A famed mountaineer and naturalist walks into a winter storm with nothing but a light jacket. Is it a noble death, or a cowardly suicide?
Chip Brown delicately unpacks the layers around the death of Guy Waterman, who deliberately kills himself by exposure. Rather than being a sordid investigation, Brown’s book is an almost philosophical one, trying to find out how one should judge not just a man’s death, but also his life.
It’s an intriguing approach to biography. Was this suicide really a noble act by an American man determined to shape his own destiny? Borown demonstrates that may only be part of the picture, the image Waterman wanted to portray. Underneath Waterman, reconstructed through interviews with family, friends, his writing, and access to his widow, Linda, emerges as far more tortured soul who carried and dealt out, the burdens of mental illness, family pressures, broken relationships, self-destructive behavior, and perhaps most of all, the loss of two of his sons to the Alaska wilderness.
Any biography, of course, is really a biography of a family and Waterman’s was a particularly troubled one. Guy’s father was a highly successful scientist, whom he could never match, his first marriage was unhappy almost from the beginning. Saddest of all, his relationship with his three sons was fraught with distance and difficulty, and the two oldest ones also inherited demons of mental illness.
This is not a story of victimhood and martyrdom, however: Brown takes care not to deify Waterman in his troubles. In many ways, Waterman only exacerbated the tragedies by being a neglectful in his fatherly duties, selfish, cruel to his first wife, and to the very end, resistent to the idea of getting help.
Ultimately, Waterman emerges as a tragic and flawed human, a man who is difficult to understand and complicated even after his death.