NON-FICTION: The Head Dead
Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous & the Notorious
(HARPER COLLINS, 2009)
Did you know that Hunter Thompson was talking to his wife on the phone when he blew his brains across the room? That you’re much more likely to kill yourself on a Monday than a Saturday? That before he intentionally overdosed on morphine, Sigmund Freud’s cancer-infested mouth emanated a gangrenous odor so foul even his dog wouldn’t go near him? Thanks to author Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals), these, as well as hundreds of other captivating nuggets of suicide-related minutiae are available to satisfy even the most morbid curiosity. Her latest effort, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous & the Notorious, is a darkly fascinating and painstakingly researched exploration of the lives and deaths of some of the most important and tortured minds in recent history.
The book centers on the biographical profiles of 20 famous artists, actors, musicians, and other society-shapers, from Elliott Smith to Adolf Hitler, all united by their successful bids to end their lives. In order to paint the clearest (and often highly disturbing) portraits, Strauss examined hundreds of suicide notes, police files, medical reports, photographs, and personal items. Knowing the facts surrounding the deaths of the “tortured brilliant,” she writes, helps us to understand their pain while feeling closer to them. And she’s right. These in-depth glances into the intensely private moments of some of our most public and in some cases legendary personas as they wrestle and finally succumb to a fatal decision that will come to define them creates a haunting intimacy, a touching gateway into their sadness and insanity.
Strauss’s brisk and occasionally glib ride on a runaway train of self-destruction doesn’t stop with the profiles. To satiate the true suicide junkies among us, herself included, she thoughtfully includes a large collection of short appendices, with subjects ranging from “Ten Most Notable Suicides of Sports Figures” to “Ten of the Most Bizarre and Gruesome Suicides” to a mammoth and surprising list of celebrities who tried to kill themselves but were unsuccessful. (Did you know that Walt Disney overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol and had to have his stomach pumped?)
The endless factoids and the connections Strauss finds between the 20 profiles and hundreds of other notable suicides—visual artists have a much greater proclivity towards cutting and stabbing than musicians or writers; men are much more likely to shoot themselves than women (none of the women profiled here opted for a bullet)—also underscore the universality of suffering, that the nightmare extends far beyond the gilded egos of the (in)famous few.
Although the book drifts so far into a sea of near-unbearable loneliness and despair, its pages manage to remain surprisingly uplifting. Reading (and inevitably re-reading) each successive tragedy only serves as a constant reminder that life is worth living, that no amount of sadness can equal the void felt by those loved ones left behind. Strauss continually makes the point that most of the luminaries—with the exception of Hitler, of course—were loved, and loved greatly. They weren’t able to see beyond the demons they’d so convincingly created for themselves. In its entirety, Death Becomes Them is a mysteriously entertaining and powerfully engrossing read, a pop-culture memoriam for the terminally gifted. The book is perhaps at its most touching when Strauss flips the mirror and reflects our own ravenous celebrity obsession back at us, bravely asking why we are so intently focused on the famous, then trying to find an answer. “We want to be wanted and loved,” she writes. “When someone has gotten that validation, and still commits suicide, we are puzzled. We want to know more.”
Christopher Vola is a contributing writer for the Rail.