The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 4th, 2011

Does no one blame Gary Speed? Then weve found our humanity

The football manager Gary Speed was 42 when he killed himself last week, leaving behind a widow and two children. My father was 43 when he killed himself many years ago, leaving behind a widow, three children under five and one soon to be born.

Apart from that, the two men could hardly have been more different. My father was an eye surgeon and an American living in 1950s California. Speed was a Welshman living in contemporary Britain and one of football’s lesser gods. Yet there is a terrible, incomprehensible similarity between them.

What haunts Speed’s family and friends and his countless fans, and what torments anyone trying to come to terms with a suicide, is always the question why. In Speed’s case it is particularly hard to imagine why he became so desperate. Those close to him say he’d never been depressed and had seemed as cheerful and normal as ever only hours before his death. And it is obvious that he had, apparently, everything to live for: a lovely wife and children, great talent, huge success, wonderful prospects and many friends.

My father’s case is equally difficult for me to understand, although for an entirely different reason. No one talked about it at the time and no one talked about it later. His suicide in America was kept secret when our English mother came back to Britain. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I discovered by accident from a French girl in Paris that there was something wrong about his death. How I discovered shows exactly why in those days people close to suicide didn’t talk about it.

My French friend knew some of my mother’s acquaintances in England, so she must at some point have learnt from local gossip in this country something I knew nothing about. After spending the night in her family’s flat in Paris, en route to a gap-year destination, I asked her if her parents, who were strict Roman Catholics, would allow me to stay for an extra night. She asked them and they said they would: they didn’t hold my father’s death against me. After all, I was not to blame, my friend assured me.

Furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children At first I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. She explained it was because of my father’s suicide, a new idea to me. And although her parents believed suicide was a terrible crime against the Holy Spirit and a mortal sin, they were inclined to consider me innocent and only slightly tainted by it. That was in 1967. The next year saw the évènements of 1968 in Paris, but things were clearly still rather medieval in that part of the Faubourg St-Honoré.

This attitude, I soon learnt, was only an exaggerated form of what most people felt, religious or not. Suicide was a disgrace, something unmentionable and something that would reflect badly on the family and children: mental illness was something to avoid and deny.

My mother certainly felt that and so do other members of my family, even now. For a long time they were probably right, I think, much though I resented their attitude. After all, suicide was still a criminal offence in this country until 1961, which was several years after my father’s death. The living victims of suicide were driven for generations into a furtive, uncomprehending solitude of guilt and shame, even into the late 20th century.

Once I had learnt that my father had killed himself, I began as anyone would to question what had brought him to do something so terrible — something so extremely brave, lonely, desperate and unforgivable. To abandon a wife and small children, causing the last one to be born very prematurely, and leaving a legacy of elaborate damage over many decades, is something that takes a bit of explaining: any would-be suicide, however desperate, must be able to foresee such things.

There seemed to be no answer. The evidence I got bit by bit over many years from people who didn’t want to talk about it did not add up. His own sister, to whom I spoke in her old age, had a romantic notion of self-sacrifice in the face of a brain tumour, but that was nonsense. He had, apparently, been depressed at various times but I found it increasingly difficult to rely on anything anyone said. My (now late) mother could barely speak of it and after a while it seemed wrong to question her.

So I shall never understand, and perhaps it is better that way. The truth is occasionally harder to bear than uncertainty. What I do know is that furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children. The adults around a suicide may have played a part in some way, but that cannot be said of the children.

It is sad to live for many, many years with such unanswered and unmentionable questions and, despite my determination not to accept it, with a vague sense of taint. Luckily my mother brought back to Britain many of my father’s medical books and several of them were about psychiatry and psychoanalysis. So from an early age I had some awareness of the mysteriousness of the mind and the many forms of mental disorder.

Later I began to read other books and gradually learnt to understand and to forgive my unhappy father, in general if not in particular. I began to realise how totally overwhelming some periods of mental illness can be and how wrong it is to hold someone responsible for what he may do when out of his right mind.

I also began to understand this from personal experience: depression (a bad term) is now called bipolar or mood disorder (also bad terms) and it is strongly heritable. I’ve always felt lucky I’ve been only touched by it and never struck down; I’m glad, too, that it has forced me to learn true sympathy for people in the grip of a mental illness, as well as for their families.

To come back from all this to the tragic death last week of a hero of our time, I feel overwhelmingly glad that attitudes to suicide have changed out of all recognition in my adult life. Speed’s relations have felt able to be very open about his death, knowing that so far from facing disapproval and incomprehension, they can rely instead on the sympathy of all his countless friends and admirers and even — astonishingly enough — the support of the media.

What’s entirely missing, quite rightly, is any hint anywhere in the media of the old sense of shame and blame. In that sense my father’s case is entirely different from Speed’s and his children’s case from my father’s children’s. In these dark times that is a blessing worth counting.