Happiness Won’t Save You
November 24, 2020
The following article appeared in the NYT yesterday under the title above. It is a difficult read - about depression and suicide. I debated sharing it, but I decided to for a couple of reasons. First, almost 5 percent of adults in 2017 experienced a major depressive episode and that number is growing. Second, I know people who have committed suicide and it breaks my heart that they decided life wasn’t worth living anymore.
Let’s put the occurrence of depression in perspective. A rule of thumb is that we each know 150 people. Applying the 5 percent to that means that in a given year we on average know 8 people who are depressed enough to affect their quality of life. I find that number alarming.
I have battled depression for a long time. It has taken quite a toll, in large part because I would not admit I needed help. Even when I got help, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I manage it better now. I finally got great help. I’m convinced depression is part chemical and part attitude/cognitive. Now you may understand better why I’m interested in the topics I am. 🤪
I’m not looking for sympathy. I’ve come to believe that part of the reason I’m still around is to bring awareness to this growing issue and to help those who are depressed to shortcut the journey I have been through.
Happiness is a faux goal. What we need is meaning, purpose, flow, gratitude. to understand that much of what society tells us we should achieve is meaningless for our well being. We need some basic emotional skills like resilience, knowing we are good enough, avoiding the shoulas. Most importantly, we need each other And to relate to each other with positivity and acceptance. [I‘m not going to capture all the great stuff I’ve learned in this one paragraph, but these ideas are a good start.]
Here’s the Times’ article.
More than 40 years ago, three psychologists published a study with the eccentric, mildly seductive title, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” Even if you don’t think you know what it says, there’s a decent chance you do. It has seeped into TED talks, life-hack segments on morning shows, even the occasional whiff of movie dialogue. The paper is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of happiness studies, a staple in any curriculum that looks at the psychology of human flourishing.
The study is straightforward. As the title suggests, the authors surveyed lottery winners and accident victims, plus a control group, hoping to compare their levels of happiness. But what the authors found violated common intuition. The victims, while less happy than the controls, still rated themselves above average in happiness, even though their accidents had recently rendered them all either paraplegic or quadriplegic. And the lottery winners were no happier than the controls, at least in any statistically meaningful sense. If anything, the warp and weft of their everyday lives was a little more threadbare. Talking to friends, hearing jokes, having breakfast — all of these simple pleasures now left them less satisfied than before.
There were flaws in the study — its design, alas, was as crude as an ax — but you can see why it became famous. It had an irresistible takeaway: Money! It doesn’t buy you happiness! Perhaps even more fundamentally, it had a sexy, almost absurd, premise. What kind of mind would think to pair lottery winners and accident victims in a research paper? Who in academic psychology had such a cockeyed imagination? It was social science by way of Samuel Beckett.
The answer to that question is a fellow by the name of Philip Brickman, a 34-year-old rising star at Northwestern University. He was warm, irrepressible, spellbinding to talk to; his mind was a chirping hatchery of ideas. Unlike so many of his peers, his preoccupations had little to do with cognitive processes. Rather, they had to do with matters of the heart: how we cope with adversity; how we care for others; how we form commitments, subdue inner conflicts, wrench meaning and happiness from this brief life.
“He wanted the world to be a more humane place,” his closest friend, Jeffery Paige, told me.
So for Brickman to come up with a study like this one made perfect sense. It was idiosyncratic, humanistic and, above all, relevant: Does money fulfill us? Does irremediable damage to the body cause irremediable damage to the spirit? Can we simply adapt to anything?
Not long after publishing that study, Brickman left Northwestern for the University of Michigan, where he’d become the director of the oldest and most storied arm of the Institute for Social Research. It was a prestige gig, an honor often reserved for academics at the pinnacle of their careers. Paige, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Michigan, told me he thought Brickman was destined for the National Academy of Sciences one day.
