Photo courtesy of tousledmind @deviantart.com
In light of the tragic death of director Tony Scott, I wanted to bring up the issue that no one wants to talk about, and my connection to it in my life and in my work. It is my hope that those in the midst of dark or harrowing times will reach out to their loved ones in person instead of by a note that will not reach them until it’s too late.
Suicide runs like a knotty vine through my family tree, as it does for many others, I suspect. Even the word ‘suicide’ is a secret, ugly word, shadowed with shame, blame, guilt, and regret. Missed opportunities, pain over harsh words, fear that those who committed the act will never, ever rest from it. Fear that those left have a piece of that in them—a piece of whatever impulse of outrageous courage or cowardice it was that prompted the others to do it.
Because of the suicides of numerous family members and friends, I have long been drawn to artists who have committed suicide, both in fiction and in life. From characters like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s, “The Awakening,” to Virginia Woolf. From Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton. From Kurt Cobain to Ernest Hemingway.
Several years ago, I visited Hemingway’s home in Key West. I’ve loved Hemingway’s work since college, and visiting the house seemed to cement my connection to him. When I got home, I knew I wanted to write about Hemingway at that place in his time not only because it held a high degree of historical value, but because I wanted to redeem him.
Ernest Hemingway had a well known nasty streak, but not many people know about his other side. While researching my novel, I was given permission to visit the Hemingway archive at the JFKMuseum in Boston, where over ninety percent of Hemingway’s papers, letters, manuscripts, and photographs reside. It was while reading his letters and flipping through his photographs that I saw a side of Hemingway that moved me deeply.
From the meat-head known for knocking out weaker men in bar fights, came tender words of consolation to dear friends who had lost their son. From the writer known to slam his peers through vitriolic commentary and thinly disguised fictionalizations, came a man who let a homeless young wanderer into his home and his life for a year to instruct him on fishing and writing. From the prolific husband and notorious womanizer, came A MOVEABLE FEAST, which feels, in large part, like a long letter of apology and regret to his first wife and his young self.
Sadly though, I could hardly enjoy reading about the good times in his life with his end looming. When someone commits suicide there is a natural tendency to view every moment of the life through the filter of the death. For some, suicide is the culmination of a lifetime of terrible lows, for others, a seemingly inexplicable impulse. Whether it is appropriate or not, every harsh word, every tear, even the happy times seem somehow connected to the final act.
In Hemingway’s works and letters, one can’t help but think of his life in terms of his suicide since he not only talked about his intention of doing it throughout the years, but also because of how many of his family members had died by their own hands. In the present day, Hemingway would have probably been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given antidepressants. In his time he was given electroshock therapy that damaged his mind, broke his spirit, and left him unable to write.
While spending so much time learning about Hemingway’s death and the suicides of his father, sister, and brother, among others, I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about my own family members and friends. A boy who had shot himself in high school for not getting into the Naval Academy. A father who had taped the windows and doors of his New York City apartment bathroom and opened the gas line while his five kids played in the living room. An uncle who got drunk after several years of sobriety and drove his car into a parked vehicle at a dizzying speed. They came back to me, and I did not welcome them.
Gradually, though, I found that while I wrote, while I thought of them, my writing became a prayer for them. It was an acknowledgment of their lives and deaths, and hope for their peace after death.
My novel is not about suicide. It is about persistence and living life well, even in the face of temptation and tragedy. It is my hope that within the words there is a release, a remembrance without judgment, and a redemption.
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If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, please don’t wait to reach out for help. There are so many resources out there. One of particular poignancy is that of Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway. Her foundation is called You Matter, Don’t Quit. For more about it, please visit the Facebook page.