Ghost in the Shell
Just over 20 years ago, I thought of killing myself. Or rather, the thought was suddenly present in me, like an unwanted ghost. It only ended up occupying my skull and nervous system for five, maybe six, months, but I remember it as vividly as if it had been a literal houseguest, a hairy-armed biker my sister had move in with my parents and me, or a drooling Rhodesian ridgeback that, once my mother threw him a chop bone from the kitchen door, had refused to leave.
I remembered it anew when Spalding Gray, famed monologist, writer, actor and affable New York/Long Island personality, had been discovered bloating in the East River, almost exactly two months after he’d been declared missing, in January 2004. The day I began writing this, of course, is months and months afield by now. I met Gray only once, if you can call it a meeting: one day standing in front of my then-fiancee’s building on Seventh Avenue waiting for her to emerge at day’s end, I happened to look to my left, and there was Gray striding toward me obliviously, his eyes on the pavement. He looked up a few feet short of colliding with me, at which point I indulged in a split-second decision to create a potentially awkward and certainly unnecessary situation by sticking out my hand and announcing "Spalding!" He stopped dead and reflexively shook my hand, his puzzled brow knuckling up, when I quickly admitted (A) to not actually knowing him, (B) to being a big fan, and, however, (C) to knowing his then-wife Renee Shafransky, who had taught film classes at my college a few years earlier. A relieved smile, and adieu.
Of course in terms of how we know Gray through his films and performances, he was impossible to dislike, which is why I felt bizarrely comfortable greeting him by his Christian name in the street although I was in fact a perfect stranger – if it had been Woody Allen or Griffin Dunne or Tom Waits, I probably would’ve done the New York thing and ignored the passing celebrity as if he were homeless. And so the media outpouring of grief and bewilderment upon the discovery of his suicide – at least on the East Coast – was perfectly understandable. And so were the strained attempts to "understand," to fathom the reason why such an intensely amiable, hilarious, seemingly life-affirmative personality, who freely admitted to depression and self-destructive impulses in his work but who at the same time seemed with the help of those inventive and generous admissions to conquer them outright, could actually take that harrowed and horrifying final step off the Staten Island Ferry and into the nightened abyss. It’s as if joy and love, however abundant, are valueless commodities in the human exchange, currency with no standard or weight – if not for Spalding, then for none of us. It’s as if the lusty embrace of life’s ironies, comedies, tenderness and absurd beauties counts for absolutely nothing if the mysterious call to self-slaughter is sounded and heard.
Which is, in fact, my understanding of the matter. Psychologists have all but given up trying to dissect the causes of "suicidality"; they are commonly surmised to be, for each individual, some distinctive, fiery, undecipherable cocktail of psychological elements (depression, mainly), sociological factors (as per theoretical pioneer Emile Durkheim, poverty, injustice, oppression, etc.) and biological possibilities (misfiring serotonin valves, etc.). Saying that suicide can result from depression is not unlike saying a car crash can result from driving on whiskey, and while Durkheim’s theories have been all but discredited (they may hold for, say, a handful of Primo Levis, but not for the rest of the Kurt Cobains), the biochemical perspective has become so ubiquitous in clinical culture as well as in the world at large that virtually any emotional problem is having antidepressants pelted at it in handfuls like rice at a bride – and not entirely unsuccessfully, either.
