In Memoriam T. R. K.
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel:
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
—Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H.
In February 1982, in the middle of my freshman year, I was invited to a party by the most glamorous sophomore I had ever met (now one of my closest friends), and I was wildly excited about it. It was in that perfect proportion for a social event: a third of the people were people I actually knew; a third were people I had seen around and wished I knew; a third were people I had never seen because they inhabited a stratosphere too exalted to have been visible to me, some of them even juniors and seniors. The party was in a dorm room in Pierson. Spandau Ballet, Pat Benatar, the Human League singing “Don’t You Want Me Baby,” which nowadays feel to me as sweetly nostalgic as “Dixie,” were at that time fresh as the morning dew. People were dressed in clothing that might in 2010 be coming back into fashion for the fifth time, but that was then just coming into fashion for the first time—even though much of it had been cleverly selected at the Salvation Army. In those days, the drinking age was still 18, and so there were drinks, and there were some people doing cocaine in the bathroom, because it was, after all, the 1980s. I would not have been more thrilled and dazzled to have been invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer one year earlier. People were witty and funny, having a truly good time, dancing well, laughing. Some were sitting around in the disco half-light of the room itself, others in the glaring fluorescence of the stairway, and some in little knots in the moon-drenched courtyard. I had hated high school and had always felt marginal there, and now here I was with all these amazing people, and I was having one of the best times of my life. It’s hard to remember the full cast of that party, but I tried it as an exercise recently and realized that I am still good friends with more than 20 of the people who were there, and am Facebook friends with at least another 25. I always say that Yale was the beginning of the self that I have been ever since, that I was someone else in elementary and high school, someone I barely remember, but that at Yale, I started to be me, and that party has always stuck in my mind as the moment when the shift became official.
A theatrical-looking man was holding court in one of the rooms of the suite, someone who had been pointed out to me as the roommate of Jodie Foster’s boyfriend, and he and I got into a long conversation, and if that party felt like the center of the universe to me at the time, he seemed to be at the center of that center; everyone came over to talk to him, and he kissed and hugged with real affection all the spikiest people there; he introduced me to everyone I didn’t already know, taking me under his wing. I was flattered by the attention, and a little bit mystified by it, and I settled in and we talked for much of the evening. When I grudgingly decided I should leave the party at 3 a.m. lest I look too eager, he said to me, “Would you like to be roommates next year?” Startled, I impulsively said yes, then said we should talk about it more, then said yes again, and left. I got back to my room in Bingham Hall with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. The next day, I mentioned, casually, to several people that I was thinking I might have Terry Kirk as my roommate the following year. Some seemed rather awestruck, and some were rather cynical, and some asked if I were really up for all that. I wasn’t sure about anything; I wasn’t even sure if Terry had meant it. I wasn’t sure that I as a freshman could room with a current sophomore the next year. But two days later, I ran into Terry on Cross Campus, and he said, “Well, well, well! Are we going to room together?” And I said yes with the same feeling with which, later on, I would deal with love and adventure and travel and life, that feeling of looking both ways, deciding it was dangerous, and leaping anyway. There was a warmth in Terry, and a twinkle, and an exuberance, and all those qualities made the glamour a little less terrifying than it might otherwise have been.
Many years later, when we talked about that time, Terry said that he didn’t want to room with anyone he might sleep with—which I later realized cancelled out a sizeable chunk of the undergraduate population—and that he liked me more than anyone else he’d been not physically attracted to. I spent some time trying to decide whether this was a compliment, but I think it was true and mutual. I was hideously repressed at the time and mostly unwilling to acknowledge a physical attraction to anyone, but I was not attracted to Terry, even though he was handsome and shiny. I kept sexual and romantic attraction very separate then, and nothing suited me better than a completely unerotic but deeply romantic friendship, and that is what we had. I wanted to be wild and outré, but I was constrained by a deeply ingrained respect for decorum, something that now looks to me like a straightjacket. There was nothing Terry could imagine doing that he wouldn’t actually do, and this terrified and thrilled me. He generally wore a green Austrian loden cape, and a mad hat with a feather in it. He played the leads in musicals and danced just the same way on stage and off—even while waiting in line for brunch in Davenport. He usually had a boyfriend and a girlfriend going, sometimes more than one of each, and he wasn’t sexually exclusive even within those loose confines. He was interested in everything and everyone; I learned from him that categories were idiotic, that there was fun to be had everywhere. He had absolutely no money, but he inexplicably seemed always to have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne to hand. In 1982, Veuve Clicquot was not widely marketed in the United States, so it would have been novel across America, but at Yale it was absurd; the rest of everyone drank Freixenet if they were too pretentious for beer. It’s hard in some ways for me to recall all of what made Terry so riveting, because he taught so much of what was amazing about himself to me, and now that his influence is woven into my personality, I can’t tease it loose again. I don’t remember the person I was before I absorbed his glitter and his belief that life was a quick exercise in pleasure.
