The Worst CrimeBy D. R. Haney
April 30, 2010
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.
This was amazing. The last line has put tears in my eyes.
You look to find fire and find only ash? I look to you and find a flame that burns with a gentle, wise and intense heat.
I have always looked at suicides as being incredibly brave, incredibly selfish, but brave nonetheless. After all, the will to survive is the strongest human desire and to go against that, to rage against life, must take a very brave soul.
So much to think about with this piece. I must now go and ponder.
As always, your writing is wonderful.
Thanks so much, Zara.
I’ve been working on this since December. I just started writing it one night and then set it down; and then I found myself thinking a few weeks later about the period of my life when my friend Meg lived up the street from me, and she was always playing Nirvana at these dinner parties (!) she was constantly throwing, so I decided to include Kurt Cobain in the piece; and then the final inspiration came last week, though I’m embarrassed to say what caused it.
Still, it was very hard to weave it all together, and when I finished today — I woke up and suddenly knew I was close — I really felt like I’d pulled it off, so it means a lot that say you what you do.
Note that I never said suicide wasn’t selfish or cowardly, by the way. I think it can be, and it may well have been in Kurt’s case, but I just can’t look at things that sweepingly. Still, I absolutely agree with you that suicide at times — maybe even often — is indeed selfish, as well as, at times, brave. I don’t know that I would ever be able to do what Kurt did to himself. I don’t say never, because I don’t tend to say never, but it would take a lot of balls — and, obviously, a lot of desperation. I’ve been very, very low at times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been that low.
Thanks again, angel.
My pleasure, D. Just as it is always my pleasure to read your words and have you in my life. For both of these things -I am blessed.
I obviously feel the same.
I see, by the way, that your friend Jordan has been making frequent stops at TNB. He’s got the fever, it seems. We do know about the fever, yes?
I’m glad to hear that, D.
And yes… the bloody TNB fever. It gets everyone in the end, huh?
Well, it can for a spell. And then the spell wears off. And then it begins again. It seems to be a cycle, at least with me and others I’ve observed.
It is a chronic complaint.
Ah, but we’re in a new and different cycle, aren’t we, Greg?
We are. Like one of the X-Men learning to harness his powers.
Well, by way of showing off my newly-harnessed powers, I was going to let your comment stand without adding one of my own, but I …can’t…fight…the…impulse…
Sometimes, Cyclops must remove his ruby glasses and blow shit up. It’s just how it is.
And here they are, removed again. I simply can’t help myself!
Well written as always, Duke.
Suicide – a tough subject. Certainly I wouldn’t characterise it as all-out selfish. That’s what people say about it when they are too scared to think about it properly. When they don’t want to contemplate what might drive a person to kill himself.
People sometimes pretend to try and kill themselves for the sake of attention. Others try because they don’t care if they die, and if they don’t, they want the attention… and others simply can’t bear to live anymore.
That’s scary. I’ve felt almost like that so many times. Thankfully, those were all years ago. But it’s terrifying. I think of people who’ve had tougher lives than me, and I think of all the ways my life could’ve been tougher… And it’s horrible how awful life can be that suicide would actually be an option.
To leave those who love you with that to think about requires pain that is unimaginable.
Incidentally, I once knew a woman whose mother had killed herself when she (the woman I knew) was a teenager. She came home to find her mother hanging in the livingroom with a note on the floor saying, “It’s your fault.”
The woman has spent the past fifty years refusing to walk away from an arugment. She has conceded every point and apologised for every person’s sins… Just because she can’t bring herself to be responsible for someone else’s sadness.
Man, that is awful. In fact, that’s one the cruelest things I’ve heard in some time.
I know someone who woke to find that his girlfriend had killed herself, but she didn’t leave him a note of that sort. On the contrary, she wrote him a happy-sounding note: “I’m doing what I really want to do.” That kind of thing. And she’d only just graduated from school a few days before. It was if she’d been waiting to graduate before offing herself. Very strange.
Marilyn Monroe is someone who used to make suicidal gestures by way of gaining attention, and then she actually went through with it, though it may have been an accident. I know there are rumors of murder, but I don’t buy them, just as I don’t buy that Kurt Cobain was murdered. All you have to do is listen to that recording of Courtney Love speaking at his vigil (in fact, she taped her remarks in their home earlier that day and didn’t appear at the vigil) and you know her grief is real. It’s heartbreaking to hear, no matter what you may think of her.
Thanks, by the way, for the kind words about the writing. As I mentioned to Zara, it was a tough piece to write — for writerly reasons, I mean, though the subject is tough, too.
Oh, and I hope you didn’t read this when I was still removing code that was screwing with the layout of the piece. Apologies, if so. Damned WordPress.
In regards the Monroe thing: I was talking to my girlfriend the other day (whilst, strangely, at a theme park) about suicide. We were talking about men and women, and why so many more men kill themselves than women, and why so many more women attempt to kill themselves than men. It’s a troubling issue, mired in the ridiculous social expectations and demands that are ingrained upon us in the west.
In Korea suicide is actually the leading cause of death for people in their 20s and 30s. Think about it… that’s staggering, right? The leading cause of death… The strange thing is that whilst Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world right now, 20 yrs ago it had one of the lowest.
Suicide is seen as a relatively normal thing to do here. Selfishness doesn’t come into it. If your wife runs up debts (and I’m saying this as an example of something that happens; not trying to be sexist or anything) the man can relieve her sins by killing himself.
Celebrity suicides are a nightmare, too. There are 35 suicides a day in South Korea (with a pop. of 50 million) and yet when a celebrity does it, that shoots up. Last October a popular actress killed herself and there were 1,700 copycat suicides in the following 30 days…
(My head is not screwed on right this week, so my comments are a little unstructured and random – only vaguely following the topic at hand. Sorry.)
You’re right about the celebrity copy cat thing, David. When I was a reporter, we were not allowed to report suicide on the news for fear of copy cats.
Suicides and bomb threats were no go areas.
When Roh Moo-hyun (former president) killed himself last May they tried to say he fell off the cliff. His suicide note disagreed…
I always wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to have actually reported on these deaths and opened up some kind of dialogue about it, rather than simply pretend it didn’t happen. But then again, does talking about it, actually prevent it or help in any way? I don’t know.
I’ve known a number of suicides and I don’t know whether talking would have made any difference. I imagine when you get that low, it’s pretty hard to find enough light to drag you back to the surface.
I think you’re right. Look at David Foster Wallace. People talked and talked to the guy, and nothing worked.
I also think it puts a terrible strain on people when you talk about feeling suicidal, which is why I can easily understand some of the reactions I used to get. I think that really was selfish of me, though I was probably unaware of just how selfish I was being. People think, well, if I don’t say the right thing and he goes through it, I’m going to be responsible. Also, they suspect that their advice is inadequate and so on.
Having said all that, though, I think it did help me to talk about it. It wasn’t the advice; it was just being able to speak these horrible thoughts aloud, confession being good for the soul. Which is true, I think — or it is sometimes.
No, I followed you without a hitch.
I remember you writing about a suicide in Korea, now that you mention it, a long time ago here at TNB, with some of the statistics you mention here. Odd that the suicide rate has jumped as it has, but, then, as I mention in the piece, suicide occurs in clusters. Humans are much more impressionable than many of us are prepared to admit.
Still, that celebrity-suicide thing you mention is insane. In preparing this piece, I came across the inevitable stories of people who killed themselves after Cobain died, and I know the same thing happened with Monroe. So it occurs in the West, too, but I’ve never heard of anything like the Korean statistics.
The Russian statistics, unrelated to celebrity, are very high, too, but that can easily be explained by the economy. And it used to be said that the Swedish suicide rates were the highest in the world, which Americans (of my acquaintance anyway) used to blame on Swedish permissiveness. Apparently, at one time, the Swedes were known for their smut. Now, of course, America leads the world in smut — I think. It’s got to be, right?
Weird, huh? I keep thinking of that piece Lenore wrote last year about people who couldn’t stop laughing or dancing. Do you remember that?
The above nested very weirdly. Ah, well. Some things never change.
Oh this will nest weirdly too.. but what the hell.
Yeah, I understand exactly what you are saying about the strain talking about it puts on other people. People either take a threat of suicide very seriously, or not seriously enough and either stance can be problematic.
I knew someone who had threatened suicide so often that he was like the boy who cried wolf – One day he rang his brother in law and said he’d tried to hang himself but that the rope had broken – his brother in law who had heard this many, many times over the years, suggested he try again. He did and this time succeeded.
Yes, I wrote something about that at the old TNB site. That was a big month in Korean history, and this April has been a big ‘un as well. Always in Spring…
I don’t recall Lenore’s piece for some reason.
And when I was in high school, all of my depressed friends seemed to love Cobain and it really made me wonder how many people saw his suicide as a sign that they should do the same…
And yes, it’s terrible when someone talks about suicide, but we have to be strong and help them through it. I’m not really a strong, mature person, but I like to think that I could try and help out… Although in reality I might just feel immensely uncomfortable.
Zara: I think the boy-cries-wolf syndrome is what happened with Jonathan Brandis. I don’t know that he’d ever attempted suicide, but I think he’d been talking about it for a while, which is why no one took him seriously. Still, when I heard that story, I felt really sad, even though it was told to me with this kind of: “Can you believe it?”
Speaking for myself, though, all I wanted was to be taken seriously — not hysterically seriously, but calmly and reasonably, so that I could get it all out. That’s what I was thinking subconsciously, I mean. I never articulated it to myself as clearly as I just did; and if my experience is any indication, the calm-and-reasonable approach is best — no guilt trips or drama.
Interestingly, I once had a long talk with a guy at the Suicide Hotline, and his approach was awful. He kept trying to “mirror” me to the point where I was awakened from my depression by sheer irritation. I wonder if that was his intent?
David: I was going to answer you and Zara in the same comment, but then the first became so long that — well, you know.
Something in what you said brought back a memory of Kurt’s death that had eluded me until now. In the months afterward, I talked to my aunt, and she said her younger daughter, who would’ve been about twelve at the time, had videotapes of news stories about his suicide that she watched over and over again. My aunt didn’t seem that bothered by it, but I was horrified. I was scared that her daughter (my cousin) was going to attempt suicide or the like, but in fact she’s very much alive and a very normal young woman. You would never know, to meet her, that she’d ever been a Cobain fan.
But have you ever been called upon to counsel someone contemplating suicide? I couldn’t quite grasp from your comment if you have. Unfortunately, I was at age eleven — a despairing relative unloaded on me. I said, “You’ll only be hurting yourself if you do.” Egad.
I remember you telling me that, D -about your words to your relative. I still think that’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard. “You’ll only be hurting yourself if you do.”
From the mouths of babes…Lovely.
It’s interesting to contemplate the ripple effects of these things. Cobain’s suicide apotheosized him, but it also mooted the melancholia of Eddie Vedder. I remember thinking that at the time — the two of them were having a Depressed-Off. Kurt won.
I also heard that KC had a condition with his stomach lining that left him in terrible pain much of the time, which is why he tried heroin to begin with. Not sure if that’s true.
I’ve read that as well. About the stomach pain. Of course, the question is, did the stomach pain or the heroin come first? It isn’t clear to me. It’s a fairly common symptom of opiate withdrawal. I know that much.
And I know an addict would say whatever justified his continued drug abuse, so you know…I’ll leave it to those better informed of his biography.
I never thought of Eddie Vedder as a depressed fellow. Totally different breed, in my perception. Disaffected and melancholy, yeah, but not despairing and obsessed with death and morbidity like Cobain.
The stomach pain thing reminds me of Nancy Spungen.
I remember reading her mother’s book ‘And I Don’t Want to Live This Life’ where she talked about Nancy always being in some form of psychic pain, from the time she was a baby.
She made an interesting point (if I recall correctly) that even though she believed Sid Vicious was actually responsible for Nancy’s death -she always felt it was a kind of suicide.
That in Sid, Nancy had found her weapon.
And she (Nancy’s mother) believed she somehow coerced Sid into killing her and ending her the pain of her life. Maybe some people feel the pain of life too sharply and cannot bear to live with it.
Greg Olear: This is one of the things love about you, that you can come up with a line like “They were having a Depressed-Off.” I’m going to be chuckling about that for days.
Zara: Good God, you remember that! I’m strangely embarrassed.
Becky: “I know an addict would say whatever justified his continued drug abuse, so you know…” Damned straight. As Greg said somewhere below, you were in top form on the boards yesterday (though, in fact, it’s still today in Los Angeles). Also, I think you’re right about Vedder and Cobain being very different breeds, but Vedder was doing a lot of angry-young-man stuff in the so-called grunge days, as per his battle with Ticketron. Meanwhile, of course, “depressed” was the semi-official grunge affect.