We’ll never know. On May 13, 1982, at the age of 38, Philip Brickman made his way onto the roof of Tower Plaza, the tallest building in Ann Arbor, and jumped. It was a 26-story fall. The man who’d done one of psychology’s foundational studies about happiness couldn’t make his own pain go away.
According to those who knew him, Brickman was not a man who struggled with ongoing, intractable suicidal impulses. Depression and feelings of deep inadequacy, yes. But suicide? Not that they knew of, not until the final weeks of his life.
“To imagine what could have driven him to do that — I almost had to imagine a different person,” Vita Carulli Rabinowitz, one of his former graduate students, told me. “So it made me wonder: Was there an underlying disorder that we just didn’t see?”
Most suicides are cruel mysteries, the suffering of the deceased “private and inexpressible,” as Kay Redfield Jamison put it in her 1999 masterpiece, “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.” But Brickman wrote over 50 book chapters and academic papers in his short life, plus a book, published posthumously. So if Brickman was suffering from an underlying disorder, as Rabinowitz suggests, there was also an awful lot that was hiding in plain view. It is tempting, in hindsight, to wonder if his scholarship wasn’t a trail of bread crumbs — one long, unconscious attempt to unknot the riddle of his vexed self.
It seems safe to say that much of it was. But it also seems safe to say that his scholarship wasn’t enough.
Was there something he missed? If so, would it have made a difference if his insights had been complete? There will always be a gulf — bridgeable for most, but unbridgeable for a tragic few — between understanding what ails us and having the means or desire to bring those difficult feelings to heel.
It may even be worth asking whether understanding is quite beside the point — more of a requirement for the living than for the dead.
What are we to learn from this man?
As a professor, Brickman was an affecting combination of exuberant and awkward, exacting and underconfident. He was an awful lecturer. But he was an intoxicating conversationalist, the type who’d burst into your office whenever a new thought occurred to him, eager to discuss it, even more eager to collaborate. The first time he met Camille Wortman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, his opening conversational gambit was to ask whether she thought serial killers deserved compassion. He had just picked her up from the airport for a job interview.
“For me,” she told me, “it was intellectual love at first sight.” During their talks, she’d often have to stifle the urge to run back to her office and jot down notes.
Yet Brickman was bedeviled by insecurities, both physical and intellectual. He was homely, his face perforated with acne scars, his lip crowned with an extravagant walrus mustache. He was affectionate but quick to take offense, supportive but high-maintenance — tender in every sense.
“If he got a negative review on a publication he submitted,” said Wortman, “he would go insane. Nobody likes to get a bad review, but it had a profoundly negative effect on Phil. He would rant for days.”
“You really didn’t want to have a meeting with Phil on your calendar,” said Rabinowitz, the recently retired executive vice chancellor and provost of CUNY. He was needy. It was odd. He was cherished, even if he taxed your patience. And so obviously brilliant. Yet he didn’t seem to have half the admiration for himself that others had for him. “I don’t think he felt appreciated enough,” she told me. “I don’t think he achieved the recognition that he thought he deserved.”
Whatever he did achieve, he never considered it good enough. He wore his perfectionism like a hair shirt, and he expected it of others. He’d give people grief if they stapled a paper in the wrong place.
The irony is that, better than almost anyone, Brickman understood that the pursuit of stature, material bounty — and ultimately happiness itself — was a fool’s errand. Early in his career, he grasped that the more we achieve, the more we require to sustain our new levels of satisfaction. Our gratification from the new is fleeting; we adapt in spite of ourselves. “Fulfillment’s desolate attic,” as the poet Philip Larkin once put it. You may as well chase your afternoon shadow. Happiness always looms ahead.
In 1971, Brickman and the psychologist Donald T. Campbell went so far as to coin a term for the pointless quest for more, more, more: “The hedonic treadmill.” The term stuck. “There may be no way to permanently increase the total of one’s pleasure,” they concluded, “except by getting off the hedonic treadmill entirely.”
