Sunday, November 3, 2013

98. My Suicides and Further Thoughts on the Subject

     Just three.  At least, three that I remember.  The first one, and probably the most significant, took place far from New York, in the tranquil Chicago suburb of Evanston, where I grew up.  It was the year after my college graduation, when I was marking time hoping for a Fulbright scholarship that would get me to Europe, while reading and rereading the English poets and  taking beginning Greek with Professor Dorjahn at Northwestern.  Dorjahn, the head of the tiny Classics Department, was a crusty and demanding teacher who loved teaching this course, the gateway to Greek and the classics.  He had been known to reduce sensitive females to tears, so in the first semester was relieved to find only hardy males in this class of five.  A staunch Republican, he thought nothing of denouncing President Truman as a haberdasher out of his depth, but for all his crustiness and prejudices, we loved him.  Which, come to think of it, has nothing to do with suicides.

     As the months wore on, the gray vapors of depression began to infiltrate my being.  Reading poetry and taking Greek was fine, but it was hardly a  life in itself.  I was living at home after four years of college elsewhere, had lost contact with my Evanston friends, dated rarely, had little social life.  Not being used to introspection – at least, not the kind that probes deep into one’s own psyche – I found myself borne slowly on the current of my moods.  Attracted at this point to neither men nor women, I was in a strange limbo of indifference and abandonment, one that even today I have trouble understanding.  Excitement over something I was reading, or my progress in learning Greek, alternated with withdrawal, with alienation from everyone and everything around me.  And of all this, not a word to anyone.  Then I would snap out of it, read more, learn more; but sooner or later the gray mood crept back in.

     One evening that fall or winter, when that mood was upon me, without further reflection and almost like a sleepwalker I slipped out of the house unnoticed by my family, went to the garage, and in the darkness sat in the driver’s seat of my father’s car and, after a few moments of hesitation, turned the motor on.  The garage doors were shut, so monoxide poisoning was possible, even probable, and I knew it.  But the motor started with such a roar that it alarmed me and, fearing discovery, I quickly shut it off.  I then left the garage and slipped back into the house, still unnoticed by anyone.  Was I relieved, alarmed, amused by this fiasco?  I don’t recall.  Was it just a game that I intended to lose?  I doubt it.  The risk was real, and if the motor had come on with a gentle purr, I could well have seen the matter through.

     After that, sensing a need for change, I took a part-time afternoon job at a local insurance company, retrieving applications from the files when the staff had need of them: a menial job, but one that shook me free of those gray vapors.  If the Fulbright didn’t come through, I resolved to go to New York and find a job; I had to get free of family and a suburban life that depressed me.  But the Fulbright did finally come through, and from then on I was feverishly brushing up my French, with no time for either sex or depression.  So ends the account of my first suicide, hitherto untold to anyone.

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A suicide prevention poster of the Department of Defense.
Suicide is common among returning vets.

     Fast forward now to 1965.  (I love “fast forward,” it’s so with-it, so twenty-first century.)   I’m a college French teacher now in New York, unattached, a very unpublished poet, but with many friends, many interests, few of the latter related to teaching nineteen-year-olds French.  A friend of mine got a volume of poetry published, and I was invited to a celebration of the event given by some mutual acquaintances.  I went, found a friendly crowd imbibing wine, and there, prominently displayed on a bureau, the volume, of which I later received an autographed copy.  Toward the end of the party it was obvious that the poet and some of his friends were going out to a dinner to which I was not invited.  But another friend, going out with some other guests for dinner, invited me to join them; for some reason I refused. 

     Instead, I went home, lapsed again into the gray mood of depression, and without reflection turned the oven on without lighting the gas, kneeled down, and stuck my head in, covering it with a towel so as to keep the gas from spreading and dissipating.  I remained in this awkward position for quite a while, breathing in deeply and hoping to gently pass out and shuffle off this mortal coil.  But I remained stubbornly alive and alert, and finally, deciding the whole business was ridiculous, got up, turned the gas off, and went to bed.