But the literature does not offer up much in the way of understanding – suicide is just the bullet-train’s last stop, the organic point at which a depression, or a life fraught with circumstantial misery, runs out of track. There are statistical trends, popular "triggers," models of behavior and condition that tend to coincide with the suicidal impulse. But they do not coalesce into a readable idea. How could they, come up with a coherent thesis for the most inexplicable of human actions? Suicide makes less sense, if you’re up for measuring such things, than cruelty, homicide, rape, the most extreme fetishes, or religion. Map it on a senselessness grid, and it stands alone in the upper right-hand corner. (I remember reading in April of 1990 how a Norwich, Connecticut woman named Michelle McDonald – you better believe I wrote this down somewhere – drove her car into the Thames River almost four years to the day after her twin sister did the same exact thing, at the same exact spot.) But go ahead, scour the publications, hunt online through the university studies, psychological papers and clinical trials – no one has a substantial clue. Rather, the emphasis is on treatment, stratagems for solving the problem no one fully comprehends. It’s difficult to blame the psychiatric community for simply opening the hydrants at the first sign of fire, rather than figure out how the blaze started – after all, it’s burning, and, anyway, most suicidal individuals haven’t a clue as to why they must do what they must do, and if they did, they couldn’t tell you in words. They’d have to show you.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that John Berryman, for instance, showed us something substantial and extreme and dead-serious when he, like Gray, leapt into the winter’s water – from Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge, some 100 feet in the air, in broad daylight. Bridges are magnets: some 25 people a year touch the void off the Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s even a bridge in Luxembourg – portentously painted blood-red from its original construction – that attracts so many jumpers the townspeople below have to live with the daily prospect of falling bodies. The incubi that occupy the lucklessly self-destructive adore the terminal edges of modern life – rooftops, airplane safety doors, interstate straightaways, the pistol trigger, the next cc line on the hypo. These are threads of social trivia that do not lend themselves easily to diagnostic categorization. I heard Spalding Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, interviewed on NPR within a week of his body’s appearance, and like everyone she was attempting to provide an explanation for what seemed resolutely beyond knowing. Maybe Gray was depressed about a recent car accident, maybe he came to see the world a certain, despairing way, maybe he felt as if he "had nothing left to give," ad infinitum. It was difficult to listen to, because Russo came close to sounding foolish in her mushy, earnest, NPR-ish efforts at applying a middle-brow education to what was obviously beyond her experience. It might have just sounded nearly foolish to me because I knew why – like many of us, comprising a kind of secret tribe of survivors, I had had a taste of the history Gray knew, I’d felt the weight of the homunculus. My compatriots and I have always known that Ted Hughes had nothing at all to do with Sylvia Plath’s appointment with the oven, that George Sanders’ suicide note glibly asserting "I am bored" was nothing if not disingenuous, that Jean Seberg didn’t need J. Edgar Hoover to drive her to barbiturates, that for Hemingway the women, the booze and the hunting trips were all distractions and deferrals, strategies to make the inevitable swallowing of gun barrel happen later rather than sooner.
We’re excluding here the suicide arguments of the very stupid (Muslim terrorists, the porn star Savannah), the very desperate (Goering, Goebbels, Hitler and Braun) and the excessively noble (kamikaze pilots). The reality is that the will to self-kill has nothing, by and large, to do with the way we see the world, or with how much "we have left to give," God knows. Suffering and deprivation are not reliable coordinates, either – or two-thirds of the world population would be taking the gas. (Likewise, everyone knows the pleasure principle – and, therein, the rewards to be gained from parenthood, work, love, sensual gratification or entertainment – is no competition for the self-annihilation idea.) It is not a deduction based on experience or observation, it is not the logical result of misfortune. It is, almost by definition, not deductive or reasonable at all; it is not purely "emotional," either. It is, rather, an alien yet organic occupation, the presence of a daemon. Psychologists should not be looking for a syndrome of influences and biological indicators; they should be looking for a thing, a shadow on a CAT scan, a squirming lump on the medulla. I tell you, it has mass and weight, it has consciousness, and teeth. See the 1959 William Castle-Vincent Price horror flick The Tingler, whose absurd, or perhaps less absurd than is comfortable, premise is that human terror spawns an insectasoid entity to form on the spine – thus, the spinal tingle of fear – which, if someone is frightened to a sufficient degree, will grow big enough to overpower the person’s entire nervous system and kill them. In one tastefully silhouetted scene, Price performs an autopsy on a woman who’d been "scared to death," and pulls a leathery, foot-long caterpillar out of her torso. That’s how it feels, as anyone guesting the suicide hob will tell you. For them, the prospect of even Vincent Price performing surgery on their skull to remove the bugbear manually would come as a world of good news.