Spring break, freshman year, I panicked. I did not want to be gay; I was not going to be gay. If I roomed with Terry Kirk, people would think I was gay. If I roomed with Terry Kirk, there would be wild parties in my own room, and I would never be the faux WASP prepster I had planned to be. I knew that histrionic people were fake, and that real people were restrained and moderate and focused on their grades. I would fail if this went ahead. My parents had asked me about the person I was going to room with, and I had decided that since both Terry and my father were great opera buffs, it would be a good idea to invite Terry to come and see Madame Butterfly with my family. We were to meet at my parents’ apartment and have drinks, then go to dinner at my mother’s favorite restaurant, and then proceed to the Met for the performance. Terry arrived a half hour late, which was not an acceptable opening gambit in my family under the best of circumstances. He showed up, also, in the green cape and the hat, wearing white pants tucked into knee-high boots from Charles Jourdan that had most likely not been intended for men. He cut what might euphemistically have been called a dashing figure. My mother was seething already about the delay, and I watched with a churning stomach as Terry turned on a flow of charm that simply refused to wither under her withering glare. Now that I’m old and wise, I can see that my mother, too, thought that I must be gay if I were going to room with Terry Kirk, and she wasn’t very happy about it, but at the time, I just remember being relieved when what struck me as the comparatively happy and untheatrical story of Cio-Cio San began to unfold on the stage.
I spent the summer thinking it was a mistake, but it was too late by then. We had thrown our lot in, and we had managed to get an enormous suite in Silliman, with a third friend, in keeping with Terry’s policy of living in a different college every year. I spent the first few weeks of that first semester, my sophomore year and his junior year, avoiding him, which was not easy to do given that we were in bunk beds. Terry’s initial strategy was to ignore my chill and rudeness, and my strategy was to spend all my time in JE, where most of my friends were. But finally, Terry sat me down and we talked about it. I don’t remember what I said; I can’t imagine what I could have said, but I remember a certain earnestness in Terry about being friends no matter what. It would be a lie to say that the rest of the year was free of tension. Sometimes, on a Saturday, I wanted to come back to my own bed and go to sleep, and was peeved about the presence of 70 other people at a party for which Terry had rethematized our room into a construction site, complete with orange cones and scaffolding and what appeared to be a large hole where part of the ceiling had once been. Sometimes, I would want to study and not be distracted by the Christmas lights he had installed in the small cove molding that ran around the room. Sometimes, I wanted to have a couple of friends over to prepare for an exam on Tennyson, and I was disoriented by having, in a living room that was over 200 square feet, a dropped ceiling made entirely of various kinds of root vegetables tied to lengths of fishing line that had been taped to the ceiling and then backlit with red gels. Sometimes, the people smashing their champagne flutes in our fireplace seemed like a bit much at 5 a.m. But for all those times, there were also conversations about music, which I loved but which Terry understood much better than I did, and about architecture, which I didn’t really understand but Terry did, and about friendship itself. There was a gradual revelation on my part that I was judgmental about his friends, but that he was always welcoming of mine, and that he could make anyone feel like a celebrity with the quality of his attention, even when the purpose of his attention was to seek their attention for himself. I was surprised that Terry took his academic work so seriously, and I realized that he loved learning just as much as all the people with smudgy eyeglasses whom I thought of as more serious than he was. Curiously enough, it was my mother who commented, after one of her visits to our room, that Terry was a remarkably kind person and had the best manners of any of my friends.
