Bill Long 7/25/05
Creativity, Suicide and the Shields-Cruise Flap
Headlines often present the occasion to speak about issues long important to a writer but obscured or buried because of the press of other things. The recent public feud between Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields stimulated by Shield's admissions in her recent book (Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression) about the toll that child-bearing took on her stimulated me to look at the issue of postpartum depression from the perspective of the toll that creative effort takes on people in general. Let me begin with two brief stories, with a reflection between the stories.
I tell this story only because there has always been a verse from Luke's story of the healing of the "woman with the flow of blood" that is indelibly in my mind. Jesus was on a healing tour (Luke 8). He had just healed the Gadarene demoniac before returning home, presumably for some rest. But two other claimants pressed their cases upon him--a synogogue official and a woman who had an "issue of blood twelve years." The latter came upon Jesus unobserved and touched the hem of his garment. As the elegant KJV says, "immediately her issue of blood stanched" (8:44). What happened next has always stayed with me. Jesus perceived that he had been touched, and so he turned and said "Who touched me?" The disciples tried to be understanding, explaining that everyone wanted to touch Jesus. He had developed quite a reputation, and everyone wanted to get into the act. But Jesus persisted. "Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me" (8:46). Virtue is gone out of me. An act of healing requires virtue (i.e., power) to depart from the physician.
Creative effort, soul-absorbing work means that virtue goes forth from us. The word virtue is particularly appropriate in child-bearing contexts because of the flexibility of that word. What "goes forth" from the woman is the energy of giving birth. What results is the virtue of the woman, her best effort, the child. When the energy goes forth it not only results in a beautiful thing, such as a child or a healed person, but a little bit of a void. The empty womb can mirror the depleted mind. The depleted mind plays tricks on you. These tricks can be illustrated by the following story.
J. Anthony Lukas and BIG TROUBLE
I picked up this 754-page tome of Lukas, which was the story of the assassination of an Idaho governor and the complex web of factors leading to and following from that assassination, shortly after it came out around 1997. Lukas had already won two Pulizer Prizes for his reporting and writing, and had been hailed as one of America's most careful and precise journalistic researchers. This massive tome was his first foray into historical writing, and he gave us, as one reviewer said, a book that "tries to hoist a whole world onto its shoulders--people, landscapes, buildings, ideas, and all..What Lukas relished about his story wasn't its intricate political subtleties but its moments of Wild West theatricality."
When you read the book you realize its diffuseness. Robert Frost knew that "way leads to way," and Lukas investigated the labyrinthine ways of Western culture and unions and ideas in telling the story of the murder of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenbeg and the trial that followed. But it was not only the story told in BIG TROUBLE that mesmerized me for several days; I became aware that Lukas had committed suicide after finishing his draft of BIG TROUBLE, and I wanted to learn more. On June 5, 1997, after visiting his editor regarding changes to the manuscript, he returned to his Upper West Side apartment and hanged himself with a bathrobe sash.
The stories began to come out that as he was researching and writing this book over the last seven years of his life, he was continually plagued by doubts--he might not be able to get his point across, the book was too ambitious, his talents might not be fully manifest in the book. But it is interesting to me that he was able to "wait" until he had largely completed the book to take his life. The exhaustion of creativity, the utter depletion of having virtue go forth from him, sapped the mind and the soul, and so the birthing was his deathing. On the Monday before he died, Lukas called an editor at Life Magazine, who had wanted him to write an essay on Caldwell, Idaho (where Governor Steunenberg was assassinated about 100 years ago). Lukas said that "he didn't know what to write." When a writer not only says those words, but knows them to be true, he feels that all virtue has gone out of him, and there really is no reason to live.
Concluding thoughts are in the next essay.