Funerals are a rare, often misunderstood societal phenomenon. The same can be said about suicide. I'm fascinated by both. It's part of what drew me to write Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious.
Along with being an historic overview of suicide, the book delves into the lonely, sad and nightmarish lives of our most influential and cultural suicidal icons: Sylvia Plath, Adolf Hitler, Diane Arbus, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain, Spalding Gray, and Sigmund Freud -- yes, he was a suicide, among others. It's the devil in the details, the need to find the answers to the questions so many of us yearn to know, and to uncover the secrets found in their last days that propels me deep into their lives. Anne Sexton went in and out of mental institutions twenty-two times, and tried to kill herself nine times before succeeding. To know she took off her clothing, stashed her jewelry in her handbag, had several drinks of vodka, put on her mother's fur and then sealed herself in her garage before getting into her car and turning on the ignition is fascinating to me. It's the pathology and methodology, paired with the particulars about their lives and last days, that draws me to their stories and makes me feel connected.
And connected we all are.
With the devastatingly sad and recent news of designer Alexander McQueen, who hung himself in his London home, Growing Pains actor Andrew Koenig, whose hung himself from a tree in Vancouver's Stanley Park, and Marie Osmond's 18-year old son Michael Blosil, who jumped from the 15 floor of his apartment building, it would seem that celebrities are thrusting a once taboo subject into the limelight.
As a culture, we're obsessed with death. As a population, we connect with each other by sharing the same experiences. Misery loves company, and company is what we crave no matter what our nationality or religious beliefs might be. It's why we can bond instantly with strangers as we stand, swaying in a sea of darkness during an all-night vigil, lit candles illuminating our faces, and the faces of our new acquaintances. Years later, these moments will become our earned badges of "mourning memory" which we will share at bars, cocktail parties and random events while reminiscing about the departed, sharing where we were at that moment Ernest Hemingway shot himself; when Diane Arbus filled a tub with warm water, swallowed a handful of barbiturates and then slit her wrists; when Spalding Gray went missing, and when they fished his body out from the East River two months later. It is the "I was part of that. I was there," that we need. We're also addicted to the drama. We crave their stories the same way they craved their pills, liquor, coke and heroin. We want to understand the sadness they felt and the depression they couldn't live with.
Why do we love these tortured souls? Through their artistic endeavors, their writings or songs, their endless appearances on TV and film, or the mammoth impact they've made on history, we feel joined to them. We often feel closer to these familiar strangers then we do our neighbors, even friends or family. We have let these larger-than-life personalities into our homes, our lives and our hearts. We have earned the right to mourn because we feel incredibly and indelibly linked. Thanks to 24-hour TV coverage, gossip magazines, newspapers, web sites and reality shows, we've become an instant-gratification-media generation, constantly exposed to the celebrities we idolize -- all of which has fueled our sense of false intimacy.
We also love their brilliance and genius. We've fallen prey to their good looks and their artistic talents. We're dazzled by their glamorous lives and wooed by their entrance into an exclusive club we long to be members of.
Yet it's their life stories, the very private-made-public pain we connect with most.
Personally, I want to know why Virginia Woolf put stones in her pockets and then walked into the river, her last words left in a note to her husband placed on the mantel in her home. What went through Sylvia Plath's mind when she placed milk and buttered bread by her children's beds, then sealed their rooms with tape, wrote a note, left a manuscript on the hallway table, turned on the gas oven and stuck her head inside.
In all three recent suicides, depression, rather than addiction, seemed to be the monster at hand. Both Blosil and Koenig left notes for their landlord or a friend to find. Koenig turned down jobs, left belongings on friend's doorsteps and cleaned out his apartment. One of seven siblings, Blosil , who had been fighting depression for some time, felt he had no friends and could never fit in. And for McQueen , it seemed the recent death of his mother, paired with the suicide of his mentor and muse, international style icon Isabella Blow, was more grief than he could live with.
But in the end, rather than details and stories, we are sadly left with loss -- for something great and historical, important and special in each deceased celebrity we hear about; be it rock star or roadie, poet or politician, activist or artist, singer or starlet. The contributions they've made to history are fingerprints carved with a sharp knife, its indentation a valley of inerasable crevices. And so, the loss seems that much sadder; its impact that much greater. We will never view a new painting that Van Gogh -- or art darling Dash Snow, who killed himself last July -- might have created. We'll never read a freshly penned story by Hemingway or David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008. And we will never get to see what new designs Alexander McQueen would have unveiled at Fashion Week. It's the loss of a life, but also the loss of what they could have contributed to society had they lived. It's the story they didn't finish telling that we might miss most.