I think Nancy was murdered by someone else. I heard a story from a reputable source: that Sid and Nancy had nodded off in the presence of a dope dealer who then attempted to steal a wad of cash from Sid, who’d just been paid for an appearance at Max’s Kansas City, and Nancy woke up and caught the guy, and in the ensuing fight, he stabbed her to death. I believe it. And only very recently, I had an exchange with the wife of Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, who knew Sid and Nancy well, and she pretty much corroborated my original source.
Interesting that Nancy comes up here, since I think Courtney was very like Nancy when she was a child, and Kurt was attracted to Courtney in part because he thought she resembled Nancy. Then, too, Courtney appears in Sid and Nancy, of course. She plays — what else? — a junkie.
Nancy sounded like a dreadful child.
As I said, Courtney was very similar. Her mother wrote a book apparently in the vein of the one by Nancy’s mother. Yet I can’t help but like Courtney — from a distance, of course.
And now to go to Ben’s party! I thought I could hit the board and say what I need to say here in a couple of hours, and many hours later, there’s more to do.
Apologies to anyone I haven’t answered, but I will, I promise, should you see this comment.
Back to the KC/Vedder topic: In the early 90s, EV did affect the brooding wallower quite a bit. KC’s death changed him, or at least his public persona. I never cared for PJ much — and my brother hates them, but then, his name is Jeremy — but I saw Vedder play at the Ralph Nader rally at MSG in 2000, and went away liking him very much. After KC’s death, PJ never got as dark as they used to be, seems to me.
I’m sure KC’s death had a profound impact on the entire Seattle music scene.
I do think, meanwhile, that Vedder is a nice guy. As for PJ, I’ve been back and forth on them. At one time I would’ve said I hate them, but my friend Wade is a big fan, and that caused me to rearrange my thinking.
I knew a woman who was an executive at MTV, and she said that Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once berated her for MTV’s heavy PJ rotation, and not so long ago, Sonic Youth toured with PJ. Then again, Sonic Youth has always been adaptable — without being sellouts. I personally am amazed at how they’ve pulled that off.
I think this is a very brave piece, being that suicide is such a difficult issue to discuss, and you have certainly done a masterful job in looking at it from many sides. Especially a side that would, no doubt, go against the “popular” and “moral” viewpoint.
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.
This, itself, is a provocative statement that I’m sure will spark some healthy debate.
I appreciate your honesty about your own struggles with suicidal thoughts. Look, I’m no expert, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I do believe that a great number of people have thoughts of killing themselves, especially teens and people in their twenties.
And I think it does have to do with loss of identity. When we’re young, all we want is to have an identity. We want to be cool, or sexy, or the funny one. When we’re young, we measure ourselves, our lives, our worth by our peers lives, by their social status. It’s no wonder there are so many young suicides.
When we are low, depressed beyond the point of despair, it gets increasingly harder to pull ourselves out of the mire of our dark thoughts. It takes a great deal of effort to overcome them. And when we do, how powerful we become in being able to navigate the trials of life.
Thanks, Jordan. Did you see that you were briefly discussed above?
I was wondering if I’d said anything in the piece that would spark debate. It wasn’t my wish to spark debate, but I know, of course, that it’s a touchy subject about which people have strong feelings. And I’d like to think that I’m open to hearing any and all viewpoints, not just on this subject but most, even though I draw the line at matters of taste, since if I like something or don’t like it, I don’t want to be convinced otherwise, and I try to extend that treatment to others.
I think most people have considered suicide, if only for a second at some point in their lives. It would be strange to me if they didn’t, in fact. And frankly, when I began this piece last December, I was having suicidal thoughts, which is exactly why I started writing it. It was therapy, you know? And it worked. Anyway, I feel much better now. But Christmas was a low point, as, for one reason or another, it often is for me.
About identity, it seems to me that our identities constantly change, no matter how fixed we think they are. Then again, I think I’ve probably had identity problems more than most, having been an actor, which can really fuck with your head, at least if you’re the kind of actor I was or am. I was never Orthodox Method (it really is a bit like church, all the different camps!), but close, I’d say. Also, as a novelist, there are always these different characters living inside me. So I don’t think I’ve ever arrived at a firm idea as to who I am.
But I’m definitely a lot more stable than I used to be, and maybe my dark side, which formerly caused me a lot of pain, has been of service in the long run. I’ve stared down an awful lot of bad, bad stuff.
I agree that our identities are constantly changing, but I think it’s more of our “public” identity. I think who we are inherently remains unchanged, for the most part. Perhaps it’s the struggle to reconcile who we really are with who we socially are that leads to the depression.
We are perceived differently by different people because how we behave with one group differs from another, again causing the inner struggle of trying to answer the basic question of identity, “Who am I?”
Constantly measuring ourselves according to a social barometer would doom anyone to a lifelong struggle with depression and flirtations with suicide.
Because people are ever-evolving socially, changing behavior and outlook and status, measuring one’s own happiness against another will never lead to happiness.
One must actively choose to be happy, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the hardship he/she may be faced with. Happiness must truly come from within because externals are forever in flux. If we measure ourselves against these things, our happiness will forever be in flux.
However, if we actively choose to be happy in the face of what life throws at us (obviously, easier said than done, especially for young people who haven’t even begun to form an identity)), the externals of life become navigable.
It is difficult, yes, especially for those who do not have a strong support system of close friends and/or family, where one may feel like, “It’s me against the world,” but I believe everyone has the ability to rise above.
Unfortunately, ability alone is obviously not enough when one feels like he/she has no strength.
For you, Duke, to battle with thoughts of suicide and keep going, shows you have not only the ability, but the necessary strength, as well.
If only more people could take a meta-position on their morbid thoughts and look at them objectively, it might give them strength, and therefore quell their dark desires.
I don’t know you (yet), but I’m glad you’re doing okay.
Well, Jordan, we could well meet one day. I have found myself with quite an itch to get out of L.A. of late.
When I said that our identities are constantly changing, I didn’t mean that they change radically, though sometimes they do. There’s a documentary called Unknown White Male about a guy who suffered some kind of head injury and found himself wandering around in a state of amnesia. He never regained his memory, though he returned to his old life, but he was a completely different person from the person he’d been before, as his friends and family all testified. Some have accused him of being a fake, but I go with his friends and family, who would know better, it seems to me.
But that’s an exceptional case, and generally speaking, I think the changes are subtle, but they are changes. People flower sometimes, and become social where they used to be reserved, or sometimes it’s the opposite. Womanizers become dedicated family men, and hard workers grow lazy. That’s more the kind of change I meant.
The me-against-the-world thing is problematic in my case, because I’ve always maintained that we’re all in this together, but I’m sure I didn’t feel that way when I was at my lowest. At those times, I felt that I was very much alone — or maybe forsaken is a better way of putting it.
But these days I don’t give that much thought to my identity. I don’t endlessly analyze myself as I used to do. I picked an awful lot of scabs on my soul, which got me into psychic hot water. And it all came from a desire to be as unflinchingly honest as I could be — the old “know thyself” thing. But I’m not sure that I believe anymore it’s possible to fully know oneself. We can learn a great deal, but in some ways, we remain mysteries to ourselves. And I think that’s a good thing, in that I like mystery, just as I like to feel that there’s always something new to discover.
Duke, this piece was powerful. It kinda sucker-punched me in the gut. BAM! It’s sad, too.
I’ve been to more funerals than I have weddings. One funeral was that of my sister’s best friend’s mother. She’d been depressed for quite a number of years after her husband died. She’d been in and out of depression clinics and on various medications from time to time. One day, her nephew, who was living with them at the time, came home and discovered her. She was hunched over the steering wheel in the driver’s seat. She’d gassed herself. The car was still running when he found her, she’d been there for a few hours. I can’t remember if she left a note or not.
Two years ago, my step-mother revealed that my paternal grandfather had killed himself. She didn’t go into specifics, but said that the war had gotten to him (WWII). I’d always thought that he’d died of natural causes. Then again I’d never asked about him because he died before I was born. My father has never mentioned him, at all.
I haven’t known many people who’ve committed suicide but there was a stretch over 3 years where 11 of my family members kicked the bucket, including my mother and her mother within 2 months of each other. I was told by a psychic that death seems to follow me. She said I’ll know a lot of people who will die because there’s something I need to learn from the experience so that I can help others.
What I have learnt is that you never get over it. You just deal with it better as time goes by. Suicide, as with any death, is really worse for the people left behind.
Your final line nails it. Yes, that’s exactly right. One thing that’s definitely given me pause when I was feeling really low was how my self-inflicted death would affect my nephews. It is for a fact a horrible legacy, and yet I can see, having been so low, how the desire to end that feeling, if amplified even a shade more, could overtake everything else.
Meanwhile, I remember hearing once that depression is really anger — anger that was never sufficiently expressed — which I think we all instinctively know, and that’s part of the awful guilt that survivors of suicide feel: What did I ever do to make him or her so angry?
I think the impact must be worse for those, like the nephew of your sister’s best friend’s mother. (Reproducing that chain made me a little dizzy for a second!) The story that I borrowed from the baseball book is a good example. Poor Dan Cohen! I almost felt guilty about including him in this piece, since he’s nothing but a name, with nothing else supplied except that he was a “businessman” who was traveling with the Reds and discovered Willard Hershberger’s body. And yet he was a real, living, breathing person, who must have suffered horribly after what he found that day, to the point where he took his own life.
About your grandfather, did you read “The Silk Parachute,” Zara’s piece about her grandfather, who was a WWII veteran? It has nothing to do with suicide, but it’s gorgeous. It may be my favorite piece by Zara, which is saying a lot.
Yes, I remember reading something like that too – depression is anger without the umph!, or something like that. I tend to agree with that statement.
Ha! Reading that chain made me a little dizzy. Don’t fell guilty for including him. No one is ‘nothing but a name’, on paper (or the internet) he may be perceived as just that, but to the people who knew him he was a son, brother, father, husband and friend. Yes, he was a real person.
I’ve just re-read Zara’s piece. I remember reading it a few months back. Thanks for directing me to it once again. It is gorgeous. Such a beautiful piece, and so emotional. Then again, I’d expect nothing more from Zara. *Zara, if you’re reading this: Bravo, my dear. Loved it!*
“Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit.'” ~Bill Maher
I believe the saying is, Depression is rage turned inwards, or something along those lines.
Matt: Yeah, it goes something like that. I heard it on a talk-radio show with a call-in shrink. It wasn’t Dr. Laura, who’s not a shrink at all. She’s just an opinionated bitch.
Simone: I’ve got to say I like that Bill Maher line, even if I generally have a difficult time with Maher. I find him kind of smug.
Thank you Duke and Simone. Your words have just made me feel like I’ve won a prize or something. Duke, you are so gracious to point out my post and Simone – you are kind to have re-read it. xx
Ah, Z, as I told you already, it had nothing to do with graciousness. I love the piece, which simply deserves to be read.
Z, I’m echoing Duke.
My brother and I often discuss Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
My brother will say,”I figure, I’m going to die one day. It’s going to happen,
I may as well live now.” We wish that Kurt would have just let his thoughts
unfold along the same path. The thought that I am going to go one day – inevitably –
is actually what makes me want to live. We’re gone from here for far less time, than we are here.
So, we may as well live.
But suicide can give people a sense of control. We studied suicide in one of my classes.
There is an increasing number of older people taking their lives – older people who are about
to enter nursing homes or with chronic diseases that will require a lot of expense. Their suicides
are often well thought out and considerate – but obviously leaving a trail of guilt for their families.
People are living longer lives now, but maybe it’s quantity over quality for some.
Great piece, as always, Duke. I always enjoy your voice and a glimpse into your soul.
My stomach, you mean? What a horrible image, yes? But I thank you, Steph, as always.
In fact, a few hours ago, I happened to catch your comment on the seven-year-marriage piece (I apologize for being so sloppy as to its title and its writer, but I’m a little overwhelmed here), and thought what you said there was so wonderful, about wanting to spend time with Greg while you can. Life is short, which I realize more and more by the day, so why shorten it further?
But when people do, I think they perceive it, maybe almost always, as a matter of quality-over-quantity, as you say of the elderly. That’s as close — “almost always” — to a sweeping statement as I’ve so far made on the subject. Not that my opinion holds any weight. But I do think I was thinking in terms of quality-over-quantity when I considered suicide.
Meanwhile, I find it really touching that you and your brother often discuss Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The next time you and I talk, I’d hope we can discuss it. This piece couldn’t begin to do it justice. I always feel a need to speed everything up online, with little in the way of nuance.
Is your soul in your stomach? Cool!
So if I cooked you your favorite meal, it would be soul reaching?
One day perhaps on your book tour, when you will obviously stay with us for
as long as you wish, I hope to do just that. I know it would involve capers.
And yes, would love to talk at length about KC, or listen, the next time we talk.
If I can wrench the phone away from Greg.