From my memory and also from the outside looking at suicides’ actions in extremis, it seems that among this haunter’s characteristics is an imparted sense of procedural imperative – the thing has to be done, it will be done, as if there is something the suicide has to prove, to the world and themselves, a postulate he must render as either authentic or worthless. No matter how long you contemplate the action – even decades – it persists in your consciousness like a chore you absolutely have to get around to, a nagging last item on a lifelong agenda. As with finalizing a will or buying cemetery plots, procrastination is a common mitigating factor. Of course, the provable point or goal or feeling of determination isn’t the individual’s but his or her possessor’s, passed to the host like bacteria that involves the hapless victims in ideas they should logically never have, and insistently encourages them to do something no one would do if left to their own bad decisions or sour moods or blackest humors.
Even so, in experience it is not an act of emptiness or uselessness or woe, it is an act of ferocious will. It would have to be – consider yet again Virginia Woolf, who somehow resisted the instinct to remove the rocks from her pockets as she sank. Or 1930s semi-star Lupe Velez, whose voluptuously arranged nude-on-the-death-bed tableau of flowers and candles was spoilt once the Seconals she took sent her vomiting to the toilet, which is where she was found. Or contemporaneous non-starlet Peg Entwhistle, who drove all the way up Mount Lee to the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, climbed the last D’s three stories, and then jumped. Or Chris Allen, a quiet, tall, goofy acquaintance of mine from grade school who, I’d heard sometime during college, had joined the Army, lost a girlfriend and pressed the barrelhead of his service rifle against the roof of his mouth, and fired. Or anyone, really, who actually, finally, makes the cut, pulls the trigger, steps from the ledge, or sits on the tracks. It’s a fiercely intimidating show of resolve, at least compared to our daily efforts at life. We may see the act as the loss of a mortal struggle, but for the individual confronting his or her "completion," it isn’t surrender but achievement, a summoning of nerve long in the coming. Opinionated pronouncements to the effect that suicide is a cowardly choice are, at best, wholly clueless.
Like Gray, I had had a car accident – a common trigger for suicidality, apparently, a cranial trauma that acts as a seismic event, apparently scrambling one’s bearings and somehow introducing the suicide idea to one’s mental environment much as a carpetbagger will magically appear to exploit a neighborhood turned upside down by earthquake or war. I was sitting beneath the hatch in my friend Chris’s two-seater Mercury sportster when it fishtailed, probably due to my extra weight, into oncoming traffic on a four-lane route in the woodsy darkness of north-shore Long Island, a few days before Halloween 1983. I have no memories of the collision itself; I never have had any. I do have a faint memory of lying on the shoulder, mere inches from passing tires, subtly adjusting myself on the asphalt to ameliorate bone pain. The car was three lanes away; I had apparently been popped into the air, like a baseball. Next, I awoke in the hospital – it was morning — apologizing to my stricken mother, leaning over me (I had just recently learned to drive, and everybody had been waiting for something like this to happen). When she told me I hadn’t been driving, I suddenly had no worries in the world. Just a morphine drip.
A week later I was home, my dozens of fractures sealing up, my dislocations mending, my deflated lung pumped, my face stitched. Two weeks later, restlessly, I managed to drive my car, a last-legs ‘68 Cutlass, back to school. Sometime soon after that, it appeared – just an idea, a black mote in the back of my skull, offering up the notion of self-destruction, as if it were a horse tip. How, why, when – these were all issues to be decided later, after the idea had made itself comfortable and moved in its stereo equipment and futon and lava lamp. It was a scary manifestation at first, but of course the more I tried to push it from my consciousness, the firmer it held its ground, and the more familiar it became. I woke in the morning, took a split-second to scan my mental horizon – and there it was. There it remained, all day. Sleep and alcohol were the only sanctuaries, both temporary and whimsical.
I did what you would do – I slogged along carrying it around like a drug habit, heaving its weight like a sandbag on my neck and shoulders. It was a burden, a spectacular irritant (having already survived that which kills off so many American teenagers, didn’t I earn a trouble-free senior year? Didn’t I deserve a little joie de vivre?). But it wasn’t completely miserable – I never self-pitied, never wept, never felt mired in absolute woe from which "there was no other recourse." It wasn’t sadness as I’d known it before and as we normally know it; it wasn’t even "depression." It was merely an inhabiting spirit, a malevolent whisperer acting of its own accord and according to a private program.
