Forty-one years ago, just a week after my dad killed himself, his best buddy arrived on our doorstep to repossess a portrait he’d painted of my father. Howard handed me a toy football, took the painting from the wall, and walked out of our lives. In 2006, after years of searching for Howard and the painting, I found Howard’s phone number and called. I identified myself as Irwin’s son and without hesitating Howard responded, “I was very mad at your mother.”
I was reminded of this moment yesterday while reading a New Yorker article about the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, who is soon to go on trial for charges relating to his activities that many have claimed pushed Tyler to his death. The article is so exquisitely reported by Ian Parker that there’s no need to recount the story here, but the wish of those left behind to assign blame figures prominently. And how could it not?
In the aftermath of almost every suicide, my dad’s included, we inevitably look for reasons why our loved one chose—however irrationally—to die. In my dad’s case, my mom was a natural blame target because she asked him to move out shortly after he was discharged from a psychiatric hospital. From where I sit now, I can see why she chose that moment. For my dad’s family, it was easy to link my mom’s actions almost directly to his death. At a vulnerable moment she threw him out on the street. Two years later, living alone in a rooming house, pining for his three young children, depressed and bereft, longing for the life that was no longer his, he took an overdose and left his loved ones bereft, depressed, and in search of someone to blame.
I’m guilty of assigning blame, too. I blamed the Veterans Administration (now called the Department of Veteran Affairs) for not doing a better job of treating my dad’s mental illness. I blamed my uncle for not letting my dad continue to live with his family after my mother asked him to leave. I blamed my grandparents for nothing specific, but surely they failed to do something they should have done or my dad wouldn’t be dead. And when I allowed myself, I blamed my mother, but she was all that stood between me and the orphanage, so I rarely included her on the list.
The one person I never thought to blame, at least until I’d had years of therapy, was my dad. He had suffered. He was dead. How could I blame him? But he did it. Not my mother. Not my uncle. Not my grandparents. Not the VA. And not his friends, including Howard, who knew that my father was contemplating suicide.
Looking back, it’s impossible not to think that everyone could have done a better job of saving my dad. So in that regard, everyone was to blame. But none of them forced my dad to take his life. Just as no one forced Tyler Clementi to take his. Perhaps Tyler felt humiliated by the insensitive and foolish actions of his roommate, Dharun Ravi, but it was Tyler who went to the George Washington Bridge with the intention of ending his life. No one but Tyler knows how Dharun may or may not have contributed to his decision to die, but Dharun is not to blame.
The rush to assign blame in the aftermath of my dad’s suicide was perhaps more damaging than my dad’s death. It blew apart family ties and old friendships and left me even more isolated in the months and years that followed than if my dad had died a natural death. I’ve come to think that the suicide blame game is one where we all lose.
About This Blog
Welcome to my blog, which grew out of my experience as a suicide survivor and my experience writing Why Suicide? (see below). On occasion I’ll be posting an essay based on something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, an experience I’ve had, or just a memory of someone in my life who took his or her life. If you have a thought on something I’ve written, I hope you won’t hesitate to join the conversation by leaving a comment.
About Eric Marcus
Eric Marcus is the author of several books, including Why Suicide?, Is It A Choice?, and Making Gay History. He is also co-author of Breaking the Surface, the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. And he currently serves on the national board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan.)