Ah, poor Greg. I was incoherent yesterday, not having slept much. (Oh, and I love that you said what you did to Will, which I saw a little while ago.)
And definitely capers! Yes! You remembered!
Re: sense of control, two quotes:
“I don’t think suicide is so terrible. Some rainy winter Sundays when there’s a little boredom, you should always carry a gun. Not to shoot yourself, but to know exactly that you’re always making a choice.” – Lina Wertmuller
“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: with the help of it one has got through many a bad night.” – Nietzsche
I was familiar with the second quote (though I’d forgotten it), but I’d never heard the first. Good ole Lina Wertmuller. Thanks for that, Greg.
Of course, when we talk about Cobain, at least, attributing a rational motivation to his suicide becomes problematic when we consider that in the 3 or so days immediately prior to his suicide, he had escaped from rehab and gone on an epic smack bender.
I apologize if others have already mentioned this–I’m in a hurry to get ready for work and haven’t read all the comments.
Anyway, though his note is reasonably coherent and his expressed unhappinesses totally likely–even reasonable–I think his decision regarding what to do about it probably does not stem from a rational–or even lucid–place. Even if he was stone-sober when he wrote it, addiction and the whole fucked up (indeed selfish) mindset that goes with it remains.
I tend to be one who sees suicide as inherently selfish. I understand arguments to the contrary in both an academic and sympathetic sense, but at the end of the day, it seems to me to be about liberating oneself from bad feelings and/or perceptions about the happiness or feelings of others, regardless of the actual feelings of others.
It’s basically going AWOL from life. It’s all fine and good for you, you’re dead. What do you have to worry about? But what about the people who survive? I mean, that’s the inescapable thing. It is, indeed, something you’ve done to yourself, but with long-term, hurtful implications only for other people.
People who survive the suicide victim, I mean, not people who survive suicide attempts.
I got it the first time, Becky. You’re like me, in wanting to express yourself as exactly as possible. And you know what? I combed over some of this piece, particularly the parts about religion, bearing your potential reaction in mind. But that’s a good thing; I had written sloppily.
As I said to Zara above, I never said that suicide wasn’t selfish (or cowardly), and I’m sure you caught that, eagle-eyed as always; I just think it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. With someone like Willard Hershberger, we’re obviously dealing someone so twisted by depression and his father’s suicide (or so it would seem, based on the admittedly limited evidence I could find), that I don’t think it’s fair to regard his own suicide as selfish. On the contrary, he seems to have thought of others until the last possible moment — missing the larger picture, of course, as, being crazed in a way that passed to most as sane, he couldn’t help but miss.
There was a history of suicide in Hershberger’s family, as there is with Cobain’s family, and I can’t help but think of the influence it had in both cases. It’s true that Cobain was mega-stoned at the time he pulled the trigger, and he apparently had been for a few days prior, but I’ve known countless junkies who didn’t blast their heads off with shotguns. The same for the many depressed people I’ve known, including myself. I think, with Cobain and Hershberger both, the legacy of suicide was so disorienting so as to almost — but perhaps not quite — exonerate them.
But I’ll certainly agree with you that there are many times when suicide is, no doubt about it, selfish. See David’s first comment by way of example.
This is not to say…
You ate the plums in the freezer?
I think, certainly, there is a case-by-case element to it. I think terminal illness is a good example. And there’s elaborate, long-term suicides, like by addiction, overeating, and the like. Do we call those selfish as well? MORE selfish, maybe? I mean, it’s a good question. And I think, more often than not, people don’t think they’re being selfish. They feel and believe that what they’re doing will make things easier for others. Their motivations, as they understand them, are not selfish.
But I think of this attitude as rationalization–delusions serving the desires of the suicidal. Because the act, in the end, is selfish–even if in a sterile, academic sense.
It is an act in which you can never possibly be held accountable for your actions, in which you never have to see the pain it brings other people you never have to face it. It is an act in which you give yourself what you want under the delusion that it is giving other people what they want, and you never have to worry about what happens if you’re wrong.
I don’t say this as a means by which to vilify those who succumb to their depression and suicidal thoughts. Suicide is a tragic scenario from any POV, and it is impossible not to take into account the pain that suicidal people are going through or have gone through and still call yourself a human being. I don’t look at a person like Cobain and think, “What a monster. What a jerk.” But neither do I look at him and go, “Gee. What a hero. Way to liberate your wife and infant daughter from your presence.” I mean, no. Nobody wins in that scenario.
My heart absolutely breaks for a guy like Cobain. I get it. I really do. I wasn’t even the hugest fan of his music, but I was fan of HIM. I identified with him a great deal. Still do. Something in the eyes. Pisceans. What are you gonna do?
I say it because regardless of any of that, the fact remains that it is selfish in the sense that the suicidal person simply gets (or takes) what they want regardless of what other people may want or may be willing to give.
I mean, I don’t make to make it so cold and semantic, but I think it’s true. I am not a person who has ever been genuinely suicidal, but at my lowest of lows, the few times the thought has crossed my mind, that cold, semantic reality is what has derailed the thought. In my mind, for me, it’s totally unacceptable. “It’s a cruel thing to do to other people,” I’d think to myself. “If I am so awful that people would be better off without me, the only humane solution for everybody involved is to quit being so goddamned awful.”
The statement of an essentially sane person. I realize a lot people who commit suicide are not sane. But the reality of the consequences of the act, in most cases, doesn’t care for sanity or insanity. It hurts people regardless of the deceased’s brain chemistry.
You fixed it! Now my joke makes no sense.
Incidentally, I’m not arguing with you, necessarily. I never got the sense you were claiming that suicide is unselfish.
But likewise, plenty of people with a familial history of suicide do not pull the trigger, either. The drugs, the depression, the history–these things can go a long way towards explaining why someone would consider suicide a legitimate solution, but it doesn’t make it so. I guess that’s the short version.
Just talking here. My two–or two hundred–cents.
First of all, apologies for the time it’s taken me to respond. Many distractions here. I hope you don’t feel like I was ignoring you, after you took time to write such a well-reasoned comment.
You make a good case, particularly when you say: “It is an act in which you can never possibly be held accountable for your actions, in which you never have to see the pain it brings other people you never have to face it.” That’s true. No matter what’s brought about the suicide, and even the deceased was mentally ill, there’s no getting around the fact that there’s zero accountability.
Anything else I say is not meant to cancel the above, but I do think people tend to take a sweeping view of the reaction to suicide, as if there were no exceptions to those who feel angry and responsible and pained in a way that they wouldn’t feel if the deceased had died in an accident or from natural causes.
I used to be friendly with a band in NYC, and after I’d moved to LA, I got into touch with one of the band members and asked about the others, one of whom, I now learned, had killed himself. I was shocked, and instantly very sorry for the guy, who was always a bit awkward; in retrospect, I could see that he was a candidate for suicide.
His former bandmate — the guy with whom I was talking — took a philosophical approach. He said something along the lines of, “Well, it was his choice.” He was matter-of-fact about it, but I wouldn’t say cold. I didn’t and don’t know how close they’d remained after the band broke up, so maybe he could afford to react the way he did. But they had been good friends at one time, and it struck me that maybe there are others like him who treat suicide as, simply, death, with none, or at least little, of what we view as the “normal” reaction. I would guess that there are such people, and they aren’t necessarily cold or monstrous. David mentioned that suicide is considered “a normal thing to do” in Korea, which could conceivably make for a different reaction than we expect in the West.
Meanwhile, when we say that, well, such-and-such had a history of suicide in his family and he didn’t kill himself, we’re getting into the case-by-case thing again. I mean, you’re right, but I’m not sure what it proves, in the end, except that people are different, that what has a big impact on one person doesn’t on another, and vice-versa.
Your 200 cents are always very welcome, but I’m perplexed about “You fixed it!” I didn’t fix anything, so far as I remember. But I was very, very tired this time yesterday morning, so maybe I fixed something and promptly forgot. But I don’t think I’d want to deprive you, or me, of a good joke.
You had some errant html. Italics.
And a sentence that started, but never finished, right at the end. It began, “This is not to say.”
Anyway, yeah. I mean, you have to, at some point, just treat it as death. I mean, what choice does anyone have in that respect? It is what it is. I think that IS the normal reaction–or at least eventually. I don’t suspect it’s as rare as you think. Then again, I would never chastise someone for feeling cheated, feeling angry at least at some point, with a loved one who committed suicide. I mean, let’s face it. They got the fucking shaft on the whole deal. It’s normal, not just in the sense that it’s common, but in the sense that it’s perfectly understandable.
And I think that people who are close to others who have been long-suffering most likely DO take into consideration that the deceased was in a lot of pain, and that, as with other diseases, is what they tell themselves to feel better. “S/he is not in pain anymore.” But, you don’t have to go too far, even in this comment board, to see how it IS different than other deaths, especially when there aren’t clues, no indication, no explanation, no apology. No attempts to save themselves or those around them from the hurtful consequences of their actions. It’s tough, in that scenario, not to see a death as sort of thoughtless.
If a person dies of cancer or old age or anything, you know it’s coming. And it’s out of anyone’s control. If a person dies in a motorcycle accident, you don’t know it’s coming and it may or may not have been avoidable, but it’s not something the deceased mustered their agency to DO to themselves and other people, knowing and intending a tragic outcome.
“Tragic accidents happen,” we can say.
Agency is what sets suicide apart.
Ah, yes. I did indeed remove italics and a line that wasn’t supposed to be there. And your joke references that great William Carlos Williams poem! For that I think I owe you an apology. It’s not every day that someone makes a William Carlos Williams joke — and a good one at that. Unfortunately, vanity came first.
I was being timid when I suggested that it’s rare for people to treat suicide as, simply, death. You’re right, especially when you add “eventually,” as you did. And I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their anger and all the rest of it, as I hope would be obvious. (Though I can imagine a scenario of having to hear and hear and hear of anger to the point where, despite my sympathy, it would drive me up the wall, at which point I might cue the “I think it’s time you moved on” speech, as seen in so many movies.)
I don’t have any argument with anything you say, so maybe I should conclude by praising your phrasing, particularly with regard to the word “agency.” Well done. And further kudos for the WCW joke. (Did you read Paglia’s take on that poem in her book on poetry?)
On a William
Due compensation, Greg. Thanks.
I would it find to believe there’s another board on the Internet with jokes referencing WCW poems. Which is, of course, asking to be proved wrong.
Another wonderful thought-provoking piece Duke. I really enjoy the way you weave your research in with the telling of your own story – I always learn so much from your writings.
I don’t really want to join the debate about the ‘why’ of suicide – I have lost quite few friends in this way and it still puzzles me today. Their reasons for exiting in such a way…? I have no idea and like you I make no judgment on the act. However I have seen the anguish, the sorrow, the despair and the anger in its aftermath and I feel so much for those people left behind who must spend every day asking “why?”.
Your last line “I want so very much to live”, is very much the key. Perhaps only when you have stared down that empty great hole of despair, and you have uttered those words, can you truly begin to live the life that was intended.
My father was paralyzed and dependent on others in the last few years of his life. I think if he’d been able to end his own life he possibly would have tried. He sometimes asked my brother to take him up to a cliff and push him over. One day my brother had taken him out for a walk in his wheelchair, and while crossing the road, the wheelchair hit a stone and Dad toppled out onto the road. He was absolutely terrified he was going to be run over and shouted at my brother to get him back into the wheelchair and off the road. So for all the talk about wanting to end his ‘useless’ (as he called it) life, when faced with the possibility the passion for life was too strong.
I love what Steph’s brother says, “I figure, I’m going to die one day. It’s going to happen, I may as well live now.”
Wonderful piece Duke, I’m so glad you’re here to share with us your life, your thoughts, and your passion.
And I’m glad to be here, Jude. I’m humbled by your kind words.
The story you tell of your father: I understand it completely. There was a moment when I was sure I wanted to be done with life, and then I had a panic attack, which caused me to think I was going to die at any moment, and all I could think was how to save my life.
Meanwhile, I never hoped to spark a debate as to the why of suicide. I see it as, finally, a mystery, and we can all roll out our theories, but they’re finally going to be just that. So I would never want to commit myself to one view or the other, knowing as I do that I’m incapable of pinning down the truth — as if there were any ultimate truth in the matter, though there are categories and trends to be sure.
I’ve been fortunate not to have any close friends or relatives commit suicide. In my case, it’s only been acquaintances, though I’ve nonetheless found myself pondering their motives, though in one case, at least, I could guess. He was a very awkward guy, and when I heard, long after we’d last seen each other, that he’d killed himself, it made a kind of sense. Yet I still felt badly about it, wondering if I’d been kind enough to him, as if that could’ve prevented it.
Excellent post Duke. Interesting, insightful, and so well-written.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention David Foster Wallace. Did you read the speech he gave at Kenyon? It was eerily prescient.