It took me many years to realize how difficult I’d been to live with. I was in denial about much of what was most basic about me, so while I’d been drawn to Terry for his absence of repression, I was also repulsed by it. I remember losing my temper with him when I walked into our room to find him in flagrante with an exotic-looking girl who was his dance partner in some squash-court jazz revue, college squash courts being the makeshift theaters of Yale in the 1980s. His sensuality challenged my respectability, and this made him subject to all my insecurities, of which there was no short supply. It took me another twenty years to assume some measure of his freedom of thought and spirit and life. He was Auntie Mame, feasting at the banquet table, while I chewed on a stale roll. I used to get mad at him, to discount our closeness, yet he had a doggedness; he never gave up on me. By the end of the year, we were permanent friends, and I had learned a little bit about the courage from which his outrageousness stemmed, and I had become a more generous person. We did not room together the following year; I got a single in JE, and Terry transferred to Branford, but we had dinner together, often.
I was always frustrated by one area of impenetrability, which was that Terry never flagged in his enthusiasms. There was beauty in that, but there was also a closedness in it. If something went wrong, he was always immediately thrilled by what he had learned from it. If it rained, he was rapturous about all the indoor things we might never have done had there been sunshine, and if we were arguing, it was always sure to make us closer. I’ve tried for a clearer formulation of this relentless quality; at the time, it seemed like only built-in cheerfulness, but now I know that it was a way of keeping despair always at bay, and reflected not perfect resilience, but a terrified vulnerability, as though he knew that the slightest incursion of darkness would be enough to swallow him whole. It was a pleasant quality in doses, but it precluded certain depths of intimacy. You couldn’t see Terry and not have fun, and sometimes, you wanted him to be bored, or tired, just for a minute. There had to be sadness in him, but you couldn’t reach it except when it came out of him in quick, rare flashes of anger, and it’s hard to be friends with someone who will never be sad with you.
Some of my closest Yale friends are no longer friends, and some of my vague Yale acquaintances have ended up being people to whom I am inseparably tied, but Terry was permanently in the same emotional proximity. We were never out of touch, and we were always glad to see each other; we were never each other’s closest of close. I moved to England and he moved to Italy, and I eventually stumbled my way out of the closet, and he eventually stopped romancing exotic-looking girls and settled on handsome Italian men, and I began chipping away at some of the kinds of denial that had made me treat him badly when we lived together for that year. He would fly up to London to see me, and I would go and stay with him in Rome. With time, I became less inclined toward convention. I didn’t ever get a green cape, but I did loosen up my style very considerably. Terry became slightly more conservative in his look, though he did grow a pencil moustache and always wore his polo shirts with the collar turned up; sometimes, he wore a Yale blue jacket that seemed more reasonable in his adult life than it would have in anyone else’s. I had been focused on academics as a student, but I moved away from them a bit; he got a PhD at Columbia in art history. We did not depend on each other, but there was no one of whom I felt fonder. There was a permanent energy in him that seemed more remarkable the longer it persisted.
In 1989, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I told friends, and they told other friends, and I don’t entirely remember how Terry knew, but I remember a kind letter he wrote to me. In the summer of 1990, my parents went on what was to be their last trip to Europe, and I got a call from my mother. She and my father had been walking through the Borghese Gardens, and she suddenly heard someone calling her name, and turned around, and there was Terry Kirk. He had given them a little tour through the gardens and explained things about the architecture, and my parents had invited him to join them for dinner that night. “You have such nice friends,” my mother said to me. “Look at all the worlds you’ve opened up to me.” I remember being so grateful to Terry, that he could give my mother even a little slice of happiness when she was so close to dying. Ten months later, my first book was being published, and my mother and I had planned a wonderful party in New York for the publication and, though we did not acknowledge it, for her to say goodbye to the world. Before most of my local friends had acknowledged the invitation, Terry had announced that he was going to fly back from Rome for the event. The party was on Wednesday; because he was in from out of town, he came by my parents’ apartment the next weekend for a brief visit. He was the last of my friends to see my mother alive. When he learned that my mother had died, Terry extended his stay in New York and embraced me at the funeral.