     Why had I done this?  Jealous of my published friend?  I don’t think so; I wished him and his volume well.  Depressed because I was not invited to the dinner party?  Maybe, but neither was the other friend who invited me to join his friends for dinner.  More to the point, I suspect, was my dislike of teaching – a dislike whose growing intensity I dared not admit to myself – and my frustrated wish for a relationship, as opposed to occasional sex with strangers.  It was still the era of the Mafia-run bars, crowded on Saturday nights, smoke-filled, and guarded by a thug at the door: not my preferred habitat by a long shot.  And my frustration as an unpublished writer probably counted for something as well. Yet even today, with hindsight, I can’t explain the incident adequately; it simply happened.

     “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” Karl Marx famously observed.  So it was with me and suicide, if we grant the first two attempts the grandiose label of tragedy; the third was certainly farce.  It must have come a year or two after the second suicide.  I had contemplated various possibilities, albeit with a certain detachment.  Suicide by jumping out a window was no good; I lived in a third-story apartment.  Besides, the dizzying plunge would be terrifying, and my splat on the pavement below might injure some passerby with whom I had no quarrel; pedestrian safety must be considered.  Suicide by revolver would be quick, neat, and clean, and once you twitched the trigger, no chance for reappraisal; alas, I had no revolver.  Finally I settled on a novel method: suicide by aspirin.  Granted, I had never heard of it succeeding; in fact, I had never heard of it at all.  But it seemed worth trying, and maybe, just maybe, it might work.

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Fine for headaches.  But suicide???
   So one evening when that gray mood was upon me, I emptied a whole bottle of aspirin, swallowing one tablet after another, then went to bed and fell asleep, wondering if I would ever wake up.  The next morning I did, unmistakably alive, but with a feeling of weakness, a foul taste of aspirin in my mouth, and a craving for ice cream, a craving like I had never known before, worthy of a pregnant woman, and specifically for vanilla.  Too weak to go out, I phoned a friend, told him I was under the weather and asked him to bring me the ice cream; no word, of course, of the aspirin.  This he gladly did and, being a former ministerial student, he lingered a while and exhibited a most sympathetic bedside manner.  After he left, I devoured the ice cream, probably a whole pint at least.  It seemed to work wonders, since the aspirin taste diminished and I felt stronger by the minute.  But that awful taste, the faintest hint of it, hung on for days.  As did my sense of the ludicrous.  Suicide by monoxide has a certain minimal dignity, and suicide by the oven stops just this side of the ridiculous.  But let’s face it, suicide by aspirin plunges deep into the realm of absurdity.

     Such was my third and last suicide.  Often I escaped depression by simply going to bed and sleeping, a far better solution than alcohol or drugs. Then the gray vapors vanished, and with them the urge to suicide, owing to two changes: I quit teaching, I met my partner Bob.  These games faded in memory, became definitively a thing of the past.

     Were these attempts simply a game, a toying with fate that I had no real intention of pushing through to completion?  It’s hard to say.  A game, perhaps, but always with risk.  There are better, less dangerous games to play.  But the games served a purpose; following each attempt came a long period of calm and equanimity totally free of depression.  As Nietzsche observed, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation; it gets one through many a bad night.” 

     None of my friends or family had any inkling of all this, not one.  And certainly not my students, since every Monday morning I showed up on the campus as well scrubbed as ever, ready to leaven the sodden weight of grammar with attempts at quicksilver wit. 

     Why do I now relate all this, having never revealed it before to anyone?  Two reasons: it’s an ancient story, and with distance I see the humor.  But what I don’t fully grasp to this day is the motivation, which I can only  surmise.  The young man of those years is in many ways a stranger to me, and a baffling one at that.  How complicated we humans are, what a tangle of motives and frustrations, a mystery even more to ourselves than to others!

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"Smoking can cause a slow
and painful death."  But
the French still love their
      My suicides were at least a frank attempt at self-destruction.  There are many other forms of suicide, less obvious and often unavowed.  My brother smoked for twenty years, knowing he had emphysema; he coughed horrendously at night, slept but was not rested, and finally collapsed and died within minutes.  My father too smoked for years, knowing it was doing him no good; he bribed his two sons not to smoke, but he himself, with his health deteriorating, finally succumbed to a stroke.  And a friend of Bob’s and mine, a gentle spirit, snacked for years on junk food, never ate a full and healthy meal, and finally died of pneumonia, his immune system hopelessly weakened, when antibiotics failed.  Sad cases, all of them, and to my way of thinking, suicide.

