So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
– Edwin Arlington Robinson
When I was in high school I read “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson for the first time. I recall being shocked as I read the last stanza (see above) because the previous stanzas of the poem painted such a vibrant portrait of a wealthy man who happened to be kind, friendly, and humble. “How can a person of such wealth with seemingly everything to live for take his own life?” I kept asking myself. My teacher quickly started a discussion that to some extent I am still having inside my head to this day.
The key thing about the poem is that the poor townspeople who admire Cory so much don’t know him. They think they know him. They want to believe they know him from seeing him every day as he walks through the town dressed up in a fancy suit and shining like a god who has graced them with his presence, but they don’t have a clue about him really. They don’t know what is going on inside him, and then they find out that their idealized conception of this fellow is all an illusion when he goes home and kills himself.
Years later Paul Simon would tackle Cory in a song that he performed with Art Garfunkel. The song’s lyrics go deeper into Cory and paint a bit of a different picture of the man who has orgies on his yacht but is still philanthropic and idealized by a person who works in his factory. It again depicts Cory as someone who is believed to be known but nothing could be farther from the truth.
This week death by suicide claimed two very famous people – fashion designer Kate Spade and TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain. In Spade’s case, I only knew of her through my wife and daughter who like her handbags and accessories. I have heard her name mentioned over the years and know that they both have acquired some of her products as gifts.
Both my wife and daughter seemed devastated to hear the news of Kate Spade’s death by her own hand. They couldn’t understand how this wealthy woman with so much to live for – including a 13-year-old daughter – could end things like this. Of course, they only knew her through products and had no idea what was going on in her life. Even after voraciously reading articles about her – with many people painting a picture of a kind and generous personality – there are no answers and maybe there never will be.
I felt the loss of Anthony Bourdain more than other members of my family because I was a loyal fan of his CNN series Parts Unknown. It was a brilliant show due to its sheer simplicity – Bourdain would travel the world sampling cuisine in countries I had once visited or wished that I had. The concept of the series proved the old notion that breaking bread with people is the best way to get to know them and, in this case, their country.
The problem I had is familiar – I felt like I knew Bourdain. TV shows have that tricky tendency to lull viewers into this misconception. I am, after all, in some way inviting Bourdain into my home each week, and although it is not interactive – I am not actually sitting across from him at a table eating some exotic cuisine – damn if it doesn’t feel as if I am. That is the somewhat confusing paradox and yet magical spell that television has for its viewers.
I am stunned that this man whom I admired and enjoyed watching would kill himself. The world is so big and there are so many cuisines yet to taste, delicious drinks to savor, and sights to see. How could Bourdain come to this decision that none of that mattered? How could he not care about seeing his 11-year-old daughter ever again? What could bring him to this choice?
I have seen reports and stories online about suicide becoming rampant in our society – there were approximately 45,000 suicides in the U.S. last year – meaning that there are many people reaching this horrific decision that are not celebrities. The question of “why” is not always easily answered for those who remain behind, not that the answers will necessarily make anyone feel much better.
When actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life, I felt shaken. I admired and liked him for so long, going back to his early days on the sitcom Mork and Mindy and then in his stand-up comedy and roles in films. He even affected my life with his role as a teacher in the film Dead Poet’s Society. I was at a crossroads in my life and thought about not being a teacher anymore and doing something else, and then I saw that film and it reaffirmed my passion for my profession.
Once again, the problem was I thought I knew Robin Williams but I didn’t. I saw him as a shooting star, a mercurial talent to be sure, but he seemed at once not containable and yet intimate. He could whisper in your ear one minute and make you believe that he was talking just to you, and then in the next minute he could be make the rafters shake from everyone laughing so hard.
As I learned more about the months and years leading up to his suicide, it seemed that a long, quiet battle with Lewy body dementia drove Williams to kill himself. Here there was answer but it did not provide a way to make me feel better about his loss. I can realize what drove him to kill himself but understanding and accepting it still feels complicated. Perhaps that is the impetuous that I (and we all) need to do more to learn about why someone would take this last, desperate step.
People who are at such depths of despair need help, and there are options for them, but everyone needs to be aware about resources for those contemplating suicide and should learn more about this topic because last year a government survey indicated that around 9.4 million people had contemplated or “had serious thoughts” about committing suicide. That is evidence enough that should motivate people to do research and then become careful observers.
In the coming days we may learn more about what drove Spade and Bourdain to throw away their greatest gift – their own lives – but even if we learn more that does nothing to take away the loss of these people. Perhaps the public should not get so invested in celebrities and the seemingly glamorous lifestyles they live, but the availability of information online and the faux intimacy that TV and films provide only facilitate the connection.
The most important thing to remember is that Spade and Bourdain have family members who are suffering now, and they have real intimate friends who are also grieving. The public should show these people respect and give them the dignity that they deserve, but the media makes that almost impossible by keeping these stories in the news. Even in death Spade and Bourdain cannot escape scrutiny of their lives, and that is probably the cruelest ending of all.