In the years that followed, I thought Terry had life figured out. He had a few Italian boyfriends before he settled down with Marcello, whom he loved and whom everyone else loves, too, a charming, intellectually accomplished, kind man, gentle and wise. Terry had a job teaching at the American University of Rome, and he took many of his students for walks through the Eternal City, much as he had taken my parents through the Borghese Gardens, and he was wildly beloved of his students, his classes always oversubscribed, his enthusiasm almost violently contagious. He wrote a book on Italian architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and published it with Princeton Architectural Press. I was floundering for much of this time, not yet married, writing well but usually out of a place of darkness, living ambivalently in New York. I saw Terry a couple of times a year. I couldn’t tell him so much about my depression because I thought he wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. I was often needy, and I had surrounded myself with needy people, who were in some ways more relaxing for me, and Terry seemed not to be needy, and so I had trouble needing him. I didn’t feel that I was crucial to him, only that he was always glad to see me. He commented about my depression book that he hoped next time I would write about something that didn’t cut so close to the bone. The problem with aphoristic habits is that they make it too easy to parse authentic communication as wit. Everyone I knew who was happy had ribbed me about writing a fat tome about depression. Terry, too.
Then I met John, and life was OK for me, too. When John and I decided to get married in England in 2007, Terry announced that he had plans for that particular day and wouldn’t be able to come, and as John and I were trying to winnow down the guest list, I was relieved. I wish I had pressed him about it; I wish I had told him that I desperately wanted to have him there. I didn’t think that he might have produced such plans to preempt the possibility that he wouldn’t be asked; it didn’t occur to me that he would ever imagine not being asked. The next time he came to New York, he brought us a wedding present, a photograph of the construction of the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris Fair, an image that connected in various ways to my own first book. A thoughtful, Terry-like present.
The last time I saw Terry, he was staying at our house on a visit to New York, autumn of 2008. He thought he should look at jobs at American universities because they had tenure systems, and the university where he was teaching in Rome did not. I told him he was crazy. He was writing his books; he lived with Marcello; he was in the most beautiful city in the world, surrounded by the art that was his professional topic. He was visiting New York at that very moment in order to do a guest lecture at NYU to a packed house. Why on earth would he want to be junior faculty in an obscure Midwestern college? Then he said that he felt his book hadn’t had the critical reception he’d hoped for, and I said it was a gorgeous book and very brilliant and that academic publishing takes time. He was worried about the precarious finances of the American University of Rome and thought he might lose his job—but I reminded him that he was the most popular faculty member there, and that Marcello could deal with their economic needs if need be. Terry was restless and discontent, but then, Terry-like, he brushed aside his own anxieties, and when I expressed concern about what was going on with him insisted that everything was really fine. I was at that point rather newly married and a father and distracted by my own life, and I accepted his reassurances. One gets into patterns in very old friendships, and I have some friends who have been fine for thirty years but about whom I still worry, because our initial pattern involved worrying, and my pattern with Terry was that I didn’t have to worry about him, so I didn’t.
A few weeks later, he wrote to me about how he felt he was a bad friend, dwelling particularly on the fact that he should have made the effort to come to our wedding. He wrote, “I think of how I have stayed on the sidelines for so many crucial moments those people I have called my friends have gone through. I have had a rather rattling summer, a deep taking-of-stock of a lot of things, fears, illusions, and the beginning of therapy, at last. Marcello has also been enormously supportive as I readjust this arrogant and frightened thing that is my self. He has taught me what love is, and my eyes are opened to what real friendship is as I see it working around me.” I said that we’d have loved to have him at the wedding, but if he weren’t engaged in real friendship, we wouldn’t have been real friends so very long. Three months later, he wrote, “I’m rather flabbergasted at the huge messy person I have inside me I’ve never been brave enough to take seriously. Marcello has been a rock. And you, your really kind words back in September to me. In this moment of looking back and looking forward as the new year bids, I wanted to express the warmth I feel for you and the gift of friendship you have offered me. I want to learn how to unwrap the gift better.” Depression expert that I had liked to think I was, I didn’t think to be alarmed by any of this. I thought the therapy he’d started sounded like just the right thing for him to be doing, and that that work, supported by reassurances from the many people who loved him, would resolve whatever was causing anxiety.