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Slow suicide.
Oxfordian Kissuth

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A mecca for suicides.
Jiuguang Wang
     New York City has seen its share of suicides; the Empire State Building and the subway system, like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, are  magnets for them.  More than thirty people have jumped from the upper parts of the skyscraper and usually succeeded in their attempt.  Two survived: one was blown back by a gust of wind and suffered a broken hip; the other landed on a ledge and was pulled to safety with only minor injuries.  In 1947 a fence was erected around the observation deck after five attempts in three weeks.

     Three suicides in New York come to my mind, beside which my attempts seem trivial.  In 1875 the board of the People’s Line, one of the two dominant steamboat lines on the Hudson River, forcibly retired Captain Alanson P. St. John, age 77, because of his age and ill health.  The captain had been on the river for over forty years, skippering boats from New York to Albany.  He knew every mile of that run, loved boats and everything about them, and loved being on the river.  At times he seemed depressed.  On April 23, 1875, he came from his home in New Jersey to inspect his favorite boat, one named for him, the St. John, then undergoing repairs at the foot of 19th Street.  Chatting on deck with the first mate, he seemed in the best of health and spirits, following which he entered the steward’s room alone.  Five minutes later a shot rang out.  Rushing inside the cabin, the workmen found the captain slumped dead in a chair, a smoking revolver in one hand, his features as composed as in sleep.  The coroner’s verdict was suicide “while laboring under temporary aberration of mind.”  Some of his friends attributed his depression to ill health, but others knew better: he could not live away from the river.

File:Madame Restell's suicide.jpg     Another suicide of that era is more troubling.  In 1878 Ann Lohman, age 67, alias Madame Restell, the city’s most notorious and conspicuously successful abortionist, was arrested by Anthony Comstock, agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Learning that she might be sentenced to years in prison, bringing shame upon her two beloved grandchildren, she who all her life had exhibited remarkable fortitude and contempt for public opinion lost her habitual self-possession and became distraught.  The day before her trial, she stalked about her sumptuous Fifth Avenue palace, trembling and moaning and wringing her diamond-studded hands, convinced they would convict her on one charge or another, that everyone was against her, that she had no friends.  “What shall I do?” she muttered over and over again.  “Why don’t they leave me alone?”  Her family tried to console or distract her, but to no avail.  Dazed among the bric-a-brac, she uttered broken monologs, whispered, started, wept.  Finally she went to bed, seemed calmer, fell asleep.  Early the next morning her maid noticed the door of the second-floor bathroom was open, saw her mistress’s nightgown lying on a chair, knocked, got no answer, entered, and beheld madam’s nude body half immersed in the bathtub, one arm spotted with blood, her head reclining, her throat slit from ear to ear, a sight that sent the maid shrieking from the room.  The coroner found an eight-inch kitchen knife in the tub, concluded that, given the deceased’s calm features, death must have been instant and painless.  Madam’s profession had required a strong will, settled nerves, and  a steady hand; in her final moments they served her well.  The press almost unanimously hailed her passing, the Times calling it “a fit end to an odious career.”  Though she was said to be the fifteenth offender whom he had driven to suicide, Comstock felt in no way responsible; as Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, he closed out her file with the comment, “A Bloody ending to a bloody life.”

     These first two suicides I learned of while researching my two biographies; the third one, one of the most sensational in twentieth-century New York, I learned of only recently.  On May 1, 1947, Evelyn McHale, age 23, went up to the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building and jumped to her death.  Her hurtling body landed with a crash on a United Nations limousine parked in the street below, smashing its roof.  Four minutes later a photographer who happened to be nearby photographed her body, her face surprisingly composed in the midst of twisted metal and shattered glass.  She had left her coat and a note on the deck: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me.  Could you destroy my body by cremation?  I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me.  [Then, crossed out but legible:]  My fiancé asked me to marry him in June.  I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody.  He is much better off without me.”  According to her wishes, she was cremated.  When her fiancé saw her the day before, she had seemed completely normal and happy.  She became known as the city’s most beautiful suicide, but her motivation remains unclear to this day.