Which is all very well. But what on earth do you live for, if not happiness?
Your commitments, according to Brickman. They were the true road to salvation, he decided, the solution to an otherwise absurd existence. He recognized that they didn’t always give pleasure; they may even “oppose and conflict with freedom or happiness,” as he wrote in his book “Commitment, Conflict, and Caring,” published five years after his death. But in many ways, that was the point: The more we sacrifice for something, the more value we assign to it.
“Happiness, he wrote, “involves the enthusiastic and unambivalent acceptance of activities or relationships that are not the best that might possibly be obtained.”
“What Phil led me to realize is that a lot of psychology operates on this rational notion that, Well, I do the thing that works best for me,” said Dan Coates, a former student of Brickman’s and the second author on the lottery study. “But I think ultimately Phil would have said happiness is not what maintains us. What really maintains us is unhappiness.”
Which is a liberating — even electrifying — idea, particularly if you find happiness elusive, as Brickman did. “I think he was feeling that there was something a little bit wrong with him,” Wortman told me, “because he had achieved so much personal and professional success, yet it wasn’t as satisfying as he had hoped.”
There was only one problem with Brickman’s theory. Commitments, too, can be fragile and transient. Maybe less fragile and transient than the dopamine high of getting a paper published or falling in love. But fragile and transient nonetheless. Relationships end; jobs don’t work out. It’s a very painful discovery to make. The bonds we often think of as ropes are really gossamer threads.
Jeffery Paige used to say that he envied Brickman’s family life. And on the surface, there was certainly a lot to envy: Three adorable girls, a lovely wife, an idyllic farm outside Ann Arbor. But that portrait of domestic serenity was hard won. Brickman didn’t exactly come from a family where commitment came naturally. His father was a tomcat, forever destabilizing the household with his extramarital affairs, his sister, Julie, told me, and Brickman was an anxious, insecure little boy.
“He would try so hard,” said Julie. “He bought a million joke books so he could learn how to tell jokes to be funny, to amuse people.”
But the month he turned 17, Brickman went to Harvard and finally found his own kind, and when he got to graduate school, he met his wife, BB. He was smitten, utterly.
When things went south is hard to say. But they did, as was made clear in a series of letters uncovered by Benjamin Robert Wegner, a therapist who recently completed a dissertation about Brickman. One, from Phil to BB, about her disdain for social psychology: “If you are really hostile and contemptuous toward the field as you sometimes seem, you must either want me to change my line of work or wish you had another life partner for whose work you could have more respect.”
Another, from Brickman to a friend, about how much condescension his wife claimed to feel from him: “Part of my job, to put it in terms that are far too blunt for an insider, was to keep BB from feeling inferior.” He took self-punishing steps to do so, he added, including cutting off friends from whom she detected scorn, even freezing out his sister and minimizing contact with his parents.
BB is no longer alive to address this interpretation of events. She died from Parkinson’s disease in 2017. But her younger brother, Rick Schaeffer, told me he’s pretty certain she would have viewed the decline of her marriage differently.
Had Brickman been a faithful husband? Not entirely. BB told her brother that he’d strayed once while at a conference.
But the woman was a stranger; the lapse, while painful, proved surmountable. Far more challenging, Schaeffer told me, was that Brickman had become impossibly needy toward the end of the marriage, effectively a fourth child. The move to the Michigan farm and the strains of his new, high-profile job had undone him — dissolving his sense of humor, coiling him with anxiety, rendering him more demanding, more intense. He spent most of his time in his study, neglecting the few household duties he had.
“BB was there to solve his problems,” Schaeffer told me. “And to do his laundry.”
For the first time in his life, Brickman seemed to be experiencing an unfamiliar sensation: failure. Just before he died, he applied for a large research grant; he didn’t get it. His new post required lots of administrative and organizational prowess; he didn’t have it. His colleagues were forever giving him an earful. “He got consistent feedback that they were disappointed in him,” Wortman told me.
