.
In fact, the opposite is usually true, though the warnings are frequently ignored. I heard of one such case, as reported by someone present: a young actor named Jonathan Brandis, a regular on the nineties TV show seaQuest and depressed about his subsequent career, announced to friends at a gathering at his place that he was going to hang himself. He even showed them the rope: “Do you think this will work?” “Yeah, Jonathan, that’ll work just fine.” Then he disappeared, and finally someone decided to see where he’d gone—too late.
This story may have been distorted in the telling, but it serves a point. Jonathan’s friends thought he was seeking attention, and there are certainly those who speak of suicide for that reason, but even they should be taken seriously.
Have I ever spoken of suicide by way of seeking attention? Probably. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t in a lot of pain.
I’m not in that kind of pain at the moment, I should add. To put it more plainly, this is not a suicide note, though I’ve written one or two.
Kurt Cobain’s suicide note suggests, in some ways, a Willard Hershberger mindset. Cobain writes of feeling “guilty beyond words” for his failure to experience “the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now.” The mention of reading is curious, but no matter; Cobain seems to feel he’s disappointing people, as he fairly explicitly states in the note’s most famous passage:
The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.
When Courtney Love read that bit aloud at the Seattle vigil, she interjected, “No, Kurt, the worst crime I can think of is for you to just continue being a rock star when you fucking hated it. Just fucking stop.”
Near the end of the note, almost as famously, Cobain writes:
I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Those who regard suicide as inherently selfish and cowardly must surely approve of Cobain’s self-characterization as “an erratic, moody baby.” Meanwhile, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” is a lyric from the Neil Young song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” which references Johnny Rotten, who, fed up with being a Sex Pistol, iconically sat onstage during the last show of the Pistols’ landmark American tour and said to the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”—a remark similar in spirit to Cobain’s notion of “the worst crime.” Johnny Rotten left the Pistols the following day and went on to start Public Image Ltd., a band free of the controversy, and resulting media melee, that guaranteed a hellish ride for the Pistols.
Courtney Love was right. If Cobain hated being a rock star, he could have—and should have—stopped. He lacked the temperament to weather fame, unlike his wife. He was “too sensitive,” as he writes in the note, though his music was often aggressive—a dichotomy at the heart of his appeal. I see that dichotomy in myself—and I’m not the only one, as Cobain sang in “Rape Me.” He wasn’t a Gen-X hero for nothing.
Of course, no one knows what was going through his mind before he pulled the trigger—including, I’d venture, Cobain himself—but I can’t believe he really wanted to die. I don’t believe I ever wanted to die when I was feeling suicidal. Rather, it was my life I wanted to destroy, and by that I mean all those elements in my life that felt and feel like death: the grind of poverty and Sisyphean labor; the demands of people who feel like so many pecking starlings; the sense that something deep in my soul, which Nietzsche defined as a “stomach,” isn’t being fed, or—another stab at saying the same thing—I look for fire and find mostly ash.
We die in increments before we die altogether. We fade away, to return to the note and Neil Young’s lyric. There’s no getting around it, but it’s a matter of degree, I think. Passion doesn’t have to perish, though it doubtlessly comes under a great deal of attack; and some lose the will to defend it, if they ever had the will—or passion itself—to begin.
I did, and by the grace of God I’ve reclaimed it—again and again and again. That’s what it takes to stay alive, and I want so very much to live.
A reedited version of this piece appears in the nonfiction collection Subversia.