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Observation deck of the Empire State Building today.  This
barrier might have stopped Evelyn McHale.

Boris Dzhingarov

     Evelyn McHale’s story, imperfectly known as it is, is a warning that  potential suicides can conceal their depression from others, even those closest to them.  Never assume that you know anyone completely; deep in our psyche we all harbor secret closets, locked drawers.

     Evelyn McHale’s death inspires another reflection as well.  One key ingredient in the formula for suicide is a keen sense of unworthiness: if God there is, I’m not worth his attention, or anyone’s.  Even for those not inclined to suicide, demeaning oneself is no small weapon in the arsenal of survival and evasion; it gets one off so many hooks. 

     Some societies see suicide as permissible, even honorable, under certain circumstances, though not traditionally our own.  I see no reason why someone terminally ill, especially if in great pain, should not be allowed to end their suffering.  And should assisted suicide be permitted?  Again, in the case of terminally ill patients, I think so.  I applauded Jacob (Jack) Kevorkian ("Dr. Death") for helping such patients end their misery -- at least 130, by his own count -- and deplored his arrests and trials.  Three trials ended in acquittal, and one in a mistrial; he was finally convicted of second-degree homicide in Michigan and served over eight years in prison before being granted parole for good behavior in 2007.  Certainly he had provoked the authorities, even dared them to arrest him, but public opinion now seems to be turning in his direction, as Oregon, Washington, and Vermont have legalized physician-assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill patients.  Kevorkian died in 2011.
     The thought of suicide, however momentary, visits most of us at one time or another; adolescents are especially vulnerable, and veterans who have seen too much war.  What guards us against carrying out these urges?  Here are my suggestions:

·      A lasting and rewarding relationship.
·      Sustained creativity, as found in writers, artists, dancers, composers, and entrepreneurs.
·      Fear of the unknown.
·      A meaningful belief system.
·      A keen sense of responsibility to others.
·      A hearty sense of humor (as opposed to sardonic wit).
·      Contact, even superficial, with others.  Suicide is usually a solitary event.
·      A sense of wonder at the natural world around us.

     I would especially stress the last.  I find wonder in the arching magnificence of trees, in tiny flowers, in patterns of lichens and slime molds, in sunrises and sunsets, the flight of egrets and the haunting sounds of loons, in the scintillating magic of light on water, and the starry infinitudes of space.  “My sense of God is my sense of wonder about the universe,” said Alfred Einstein.  His religion is my religion, too, with maybe a dash of Taoism thrown in. 

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     Election note:  Next Tuesday, hot on the heels of Halloween, we have a mayoral election in New York.  The Republican candidate, Joe Lhota, comes off in photos as a nice little man with a mustache.  He has a good record as an administrator and showed some fire in the mayoral debates, but this is a big city that wants a big mayor, and Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate, seems to fill the bill.  It doesn’t hurt that he has an African American wife (who considered herself a Lesbian until she met him), and a fifteen-year-old son with an afro who charmed viewers when he appeared on television.  (There are New Yorkers who ask, “Is de Blasio the one with the kid with an afro?”)  De Blasio is far ahead in the polls.  There are many significant issues at stake, but I mention the preceding to show how voters are swayed by the superficial.  Such is democracy as we know it. 

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Our next mayor?  Bill de Blasio with his wife, son, and daughter at a rally.
Chirlane McCray

     Coming soon:  A walk along the waterfront, circa 1870: the offal boat, the Hotel de Flaherty (not Zagat rated), how things were kept cold before refrigeration, how coal from Pennsylvania helped pickpockets, where harbor thieves hid what they stole, how New York helped feed the hungry mouths of Europe, and where you could buy a whole carcass of bear.  But no bike paths, dog runs, or tennis courts.  After that, maybe a post on New York mayors past and present: the most colorful, the most fun-loving, the most corrupt, the best-looking, the most honest, the most elegant, etc.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder

1 comment:

  1. I think you are a very kind and interesting man, as well as a very charming writer. I am glad your attempts were not permanent. I have enjoyed reading your blog.