Over the next month, heading into Christmas, it grew, of course, grew in size and intensity, bullying the rest of my conscious activity into entertaining, inevitably, the first coherent thoughts about how and why and when. I was in no hurry – given my dread of making large decisions, I was comfortably secure in the knowledge that the logistical debate could go on for years. In the meantime, I compulsively sought out suicidal literature, feeling most comfortable with Plath, Sexton, Berryman and Schwartz – their poetry as well as journals, letters, semi-autobiographical fiction, and memoirs written by those left behind. I wrote heavily influenced poetry, too, published it in the student literary magazine (I was the editor), and creeped out everybody who read it. I began to hesitantly tell my friends about what was going on inside my cortex; being men-in-the-making, they reacted concerned but unperturbed, as if they that had every confidence that I’d figure my way out of such a fix before something truly disastrous happened. I did tell one girl – a fabulously bosomed, ropey-haired, freckled English major with whom I happened to be in love, who happened to be halfway through a long term relationship with another, much shorter fellow, and who happened to marry me less than a decade later. She’d be loathe today to be reminded of her reaction: she bolted from the room in self-preserving terror. I forgave her her uncharacteristically callous response on the spot, and haven’t regretted it.
But talking about it, and hunting for collaborative experience among our middle century’s bumper crop of imploding poets, didn’t stem the viral spread. It felt as if nothing would – it was its own thermodynamic law, a throbbing vacuum, isolated from input and intercourse. I did not seek out psychiatric assistance – had I done so, my subsequent path might’ve been different, but I have no reason to believe it would’ve prevented or deterred what seemed predestined, or to believe it would’ve made me feel much less burdened. Anyway, I wasn’t any better at articulating the sense of it than anyone else similarly plagued. I’ve tried here, using probably too many metaphors, to evoke the sense of it, but I’ve inevitably failed. Every brain’s chemical stew is different, and there is no doubt that this possession – and in fact it’s easy to imagine the uneducated in preindustrial eras interpreting the footprint of suicidal lust as the internal invasion of a malignant spirit – often accompanies genuine depression, tragic circumstance and neurological imbalance. But my suspicion, based on personal experience just as we can generally understand others’ headaches, root canal agony, scratched-back contentment and drunken incapacity, is that the urge to end one’s life is a separate and distinct creature. Born of a physiological hose-kink or psychological entropy or some combo therein, I cannot tell you. I can say that approaching it as if it were a symptom of a larger situation, or a condition with logical roots in thus-far documented medicine, is folly.
By all reports, Spalding Gray harbored this secret lodger in his consciousness for nearly the entirety of his life – he had entertained suicide, he had said, even as a child. In this view, his is a spectacular success story: dodging the doom salesman for over five decades and living in the meantime through several marriages, several children, scores of friendships, a unique and thrilling and appreciated career, and a lifetime of fruitful self-examination. But of course this is glib: leaping into the nightened Hudson in obedience of a lifelong death wish cannot have been pleasant. But who could doubt that with the hellfire came fierce blooms of cleansing relief and even traces of courageous self-satisfaction? No one who’s heard the back-brain drone, certainly. I’m talking about the leap only – then came the actual drowning, about which no one knows anything and about which we speculate at our own risk.