Sometime over the summer of 1981, said Schaeffer, BB asked Brickman to move out. You can imagine his isolation — and devastation.
“His two biggest commitments were his family and his work,” Coates told me. “And both of those seemed to be crumbling in front of him.”
Brickman spends many pages in “Commitment, Conflict, and Caring” contemplating the pain of a commitment-less life, especially in his final chapter entitled “Commitment and Mental Health.” The chapter was a mess, in chips and shards, when Coates first started to assemble it after Brickman’s death. What struck him most was how much despair he found in Brickman’s scribblings. Both men agreed that losing your commitments was an existential problem, robbing individuals of direction and value. “But he would always write about how painful that was,” Coates told me. “I guess I never experienced that level of pain. He emphasized it.”
In the final text, the pain won. The chapter includes quite a bit about suicide.
Brickman moved into a grim, generic one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor. Its one notable feature was the little notes he’d taped up everywhere — “aphorisms or psychological sayings or things to encourage himself and make himself happy or feel good,” said Julie, his sister. “They were really sad to me.”
The revered professor — whose associative imagination was legend among students, who plumped like a sponge at the very mention of a new idea — was now trying to buck himself up with the hokum of fortune cookies.
Toward the end of April, maybe three weeks before Brickman died, Jeffery Paige got a call from him, saying he was in trouble and needed to talk. They met for dinner at a local restaurant. Brickman was as despondent as Paige had ever seen him. “Everything went down this avenue to: Everybody else is happy and I’m not,” Paige told me. The spring weather was making of mockery of his misery.
Paige was so alarmed that he drove Brickman to the emergency room. But when a woman on staff finally interviewed him, she let him go, declaring he posed no danger to himself. (“She treated me like I was the one who needed a therapist,” Paige recalled.) Paige, far less convinced, extracted a promise from Brickman that he’d see a psychiatrist the next day, and Paige found him one, through a mutual friend.
I asked Paige what he thought happened in that examination room. “I think he talked her out of it,” he said. “For a man who was an expert in helping, he really resisted getting help.”
But that’s not exactly true. Brickman was seeking help toward the end of his life. At the point that Paige found him a psychiatrist, Brickman was already seeing a therapist, one of the best in Ann Arbor. And shortly after he had dinner with Paige, he walked into Camille Wortman’s office and told her point-blank that he was thinking of killing himself.
To this day, she regrets her response, not because of anything she did — she hugged him, let him know how much he was loved — but because of what she didn’t do. “When someone tells you they’re thinking of committing suicide, you’re supposed to ask if they have a plan,” she explained. “And if they have a plan, you’re supposed to ask if they have the means to carry it out.”
At the time, she had no idea. As strange as it sounds, it was exceptionally rare in 1982 for psychology professors to receive training in suicide prevention. More than 20 years later, in 2003, a survey still showed that only 50 percent of psychology interns reported receiving training in managing the suicidal — and those were clinicians-in-training, not social psychologists.
The fact was, Brickman was unraveling in front of almost no one but psychologists. And none knew what to do.
Yet many of them had thought deeply about the complicated challenges associated with helping people, and so had Brickman himself. The month before he died, he published a paper called “Models of Helping and Coping.”
It is painful to read today. The paper makes an earnest attempt to break down all of our helping and help-seeking behaviors into four categories: Those who think they’re responsible for both their problems and their problems’ solutions; those who think they’re responsible for neither; those who think they’re responsible for the solution to a problem but not the problem itself; and those who think they’re responsible for the problem but not the solution.
It’s this last category that turns your blood to ice. It basically describes people who think they’ve made a mess of everything but are inherently powerless to fix it, and therefore must permanently surrender their fate to a higher power. Alcoholics Anonymous, as the paper says, would be the healthiest scenario. But Jim Jones, as the paper also notes, would be the worst. He led more than 900 people to their suicides at his cult compound in 1978.