Excellent post Duke. Interesting, insightful, and so well-written.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention David Foster Wallace. Did you read the speech he gave at Kenyon? It was eerily prescient.
Oh, just looked for it online. Here it is:
You can delete my first comment. The spinner was still spinning so I thought it wasn’t posting and added the last lines and the link! Delete this, too!
Nope! I’m trying to create the illusion of a high comment count.
Thanks, Jessica. I worked it for a long time, and I finally got lucky. I didn’t think it was ever going to come together.
I thought about DFW as I wrote, but I’d always been struck by the Hershberger story, and the one about Jonathan Brandis, and then, when I added Cobain to the mix, it seemed like that was all enough, right there. However, I did mention DFW in the comments this morning.
I started reading the Kenyon speech — and I thank you for the link! — but haven’t had time to finish. But I’m not surprised that the speech was prescient, since the seeds of our future actions are within us, and we’re forever hinting at them, unknowingly. If our words were taped at every moment and scrutinized, they’d effectively amount to maps.
You did a masterful job writing this.
I feel very strongly about this topic.
I think the damage left behind on loved ones is something that makes suicide inexcusable, hateful.
I really can’t go into it here.
I understand, Irene. I really do, even though I know nothing of the particulars. And I’m humbled that you use the word “masterful.” Thank you.
Duke, like Zara, I found the following a fresh, as well as poetic, insight: “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.”
You’ve got a handle on the illogic of Dark Moods. E.g., in Brad’s _Attention_ book when a majority of surviving SFGG bridge-leapers thought on the way down: “OMS!! I wish I hadn’t done this!” (sorry for the irreverent paraphrase, Broad)
Further illogic of the Dark Moods: David Burns in his remarkably practical books spotlights All Or Nothing thinking. Something (wildly paraphrased by me) like, “You say you’re never gonna write a great piece. Have you ever written one great line? Do you think you could write another great line? Has anybody ever told you they loved a piece you wrote? Is it possible that you might write two great lines, or maybe three, maybe even a great paragraph? Is it possible that you might find out from someone or some other writing ways to write some great lines?” And so on, opening the Dark Mood door to reality.
As always with logical fallacies, i.e., illogical thinking, you need to factor in more information. Hence, young folks, who have less information simply bcuz they have lots less experience from which to process information, are more likely to feel hopeless. If they think: “I’ll never fall in love again” that’s actually an understandable logic because they’ve only fallen in love once. Widen their experiences, and they’ll have a whole different take on love, like: “Hey, women are like buses, another one will come by in 10 minutes.” Or “Thank God I’ve escaped! No more love crap for me!”
I love these parts of your piece, Duke: “I was at age eleven — a despairing relative unloaded on me. I said, ‘You’ll only be hurting yourself if you do.’ Egad.”
And when the Suicide Hotline guy was trying to “mirror” you “to the point where I was awakened from my depression by sheer irritation.”
Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to your comment, Judy. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed.
The line you quote–“fire and ash,” etc.–is something of an anomaly for me. I tend to fight against metaphors with a poetic feel, thinking my metaphors are stale or trite. I almost cut the fire-and-ash bit for that reason, but I finally decided to let it go. Anyway, I’m glad you responded well to it, since you’re a poet and I am but a prose writer.
Elsewhere on the board, I mentioned that I almost referred to Brad’s book while preparing the piece, since he’s got so much great stuff in it about suicide, but that was after I’d written a first draft of it, and I decided to stick with that as my template. The Cobain angle was the only new element.
But I’ve heard what you say about jumpers — and not just in Brad’s book. In fact, have you seen a movie called The Bridge? It’s about people who jump to their deaths from the Golden Stage Bridge, and I think it can be seen in its entirely on Google. At any rate, there’s an interview with a guy who survived the jump, and I think he says that knew, as soon he was airborne, that he’d made a mistake.
Your bit about “women are like buses” reminds me of falling madly in love with a girl named Debbie Raphole at Christian camp when I was eleven. Oh, man, was I in love with her! But she didn’t return my ardor, and I moped and pined and so on, and somebody said, “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” which sounded extremely wise to me at the time. I wonder if anyone says that now? Without irony, I mean.
Of course, I’m glad you like my joke about the guy who was “mirroring” me, as well as my psychopathic reaction to a suicide threat as a child.
Duke. This piece is amazing. You’ve outdone yourself, and that’s saying a lot.
My younger sister struggled with depression growing up. Two of my mom’s brothers have committed suicide. I always thought suicide was a selfish thing to do, especially after seeing what my sister’s depression and my uncles’ deaths did to my mom emotionally. Then I experienced depression personally for the first time in my very fortunate life, after getting married, giving birth and moving to a different state in which I was completely isolated.
It was the first time in my life I’d felt more than situational depression. It hit me so hard, the realization of how callous I’d been in my feelings about depression in others. For the first time in my life, I understood it. I’ve always had what I considered great perspective, and pretty much running water and a roof over my head made me feel appreciation for my life. Now I logically knew I had so much more than that to be grateful for, but I still couldn’t shake the emotional hopelessness. I was bewildered and terrified.
I was always the first one to try to convince my sister that her depression was just skewed perspective. I was the one trying to be the psychological “kick in the ass” for her that I felt she needed. Now that I was feeling depressed myself, I realized that depressed people want more than anything in the whole wide world to feel better inside. My heart had been in the right place, but I suddenly knew how annoying I’d been for my sister our whole lives, trying to give her “You have so much to live for!” Pollyanna pep talks, when what she needed was understanding and compassion. The first thing I did upon experiencing depression was apologize to my sister for treating her like she had any control over her own depression.
Because of my experiences, I now believe that mental illness is a sickness, no different from any other. It is as wrong to hold a person experiencing depression accountable for their mental illness as it is to blame someone for their cancer.
I think you are so brave and strong for talking about this subject and sharing your own experiences. Thank you. xoxo.
[clapping at what Tawni wrote, nodding my head in strenuous agreement]
(that’s the Native American term for, “Yes, my brother, Yes, my sister, I resonate with what you just said.”)
Well, I am finally answering Tawni’s comment, which was clamoring to be answered this morning, but I didn’t have the strength to keep going.
First of all, Tawni, I think it’s very brave and strong of you to speak of yourself as you do.
Meanwhile, I have a friend who has suffered from clinical depression for most of his life. He was very alienated from his father, who couldn’t bring himself to discuss my friend’s condition. At one point, my friend wrote a letter to his father in which he tried to explain himself, saying that he didn’t want to feel the way he did, and he got no response from his father.
Then, after his father died, my friend was going through some of his things, and he came across the letter he’d written to him years before, and that phrase — “I don’t want to feel the way I do” — had been highlighted. It really touched my friend that, apparently, his father had made an effort to understand him after all.
But, you know, sometimes people really do need a slap when they’re feeling down. There’s a famous story about Mickey Mantle being depressed after he was cut from a farm-league team, and his father drove up to the hotel where Mantle was staying and gave him a dressing-down that turned Mantle’s life around.
It’s a tough call to make, I think, though the answer, obviously, lies in the severity of the depression. Sometimes, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything can be done. Yes, it’s an illness — and I have literally felt sick from depression, and I mean sick in the physical, deathly-feeling sense.
Thanks so much for all you say, Tawni. It means more than I can begin to convey.
Duke, this puts me in a difficult position. I don’t have time to write a well-considered response – which is what this piece deserves – but neither do I wish to leave it uncommented while I salt glib one-liners elsewhere. For now, I will say – of course – that this was a well-written and thoughtful piece about a well-ignored and sensitive topic. Of all the fine observations and turns of phrase, the one line that struck the deepest chord with me was “…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.” People choose to end their lives for as many varied reasons as they choose not to – fear, depression, duty, escape from something perceived as otherwise inescapable, sacrifice to benefit others, chemical imbalance…. The list is almost endless.
You know, I saw your comment this morning, when I was nodding off at the keyboard, and I thought I’d already answered it, and now I see I didn’t.
But you’re absolutely right: the list is almost endless — and it is endless when you consider the fine distinctions between one case and another. No two suicides are identical, just as now two people are identical.
Oh, and since you praise my phrasing, allow me, sir, to praise yours. I especially like “while I salt glib one-liners elsewhere.”
An extremely well-written, and thought-provoking piece, Duke. But then again, I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. Here’s to the living. And to the dearly departed. Be well, my friend.
And the same to you, Rich. Thanks for what you say about the piece, and thanks, also, for the hyphens on “well-written” and “thought-provoking.” I mean, a lot of people wouldn’t think to put them there, and that kind of thing can drive me batty.
Well written as always. You handled this topic beautifully. You and I have talked about suicide a few times….so I think you know where my mind went when I read this. Your last line brought tears to my eyes.
I’m humbled, which is something I seem to be saying a lot of late, Debb. And, yes, I think I do know where your mind went. I hope the piece didn’t cause you any unpleasantness.
Is it weird that it stirred up some memories that made me laugh til I cried?
Your work always makes me think, Duke, whether its unpleasant or not. Its why I keep reading you.
But if you laughed till you cried, that’s good, right? I mean, I’m assuming they were funny memories.
I do try to go for “think” as much as “feel,” I think. (See? The word “think” is always near at hand.) But I think (again!) without that, there’s a risk of bathos when you’re dealing with some of the subject matter I’ve taken on. It’s very important, from a writing standpoint, not to just wallow, you know what I mean?
To all to whom I have responded so far, I apologize. I put up this post late last night and didn’t expect any immediate commentary, and when it nonetheless came, I darted all night long from the board to (non-TNB) writing assignments and back again, so that now I have to sleep. But seeing that this post deals with such a sensitive topic, and that I’ve received the sensitive responses I have to it, I wanted those I haven’t answered so far to know that you’re not being ignored. Thank you all, and I’ll return to thank you in detail, individually, as soon as I can.
Beautifully written, it was a tough read as it’s been almost 10 years since my brother killed himself—it still messes with me. I think Simone said it earlier, “Suicide, as with any death, is really worse for the people left behind”
I did like the point you make about people who talk about it are usually just as serious about it. It’s one thing to talk to close friends in hopes to have someone talk you out of it. And quite another to call 911 because you’re about to light yourself on fire: which happened down the street from me a few days ago. Words obviously come out of someone’s mouth for a propose. Most of the time, the thoughts are formulated before actually spewing forth. That leads me to believe, if someone is talking about it, it a thought that’s bounced around for a while in the mind.
Can I just say, first of all, Jeannie, how much I like the colon you place after the word “fire”? I’m partial to colons. I use them as much as possible. I realize that’s a strange thing to say about a sentence concerning such a horrific event, but I felt impelled to say it.
Meanwhile, you’re right about the lag between thoughts and words. And then there’s the lag between words and action. That’s where the rescue has to take place, obviously, if there can be one.
You know, when I saw your comment (and I saw it this morning, but I was too exhausted at the time to to respond), I thought: Oh my God! Jeannie’s brother killed himself! (Note the colon.) I was aware of it already, obviously, but I’d misplaced it before posting, and we just spoke yesterday. I should’ve told you the post was coming, to brace you for it. Yes, I’m sure it would be a tough read, but I’m glad the writing did well by you.
This piece was difficult to read as my nephew committed suicide 2 years ago. He left no note, no explanation, no apologies, no clues, just an gaping bleeding void.
How could he have been in so much pain and “we” his family not know? What signs had we missed? What love or attention should we have paid him? How can his parents move forward with their lives? How do we get through holidays without him?
That’s heartbreaking. And when you say “How could he have been in so much pain and ‘we’ his family not know,” that unfortunately goes straight to the heart of the suffering that suicide causes. The legacy of guilt and sadness and anger — because, let’s face it, we do get angry, even when people die from natural causes– is staggering. I’m so sorry, Connie, that your family has had to go through it, and I hope that, over the course of time, some of your questions can be answered.
Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. My nephews suicide nearly killed my sister-in-law, literally. Her health took a sharp downward turn, high blood pressure, type II diabetes and clinical depression -she is still being treated and having trouble controlling all of the above. My brother in law’s health also took a hit, high blood pressure that he has managed to control with meds.
I remember my hubby was so upset his response was to wish HE had been the one to die and not his nephew. Each of my 3 children became concerned with depression, is it inherited? Constant self-monitoring of their emotions and worrying if they too may drop into the abyss.
As for Kurt Cobain and other famous ppl who have committed suicide, I have my own theory, those who have nothing to lose are more willing to suffer through the hardships and trials it takes to become famous, however when they become famous their demons are still with them. How devastating it must be to run so hard, work so hard, to suffer to become famous only to realize your demons have stayed with you the entire ride.
Forgive me for over-simplifying my theory, this subject is just too painful to go into in depth.