My father and stepmother and my brother and his family were all going to Rome the next June, 2009, and I suggested that they have dinner with Terry, an idea about which everyone was enthusiastic. In his last e-mail to me, Terry wrote, “We all met up for a relaxing summer dinner outdoors in the piazza of Santa Maria del Popolo. The boys ran enthusiastically into the church while we explored the antipasti of artichoke hearts. Although a brief evening, it was a real charge for me. I must not have been the greatest company, actually, as I felt myself being picked out of a funk that has descended on me in this economically challenging time (to the institution I work for). Marcello has been a real help, with strategic hugs when I need them and a calm stable presence. And I’m not always sure how much of my unease right now is due to the economic uncertainty and how much to do with my poorly timed interior journey. Riding a roller coaster during an earthquake. Ach, I am a bit tired. Off to dance class, when approached right it is usually sustaining for me. Again, thanks for getting me together with your family, and thanks for being there, as you always are, in spirit. Terry.”
Preoccupied with my own life, I wrote to him a month later in a cheery and chatty way. He didn’t write back, but life is busy, and people often don’t write back.
Terry’s journals indicate that he started to think seriously of suicide on July 30, 2009. He wrote that he had no friends; his career was a failure; he was afraid he would be fired; he was completely alone in life. He had had an article he had submitted returned to him for revisions, with queries. This is standard practice at academic journals, and the revisions were all things Terry could readily do. But he apparently experienced it as a profound rejection and was miserable about it. “I had to remind him all the time of his accomplishments,” Marcello later told me. “His books, his articles, his students who loved him, his friends, and so on.” In his last journal entry, Terry wrote, “Nothing attaches me to the world except Marcello. The rest is a total failure.”
On Monday, October 12, Terry came to his therapist in terrible shape, shaking and barely able to speak. He had almost made a suicide attempt that day, and then stopped himself at the last minute because he was afraid of the effect it would have on Marcello. The therapist gave him some kind of tranquilizing medication, and he calmed down, and she asked whether he was sure he was OK, and he said that his mind was now clear. Terry was always a good actor, and with the wisdom of hindsight, one has to wonder about the nature of that clarity. Terry went from her office to a meeting with the architect who was to fix up the apartment he and Marcello had recently bought, and talked to him for two hours about various construction details, with an air of composure. The therapist, meanwhile, did not call Marcello, who was in Berlin on business, because she did not want to violate patient confidentiality.
Depression is a disease of loneliness, and the privacy of a depressed person is not a dignity; it is a prison. Therapists can be perilously naïve about this. Marcello and all of us who loved Terry were locked out by the same privacy that kept him locked in. Privacy is a fashionable value in the twenty-first century, an overrated and often destructive one; it was Terry’s gravest misfortune. The unknowable in him, which I thought was just a kind of static, was actually his heart.
That night, Terry called Marcello to talk about his new book project, and said he was going to collaborate with a colleague. Marcello replied that Terry was really able to do such a book on his own, and that the colleague in question probably would not be much help. Terry was adamant. Then Terry told Marcello, “I love you very much,” and got off the phone. Those were the last words Marcello ever heard him say.
On Wednesday, Terry Rossi Kirk, 48 years old, drove two hours to an unimaginably beautiful spot in the countryside, parked his car, climbed up to 2000 meters, where he would not be seen or found, and slit his wrists.
When he did not show up for therapy on Wednesday, his psychiatrist called the police, and the police went to the apartment and broke in, and they called to tell Marcello about the note they had found, which said, “I can no longer live. I’ve gone to Switzerland. I’m sorry, Marcello.” Because there is assisted suicide in Switzerland, Terry and Marcello had long before agreed that if either one got to be old and senile, the other would “take him to Switzerland.” So Marcello knew at once what this meant. The police asked Marcello if he knew where exactly Terry might be, and Marcello said, “It’s not the real Switzerland.”
