Since I learned author David Foster Wallace took his own life earlier this month, I have been thinking a great deal about suicide.
What circumstances of conflagration prompted Wallace to take the steps necessary to bring his life to an abrupt end? What is it that possesses a man with a wife and a job in which he can do as he pleases decide to do himself in? David Foster Wallace had publishers and a reading public hanging on his every word. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from hanging himself.
I was not familiar with Wallace’s work until very recently. So I have not read his 1,000 plus page opus Infinite Justice. However, I have read Wallace’s thoughts on John McCain. During McCain’s quixotic run for the White House in 2000, Wallace covered his campaign for Rolling Stone.
Wallace had little direct access to McCain and instead spent most of his time with the techies who covered his scrums and speeches (which he referred to as 22.5s because it took exactly 22½ minutes for McCain to deliver his stump speech.) While Wallace perceived McCain as someone who spoke “scary right-wing” language he demonstrated a grudging admiration for McCain. His Rolling Stone pieces would become synopsized in a chapter of his 2005 collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. In light of McCain’s unexpected success on the campaign trail in 2008, that essay became a book in its own right and was titled McCain’s Promise. I came across the book in the gift shop of the Museum of the City of New York during the Fourth of July weekend and read the book last month.
Much of the book takes a cynical, jaded view of politics and the world surrounding it. Although Wallace found himself at odds with McCain’s worldview, it was a view he could not casually dismiss given McCain’s experiences as a POW:
Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain this year. It’s overexposed, true. Still, though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between John McCain’s first getting offered early release and his turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would cry out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer: What difference would one less POW make? Plus maybe it’d give the other POWs hope and keep them going, and I mean 100 pounds and expected to die and surely the Code of Conduct doesn’t apply to you if you need a doctor or else you’re going to die, plus if you could stay alive by getting out you could make a promise to God to do nothing but Total Good from now on and make the world better and so your accepting would be better for the world than your refusing, and maybe Dad wasn’t worried about the Vietnamese retaliating against you here in prison he could prosecute the war more aggressively and end it sooner and actually save lives so yes maybe you could actually save lives if you took the offer and got out versus what real purpose gets served by you staying here in a box and getting beaten to death, and by the way oh Jesus imagine a real doctor and real surgery with painkillers and clean sheets and a chance to heal and not be in agony and to see your kids again, your wife, to smell your wife’s hair…Can you hear it? What would be happening inside your head? Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how we’d react. None of us can know.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping messages on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bulls@#t, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullsh@#t – the man does want your vote, after all.
In a recent interview published less than two weeks before his suicide, Wallace had taken a dimmer view of McCain. Wallace told The London Daily Telegraph that McCain had turned “into a less interesting, more depressing political figure now – for me at least.” Whether his disappointment with McCain had anything to do with Wallace’s demise cannot be said for certain. But in light of Wallace no longer walking this mortal coil his comment does give one a chill. For whatever the reason life, whether represented by McCain or not, could never fulfill whatever promise Wallace thought it held and he could no longer endure its shortcomings. David Foster Wallace, best selling author, professor, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and husband could not live with depression and committed suicide on September 12, 2008. He was 46 years old.
This is the crux of my thoughts on suicide. What makes an otherwise physically healthy person with everything going for them decide to speed up life’s already short date of expiration?
Beyond the parameters of this question are suicide bombers who are more accurately to be viewed as homicide bombers. Yes, they commit suicide but decide to take as many people as possible with them to serve their psychotic political objectives. As such one must also exclude some of the victims of homicide bombers. Amongst the most horrifying images of September 11, 2001 was the sight of people jumping from the World Trade Center to their deaths. These were people put into an impossible situation whose only outcome was a certain and violent death. The only choice left to them was how they would die. That there were people who had to make the choice between jumping from a 100 plus storey building and burning to death demonstrates how bleak their last moments on earth were.
The terminally ill also find themselves excluded from the scope of this question. When one only has a matter of weeks, if not days, to live and that time is to be spent in unbearable pain one can empathize if a person decides of their own volition that life is no longer worth living. (Michael Schiavo this does not apply to you.) Of course, most terminally ill people are so sick and weak they cannot end their lives by their own devices which opens the can of worms that is assisted suicide. Controversy or not, like those stuck in the World Trade Center, the terminally ill face certain death and wish only to determine when and how they leave this world.
The suicides that are hardest to fathom are those committed by people who have achieved some level of success and public recognition. One of the most baffling suicides in my mind was that of Brad Delp on March 9, 2007. Delp was the lead singer of the rock band Boston who achieved their successes in the 1970s and 1980s but continue to get airplay on oldies and classic rock radio stations to this day. Boston is best known for the 1975 song More Than a Feeling.
In recent years, Delp had fronted a Beatles tribute group known as Beatlejuice. Unlike other outfits paying homage to the Fab Four; Beatlejuice did not don mop top wigs or costumes from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatlejuice just played Beatles music and they played it brilliantly.
Early in 2005, I saw Beatlejuice one Saturday night at Harper’s Ferry, a club in Allston, Massachusetts. The audience was mostly college students who loved Beatles music as much as their parents and grandparents. At one point in the show, several beautiful young women joined Delp on stage and could not keep their hands off of him. While watching this in the back of the club, I thought to myself, “Man, I wouldn’t mind being him right now.”