The abeyance of my journey to the center of the earth came that spring, March of 1984, unceremoniously and sudden. I wish I could tell you why, how, details about that treasured day’s weather or world news or circumstantial details. I’ve forgotten what had transpired the night before – my carwreck-mates and I had found a party or parties somewhere on our green suburban campus, and had somehow absconded with a metal keg half full of woeful St. Louis beer, smuggling it into the dorm. I had been good and goddamned soused, and therefore thankfully oblivious, if only for a few hours, to the vampire moldering up the far corner of my consciousness. I awoke alone in my room that morning, hungover to some degree or another, and surveyed my befogged mental landscape – where was my patient, fanged little consort? It wasn’t there. For some reason or another – a mere remixing of neurochemical cocktails? – the creeper wasn’t there waiting and nodding like a devil reminding you, yes, your soul is sold and your days are being counted down. I went to my mirrored medicine cabinet, expecting the festering thought to wake up at any microsecond, shake its head and reestablish its talon-grip on my membranes. The walk to the mirror, broken up into a Zeno-like infinity of smaller and smaller moments, took an extraordinarily long time – where was it? I was actively hunting the dirty sucker down, searching for him like a lost pet, just so I wouldn’t become suddenly joyous with liberation and then be just as suddenly keelhauled down to new depths when it did suddenly reappear. Staring into my weary reflection, the seconds passed, and I realized it was gone. I dared even to conjure suicidal thoughts – maybe I pictured myself leaning off the Verrazano Bridge, holding on with two fingers – but they did not hold and instead evaporated instantly. Nope, it was gone, gone not just for the moment or for the day, but gone for good, even more mysteriously than it had arrived. I don’t know why, but it did not occur to me that it might return, tomorrow or next year; I had somehow lost it, irrevocably, as you lose innocence. It did not occur to me that I’d somehow poisoned and killed the fucker with drink; even then, I knew that, if such a thing were possible, suicides, which had always routinely climaxed decades of Burroughsian substance abuse, would be as rare as two-pound pearls. Could it have just been the coming of spring, the burning glory of sun-warmth on the vampire’s vulnerable flesh? I virtually skipped down the industrial-carpeted dorm hall to my friends' room and the keg, and then began that year’s spring in earnest, my suburban Elysium of sun-soaked beer bashes, devoted comrades, girls of sugar-wheat hair and braless elan, and days so long and open and promising they felt like miniature dawnings of some utopian history, too personal and too easily subjected to rapturous irresponsibility to ever be documented.
20 years since, the idea has never resurfaced, and I expect to die a content old man by means natural or otherwise happenstantial. Its coming and going remain an enigma, but more importantly its nature remains unaccounted for, its existence an inexplicable thing of nearly supernormal essence. That’s how it felt, of course – it could, I suppose, have been a simple matter of synaptic imbalance or a microscopic neurological burp, and my internal interpretation of it was an intensely subjective cyber-experience I cannot gain distance from, as when a scientist pokes an exposed cerebellum and the awake, oblivious patient feels nothing but suddenly smells roses and hears church bells. You cannot tell that open-skulled citizen that he is not actually hearing or smelling – because, in reality, he is, just not with his ears or nose. So maybe, like so much else, the occupying imp of suicide, however terrifying and fatal, is actually just a minuscule physiological occurrence, in reality trite and inconsequential but blooming in a mad, Mandelbrot-like spiral into impressions, actions, consequences and, finally, often, death. Wouldn’t that be devastatingly ironic, that the early exits of all those geniuses, poets, artists and rock stars were all the product of a serotonin misdrip, an inter-nerve-ending subspark? This conclusion seems inevitable, particularly as the micro-march of scientific query pounds forward. Physiochemistry and psychopharmacology are becoming so all-encompassing today that researchers are on the verge of a model of the human brain that suggests all of our achievements and cataclysms – science, religion, democracy, totalitarianism, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust – are the result of our cranial bouillabaisse, of the volatile or serenely nourishing elemental mix therein. (Social misfits are no longer mere social misfits, but victims of the autism scale’s milder fringes.) This all might answer the question for the pragmatists, and might even present a cure for the suicidal. But it wouldn’t explain the crepuscular mystery of the experience, or why such an organic imbalance translates to us, as it’s happening, as the fulfillment of a medieval superstition, the visitation of a conniving parasite, chanting the unthinkable.
Is our behavior merely chemistry? Maybe. Maybe because we are what we are, because we are too proudly human, because we believe everything we sense and will go to our graves almightily convinced that what we think is true although that truth may be just an acidic gurgle or cellular eruption-reaction in the brainpan’s furthest, moldiest corner – because of this, everything we are and have and know can be occasionally tossed to the winds of empty tragedy. Maybe. But that’s not the way I remember it. I remember it as a stranger upstairs, unevictable and insistent that my life would end a certain way, at a certain time, and that I’d eventually be convinced to do the ending myself. That he was wrong is not evidence of anything but my own pointless fortune.