“I’ve always thought of that model as the most hellacious,” said Vita Carulli Rabinowitz, the second author on the study. “And I’ve wondered in retrospect if it’s the one Phil applied to himself. I don’t think he felt he was in control.” But he did feel responsible for his problems. He blamed himself for the dissolution of his marriage, and no one could persuade him to see it any other way.
Brickman didn’t surrender himself to a cult, obviously. He first spent 10 days at Mercywood, a psychiatric facility in Ann Arbor. But he signed himself out on May 13. It’s unclear who picked him up — maybe his parents, who were in town, knowing their son was in distress — or what he did next. Though his sister, Julie, told me that he had a couple’s therapy appointment that day.
But whatever else happened, he eventually got to the roof of Tower Plaza. It is 267 feet tall, 22 feet higher than the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Julie Brickman said that her father saw his son’s body in the street.
Rabinowitz was sitting on the floor of her study, working, when a fellow graduate student phoned with the news. She was still flush with pride over the positive reception “Models of Helping and Coping” had gotten. It was based on her dissertation. She and Brickman were preparing to do a follow-up.
She never revisited the material again. “He couldn’t cope,” she told me, “and we couldn’t help.”
A note, for a moment, on suicide by jumping: Almost everyone I spoke to made a point of lingering on this gruesome part of Brickman’s story. It’s such an operatic gesture, a metaphor made literal, an actual flight from the devil’s choir of your own suffering. But it’s also such a ghastly method — so graphic, so violent, so public.
“It was clearly F-you to everybody,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, who worked with Brickman both as an undergraduate and a graduate student at Northwestern, now a professor of psychological science at University of California Irvine. “He chose to die in a place that everybody would see on a daily basis.” Tower Plaza is catty-corner to the Institute for Social Research, probably visible from half its windows. “It was a way to say to people, You let me down, and here I’m going to make you pay.”
Julie Brickman thought it was a hostile message to her brother’s wife. Jeffery Paige thought it was a hostile message to his shrink, who he’s pretty sure had an office in Tower Plaza.
I, too, got sucked into thinking about the meaning of jumping to your own conclusion, in every possible sense. In his work, Brickman was captivated by something called “opponent-process theory,” which noted that much of human experience was marked by a positive feeling followed by a negative one or vice versa — a drug addict experiencing a high followed by a low, a crime victim experiencing terror followed by relief. Almost nothing would seem to capture this paradoxical phenomenon like jumping from a height of 267 feet. It’s 4.07 seconds of screaming sensation followed by pitch-black extinction.
But then Julie told me a crucial detail: This was Philip’s third attempt at suicide. Shortly before, he’d tried to get enough drugs for an overdose, but failed; he’d also tried to jump from his parents’ car into traffic.
I asked Coates, who in our discussions often took a wry, existentialist view of life, what he made of Brickman’s jump from Tower Plaza. Everyone, including myself, was assigning so much psychological power and symbolism to it. But was there, really?
He only thought for about it for a brief moment. No. “I don’t think he was doing it for the drama,” he said. “He was doing it for the efficacy.”
Many people get divorced. Many people find their work disappointing. Very few of them attempt suicide.
Predicting who will die by suicide with any precision has long eluded mental health professionals. There are no refined algorithms for it. Matthew K. Nock, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the country’s foremost scholar on suicide, did a famous study in 2010 showing that clinicians in a large city psychiatric E.R. were no better than a coin toss at predicting who, after leaving their care, would attempt suicide.
We do know which factors seem to make suicide more likely. Brickman checked almost every box. Male. Living alone. Recently separated. Two previous suicide attempts. And the period during which one is at greatest risk for dying by suicide is just after leaving a psychiatric institution.
But the most common feature among people who die by suicide is symptoms of mental illness. Nock says they’re present in 95 percent of all suicides, at least in the days or weeks before the event. And in Brickman’s case, they were present for far longer than that.