No forgiveness necessary, and I fully understand that it’s a painful subject. I was aware of that when I wrote about it, obviously, and so wasn’t sure how this piece would be received.
Your theory about fame is right on the money. It somewhat happened to me. I was working my ass off to get ahead, and I really did think that if I could achieve fame and all the rest of it, I would be cured of whatever problems I had. And, in fact, there was a moment when it looked like I was on the verge of getting someplace, and it suddenly hit me that success wasn’t going to change anything at all, that I was still going to be me and my problems would likely get worse, not better, since I was going to have face public scrutiny. And I completely came apart when I realized that. I had, pretty much, a nervous breakdown.
Meanwhile, that’s so sad, that your husband said he wished it could’ve been him instead of his nephew, just as it makes me sad to hear of the way this has affected your in-laws. Have they ever spoken with a grief counselor? Not that it would necessarily help. The mental-health field is filled with duds, as I’ve learned from experience.
How I wish I could say magic words to erase your pain, alas I am but a simple woman. I am thrilled you chose to stay with us and light our worlds with your words.
Yes they have done some grief counselling but as in everything else this is something they have to work thru (mind you they also suffered a still birth some 10 years before Danny committed suicide) .
On a happier note, I am preparing foods for my Dad’s 75th birthday party today, and I am blessed to have him still with me. Today will be a celebration of life and loved ones for my family.
I hope it’s a terrific celebration. I wish your father a happy birthday and many more, and I thank you, as ever, for your kind words.
Great article. Woke up this morning in one of those ‘moods’ and found this to be a good slap in the face to bring me back to reality. I keep hearing your final words ringing in my ear ” I want so very much to live.”
Ah, Corey, man, I want to thank you. What a surprise to find you here. It means a lot that you left a comment — and such a flattering one.
I saw the footage of Rob and Pete Seeger, by the way. I’m so happy for you guys.
Let’s talk soon, yes?
Thanks. Lets definitely talk soon. The New York trip was amazing…Lots to talk about. At least one good thing has come out of that fucking facebook thing…. Your link lead me to the TNB site where I was able to find your previous articles. Great stuff. look forward to the next one.
Yes, the next one. Ha. There’s always a next one. Honestly, though, I think this is probably my best. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to top it.
But thanks for digging through the archive and for what you say about it. There should be a second page for the archive, but it’s inaccessible. A glitch, or something. Anyway, obviously, some pieces are better than others.
Yeah, Facebook is kind of a horror, huh, G. G.? When you friended me on FB, I at first wasn’t sure if it was you or my friend Pete, who’s another person who might have called himself G. G.
Can’t wait to hear about the New York trip. I talked to Rob for a few minutes the other day. He was still in NYC at the time.
I slowly realized people are extremely sensitive to aggressive comments, even if they are not directed at them (those are the ones who should think about offing themselves) So i decided you cant do G.G. any justice if you can’t be mean to people….Also I’m still trying to figure out, if I have 103 friends, where the fuck are they at when I need some help. Damn…I should have stayed mean…. Talk to you soon
I never got into commenting much at FB, but I would assume it’s as you say it is. I dip in and get out as quickly as possible. FB has never been an everyday thing for me, the way MySpace used to be. I would spend hours at MySpace. Which is kind of embarrassing.
I used to enjoy MySpace, but Facebook really grabbed me. It’s hard to explain why… I guess the fact that I spent so many hours on both of them is lame, but they’ve actually both helped my writing/editing a lot.
That’s interesting. I would guess that for many it’s the opposite, since people write so quickly and sloppily on social sites. (In fact, I’m aghast at some of the sloppy writing in my comments here, but, of course, they were written quickly.)
I find Facebook to be much more an invasion of privacy than was MySpace, with people throwing up pictures that I may not want there, and acquaintances that I may not want to meet again finding and befriending me. Also, I was driven mad by all the applications — “Such-and-such is a vampire and you’ve been bitten!” or “Such-and-such is an elm tree; find out which tree you are by taking this test!” I mean, fuck off.
Then again, at Facebook, there aren’t all those glittery graphics of roses and the like with: “Me wuv woo!” That was all pretty sickening.
“I mean, fuck off.”
Ha ha ha.
Well, fortunately, there’s significantly less of it now. Facebook does appear to be maturing.
Wow. I wasn’t hardly ready for this. Awesome.
Have to share: I was a psycho Nirvana fan from the first time I heard Nevermind. I was in law school in Chicago, and I used to put together $60 at a time to buy Nirvana bootlegs at Evil Clown records (no one was posting or trading music on the Internet in 1992). When In Utero came out, I was on cloud nine. I finally got a chance to see them live at the Riviera, securing a backstage pass. Never met the band, but that pass was a ticket to bliss for me- just looking at it gave me hope.
The day that Kurt died, I was in a moot court competition and was literally walking into the courtroom when a buddy of mine yelled over to me, “Joe! Did you hear? Kurt Cobain just blew his fucking head off!” I was in disbelief. My friend confirmed that he was serious.
I walked slowly into the courtroom, shaking. In a matter of minutes, I had to conduct a criminal trial in front of a jury consisting of some of the best criminal lawyers in the country, including John Gotti’s lawyer and Johny Cochran. I sat down at my table and flipped open my briefcase, and there, tapped to the inside cover, were two things that only I could see- my Nirvana backstage pass, and a quote that I printed out and blew up: “This is MY generation, baby!”
Thanks for all your carefully-worded thoughts on suicide. I’ve finally come to believe that it truly is a spiritual/emotional malady. The final act is just one of the many symptoms. It’s taken me a long time to reach this opinion, but it feels right. It seems to jive well with much of what you’ve said.
Thanks a bunch for this article.
I think “Where were you when you heard about Kurt Cobain?” is the “Where were when you heard about JFK?” for our generation. I mean, how can you not remember?
It’s funny; I was talking to Greg Olear a little while ago, and Greg used to work at AP, and he told me a story about Cobain’s death: that when the story came through on the wire at one in the morning, the old coot who got the wire didn’t think the story was worth running, since he’d never heard of Kurt Cobain. He had to be talked into it. “Are you sure this is relevant?” “YES! IT IS! RUN IT!” But that goes to prove a generation gap that I’m not sure many realize existed.
I wish you’d gotten to meet Nirvana. Honestly, man, I was backstage one time at a Trail of the Dead show when Dave Grohl was playing with QOTSA, with whom TOD were touring, and Dave Grohl walked by me, and I would never have thought I’d be awestruck by the sight of Dave Grohl, but I fucking was, because he was in Nirvana.
Thanks for telling me those stories and anecdotes, Joe. Oh, and obviously, I was on cloud nine when In Utero came out. I called my friend Meg, whom I mention in the piece, and said, “I GOT IT! IT’S INCREDIBLE!” I mean, she couldn’t get me off the phone. I just kept blabbing and blabbing about that record.
Shit. This is making me sad.
That’s interesting about Greg and AP, Duke. My Dad has a similar anecdote from when he was working (God knows doing what…) in Hong Kong at the main newspaper there. Apparently he was one of the only people working one night when the news came through that Janice Joplin had died. He made an executive decision to pull the front page and run a massive banner headline about her death. I think he lost his job the very next day..
My God. That is just amazing, when you consider how unbelievably famous Janis Joplin is now. I suppose, in a way, your father helped to make that so — he and those who ran that story, because they knew at the time who she was, unlike all those Greatest Generation types.
The Seattle news editor had to talk the General Desk editor in NYC to put the Cobain story on the A-wire. To convince him it was newsworthy.
The best thing about In Utero is that the last song ends with Cobain singing, over and over, “All we want is Olear.”
Ha. Yes, and the people on TV are talking to
you, Greg. Only to you.
I figured I hadn’t told the AP story quite right, so glad you inserted the specifics like Seattle news editor and A-wire. Still, it was too good a story to go to waste. As I told you, if I’d known it when I was working on the piece, it likely would’ve been included somewhere.
A couple of anecdotes just for the hell of it: I went to a party at Ben Loory’s house last night, and as soon as I walked in, a guy in the kitchen — someone I don’t know that well — said, “Oh, hey, I read your piece on Cobain today.” That was unexpected. Then it turned it out that Ben owned the Nirvana box-set thing that I mentioned in the piece, which I haven’t watched since that night at Pete’s, and we ended up watching it.
>>I think “Where were you when you heard about Kurt Cobain?” is the “Where were when you heard about JFK?” for our generation. I mean, how can you not remember?<<
So true! I just feel lucky to have been able to experience Kurt’s legacy as it unfolded, yanno? Gutted that I never met him. Pat Smear had left the passes for us, and when we showed them to security to get back there, he made us wait in this corner for a half hour or so. He kept telling us he’d be taking us right in. Then he just walked over and said, “that’s it- you guys have to go.” I got the sense that he was putting us on the whole time.
Best part about the show was after the show ended and the band had walked offstage, Kurt came flying out all of a sudden and dove straight into the crowd. It was awesome.
Super jel of your DG sighting!
I vow to listen to Nirvana today. Right now, in fact. Thanks again.
I have no idea where I was. Honestly. No clue.
I know EXACTLY where I was, however, when I heard about Jeff Buckley.
Joe: So you know Pat Smear, huh? I never met him, but I’ve seen quite a bit of Don Bolles. He is a weird, weird guy. He was doing a regular night at a bar where some friends of mine played, and they’re a little on the heavy side, and Don Bolles was making snide comments to them during the show. Well, it turns out that Don Bolles hates heavy music. I mean, how can you be in the Germs and hate heavy music?
But that isn’t the weirdest thing about him. He’ s just kind of weird, in general. And if Pat Smear was putting you on, may he burn in hell for it. I mean, not for eternity, you know, but at least for, oh, an hour or two.
Actually, it looks like I’m going to be listening to Nirvana over the next few days. Ben Loory loaned me his copy of the box-set retrospective, which I mentioned in the post, last night. So funny that I ended up watching the DVD included in it immediately after I posted this piece. I mean, it wouldn’t be funny if I owned the DVD, but I don’t. Do you have that retrospective? I don’t think I’ve heard any of the tracks on it. Like I said in the piece, I haven’t listened much to Nirvana since Kurt’s death.
Becky: We’re polar opposites on this. I don’t remember where I was when I heard about Jeff Buckley, but I do remember being struck by the weirdness of the circumstances in which he died.
Yeah. It was pretty bullshit.
Not a drinker, not an addict…his fatal trait was, basically, being quirky enough to want to take a dip in the river in the middle of the night.
I mean, Keith Richards is still alive. And Buckley is dead. WTF?
Not that I’m wishing for the death of Richards, just that if there had been a pool on who would go first, I sure wouldn’t have chosen Buckley.
A pool. Ha. Don’t get me started.
That Richards has survived amazes even him, I think. It was the same for Dennis Hopper, I know, though he’s not going to be around much longer.
It seems like, if Buckley didn’t realize the strength of the Mississippi current, somebody else who did know would’ve warned him about it. I get the romance of wanting to go down to the river at night, but it was foolhardy to get in the water. Poor guy.
Pat Smear is a diamond- he came through with the passes. The d-bag was the security guard. We flashed our passes and he asked us to follow him, leading us into this hallway just off the stage. He said for us to wait a couple minutes before bringing us backstage. After telling us “a couple more minutes,” three or four times, he finally came over and told us we had to leave, offering no explanations. I don’t know if something was up backstage that was not for general consumption, or if the guard was just getting off on a d-bag trip, but it’s definitely a regret.
I do have that set and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Just amazing stuff.
I’m looking forward to hearing it. It was great, watching the DVD again last night. There was some talk about why Kurt is singing with his face to the wall during that sequence of songs that was shot at Krist’s mother’s house. Somebody said that it had to do with being able to hear himself better. Anyway, it’s odd.
About the Pat Smear thing, I read too quickly, though it did occur to me that you probably meant security.
The depth of despair when feeling suicidal can only be understood by someone who’s been there. Without something or someone at the bottom of the well to bounce back off of, the act is completed. I, too, relate to your writing on many levels. Not the least of which is my niece’s recent letter to her favorite uncle – my husband. In it she describes her feeling of worthlessness. With our disposable society, people view themselves as expendable. In my opinion, the devil wins the argument when someone succeeds. He laughs, and we grieve.
Thanks for treating this subject with such sensitivity.
I’m glad it’s been perceived as sensitivity, Patty. I was afraid it wouldn’t be, the subject matter being one that elicits strong reactions.
Interestingly, I just received another comment that mentions disposability. It does seem so me that the culture becomes more and more heartless all the time. But may I ask how old your niece is? Not that it matters, but I’m just curious as to whether she’s a teenager, which is age when a great many people have feelings of worthlessness.
This was nicely-phrased comment, by the way. I hope your novel is progressing.
I knew this was coming, of course, as we have discussed it, but that does not change the fact that it is the finest piece of writing you’ve put on these pages, which is saying something. You have outdone yourself, my friend (outdone the dark undone?).