Yet it was Brad Delp who wrote “Je suis une âme solitaire. I am a lonely soul,” when he was found aspxhiated in his New Hampshire home by his longtime girlfriend whom he was to have married later that year. He was 55 years old.
One other suicide that has left me baffled was that of Victoria “Vicki” Van Meter. She made headlines in August 1993 when at the tender age of 11 she flew a Cessna across the United States. The following year she flew another Cessna across the Atlantic Ocean. On March 15, 2008, Van Meter died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. She had just turned 26 two days earlier. At the time of her death, Van Meter was employed as an investigator with an insurance company in Pennsylvania.
Those who read this column regularly will likely be aware of my fascination with Amelia Earhart. Consequently, I have become increasingly interested in the subject of aviation. This past July, while in a second hand book store in Cambridge, I was looking in its small aviation section and found a book by Carolyn Russo titled, Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots. Published in 1997, Van Meter was one of the pilots profiled. I was struck by something she said in the book. Her remarks took place during an interview shortly after her 1994 flight across the Atlantic:
I’m twelve. So you sort of branch off when you get into junior high. So I think the relationships are changing because of that. It’s hard to tell if it’s because of what I did or if it’s junior high. They like – you know, they treat me different and everything. It’s starting to get back to normal, but every day someone still says something about me. I never know when to take people seriously, because they’re like, “Oh, can I have your autograph?” But they’re really teasing me and stuff. And they don’t say nice things about me. I mean, there are rumors going around at school that I’m really this big jerk. So I don’t know. It’s different.
Now no one could have read that passage and concluded Van Meter was expressing suicide ideation. It could simply be interpreted as the thoughts of a young girl trying to navigate the early stages of adolescence especially given her unusual achievement. Yet in light of her tragedy one can also infer retrospectively that Van Meter had tremendous difficulty finding acceptance from her peers. She could negotiate clouds and ice 5,000 feet in the air but could not negotiate those obstacles she encountered on the ground. Amelia Earhart did not achieve her fame until she was 30 years old. At Van Meter’s age, Amelia was in the seventh grade in Des Moines and had scarcely seen a plane much less flown one. Her peers must have had no idea what to make of Vicki Van Meter much less know how to behave around her. For whatever reason, Van Meter had difficulty coping and could not overcome this hostile reception. Perhaps she never knew where she stood from one day to the next much less in the grand scheme of things. Van Meter battled depression and one can only wonder if this struggle for acceptance could be at the heart of it.
David Foster Wallace, Brad Delp and Vickie Van Meter all had something extraordinary to give to the world and a segment of the world was more than happy to receive their gifts. Yes, they were all afflicted with depression but yet not all people diagnosed with depression commit suicide much less make an attempt. Yet their God given talents weren’t enough to justify their raison d’être. In the end, they believed they had nothing to look forward to and nothing to keep them alive. Not a bowl of Hot and Sour soup with an old friend. Not the fall leaves of New England. Not the Boston Red Sox winning another World Series. Not the warm embrace of a loved one. Nothing.
So what does suicide accomplish? For the person who ends their life we only know they are gone. We can never know if they have found the peace they couldn’t find here. What we do know is that suicide brings forth a lifetime of agony for the people around those who have taken that last step. One can only imagine the hell endured by the people who find someone they dearly know has ended their life and there’s nothing they can do about it. Wallace was found by his wife; Delp by his fiancée and Van Meter by a neighbor. It is an image those people are unlikely to ever forget.
Even if you aren’t the one who found the dearly departed in that state the why didn’ts inevitably come. We wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. Why didn’t I see the signs? Why didn’t she tell me she was unhappy? Why didn’t he seek me out? I knew something was wrong. Why didn’t I say anything? In all likelihood, there was probably nothing that could have been done. If something had been tried there is no guarantee it would have succeeded. However irrational, senseless and tragic, people do choose to end their own lives and there comes a point where such people are beyond any persuasion.
If someone reading this is seriously contemplating ending their lives please continue reading. This is for you. Life is not easy and never will be. There will always be intolerable people and unpleasant events that take place. You will have little or no control over it. You might find yourself unable to trust anyone and there might be good reason for it. Not only do you think life won’t get better you strongly believe it will only get worse and perhaps it will.
But keep this in mind. There is always someone who has things worse than you. That I can guarantee. I am not attempting to trivialize your pain and suffering. You have no doubt gone through hell and might need regular medical treatment as a result. But there are people out there who have endured war, famine, disease and ostracism and somehow have found a way to make their way in life. They get knocked down but they get back up. By getting back up there is an opportunity to find a friend, develop your talents and discover your own part of the world where you can breathe comfortably. There is a way. It might not be my way or anyone else’s way but it can be your way. While people can give directions only you can find your way.
You might not believe that anyone loves or cares about you but if you do choose to end your life you will probably end up hurting someone deeper than you will ever know. That hurt will last the rest of their lives. There has to be a better way. Remember that you are not the first person to have contemplated ending your life nor will you be the last. So you are not alone. Someone out there is prepared to listen to you. Talk to someone be it a friend or a stranger. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Will life be everything that you want it to be? Probably not and no one can make such a promise. But why end something that you know isn’t going to last forever? Good times might be fleeting but the bad times will pass too. There is a lot of good to be found in life if you are willing to find it. It’s just a thought.
Aaron Goldstein was a card carrying member of the socialist New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP). Since 09/11, Aaron has reconsidered his ideological inclinations and has become a Republican. Aaron lives and works in Boston.
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