You don’t often think of Karl Rove and David Axelrod as being in agreement on anything. They mostly are on opposite sides of the fence.
Rove, of course, worked in the White House for President George Bush, while Axelrod worked in the same setting, only for President Barack Obama. About as Ying and Yang as it gets.
It was surprising, therefore, to read Karl Rove’s recent Wall Street Journal column titled, “My Mom’s Suicide was Preventable,” and find a prominent, positive mention of David Axelrod.
It seems that after Rove wrote about his mother’s unfortunate passing in a memoir, Axelrod sent him a very gracious note. Turns out that Axelrod’s father, a psychologist, also committed suicide.
Axelrod was only 19 at the time and he was called to identify the body (a horrible experience that we here at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory have heard about many times). Axelrod believed that his father thought depression was a character flaw, not an illness — a common and incorrect assumption.
The political differences between these two figures — and they couldn’t be more divided — pale when the reality of an event like suicide occurs.
People who do commit suicide, quite unfortunately, often leave a trail of broken hearts and psychological disarray behind them. Axelrod and Rove can well attest to that.
The larger point of Rove’s WSJ piece was a reflection upon the celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. He also noted that 863 Americans other than Spade and Bourdain took their own lives the same week — none of them were as famous, but their lives were just as precious.
Celebrity suicide, when viewed from a distance, is often shocking because the celebrated seem to live such a magical existence — fame, wealth, mass approval. That appearance is so deceiving, as celebrities live with the same painful life cycle problems we all encounter.
The late Frank Sinatra, Jr’s tribute concert to his father had this as a central theme: while he was recording some of the finest songs ever performed, Sinatra Sr’s personal life was bedeviled by manic depression. Losing at love, riding a career that had major low spots, captive of his own notoriety, Frank Sinatra lived through incredible turmoil, much of it brought on by himself.
As Sinatra Jr said, nobody gets through this life without suffering.
The suicide of Anthony Bourdain attracted so much attention because he was truly an iconic figure of this era. He transformed the way many people relate to food, and through that lens, the way people live.
Much praised author, television host and thinker, Bourdain explored international culture through cuisine — and those explorations were provocative. If you have not read “Kitchen Confidential,” it’s a riveting, hysterical adventure, written in the style of Holden Caulfield. The latest paperback edition ends with this sentence: “Human behavior remains a mystery to me.”
Yet, he too was possessed of demons: it has been reported that he reached out for help, but did not follow the medical advice he received.
He was cremated in France and his remains are to be returned to the United States.
In attempting to understand suicide, we can look to the work of an acknowledged expert, clinical psychologist Edwin Shneidman.
Author of more than 20 books, founder of one of the first suicide prevention centers in the country, Shneidman spent most of his career researching and developing treatments for this heinous problem.
His works are all insightful, but of particular importance is “The Suicidal Mind,” where he lists ten commonalities of suicide. Among these commonalities: someone who takes their own life is seeking a solution (through escape), but at the same time they are struggling to be rescued; like many emotionally distressed people, the suicidal see a reduced set of options to escape their pain — those options finally come down to two, live with pain or die by one’s own hand; this hopeless/helpless state constricts thinking to the point that the suicide is seen as a natural kind of “egression,” equivalent to leaving a job, running away from home or ending a relationship.
Perhaps most significantly, Shneidman posited that prior to suicide, there is a definite communication of intention: through behaviors, clues of what is to come are displayed. Which is precisely the reason that if someone speaks to you about suicide or in any manner gives the impression that suicide is an option, it is time to take serious steps to intervene.
We will have more on Shneidman and suicide in the future.