The topic itself is so rich, we might go off on tangents of Monroe, Wallace, Hemingway (and his daughter), Plath, Hamlet (the soliloquy is such a fine meditation on suicide), Kevorkian (who is back in the news), Terri Schiavo (euthanasia will be, as the Baby Boomers age, the next great national debate), the spate of suicides among Pacific Islanders Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, honorable suicides in Japan and ancient Rome, and of course Brad’s novel.
But I’ll instead share this quote…not sure where it’s from…a friend of mine had it up on her wall, and I always liked it:
…and sometimes she would weep
Not because she was sad
But because the world is so beautiful
And life is so short.
The legacy of suicide running through several generations of Hemingway’s family was forefront on my mind while I was reading this.
Matt: I in fact came thisclose to mentioning Hemingway’s family right after the Hershberger bit. I finally decided not to mention it because I didn’t want the piece to be overwhelmed with names, if you know what I mean.
Now that’s a thing of beauty.
Great quote, Greg.
Greg: Since we spoke a little while ago, you already know how appreciative I am that you say what you do about the piece, but allow me to please state it again, publicly. And your joke about “The Dark Undone” is apropos, of course, since it’s a kind of brother piece to this one. I think I may have cornered my own market in the dark department.
That’s a good point about the forthcoming euthanasia discussion. I had never considered that, but you’re absolutely right. Also, I had considered picking up my copy of Brad’s book, since it contains so many interesting tidbits about suicide, but, as I said to you on the phone, the piece is built entirely out of stuff that had either happened to me or had struck me in my various travels.
Monroe is an interesting case. I may write about her one day. I’ve thought a great deal about her. I’ve even been to her grave (which might make for a destination when Simon and Zara are in L.A., if they’re game).
Oh, and Zara is absolutely right the words your friend had on her wall. I would like to know the source. Beautiful.
That is so beautiful.
I think I’ve heard it before.
I’ll think it over for a while.
If you do learn, please share. I’m very curious.
It is, apparently, from the writer and artist Brian Andreas (although I have seen it also attributed to Mary Shelley, from “Frankenstein,” of all places). Here is the print:
Ah. If it does, in fact, come from “Frankenstein,” that may account for its seeming familiarity, since I’ve read “Frankenstein.”
Thanks for tracking it down.
Dysphoric disorders suck. Great post.
P.S When I feel like shit, I blast Taj Mahal singing Cake Walk Into Town
Welp, this is going to require a look at YouTube, for starters. Thanks for pointing the way, Sheree, and for the read.
Dysphoric disorders. I’ve never heard those two words combined until now, Sheree. I must live in a barn.
Oh, and I now see this has posted weirdly. Anyway…
Five generations of my female lines have suffered with PMDD a dysphoric disorder triggered by our moon time. You can google pmdd for more info.
I have PMDD. It’s ugly.
Google, here I come. (Which strikes me as a very Simon Smithson thing to say.)
Very well-thought and well-argued piece, Duke. In nice eerie bit of SSE, my iPod shuffled up “Rape Me” while I was reading this.
I was/am a huge Nirvana fan; Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten were the first albums I ever bought with my own money, and I still have my original cassette copies of both–even though I no longer have a functional cassette deck. I was lucky enough to see them live once, when they and Pearl Jam opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Del Mar.
I first heard about Cobain’s suicide while I was at home, reading a book for a class assignment–Great Expectations, if I remember correctly. I received the information from my sister, who was not a Nirvana fan and not terribly happy with me at the time, and kind of used the information as a taunt: “Did you hear about Kurt Cobain? Shot himself in the head!”
I’ve always tried to hold off on judging people who commit or say they are going to commit suicide, and to take comments about such at face value. Of course, plenty of people DO use it to manipulate others; about ten years ago my girlfriend started pulling the “I’m going to kill myself!” routine when it looked like we were going to split. I took these seriously at first, but one final fight to many just pushed me a bit too far and I made the decision to leave, she threatened suicide again, and my on the spot was response was: “If killing yourself is what you REALLY want to do, there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop you. I don’t have control over your life, and I don’t want it. The only person who is responsible for your decisions is you.” A bit mean-spirited, to be sure, but ultimately I think it’s true.
Like Becky, I tend to view it as a selfish act, but just because it’s selfish doesn’t mean it’s wrong–plenty of day-to-day human misery comes from attempting to live up to the expectations or the happiness of others, so they impulse to be selfish, to do something wholly for yourself, even if it’s the last thing you ever do.
I myself have never felt this way, even at my lowest points, but I think that’s mostly my inherent survival instincts coupled with my own ornery desire to outlive all of my antagonists.
“I look for fire and find mostly ash.” It’s the stoked embers that burn the longest and the hottest, my friend, not the roaring flames.
Your iPod gave me goosebumps.
“It’s the stoked embers that burn the longest and the hottest, my friend, not the roaring flames.” ~so true.
I was just going to comment on that line, NOL. It is true, and Matt, somehow I think it could only have come from you.
I was also going to comment on the eeriness of the iPod, NOL. Great minds, etc.
You can’t control your iPod with your mind? I find that I can, with a success rate far above chance. It’s beyond SSE…it’s us adapting to the technology. Either that, or the iPods know.
I used to hear that about the Internet, Greg: it knows what we’re thinking. But, actually, I only heard it from one person, so I guess, in a way, that doesn’t really count.
Matt: First of all, I hate that your sister taunted you about Cobain’s death. I had that kind of thing done to me when I was a kid. It drove me crazy, as of course, it’s meant to do.
You’re absolutely right about suicidal threats as manipulation, and I don’t think what you said to your ex was mean-spirited at all. It sounds as though she deserved it.
At the same time, there are people who make threats to manipulate and actually go through with them. I think that may have been what happened with Jonathan Brandis, whom I mentioned in the piece, though I don’t know for certain. But it does seem likely, given the response of the people at his place.
But to what degree are we liable when something like that occurs? It’s like you said to your ex: if someone is determined to go through it, there’s nothing you can do. Still, the guilt afterward, I would imagine, can be excruciating.
At the same time, the boyfriend of my cousin killed himself on the farm I mentioned in the Three Guys piece I put up six weeks ago, or whenever it was. He blasted himself with a shotgun. I’m not sure if she witnessed it, or my uncle did, or both, but anyway, I was sure she was going to be fucked up over it, and she didn’t seem, to me at least, bothered at all. She very quickly acquired a new boyfriend, and went on as if the dead boyfriend had ever existed. But she and I aren’t close, so maybe there was a lot of grief of which I’m unaware.
wow, very excellent.
i have three family suicides and three friend suicides, so i’ve experienced it close up. i also wrote a suicide note when i was six years old. yeah, i had many bouts with figuring out how to kill myself, but i was also in a very repressive environment of religious abuse that tends to claim lives of anyone with a free spirit or thinking outside their claustrophobic propaganda box.
anyway, you nailed it.
Thanks, Tony. And I remember very well your post about the suicide note you wrote at six. I liked it, though I can’t remember if I told you as much. If not, I’m telling you now.
Per religion, I was thinking of you recently because a good friend of mine, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, had a nervous breakdown last year and returned to the flock, as I learned last week. He broke off all communication with his friends, and someone who ran into him said he’s like a completely different person. I’m a bit shocked, because I would never have thought he’d do such a thing. But there you go.
All I can say here, is that this piece is incredibly moving. I want to share it with everyone I love in hopes they might feel a bit of the way it made me feel. Suicide is such a personal, complicated and deep issue. No one case can be just like another. I always want to probe the minds that make the decision, but they are gone, so we are left to investigate with our imaginations.
I had never heard the recording of Love reading the note. That was mind-blowing…wow.
Thanks for this.
I had never listened to the recording in its entirety until I was preparing this piece. I only heard a few bits on TV, when Kurt died. I mean, here’s this woman that I loathed — or I thought I did, after hearing so many awful things about her — but, suddenly, all I felt was compassion. And I still feel compassion. She not only lost her husband but was vilified by the world and accused of having him killed, which, as I said somewhere else on this board, I don’t believe for a minute.
Anyway, I’m really appreciate of all you say, Laura. I don’t think we’ve ever had an exchange prior to this, so I’m glad to cyber-meet you.
Do people still say “cyber”? Come to think of it, they don’t so much anymore, huh?
Bravo, that was beautiful.
Thank you so much for that.
I need to hug you now.
Your hug would be appreciated and returned. A bear hug, yes?
I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, and thanks much for reading and commenting.
Your writing amazes me.
I don’t know how you can take an idea like this and put it together so perfectly that it just flows. I guess that’s why you’re a writer and I’m just a fan.
But I am a fan. A big one. This touched me.
That’s the the best reaction that a writer can hope for, NOL. It touches me that you were touched. I’ve never worked so long and so hard on any of my other posts (though I worked long and hard on some of them, too), and it’s nice to feel that it paid off. Thank you.
There is so much to say here. What your friend said about the gun? Jeeze. Juxtaposed by the baseball player? Jesus Christ. The best/worst part of it is that you make them so powerfully recognizable. Who hasn’t felt guilt for things they couldn’t control? Who hasn’t wondered if they would even survive adolescence?
The whole thing is beautiful. Beautifully constructed, and I don’t mean to take away from the art of it when I say: I would really like to sit down and talk structure with you some time.
The thing about first person … I actually read it in an article about why so many famous people kill themselves… ages ago. Either in Psychology Today or Rolling Stone (b/c you know they are so much alike I can’t keep them apart…?) and they were using Cobain as an example.
First person, I think, can point to self-obsession, and I use it all the time. But I think it’s also looked down on for purely snooty academic reasons.
Yes, I’m sure you’re right about “snooty academic reasons.” Also, it’s fairly mind-blowing to learn that the article that mentioned the use of “I” cited Cobain. I started this piece a long time ago, and your anecdote was in it from the beginning (you may or may not remember that I said to you in a comment some months back that I’d been working on a piece in which your blog figured), and then I added Cobain, and it turns out there was a link. Interesting.
About what my friend said: Yeah, that was very striking. Also, very scary. That was truly one of the most harrowing conversations I ever had. He was in an awful state, and I was shaken for days afterward. But, as I say, he seems to be fine now. I hope he doesn’t read this and feel betrayed or something. That wasn’t my intention at all.
And the ballplayer — I wish I could go back in time and save that guy. That thing about him trying to make his suicide as clean as possible — that just kills me. I’d never seen a picture of him before I prepared this piece, so it was good to finally be able to put a face to his name.
Anyway, thanks so much, Mary, for being a part of this essay, which I hope you realize you are, and you are again, by commenting. Oh, and that’s a funny line about Psychology Today and Rolling Stone.
As someone who has failed at everything he has ever tried, including suicide, I would first like to say that this article was beautifully written with an honorable sense of hope. I would also like to add that suicide comes in many forms, not only in the manner of the offing, but in the reasons for contemplating it in the first place. It would be a bit futile to describe them here, but I would like to thank the author for helping me to feel a little less weak for being bored with suffering.
You know, I’ve had many wonderful things said to me since I posted this piece last night, but your words stand out, since you’ve attempted what I’ve only contemplated, and I know you must have suffered mightily if you were driven to that point, going by my own experience, which I’m sure is nothing compared to yours. I’m humbled to think that this piece might have helped you in any way, and I’m honored that you would take a moment to say as much, especially when you phrase yourself with such sensitivity.
I hope it won’t sound trite and presumptuous, given that we’re strangers, for me to ask that you look after yourself. Meanwhile, your failure at suicide is, in fact, a victory, and if you’re still here, that points to strength, in my view, and not weakness.
A very long time ago I met a young man whose face was severely disfigured by a massive scar as wide as his cheek bones, extending from his forehead to his chin. Immediately after telling me his name, which I am sad to say I cannot remember, he told me boldfaced that he had placed a shotgun before his face and pulled the trigger. He proceeded to explain why he had done so, which I felt was a little forward for a stranger to reveal such things to me upon the very instance of making my acquaintance and after that became apparent, he assured me that he had become much stronger.
Of all the times in my life in which I have grown dangerously close to the matter at hand, the memory of this young man has stuck with me. At times it offered me strength and at times it encouraged my will to take the old plunge into the darkest depths of the unknown. Through it all, this memory has always reminded me that oftentimes the greatest wisdom we ever receive in life comes from strangers.
“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 thank you for being a human being and for being both willing and capable of offering wisdom to total strangers.
Anonymous, your revelation of the stranger telling you about his near-suicide presents a powerful mix of strengths: that he had the courage to tell you and to deal positively with his disfigurement, and that he recognised he might save someone from suicide by telling his story.
I would call his telling the story an act of love.
