In high school I knew this kid named Dave, who was a brilliant screwup. Dave was some kind of crazy savant — he could recall just about any baseball statistic since the 1960s — and you knew he was fucked up because he dropped out during junior year, yet kept hanging around school. I didn’t know Dave that well. The only significant amount of time I spent in his company was when he asked me for a ride to Santa Monica — we lived in Orange County, so it was about an 80-mile round trip — so he could see Erich von Stroheim’s Greed at the Nuart theater.1
My last conversation with Dave haunts me because it had to do with suicide — specifically, whether or not there was any good reason for him not to commit suicide.
The thing about Dave was, he had some solid reasons for being supremely unsatisfied with himself and his life. His father was out of the picture, and his mother was, in Dave’s estimation, pretty much worthless as a parent. They were desperately poor. And as I said earlier, he had dropped out of high school, with no intention of returning, so his job prospects weren’t great.
This was basically his pro-suicide argument. He had a shitty life, and didn’t see any way out of it. My anti-suicide argument was what you’d expect — sure, life sucks now, but you’re basically just a kid, anything can happen, things can turn around.
Dave wasn’t having that, though. And his response was something I didn’t really have any rebuttal for. He said, basically, that he would have to be a certain kind of person in order for his life to change as dramatically as it needed to, and he just wasn’t that kind of person. Sure, he was smart, but he was totally unmotivated, was only interested in baseball and movies, and was emotionally unstable. He had no friends who would be devastated by his passing. And he had no desire to become any other kind of person than the kind he was. So the most likely scenario for someone like him was to struggle through life as an impoverished, antisocial misfit. Therefore, Dave reasoned, what was the point, for someone like him, of living?
I had no answer for him. And, I guess I should add, for reasons irrelevant for this discussion, some of the brightest kids in our class were in the room during this discussion, and nobody could come up with a “pro-life” argument that satisfied Dave. To all of us, he truly seemed screwed. The best we could come up with was the hope of some deus ex machina lightning strike of good fortune that would pull him out of his existential hole. But was it really worth suffering through what could be decades, for a lottery ticket that might not — would probably not — ever be a winner?
Another argument was that people change, and Dave was still young, so it was possible, probable even, that he would grow out of his current state of mind develop into a more productive person. But Dave shot that down as unlikely, and if you knew Dave, it was hard to argue with that. The problem with smart people is that they tend to be pretty strong-minded, and Dave’s idea of himself was pretty fixed.
So, the suicide debate ended on that uncertain note. Dave wasn’t absolutely set on killing himself, but none of us had proved capable of dissuading him of the notion. It all ended with sort of a collective helpless shrug. And that was the last time I saw Dave. He stopped hanging out at school, and if he did kill himself, I never heard about it.
Decades later, I still don’t know the argument that would have persuaded Dave to stick around. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not a life coach. But of all the reasons to commit suicide that have some shred of merit but are still completely unreasonable, the one I struggle with most is this: I don’t want to keep living as the kind of person I am.
The thing is, I believe in change. I think people can and do grow and change in dramatic ways. I think everyone is capable of changing their worldview. But whether they’re capable and whether they actually ever will are two different things. And whether people change and whether they change enough to move them from the “wanna die” list to the “wanna live” list are also two different things.
Dave had a pretty big brain. He had applied that brain to the question of whether he would ever change to the degree he needed in order to make himself and his life something he valued, and his conclusion was negative.
I don’t want to keep living as the kind of person I am.
When you reach this place in life, your choices narrow to one of two: either you become a different kind of person, or you don’t keep living.
There’s a play by Marsha Norman called ‘night Mother, which was made into a movie in 1986 starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. In the play, a middle-aged woman named Jessie tells her mother that she’s going to commit suicide before the night is out, and the story of the play is the argument between Jessie and her mother about her decision.
Fun stuff. But there’s a monologue by Jessie at the play’s climax that I think sums up Dave’s argument with heartbreaking poignancy. I think it’s an argument that holds up better in middle age than when you’re 17, and if there’s a good response to it, it isn’t in the play, or in my brain.
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I am what became of your child. I found an old baby picture of me. And it was somebody else, not me. It was somebody pink and fat who never heard of sick or lonely, somebody who cried and got fed, and reached up and got held and kicked but didn’t hurt anybody, and slept whenever she wanted to, just by closing her eyes. Somebody who mainly just laid there and laughed at the colors waving around over her head and chewed on a polka-dot whale and woke up knowing some new trick nearly every day and rolled over and drooled on the sheet and felt your hand pulling my quilt back over me.
That’s who I started out and this is who is left. That’s what this is about. It’s somebody I lost, all right, it’s my own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will.
So, see, it doesn’t much matter what else happens in the world or in this house, even. I’m what was worth waiting for and I didn’t make it. Me…who might have made a difference to me…I’m not going to show up, so there’s no reason to stay, except to keep you company, and that’s…not reason enough because I’m not…very good company.
In retrospect, this seems like an insane request, but this was before the Internet.↩