1984 - ON CHOICE

Suicide - The Ultimate Choice

      On 14 September 1984, Richard Brautigan committed suicide at his home in Bolinas, California. There's no doubt about the suicide but there is some doubt about the date. His body was not found till 25 October.1 He was last heard by Marcia Clay on the telephone on 14 September. The long delay in finding the body and the fact that, even then, it was not found by family or friends but by a private investigator hired by his agent to inform him of a new contract offer, gives some indication of how isolated he had become. His novels had earned him a role as the embodiment of the 60s generation (though he was himself contemptuous of hippies). When the 60s passed and his mind remained in the 60s, he was, in the words of his friend Tom McGuane, "the baby thrown out with the bath water".

      Brautigan was not the first death within the group of cohorts. Two of our kings - Faisal II and Kigeli V - had been killed in the late 50s, Belinda Lee and Kitty Genovese died in the early 60s, and Elvis Presley, always the innovator, in the 1970s. However, Richard Brautigan was our first suicide. Unless, you consider the taking of drugs as suicide on the instalment plan. There has been much discussion of free-will vs determinism in this book, exposing my bias towards free-will. Many see suicide as the ultimate act of free-will - you write your own script for your death as well as for your life. Others see it as the ultimate act of self-criticism. Suicide - whichever side you take on it - is one of the important philosophical issues. Indeed, many people say that the basic philosophical question is Why not commit suicide? or, alternatively, Why get out of bed in the morning? or What makes life worth living?

      On good days, my last thought before I throw out my first leg is of something I want to do; on bad days, it is of something I have to do. We are all torn between love and duty. We have already looked at the plight of some people whose potential is limited right from the start. People born into famous or royal families have expectations laid on them which limit their options. Thus Maya Picasso and Sergei Khrushkev are still struggling to escape the shadow of their famous fathers. The Duke of Kent and Princess Elisabeth of Denmark were born to perform their formal duties on behalf of their respective royal families. As far as I know they have performed those duties admirably, but a life in which the last thought before throwing out the first leg in the morning is almost invariably duty must be difficult.

      Another group not favoured by chance in the lottery of birth are those born into poverty. Several members of my karass were born rich in potential (we all get the conception-day gift of the wisdom of our species) but poor in opportunity to realise this potential. It is interesting to see how they shifted the emphasis in their lives from chance to choice. All of them seem to have had some good luck to counter the bad luck of being born in poverty, which saved them from a limited life.

      Floyd Patterson, the youngest of 11 in a poor family in Waco, North Carolina, was arrested at 10 for fighting in the street. So far, his career paralleled that of Richard Kuklinski, the hit-man now in jail for killing 100-200 people [see 1938 ON GOOD AND EVIL]. However, Patterson had the good luck to be sent to Wiltwyck School for Boys, a reform school in upstate New York. There he learned to put his fighting skills to legitimate use and was on his way to becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World and a beloved icon noted for his gentleness outside the ring.

      Felipe Alou also used sport as his ticket out of poverty. A last-minute switch from track and field to baseball in the Pan-American Games revealed that he had a talent for the sport as the Dominican Republic won the Gold Medal. He signed up with the New York Giants in November 1955 for $200 to relieve the financial situation of his family. Since he was one of those fortunate people who were not only good players but also good coaches, he is still able to keep poverty firmly at bay.2

      Elvis Presley and Loretta Lynn, both born in extreme poverty in the American South, found music to be their means of escape from poverty. Being the only child of a doting mother seems to have been one of the factors in Elvis's favour. Her encouragement gave him the confidence to approach Sun Records to cut a record (a present for her, by the way). Sam Phillips of Sun Records was looking for a white man who could sing "black" music and the rest of the story is history. Loretta Lynn's luck was a lusty voice (developed no doubt by yelling at the husband - Doolittle - she acquired before she was 14 and the four children she subsequently acquired before she was 17), and a loving family who opposed her marriage but encouraged her music. Doolittle turned out to be a doting husband who bought her a guitar and managed her career.

      Dudley Moore had to contend not only with poverty but with a club foot and a small body. To escape teasing by the more fortunate other children, he turned his liabilities into assets by becoming a choir boy and by learning to play the violin, the piano, and the organ. He was playing the organ at church weddings when he was 14. A scholarship to Cambridge University took him into an environment where his talents for music and clowning (another traditional strategy to avoid bullying) were appreciated.

Return to the Table of Contents       Continue to Chapter 6.2

1   He had shot himself in the head. Friends remembered sadly that he used to explain how to pronounce his name by saying "Richard brought a gun". His suicide note was written in his usual cryptic style: "Messy, isn't it?"
2   I once spent an evening with a therapist in San Francisco. His conversation consisted largely of the problems he was having in his hectic life. "Why" I ventured at one point, "should I come to you for therapy. Your own life is so screwed up. How could you help me with mine." "Some people are good coaches but they are not good players." "Good point - where do I sign up?"