This reminds me of someone saying about love that it is an action we cannot explain to others or even to ourselves; it is an action from which we don’t expect reciprocal behaviour; and it will make us feel utterly foolish at times. Nevertheless, we love, despite all the upsets and barriers and sufferings.
Thank you for *your* acts of love in telling his story and yours.
I have favorite posts by TNB contributors, but favorite comments — not so much.
Below is my favorite of all the comments I’ve so far read by Judy Prince:
“This reminds me of someone saying about love that it is an action we cannot explain to others or even to ourselves; it is an action from which we don’t expect reciprocal behaviour; and it will make us feel utterly foolish at times. Nevertheless, we love, despite all the upsets and barriers and sufferings.
Thank you for *your* acts of love in telling his story and yours.”
Your comment brings to mind a number of thoughts.
A friend of mine attempted suicide in a way that left him with a conspicuous scar, and one night he was in the grocery store, where the bagger asked him what had happened. So my friend told him, a little taken aback by the frankness of the question, and the bagger immediately rolled up his sleeves and displayed his scarred wrists. Then the checker rolled up his sleeves and displayed his scarred wrists.
Meanwhile, I very often show people the scars on my arm and leg (and they’re something!) that I received in the accident I mentioned in the piece. I mean, it’s not something I do as soon as I met a person, but when the subject of the accident arises, I never hesitate to display the damage, I suppose because I want to share my wonder at being alive.
One of the things I find so interesting about your story of the young man is that your reaction to him is twofold. If you hadn’t mentioned that, I don’t think I would ever have guessed at it; but I’m glad you did, because it’s a reminder of human complexity, which is something I feel I’m always in danger of forgetting, since popular media tends to strip everything down to the simplest elements. My attraction to fiction — good fiction — is partly that it does the opposite, and that’s the kind of fiction I hope, and try, to write.
This dovetails with your point about the wisdom imparted by strangers, since I, of course, never met, say, William Faulkner, and yet I’ve learned a great deal with him. Meanwhile, one of the things I loved about living in New York City was that I had so many informative chats with strangers. I would duck into a coffee shop and find myself sitting beside a person who would turn to me and tell me the most astonishing things, and then I’d leave and never see that person again.
Of course, there’s no need to thank me for being a human being, though I’ve thanked others for the same reason, just as I’ll now thank you (echoing Judy above). I’m not going to forget this exchange — you can be sure of it.
Thanks, Duke, for your wonderful compliment. I’d been trying off and on for hours to find the book title or name of the author whose words I ended up paraphrasing. No luck, and finally I thought I’d trust myself to convey his meanings. If ever I remember his name or locate his magnificent book, I will surely let you and other TNBers know.
I would be curious, Judy, but please don’t knock yourself out. Meanwhile, Greg seems to have located the source of another quote of interest elsewhere on this board.
Wow. Honest and sad and lovely.
“Conventional wisdom holds suicide to be selfish and cowardly. … 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.”
Love these words. They really reflect your sensitivity. “I’m never going to know everything I’d need to know in order to judge.” If only this were a more commonly held–and expressed–understanding.
And, regarding the “suicide as selfish” line, I think a similar claim (selfishness) can be made for someone who insists that a loved one, a loved one so thoroughly depressed as to be suicidal, remain alive. I mean, this “someone” could be seen to have selfish motives in wanting their beloved to keep on truckin’, no? For they, whether or not they fully recognize it, presumably don’t wish to feel the hurt–their own hurt–that would inevitably come w/ the other’s death.
But if they do, for example, succeed in dissuading a loved one from suicide and that individual continues to struggle and hurt, they live with the consequences of that. It’s not an automatic opt-out.
I mean, arguably, it’s sort of a moot point because if a person is determined enough to end it, the admonishments of those around them won’t make any difference. That is, you can’t FORCE someone not to commit suicide, but you can FORCE people to deal with the consequences of your suicide.
It might be selfish in the sense that you resist a loved one’s death to avoid feeling the grief that will accompany it–as in the case of some prolonging medical treatments that don’t do much to enhance the quality of life, for example, but the person who is threatening to commit suicide, really, holds all the cards in the end.
Death is the ultimate trump card.
Kristen: Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You’re a very good writer, so praise from you means more than you may realize.
You’re right; it is complicated. That’s a word I didn’t use in the piece, but I think it’s what I meant, really. People have reflexive attitudes about suicide (as they have about a good many — and maybe most — things), but the circumstances are never exactly the same in any two cases, and that goes not just for the deceased but those who knew the deceased. This is why I bristle at generalizations about cowardice and selfishness. I mean, sure, maybe, but maybe not. It all depends.
So I try not to be so reflexive. I don’t always succeed, but I do try. We all have our prejudices, and sometimes they get the better of us.
Oh, and I see that Greg recommended a movie to you, when I was going to recommend a movie of my own. (We’re forever recommending things here at TNB!) But, above, to Judy Prince, I mentioned a documentary called The Bridge about suicide, and it’s interesting to see the range of attitudes among friends and relatives, including a woman who, realizing that a friend was almost certainly going to kill himself, accepted it long before he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and asked him to do a few simple things beforehand; I forget what they were. But she was the very opposite of the kind of person you mention in your “selfish” scenario. He was in pain and wanted to end it, and she finally said, well, if you must, you must.
Thanks for your kind words, Duke. And “maybe, but maybe not” sums up a good chunk of my thinking these days–that is, coming to terms w/ just how dangerous generalizing can be. I mean, it’s fine and dandy (and stunning) when something says or does something that reaches you in a way that affirms some shared experience and/or greater connection w/ humanity, but more often than not I think we’re left alone–or if not actually alone, then left feeling alone–in our experience of x/y/z. Which is to say we can never know what it is to experience life as anyone but ourselves, making generalizing problematic.
Again, great post; the topics you’ve raised in recent posts have synced up w/ a lot of the stuff I’ve been grappling w/ of late. A nice bonus, on top of (your) already-interesting writing.
“we can never know what it is to experience life as anyone but ourselves, making generalizing problematic.”
Yep. Even when we think we know what someone else is going through, we never do — not exactly, not entirely. The best we can do is speculate, and sometimes it’s very astute speculation, but, in all humility, we have to remind ourselves that speculation is what it finally is.
Still, as you say, it’s nice — and even stunning — when we hear or read or see something that makes us feel less alone. That’s at the heart of the question of art, yes?
I thank you for saying what you do about my recent posts at TNB. But please don’t grapple unnecessarily — words I offer because, at times, I grappled unnecessarily, though I falsely believed it was necessary at the time.
“But please don’t grapple unnecessarily”: yes! Damnit. I do think I perform less of the “unnecessary” variety as I age, though who really ever knows until some healthy distance has been achieved/eye of the storm passed…
And, yes, I believe that’s at the heart–that it is the heart–of the question of art.
Absolutely. Belated thanks for this comment, Kristen. Brad’s recent announcement on The Feed will hopefully explain, in part, my absence from TNB.
The ultimate trump card, indeed.
Kristen: You should check out the film “Against the Current,” whose director, Peter Callahan, was featured on these pages a few weeks back. Sort of goes with your suggestion.
Becky: You are particularly cogent today. I’ve agreed with pretty much everything you’ve said here. (I mean that as a compliment; hope it comes out that way).
Thanks, Greg. I always take “cogent” as a compliment.
Thanks, Greg, for the film rec. Will definitely check that one out.
What a beautiful and thoughtful piece Duke. I’d imagine there are few amongst us who haven’t dealt with suicidal thoughts and or the loss of a loved one via suicide and yet it remains so untouchable. We rarely have meaningful conversations regarding this topic during the light of day. There’s more to say, but I’ll wait until I’ve filtered a bit. In the meantime, thanks Duke. I’m putting off stuff I need to do around the house this weekend, until I’ve finished reading your book.
Ah, well, be my guest, Dana! Yes, you certainly won’t hear me arguing against that. And I’ll look forward to anything else you have to say, while thanking you for what you’ve said already. “The light of day” — that’s a very apt phrase for this subject, since it’s so much in the dark, in so many ways.
Very thought-provoking piece, that’s for sure.
Have you seen the film “Wonder Boys?” There is also a novel by the same name (by Michael Chabon), though I actually really like the film, maybe more than the novel. Anyway, there’s a great scene in which Toby Maguire’s character (James Leer) rattles off his memorized list of old-Hollywood suicides, in alphabetical order with manner of death included (“Pills…he wrote his suicide note in lipstick on his chest…pills again…but you know, he was distraught…”). It’s brilliant, actually, because it speaks to this perennial fascination with suicide.
On a happier note!
I’ve never seen or read “Wonder Boys,” though I know a little about it. I suppose I feel about Michael Chabon the way a musician would feel about some huge band that everybody loves, so I’m going to be the holdout. Which is completely unfair, because I’ve barely read a word the guy wrote, except maybe the beginning of — huh, was it “Wonder Boys”? Yeah, maybe I read the opening page on Amazon. And it was good.
Meanwhile, I could easily tick off a list of old-Hollywood suicides, as you could probably guess.
Duke! Always good to read something from you, and this was no exception. Grim stuff, but well-written, and the nature of the beast is that this stuff is pretty fucking grim.
Coming from a family that’s been touched by suicide (I’ve been forbidden from going into details on this stuff), it’s easy to see the effect that it can have on the bereaved. And while we can’t know, a large part of me wonders if people know just how much of an impact that their suicide will have on others.
But that’s just it – if they knew, truly knew, then they probably wouldn’t be taking such an action in the first place. They would understand that things aren’t hopeless, or at least, probably not as hopeless as they believe.
That’s why I think awareness actually is really important, especially if it goes hand in hand with resources like suicide lines. I have some friends who work in this field; the point of these is not to convince people not to do it and that their life is a wonderful and shining thing, but rather to help them through the black patch in which rational thinking is suspended.
But, again, I’m sure there’s a percentage of suicides where the deceased summed up the situation as rationally as possible and accorded death the label of the best possible outcome.
“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.”
And that’s what counts, brother.
Yes, I’m still here, amazingly.
I was once on a film set, talking with with some people during a break, and a huge overhead light came crashing down and exploded maybe three feet away from me, and I just kind of looked over for a second and kept talking. Then people came rushing over to see what had happened, and somebody said, “You’d never know it, but this guy” — meaning me — “just had a brush with death.” And I said, “Well, I’ve had so many of them.”
Do the people you know who work the suicide hotlines get paid to do it? I ask because I’m working on something that involves a suicide hotline. Here it’s usually voluntary, and it’s not, from my experience, very effective. I’ve called a suicide hotline a few times, and once, I was so freaked out that I couldn’t speak, and the person on the other end hung up on me. I mean, wouldn’t you stick around for at least a few seconds to make sure there’s somebody there? I can’t be the only person who was tongue-tied due to despair.
Meanwhile, you’re undoubtedly right that many who kill themselves have not thought through how it’s going to impact their survivors. When I was at that point, I think I was much too swallowed by the dark. But, even then, I didn’t fully forget my friends and family, and I never wanted to inflict the legacy of suicide on my nephews especially.
I’m glad you liked the writing, Simon. I worked very, very hard on this piece, and it’s nice to feel that it paid off.
It occurred to me just after I’d posted this comment that I hadn’t really included the whole idea of people having the right to die due to various illnesses and difficulties – something I believe in, which muddies the water a bit. I guess it comes down to an objective prognosis.
Re: suicide lines. Nope, volunteer work. I’ve heard of some truly terrible experiences of people calling those lines, and, honestly, you would hope the screening process would be pretty strict. These are, quite literally, people’s lives at stake.
Well, I suppose you have to wonder at the reason that some are attracted to that kind of thing. I’m sure many are motivated by a desire to help, but there are bound to be others who want to play God. There’s power in being, quite possibly, the last voice heard — the voice that can potentially save a life.
I’m guessing that a suicide hotline receives prank calls, and my call may have been mistake for a prank the time I was hung up on.
Greg mentioned somewhere above that there’s bound to be a growing discussion on the subject of euthanasia as the baby boomers continue to age, to address what you say about muddying the water.
Not just prank calls, but fantasy calls, apparently – Lenore and her in-depth knowledge of paraphilias may well be able to cast more light on what’s going on there.
Yeah, the motivation would range – I’ve heard of one girl who went to work on a suicide line because a guy she liked worked there too. Hardly a great motivation, but, at the same time, if it’s effective, who’s to say, in the end?
Yes, a lot of good has come from odd motives, I’m sure.
Interesting that you mention Lenore. I just saw her — we went to House of Pies! — and I only wish that you and I had had this exchange before, because I’d be interested in hearing about the sorts of fantasies that would drive someone to call a suicide hotline, though I can easily guess at some.
I was just eating a slice of strawberry meringue pie, and thinking of how I should put a photo of it up on FB and devote a slice of time to talking about my Dean Winchestering out at HOP.
I can’t wait to be back there.