Terry had always wanted intimacy and became depressed when he and Marcello were apart, but he also wanted independence and complained that he was over-reliant on a single emotional support. In late 2008, Marcello had said to Terry that he loved him; that he would support him financially and in other ways; that they were buying two beautiful houses (an apartment in Rome and a country place in Umbria) that they could live in well; and that Terry should take advantage of the good time to sort things out. “Ten years ago, I was insecure and unhappy,” Marcello said, “and I couldn’t have been your support then, because I was in those problems myself, but now I can. I am here for whatever you need, and you can resolve these anxieties.” It was Marcello who had encouraged him to try psychotherapy. Terry said, in his upbeat way, that he thought he’d sort everything out in six months, and Marcello said, “You’d be lucky to do it in six years, Terry, because psychoanalysis is a deep and painful process, but I admire you for undertaking it, and I will take care of everything else while you take care of yourself. We have enough strength, we together.”
After Terry died, Marcello said to me, “His lack of self-esteem was like a black hole; nothing could ever fill it up. No one could ever pay enough attention to Terry. He had a consuming need for attention, from his friends and from me and from his field and from the world. He was unsatisfied and frustrated; there was something inside him that didn’t work. I think he could have fixed it, that we could have fixed it, but now we will not have the chance.” Then he said, “Terry was really two people. One of them was the performer, the charming Terry, the cheerful Terry. The other part was this dark Terry, who was almost another person, this Terry with no respect for himself, no love for himself, no self-esteem. This lonely Terry. They were both real, both parts of him. Even the people who knew only the performer knew a real Terry.”
Our friend James wrote to me, “Do you remember how, one early morning, we came upon each other, the three of us, under Harkness Tower at the entrance to the Old Campus? I had had a bad night and there were you and Terry—he in a cape of course—standing there like angels. How lucky to come upon you two at that moment, at that place. Life is rarely so elegant.” Our friend Tizzy wrote, “My first dance party at Yale with the cast of Grease. Terry and I went rogue, a virtual Wang Chung Fred and Ginger. We did flips, we did splits, we climbed tables and walls. We were so outrageous, an entire dining hall full of Yalies broke into applause when Terry dropped me on my head. Terry hates that I tell that story. But I hate that Terry is dead, so we’re even. You haven’t lived ’til you’ve been awakened by that joyous, open face so full of possibilities for the day. This is what I have. When all is said and done, I guess it’s a lot. But it was supposed to be more.” Maggie wrote, “I was in a room, in Branford? in the dark? semi-light? with you? Paul? dancing a lot, to “Thriller,” when Terry came home. He batted not an eyelash, just dropped his coat on a chair and started dancing too. It’s so sad that Terry killed himself. It’s sad that Terry would ever die at all.”
The outpouring of grief that has followed on Terry’s death has been in the large style that Terry so loved. The first response to the news of someone’s self-annihilation is to start doing things, connecting to the people he knew, getting involved in all the reassuringly time-consuming pieces of death. You listen to his favorite music and you read his favorite books; you dig out all his old letters. You write about him; in your head, you write to him. You try to do all the things you didn’t do so much when he was alive, as though first able to act on love when it is over. Your heart begins to widen with all the memories it cannot shake—memories of happiness, these being sad because they are of lost time; and memories of sorrow, which are sad by their very essence. I began a process of rereading e-mails and reliving conversations and recalling experiences, and it was as though I noticed for the first time how much I had loved Terry, how little I’d known it. I don’t know whether it’s worse to imagine that speaking such love might have mitigated his despair, or to imagine that it would not. Nothing is more present than absence. The world with Terry was a world full of other people; the world without Terry is a world from which he alone seems to be missing.
