My big brother at my wedding.
Today is the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide. He planned it well: On the coffee table were copies of his will, life insurance policy, and house keys. He changed the greeting on his cell phone (“by the time you hear this message I’ll be dead”), put a plastic bag over his head, lay down on his bed, and died.
His death gutted me, just as his prior threats of suicide had in the years leading up to it.
He was a complicated figure. His best self was fantastic — alive and brilliant, curious, adventuresome, generous, thoughtful. People wanted to be around him and themselves became more alive and aware when they were with him.
I remember Jimmy as so intelligent, fun, sweet, and kind, basically the coolest cousin you could have wished for. He was such a great friend to us in the years we lived in Bedford. I will always cherish those times and will remember him forever.
Such is the seductiveness of narcissistic personality disorder. Despite the joy and wonder with which he engaged the world, he cared about other people — parents, friends, siblings, children, partners — only as if they were participants in his eponymous movie. We were cast in roles that he created, and if we deviated from his script, we were wrong. Because he was charismatic and persuasive, we often felt foolish if we didn’t see things as he did. When we ceased to have value to him, we were written out of the story.
To this day, a year after he proved his beyond doubt that he was ill — after meeting his psychiatrist, who diagnosed the disorder — I catch myself wondering if we’re not just exaggerating.
His memorial service helped. I hold on to it as evidence that the complexity isn’t imagined.
On one side of the room sat his colleagues from the university, where he was under-employed an assistant in a biology lab. (He was 47 and had three degrees and more than 10 years’ work history with the EPA.) Evidently Jim showed up in a professor’s office one day out of the blue, and asked to audit a PhD-level seminar. The professor scoffed, handed Jim a textbook, and told him to come back when he had finished it. A few weeks later Jim returned and and they had a long and deep conversation about biology. They became fast friends, and Jim was offered work in the lab. Everyone at the school saw him as special, a bright light, not someone who could have deeply rooted instability.
On the other side of the memorial service, our mom, his ex-wife, teenage sons, sisters, and a few high school friends knew much more complex man. My sister had lived with his life-long ridicule and contempt. I had been accosted by repeated suicide threats (always sent by email), and viciously attacked when I tried to intervene. His ex-wife had begged him to get help six months before he killed himself. I can’t imagine what his kids have been through.
Living with a person like this is slippery. He sees life from such a strange and interesting, point of view, that when he lays out his philosophy (for instance, that humans are just corrosion on the planet), you actually sort of believe him, even when you know it’s ridiculous. He’s so sure that he’s right that you learn to doubt your own judgment.
I met Jim only once. But the impression he left is as if I had spoken to him many many times…I left the meeting laughing heartily and amazed by this talented and pleasant person. I’m sure Jim has touched countless people. I am glad I’m one of them.
I’m glad I’m one of them, too…but then he pulled a bag over his head.
How could I maintain clarity when faced with a super-smart, exceptional-seeming crazy big brother? It’s the most infuriating, frustrating, doubt-inducing situation. Especially when you’re nine and the crazy person is 14 and the most popular boy in school.
(Cue the Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 hit “I’m not crazy…you’re the one who’s crazy…you’re driving me crazy”.)
I should be angry with him for killing himself, but I’m not really. It’s what he wanted. He had been planning it for years: He had his will notarized monthly. He took out a life insurance policy with a multi-year suicide clause and patiently waited until it matured, so that his boys would have resources. It should be just enough to pay for their inevitable decades of therapy.
His choice of timing is not surprising. My father — from whom he was astranged — died just a few months prior, after a 10-year illness. A few weeks later Jim asked his ex-girlfriend to marry him; she declined (“not until you get help”). He bought a ring, became depressed.
She and a friend successfully staged an intervention, had his gun impounded, and got him admitted to a locked ward for 72 hours of observation. She says it was the most calm she had ever seen him. Upon release, he began seeing a psychiatrist. He wanted to go every day, to prove that he was doing as she wished. He was convinced that a perfect love, a new wife, would make his life meaningful. A few weeks after the intervention, he acted on his long-held plan.
His girlfriend thinks he finally accepted his illness and couldn’t face the future as a crazy man (he had already watched schizophrenia take our sister and bipolar disorder take our
Goofing during photos. We both loved dancing.
father). I believe that his inability to connect deeply, to love, ultimately killed him.
The last thing I said to him was “If you ever decide to get help, I’ll do anything I can. But until then, I can’t have a relationship with you.” At the memorial, I came to realize how many of us have said some version of those words to him.
I miss him. I loved him so much. It makes my heart ache. A light went out when he died, and my life feels diminished. But it’s also more stable, less fearful. He caused of a lot of emotional trauma; he inspired so many to look with fresh eyes.
I hope to find in my life that which he never did — love, peace, and a settled acceptance of my self.