Depression chased Brickman his whole life. Julie noticed it in him even as a little boy, which made him difficult to envy, in spite of his academic accomplishments. In Brickman’s archives, Wegner found a letter Brickman wrote to his father in 1965, and it contained this stunning paragraph:
I see no reason for not saying that I am as happy now as I ever will be. And still I can wake up in the morning and be depressed. Very depressed. For reasons that sometimes make sense, and sometimes don’t. About the war in Vietnam. About my work, or about BB. Or even about being depressed itself. BB feels she knows this and can learn to live with it. She is quite capable of getting depressed too. I don’t know whether I can learn to live with it, but I do know that I’ll never be without it.
It’s hard not to read that last line in the context of Brickman’s scholarly obsessions. He was preoccupied by how readily we adapt to life events — how we tend to return to some kind of baseline after fortune strikes, good or ill. A “hedonic set point,” as psychologists like to call it. And if that’s the case, it seems possible that Brickman could have wondered, in his darkest moments, if he was condemned to a lifetime of sadness.
He could win the lottery.
He could lose the use of his arms and legs.
But he’d always return to the same place.
I don’t know whether I can learn to live with it, but I do know that I can never be without it.
Was that what the lottery study was really about?
Yet Brickman was not always suicidally low. He worked, loved, formed friendships and a family. He had the energy to publish prodigiously and mentor generously and chatter joyously, for days, about ideas that tickled him.
What pitched him into a gloom so thick he couldn’t see his way out?
We can try to speculate about what took Brickman to the ledge of Tower Plaza. But we can’t ever know for sure. The living are reduced to police sketch artists, working off scraps, wisps, dusky recollections. They’ll never really know what the beast looked like to the dead.
In his book “The Savage God,” the critic A. Alvarez writes about the insufficiency of explanations for suicide. At best, he wrote,
they soothe the tidy-minded and encourage the sociologists in their endless search for convincing categories and theories. They are like a trivial border incident which triggers off a major war. The real motives which impel a man to take his own life are elsewhere; they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.
Brickman’s work may have had much to say about the futility of pursuing happiness. But that wasn’t Brickman’s problem, ultimately. Those who kill themselves don’t do so because they find happiness elusive, or even if they’re outrageously unhappy. They do it to liberate themselves from unendurable pain. That’s what Brickman was experiencing. Pain without cease. “Suicide,” wrote Jamison, “is the last and best of bad possibilities.”
A colleague who knew I was working on this story asked me whether there was any suicide in my own family. Yes, I told him, there is, though I’d been lucky enough to escape the curse myself: I am not one of the 4.8 percent of American adults who’ve contemplated thoughts of self-slaughter. But two of my eight great-grandparents died by suicide, I said, one on each side of the family.
One left a note saying he had cancer and gassed himself. So there was some ambiguity there, some controversy. Maybe it wasn’t crushing depression.
And the other …?
The other, I said. The other, the other …
She had jumped off the roof of a building in Brooklyn.
Never once, at least consciously, had I thought about this while reaching out to Brickman’s friends and colleagues and relations. It was my other great-grandparent who had consumed all the family-suicide mindshare. My mother and I had more than once discussed whether it was truly cancer, or whether it was depression masquerading behind an explanation my great-grandfather considered less shameful.
But my other great-grandparent: There was no ambiguity there. She jumped. It is virtually the only thing I’ve ever known about her.
We all find ways to study ourselves.
This month, a trio of economists published a paper that added both more nuance and more sizzle to the lottery study, showing that winners in a variety of Swedish lotteries did indeed rate their overall life satisfaction higher, even a decade later, than did a control group. Not their day-to-day happiness, the authors noted — that didn’t seem to show a statistically significant change. But it affected the overall evaluation of their lives.
Maybe the playwright Richard Greenberg was right. Money doesn’t buy you happiness. But it does upgrade despair.
