Monday, December 3, 2012

A Search for Peace

This story does not have a happy ending, so I will start there:

Exactly 27 years ago, one of my first friends in the world—my kindergarten girlfriend—committed suicide. I was nowhere nearby to stop her. I had not talked to her for several years. I had no idea where she was in her head or in her body. I only found out what had happened when a cousin from Savannah called on December 3, 1985, and told me to look at a certain page in that day’s New York Times. There, I read a nondescript blurb about a former Times reporter who had been found dead at her apartment on the morning of December 2, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The story didn’t end there, of course, for me or for her. I was left to agonize about her death and her decision to kill herself. And to wonder why I couldn’t have done anything to help her deal with whatever was going on. She was left to be a topic of gossip in conversations among people from Savannah and the focus of a New York Magazine article the following month that had a not-so-hidden agenda: to lord over the Times that one of its reporters had been so unhappy in both her personal and professional life that she had chosen to end them both at the same time.

Amazingly, I am still bitter about that article, which I accessed again via the Internet recently, and still frustrated and intensely sad about her decision after all of these years. I took out those feelings many years ago in a short story filled with corny jokes. The last joke involves my being whisked mentally to Savannah and to the cemetery in which both my father and my friend are buried less than 50 yards apart. I dig up her grave and she is inside erasing stories we have written together or that she has written herself. And when I ask what she is doing, she replies, with her usual smile, “Silly, I’m just de-composing.”

Writing that story was as a type of catharsis for me. I am not sure my friend would have appreciated the story, though she would have heartily booed at several of the jokes (certainly the last one), and she would have applauded my decision to blend my sadness with humor. It was her style too. The photos that accompanied the New York Magazine article all showed her smiling or laughing. “Is this the face of a depressed woman?” they seemed to shout or mock.

I might have let this anniversary of my friend’s death go by without any fanfare except that I recently read a memoir by William Styron called Darkness Visible, in which Styron explores the intense depression that overtook him and nearly led him to commit suicide. Ironically, Styron was going through his darkest period in the fall of 1985 and nearly ended his “struggle” with depression in December of that year. The coincidences in timing certainly disturbed me.

Styron’s “happy” book takes us through the progression of his own despair and on a journey into the minds of several writers, actors, or artists he had known who ended their own lives and what he had learned from their fate or wanted to impart to readers about their acts. The book was certainly not an enjoyable read, but it helped me understand one key point about those who commit suicide and our response to them. Styron refers to the “predictable reaction” we often feel: “denial, the refusal to accept the fact of suicide itself, as if the voluntary act—as opposed to an accident, or death from natural causes—were tinged with a delinquency that somehow lessened the [individual] and his [or her] character.”  He calls this reaction “the stigma of self-inflicted death.” We think less of the person because he or she didn’t gut it out.

In reflecting on his own ultimate decision not to act, Styron notes, “Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves, there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.” 

All of which should be helpful to me, but isn’t really. I understand, deep inside, that I wasn’t to blame and, for the most part, that my friend was helpless to act any other way than she did. But I am not really consoled. I am still sadder and lonelier than I was the day before she died.

I am not unique in the fact that several key people in my life have died—people with whom I chose to share important parts of me. What makes me sad, or mad, is that with each death vital lines of communication for me were severed.

Jews commemorate deaths with a series of prayers that are neither sad nor angry. They are, for the most part, the same verses we recite to praise God before and after different parts of each prayer service. Nothing maudlin or even sorrowful is implied. The words seem to suggest that ultimately we have no real control over life or death, so let’s focus on what we can control—the ability to recognize and appreciate nature, create our own beauty, and search for peace.

Dante searches for his own peace.
Styron accents his emergence from his personal darkness with a line from Dante: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” A good line, but not as appropriate as “Silly, I’m just de-composing.” 

1 comment:

  1. Fine article, Michael. Sorry about your friend's death.