I am back in touch with all our mutual friends, some of them people I hadn’t spoken to in three decades. I keep thinking how much Terry would have loved being the only topic in all our minds, month after month. It remains hard to believe that we aren’t planning some kind of surprise party for him, that after all this emotional outpouring, he isn’t going to sweep in, delighted, wearing that green cape. It would have been his twenty-fifth reunion in spring 2009, and I had hoped he’d fly to the United States for it. It was mine this spring, and the seven-month shadow of his death seemed to fall long across all the events in New Haven; Terry has taken a certain pleasant haze of memory right out of the world with him. All that happiness under the banner of Eli, that becoming of ourselves? It was awfully high concept, as it turns out. Terry has broken hearts over which he did not know he held any dominion. If he had known, would it have saved him? Would this aftermath of his suicide have been enough to prevent it? If we had loved him alive the way we love him dead, might he be alive still? Do his failed hopes mean that the joy he felt was never real? And the joy he gave to other people? Do we need to retract it? Can it live on in the world without him? Was death always written in you, Terry? Should we have been able to see it? Back in those days of the green cape and the Charles Jourdan boots, should we have known that you were as tragic as the operas you relished for their absurd theatricality? Did we keep ourselves blind because we were careless, or because we didn’t want to see you, or because we had only fooled ourselves that the surfaces in which we traded were depths?
While some people get the worst of their anguish over volcanically and early, in others it builds up like a coastal shelf. People kill themselves at any or every stage of life. Terry would have been more likely to commit suicide if he had been elderly and Hungarian and if it had been April, but none of those things was true, and the vast science on the topic is mostly just a compendium of such correlations. The fact that someone is extremely happy does not mean that person is not also extremely sad; extreme happiness is often a window onto sadness if we know enough to look through it. And yet I had continued to believe in a permanent Terry-ness impermeable to damage. I did not realize how Terry had perceived a pressure to be exuberant, an imperative that made him feel he had failed whenever he was blue. From his sense of failure there grew a great darkness out of keeping with his lifelong affect, and in the end, his personal etiquette of jubilation eclipsed his clinical decay, so that even those of us who specialize in the psyche could not see it.
Terry had an illness that was distinct from but contiguous with his personality. He had been brave enough to start treatment, to seek insight, but insight had not redeemed him, as insight often doesn’t. It is heartbreaking to give words to your pain only to find that pain unaffected by articulation. It is a betrayal—the betrayal inherent in art’s and philosophy’s clear descriptions of what they cannot improve. For Terry, art historian and philosopher, that familiar betrayal became a disease state. Psychoanalysis can look to early experience and trauma; social theory can pin things on an emotional style, or on homophobia. Behaviorists can blame the way he processed his experiences, or the stories he told to himself. Neurobiologists could comment on the rate at which serotonin was taken up in his brain. All we can say for sure is that the clues Terry gave of being depressed looked smaller to all of us around him than the depression they marked turned out to be. Why this October? Why in this way? Why, if he had enough Terry-ness left to choose so beautiful a spot, did he not want to live? Life is unimaginable to everyone at 20 and there are no instructions to let you see a way through. But if you can make it to 48, what goes wrong so far along the course of life to make the prospect of being 49 so much worse than the prospect of being 47 was two years ago? What suddenly makes hope seem like a naïve posture, when it had cushioned you for so many decades?
No one who has known someone who killed himself can feel free of the burden of guilt. A suicide is the failure of a thousand chances to help, of everyone’s capacity to save the person who has died. Suicide takes you back to tragedy as a through line that holds experience of every kind in place. Terry’s other friends and I, grieving together, have agreed that we could not have changed his sadness, but I like to think I might have taught him the pleasure of sadness, something his ruthless merriment kept him from learning. We all might have explained that it is possible to be overcome with sorrow and still find meaning in that sorrow, reason enough to stay alive. The strange thing is that Terry is one of the people who taught that to me; our friendship was a long lesson in resilience. In my times of darkness, he was part of the scaffolding that held me in the world. Terry, who cheered my mother up before she died, has now died himself for lack of cheer. Isn’t there some mathematics to fix that damaged equation?
I wanted to ask Marcello whether they had been happy days for Terry, the ones I kept remembering from that time when we lived together in Silliman, whether Terry had remembered them fondly, too. I knew I had failed to understand who he became, but I wondered if I had been right in understanding who he was, at least. But I felt I could not weigh Marcello down with my trivial wish for reassurance, and I kept my anxieties to myself. Ten days after the suicide, unprompted, Marcello told me via e-mail that he had been called to the morgue to prepare Terry for cremation. “I was told to bring some clothes,” he wrote to me, “and I think that Terry would have appreciated his Yale jacket.”