The study was a welcome addition to the growing body of literature about the relationship between money and well-being. Brickman’s paper had a comically small sample size, and its controls were lifted from a neighborhood phone book. Today, such a design would be laughed out of peer review.
But there’s one part of Brickman’s study — much less known, much less discussed — that I return to, stubbornly, in my head, whenever I think about him. It is this: All three groups were asked how they thought they’d feel in a couple of years. The accident victims. The lottery winners. The controls. And of those three groups, it was the accident victims who envisioned the happiest tomorrow. They carried the most optimism in their hearts.
Yet Brickman somehow couldn’t do that. At the end of his life, the most pertinent lesson from his most famous study was something he could only know, not feel. I asked Coates about this. He said it was consistent with an idea he and Brickman had discussed at length. It even appears in Brickman’s book.
“When depression is actually functional,” he explained, “that pain helps, because it lowers your baseline, so that you’re willing to accept alternatives you wouldn’t have accepted before. And then you can start to build new relationships and new purposes and new meanings.” To remarry, for instance. Or find a new job. “So that’s the part that puzzles me,” said Coates. “Why didn’t Phil realize that eventually you get through this pain?”
That is, perhaps, the most relevant question for those who die by suicide. Why do they believe they’re trapped in a permanent present of their own suffering?
If Matthew Nock or anyone else could answer it, suicide wouldn’t be the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. But as it stands, the conviction that pain is irremediable remains one of the hallmarks of the suicidal. Nock cited a classic paper in psychology called “Pain Demands Attention,” which is pretty straightforward: People who are in extreme pain are focused on the present, because their pain is so distracting they can think of little else. They have a much harder time remembering the past, when that awful pain did not exist.
“And in order to think about the future,” Nock pointed out to me, “you have to flexibly recombine memories from the past.”
So what do you do, as a clinician or loved one, when faced with such suffering? How do you see them through?
You help them generate thoughts about the future in concrete, specific detail.
You point out, using specific numbers, how many years they lived without thoughts of suicide, versus the number of years they have had such thoughts.
You help them find therapy, ideally cognitive behavioral therapy, and drag them to sessions if you have to.
You take away their ability to kill themselves.
You try to keep them safe.
But these efforts may not work. Suicidal people can be determined, and they know how to dissemble, how to feign stability. But you try. Most are relieved when they fail. And approximately half of them, according to the most up-to-date research, will not be feeling suicidal at the same time the following year — or ever again.
You are 6, 10, and 13 years old. It is nighttime. A police car pulls into your driveway, and an officer pops out, rings the doorbell, and asks for your mother. But she is not home; she is at a P.T.A. meeting. You all go to bed. Eventually, she returns, is told the news. The next morning, she tells you that your father is dead. He has jumped off a building.
The Brickman daughters were raised by one of the most psychologically oriented men of his generation. Yet after he died, BB never spoke of their father again. His name was not mentioned. His death was not discussed. The girls never visited his grave. “She was the only parent left,” Sarah, the middle daughter, told me. “And she wasn’t a guide to helping us know or love the father who’d just left us. At all.”
They buried whatever questions and feelings they had beneath a separate headstone.
The oldest, Rachel, now has Parkinson’s and lives with her youngest sister, Katharine. Speech for her is painful, effortful, but the one thing she communicates is that her mother went to great lengths to put the episode behind her. When BB became a nurse many years later, she told colleagues her husband died of cancer.
Katharine was probably closest to her father. She sensed his depression even as a little girl — he had that penumbra of sorrow about him — and she tried, in her own way, to help, deliberately allowing him to win at cards. For 21 years, she wandered the world with a misunderstanding common to children who witness their parents’ distress: that her father’s suicide was her fault, that she should have been able to save him. Then, at 27, she finally realized: “He wanted to leave, and it was his right to leave. It wasn’t about me.”