The fact that Lenore and I went to House of Pies with you and Zara is, I’m sure, one of the reasons we’ve returned there since you left. I mean, we aren’t the types who would usually go to House of Pies — if such a type exists.
But I thought there were no sweet pies Down Under. Maybe I misunderstood. Anyway, I myself would like a meat pie, and they’re in pitiful supply in America.
Los Angeles awaits its Aussie Dean Winchester.
Oh, believe me, that type exists. And it’s writing this comment as we speak.
They can be found – but they have to ferreted out; effort must be made. They’re a far-from-common item. It’s like a Bizarro version of America’s meat pie situation.
Of which I had one for dinner.
Oh God. House of Pies.
“Oh, believe me, that type exists. And it’s writing this comment as we speak.”
Ah, that SS wit.
It appears we may be mutually jealous, since I bet you would have liked to have the pecan pie I ate at House of Pies, while I know I would like to have had the meat pie you ate for dinner. This type of mutual jealousy has arisen before, with you in Oz, where I’d like to go, while I’m in the U.S., where you want to come. We’ve just got to find a way to work this out.
But, Z., I had the only pie you liked there. I mean, it wasn’t all bad.
Okay, I concede. That pie was ok. I did like the bulletholes in the glass…
Forever preserved an unseen photograph. Somebody didn’t care for their appearance in it. Wasn’t it Lenore, who thought her arm looked fat?
Yes, she demanded I remove the photo. Of course, there was no fat arm at all. She is a slinky little minx who couldn’t take a bad photo in a million years. Hmmm. Maybe we could give House of Pies another try…?
Hmmm. Let me glance at my crystal ball. It looks like… Yes! I think it will happen! Except I also see key-lime pie there, and you looking about to lose it, so…
No! Please not the Key Lime Pie. Anything but that…
Don’t blame me. Blame the crystal ball — which suddenly turned a very strange shade of green.
Just like my face, I suspect…
Well, apparently what we had is not the classic Key Lime Pie…
Actually, it was your face I saw.
Simon’s face? My face? I hope we looked charming…
Oh. Simon commented in the split second before mine went up. No, it was your face that I saw, Z, and it was as charming a green face as I ever saw.
And, yes, Simon, that was not the real thing you had. But there’s plenty of the real thing around, so you can definitely find it when you’re on these shores.
way to tackle a difficult subject like a pro. but then, you seem to have that skill. i’m not sure where i stand on the suicide-is-selfish issue. i’ve seen the tidal wave of pain that suicide causes, though, and i sure as hell know that it’s not right to cause a tidal wave of pain.
in other news, i miss you. let’s go to massa soon. any time next week is good for me. pick a day.
Well, in fact, we had a conversation about a suicide late last year, I remember. Yes, there was a lot of pain involved.
I’m not sure about my schedule next week. I may be working with Shane for a couple of days in Malibu. I hope to talk to him tomorrow or Sunday, so maybe I’ll know more then. But I definitely miss you, too. It’s been too long!
Duke, your opening two paragraphs ring a similar bell in my consciousness. Ten years ago, I arrived at a friend’s doorstep. It took him longer than usual to answer the door but at the time I hadn’t thought anything of it. I figured he may have been using the bathroom or something. I had come by to discuss a song with him that I had written and planned to record. I wanted him to strum out the chords for me on his acoustic as I sang the words. Two years later he told me that he had been in the back bedroom with a loaded pistol in his mouth when I knocked on his front door. He told me that knocking on his door when I did saved his life and that the song I had written and sang cemented him not killing himself.
Pretty intense words to hear and I’m no Bob Dylan by any means.
But my point in telling you this, as that by you writing this, at times we don’t realize the weight words carry with our friends and with strangers alike because suicide can come out of the blue. There are signs, yes. But I believe as Listi wrote in his novel also, suicide can be one of those things that just happens for some on a really low day. They are here one minute and gone the next.
What you said in “The Worst Crime” could not have been said better.
Ah, man, thanks.
Your story about your friend is astonishing. It must have blown your mind (a bad metaphor in this context) when you later told you what he’d been doing as you rang his bell. And, interestingly, your story involves music. The friend who made the “appointment” remark to me is a musician. I was a huge fan of his band, which used to tour like crazy. That’s how we got to know one another.
I hadn’t remembered that particular bit about suicide from Brad’s book, but Marilyn Monroe has come up a little on this board, and I saw an interview with a psychiatrist who’d had some dealings with her, and it was his theory — he was very sure of it — that her death was a spontaneous suicide and not an accident, as others have theorized. He said she’d likely had a mood swing — she was prone to them — and reached for the pill bottle, as she’d apparently done on previous occasions, only to be rescued.
Thanks again for reading and commenting. I’ll drop by and read your new piece as soon as I can. I still have a number of other comments I’d like to answer. I’ve been meaning to get to them for hours.
This is beautifully written. I appreciate the way you look at this topic with such sensitivity and thoughtfulness. While I objectified you on Facebook, it is your heart that is the most beautiful part of you. I mean that most sincerely.
I am currently taking a class at Antioch called “Men” which is an exploration of patriarchy and the role of men in our society. I am learning a lot about how men are treated as disposable in our culture and moved/pushed out of home and love in search of conquest, war, work, acquisition. One thing I have learned is that unemployed men are twice as likely to commit suicide as their employed counterparts and men are four times as likely to commit suicide as women. This is somewhat staggering to me.
Suicide is something I really don’t understand. I have a very strong will to live. Your essay highlights the why of suicide for me and helps me to better understand and be more sensitive to the topic and to my fellow humans.
Thank you so much for sharing your expansive heart and brilliant mind, dear Duke. You are a treasure.
With love and gratitude,
I liked being objectified, even though I felt and feel, as I said on Facebook, unworthy of it. But thanks on that account, and for the rest of what you say now.
I kept saying, in addressing comments here, that I’d forgotten this or that prior to posting — for example, the losses of loved ones to suicide mentioned before by readers and contributors — and the patterns of suicide along gender lines is yet another thing I’d forgotten, though I’m now reminded of it.
It’s my prejudice that women are less fatally self-destructive than men not just because men have traditionally been warriors, providers, and protectors, but also because women give birth, which makes them more inclined to respect life. This prejudice — which is, of course, a cliche — is abhorrent to some, but I still think it makes genetic sense, since the survival of children, born and unborn, is at stake. A pregnant woman can only afford but so much risk — indeed, a great many woman used to die during childbirth — and no mother wants her child to be an orphan.
Of course, some women opt out of motherhood, but the genetic programming remains, so that, again, women tend not to be as reckless with their lives as are men. But none of this is to say that there aren’t societal factors at work as well.
Again, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s a pleasure to be called a treasure — and that obvious rhyme may prove that my mind isn’t as brilliant as you kindly say.
You know when a post is really good
I have too much to say
and no way to say it.
I’ve been wanting to write
about suicide a long time
Just en route of paying the light bill
I’ve been the go-to suicide guy for too
many years now
and my views on it are pretty
You stirred me up a lot here
and I think you said it really well.
Ever think of doing a whole book like this?
People need to hear it.
No easy answers man.
I had not thought of doing a book on the subject of suicide, no, JMB. But if any lit agents should read this…
I had overlooked, before posting this, the number of people at TNB who’ve mentioned suicide before (including readers), and you would be very prominent on that list, of course. I mean, as you say, you’ve been the go-to guy for a long time! Did you ever consider doing a book on this? It’s something to consider, yes?
I think the fact that it is such a difficult subject is the reason that it took me so long to finish the piece. It’s tricky, for more reason than one.
D.R., thanks so much for a naked and graceful look at an unendingly complex and deeply painful subject. While none of us “condone” suicide, as such, you underscore the often overlooked point that a myriad of factors lead up to it. And as I’m sure you know, recent decades have unearthed the degree to which genes and neurochemistry contribute to what is often cavalierly dismissed as “cowardly”. And, side note, I was at Cobain’s Seattle Center vigil and I, too, will never forget the horrific and raw ache in Courtney’s voice. Thanks for this essay. Just, thanks.
On the contrary, Litsa, I thank you for reading and commenting.
There’s been a little debate, though not heated debated, on this board about the degree to which those who take their lives are responsible for their actions, but I don’t know that I have much to contribute, since in order to do so I would have to know much, much more than I do about genetics and neurochemistry. I can’t believe that a “suicide gene” exists, but it seems indisputable that a propensity for depression can be passed along genetically, just as some are more impressionable by nature than others, so that if there’s a family history of suicide, the risk of suicide is bound to increase.
Meanwhile, I was wondering if anyone who read this would have been present at Seattle Center that day. I’m glad to read what you say about Courtney. I don’t see how anyone could’ve listened to her, or listen to her now, and remain unmoved. Yet I remember reading newspaper accounts at the time in which she was tacitly castigated for her “vulgarity,” meaning she’d used four-letter words. So fucking what? She was beside herself with grief and, yes, rage, as, under the circumstances, should be expected.
Kurt Cobains story on VH1CLassic right now. eerie
A bio? Or was he included in a program about a general subject, like grunge? (I always have to fight the impulse to say “so-called grunge,” since I was never altogether convinced there was any such thing as grunge to begin. There was just a scene with more diversity than many seemed to realize.)
With nothing to say of suicide, I must admit I do love to see baseball show up at TNB.
Sadly enough, the Reds had a terrific season in 1940. They finished with a superb 100-53 record and defeated the Tigers in the World Series. The previous year, the Reds finished 97-57 and lost the championship to the Yankees.
And I just ordered a copy of Diamonds in the Rough on Amazon. Thanks for the tip.
I’m glad you got that book, JB. It’s unusual, and I see that it doesn’t seem to have elicited much reaction on Amazon.
I’m also glad to learn that the Reds won the Series that year. I wonder if Hershberger’s death gave them extra incentive — that kind of “We’ve got to do this for Willard.” I suppose it’s possible that one or two members of the team are still alive. They’d know — if, that is, they can still remember.
On the subject of baseball, I’m sure you’ve seen the following, yes?
“I don’t believe I ever wanted to die when I was feeling suicidal. Rather, it was my life I wanted to destroy. . .”
i’ve been there but didn’t know how to describe it till i read that sentence. i thought it was about forcing someone to change for me, to get them to take care of me for once instead of getting pushed aside again and again – which is partly true – but like the death card in tarot, it wasn’t so much about death literally but about trying to end a life that was insufferable and to find a new one – which i did. 🙂
Exactly. That was something that only recently came to me, that suicide is a literalization — or it was in my case — and the death card in tarot is a great metaphor. In fact, I wish it had come to me when I was working on this essay.
I’m glad the essay resonated with you, seeing that we’ve wrestled with the same — or similar — demons; and if the new life should ever disappoint, always remember: there’s another new life to be had or, maybe more to the point, made.
Ok… what the fuck just happened to my comment?
I had this happen to me the other day, Slade. I posted a response to JMB, and it disappeared. Which seems apropos on a piece about suicide, yes?
I’m behind on my TNB reading. It’s been a godawful couple of weeks. But I’m happy (?) that I didn’t miss you piece, Duke. As always, thought-provoking and powerful.
When I was in high school- young and fucked up- I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith. I would skip dinner and slice up my arms and plays “Between the Bars” on repeat. And when Elliott killed himself my senior year, I felt a profound sense of loss. If he couldn’t make it, how could I? And, in the end, should I?
For those of us who’ve spent time in the dark, our relationship to suicide is bound to be a complex one. Full of ambivalence and fear and jealousy.
Thanks for writing with honesty and bravery.
Sorry that it’s taken me so long to thank you for this comment, Marni. I was slammed and about to get still busier, and had to walk away from TNB like an evacuee prior to a storm.
I well remember the day that Elliott Smith died. I had a huge row with a friend about a different matter, and was still reeling from it when I bumped into someone who knew Elliott well. He lived next door to him, in fact, here in Echo Park, and some of the memories he shared — his imitation of Elliott’s laugh, for instance — were a lift to my sagging spirits. It was nice to know that Elliott laughed. You would never have thought so, given his image.
I don’t know why I’d never read this before. Probably too busy rolling my own boulder uphill. But I read now. And I love it. And I have so much to say, but I have to get to bed to get up to take my kids to daycare so that I can sit at a desk and spend another eight hours dreaming of the day that I don’t have to sit at a desk anymore. So I’ll just say this: thank you.
I understand about uphill boulders, Gloria, believe me. I’ve been rolling quite a few myself of late, and I hope that you do indeed arrive at a day when you don’t have to sit at a desk anymore, except to write, of course. Meanwhile, needless to say (though I’ll say it anyway), I thank you for your thanks.
[…] his mind goes to dark places; he’s only human, after […]
You need to watch “Soaked In Bleach”, several times. Study it thoroughly and research the facts. Your hero did not kill himself, he was murdered.