Liam Rector, the highly honored poet and founder and director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, which includes its low-residency MFA program, shot himself to death last Wednesday at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 57 (New York Times obit here by Margalit Fox, same woman who wrote Carolyn Goodman's obit).
Several of my friends teach in the Bennington program; others have been Liam's students; still others knew and respected him professionally. I only met him once and not in a situation where we had the chance to talk. He was on an accreditation visit for a prospective writing program; the executive director of the program, a dear friend, asked me to speak with Liam and a few other accreditors about why I thought the program would serve students well. I enjoyed the hour or so that I spent with him--and he made enough of an impression for me to gasp when I opened The Times last week.
Suicide is destabilizing to survivors in ways that no other type of death is. In my efforts to understand why people I have loved have ended their own lives, including my cousin, Gretchen Older, my aunt, Isabel Shoket Grossner, and our friend, Frank Aller, among others, I have written about suicide over the years. Here, I offer this 700-word excerpt about a suicide that takes place in my novel, The Persuasion.
The main characters, Mariana and Tonin, are living in San Francisco in the late 1960s, with Ernest, who was seeking conscientious objector status during the military draft for the Vietnam War.
...But there was another quality to Ernest that sat in the passenger seat, sometimes taking over as driver, a sadness, a melancholy I’d never lived with before. I remember coming into the apartment one day, burbling because the new issue of the paper had just come out with a detailed report on the Chicago Seven trial then much in the news, and the San Francisco Chronicle had referenced our exhaustive coverage in that day’s editorial. Ernest was sitting in the kitchen, a cup of tea and a piece of toast untouched on the Formica table, his hands in his lap, his head down. His body shivered when I walked into the room, but he didn’t say anything, continued to look down.
“Ern, what’s wrong?” I said.
He shrugged, at least I thought I saw him shrug before he got up from the table and went into his corner in the parlor. I followed him and found him lying on his bed, face down.
“Ern, what’s wrong, sweetie?” I sat on the edge of the bed and put my hand on his back.
“Sorry, Mari,” he said, calling me by the nickname that he alone used, and speaking in such a soft voice that I had to lean in. “Sorry. Can’t talk. Will be better later. Don’t worry.”
But I was worried and when I told Tonin about the state I’d found Ernest in later that night, he told me that he’d observed him in a similar mood the week before. Today, we would have known that Ernest was depressed, that he needed treatment, perhaps medication, that hiding in one’s room face down and refusing to talk to one’s closest friends was not normal, that such behavior required attention, that friends shouldn’t ever go away when sent. But we didn’t know any of this then, had no frame of reference for what to do, and our lack of wisdom would prove to haunt us for the rest of our lives.
Time passes and Mariana and Tonin leave San Francisco to live on a farm in Northern California.
It was a day like any other, up early to weed and pick, breakfast at nine, back to the fields, lunch at one, a drive into town for supplies, dinner at seven, and while we were cleaning up, the phone rang.
Red Bird, screaming words I couldn’t make sense of. I heard “Ernest” and “draft board” and “rifle.”
“Birdie, calm down, slower, honey, calm down.” It took several sobs before she could explain that she’d just gotten a call from Ernest’s mother. After years of haggling with Selective Service, Ernest had learned that they finally denied his conscientious-objector status. He’d received notice that morning to report the following week for active duty in Vietnam. He’d shot himself in the head at noon with his father’s hunting rifle.
When I look back today on those hours and days after Ernest’s death, I wonder that Tonin and I didn’t split right then, that he didn’t take his life, too. We wept, walked in the woods, wrote long letters to Ernest. We screamed at each other and at ourselves, hurling horrid insults that only the torment of sudden needless death begets.
“You never do anything for anyone,” I bellowed at my generous husband, who emitted the sound of a wounded animal in return.
“Ungrateful bitch,” he lobbed back at me, his agony seering my gaping wound.
We accused each other of not paying enough attention to Ernest after moving up north, of not doing anything after noticing that he was unstable, and when enough strikes had been met with counterstrikes, we wept together, Tonin berating himself for not using his money to hire Ernest an even better lawyer, me for not forcing him.
Most disabling was the guilt we shared with our peers: We hadn’t ended the war or reformed the system that caused brilliant, sweet, young frail men like Ernest to put bullets through their beautiful brains.
We did nothing on the farm and everyone respected our withdrawal. If I needed to account for how long it took us to resurface as functioning people, I couldn’t. Ernest’s death buried many details, including eventually our talking about it. Perhaps it was a month, maybe two, but one day Tonin said, “If we don’t get out of here, you’re never getting a decent byline and I’m never building anything.”