But it was Sarah, Brickman’s middle child, who possibly paid the steepest price. In adulthood, she told me, she keeps finding men who need saving, who are broken somehow. Though she remembers little about her father, what memories she does have are grim, painful: Of her dad begging her to ask her mother whether she still loved him, for instance, because he still loved her — would she tell her mom that?
Or: Of sitting in his office at the Institute for Social Research, probably on the sixth floor, and asking what would happen if she fell out the window. The place had such big windows! She doesn’t remember his response. She just knows that shortly thereafter, he went to the top of the tallest building in the city and jumped.
I asked if this meant she’d spent the last 38 years secretly believing she’d seeded a family tragedy. She first told me no, not really; she knew her father had tried suicide before. “But if I did, what a jerk,” she blurted. “Did he think that wouldn’t negatively affect me for the rest of my life?” She cried as she said this. It was the first time, she explained, that she’d said this thought out loud.
But she is mainly protective of her father, more angry with her mother for not allowing the children to properly grieve. About 10 years ago, she finally started to investigate who Philip Brickman was, hunting down former colleagues. She was stunned to discover how affected they were by his death.
“I never knew that he was such a superstar,” she told me, her voice breaking again. “I was raised to think he was a nobody.”
If those who die by suicide finally escape the tyranny of the awful present, they pass along that tyranny to the survivors they leave behind. The living spend years, decades, sometimes a lifetime imagining the final moments of the dead, guessing at their motives, berating themselves for the things they could have done. “Irresolvable guilt,” is what Jamison calls it.
Children may have one version. Adults have another. Julie Brickman, a warm and perceptive woman (once a therapist herself, now a novelist), told me it took her a decade to stop imagining what her brother’s ascent to the roof of Tower Plaza looked like. “I still want to see how you get up there,” she said.
I asked how she coped with the plague of counterfactuals that beset most survivors: What if I’d done X, what if I’d done Y? She told me the most useful thing she’d learned after years of therapy, an elegant and simple epiphany: You have to take the suicide out of the question.
“You have to ask yourself: If life had just progressed” — meaning if your loved one hadn’t committed suicide — “did you do anything terrible? And the answer, 95 percent of the time, is No. I didn’t.”
She didn’t. When Julie last saw her brother, she treated him with love and support and kindness.
Brickman’s death reverberated in different ways with different colleagues and students. But none was left unchanged by it. Rabinowitz abandoned her work on helping and coping. Coates left academia all together and went to work in public school administration in St. Louis and its suburbs. “What hit me was, Gosh, if this career ended up killing him and he was so much better at it than I am, what’s it going to do to me?” Off the treadmill he hopped.
Wortman, on the other hand, leaned into her distress, learning everything she could about suicide prevention — she taught a class on it each year, dedicating it to Brickman — and focused her research exclusively on how survivors cope with the sudden loss of a family member or friend. Silver, who had already homed in on this same subject, had the unlucky-but-instructional opportunity to test her hypotheses about adversity firsthand. The death of Phil Brickman was her first true tragic event.
She was 26 years old.
“It helped me solidify my view,” she told me, “that coming to terms with a loss does not necessarily mean that one must make sense of that loss.”
But that doesn’t mean forgetting. “Every time Camille and I talked, all we talked about was Phil — for years,” she said. “I was immersed in thoughts about him: Why he did it and how he did it and did he regret it once he started to jump?”
There was a reason she thought about those questions. “They were the kinds of things that Phil and I would talk about.”
It was the quintessential Philip Brickman conversation. A man lingers on the rooftop of a high-rise, despairing. He makes his way toward the edge. And after some time — seconds? minutes? hours? no one knows — he decides to jump. The ultimate commitment. Or is it really a rejection of all commitments? Whatever it is, does it feel right? Does it help? Or does it suddenly reveal, my God, that there was actually another way?
Did he make the right choice?
If only he’d been around to discuss it. It is terrible that Brickman is not here to discuss it. He would have had, you can only imagine, so very much to say.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.