“The Mystery of Suicide” (Tim Miller, The Bulwark)

Timothy Miller, writing about deep depression & suicide, reflecting on the suicide of his friend, journalist Blake Hounshell.

Some people wear the love of their kids on their sleeves, and Blake was one of those people. Last June I was delighted and rather floored when he came to cover my book eventwith his kids in tow. This is not really the M.O. in D.C., a town where careerism enabled by professional childcare is the norm. I can count with the fingers on one, maybe two hands the number of times a male colleague has brought his kid to a “grown-up” political event. When it’s happened, it has always made me appreciate them more. They must be one of the good ones, I’ve thought to myself—the softies with those dadly virtues.

At the party in June, our kids glommed onto each other and played, running amid the slacks and skirts, commandeering the front lawn. The next day during a lunch interview, Blake was giddy as he gave me the play-by-play of their interactions that I missed while kibitzing inside. Olivia Nuzzi recountedBlake smiling that day as he encountered his kids in the kitchen, eating ice cream at the counter.

This wasn’t a one-off. His neighbor, Aaron Kissel, said Blake just “beamed” watching his kids. “The honest joy he had as a father was infectious, beautiful and inspiring. Blake, in those moments, was fatherhood as it is meant to be,” he wrote. This fatherly instinct extended to other kids. My friend C.J. recalled that he never failed to ask about his own son. Another colleague said Blake was “especially kind to the children he interacted with, always willing to trade quips.” 

In processing Blake’s death, I went to his various social media feeds to try to spark more memories, and I was reminded that he was the kind of dad who would recount the precocious, silly, anodyne musings of his kids on Facebook without any contrivance or performative BS. 

February 6th: Astrid: “Daddy, I don’t think I can clean my room today. I bumped my head on the sink and cleaning my room would make it feel worse.”

December 14th: Astrid: “I wish people had six fingers.”

March 22nd: Astrid: “My worst enemies are mosquitoes. And also leprechauns.”

November 3rd: Astrid: “How do you spell, ‘David can you please stop bothering me?’”

October 2nd: David to Astrid: “Do you like this picture I drew? It’s Gandhi.”
Astrid: “Not really.”

His posts go on like that, sharing his childrens’ bon mots and wisdom every few weeks, year after year, delighting Blake and, at times, his friends—but let’s be honest, mostly Blake.  

Reflecting on this part of his life is what most makes me wish I could hug him, and it’s also what most makes me want to scream. Because if all you know about depression is the manageable atypical kind or the weatherable situational kind, then it just makes no goddamn sense that someone who loved their kids that fully, that openly, could do something like this to them. 

It might seem ill-mannered to say it so plainly, to them, but how can we achieve anything remotely close to understanding or learn how we might help others dealing with the same trauma without staring straight at the reality of it all? Without accepting that others in our lives, people who also seem to have so much tenderness to give, might be suffering in the same fashion? 

His kids—those beautiful, beloved little creatures with everything in front of them, every milestone—are now going to journey through life without him. What type of pain could lead a man to accept that? 

In On Suicide, Enlightenment philosopher David Hume wrote that “no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping.” 

I fucking hate that sentence so much that I want to spit it out. It offends my every sensibility. It is an affront to Blake and to every person who had so much worth keeping. And it is an affront to the only things I am certain are true about the world: that life is precious and the future is unknowable. 

But in the course of Hume’s rhetorical assault on a belief in life’s fundamental sanctity, he shows a subtler understanding of the suicidal mindset, one that I revisited as I tried to comprehend how Blake and others with such promise can be driven to such an act: 

“Anyone who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to [suicide], was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortune.” (Emphasis mine.)

“Equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortune” is a notion that pulls suicidal depression down from that unknowable, incomprehensible plane and puts it back into our continuum. While it may still be different in kind or cause from more familiar kinds of depression, it gives rise to a mindset that is not actually all that different from that of a person whose depression was thrust upon them by tragedy, because as far as the afflicted is concerned, they are experiencing tragedy. Put another way, suicidal depression tricks the mind into thinking that the type of pain caused by their death already exists in life. Or as David Foster Wallace wrote of people who leapt to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center towers: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”

That’s the kind of torment you wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all someone with a heart like Blake’s. It’s devastating to think he and so many others are experiencing something like that away from the rest of our field of vision. He will be sorely missed.


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