CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.
By Donna Baier Stein
The first boy I fell in love with in college hung himself from a tree north of San Francisco, a short distance off the Pacific Coast Highway U.S. 101. I don’t know exactly how far up the highway from the Golden Gate Bridge or exactly what kind of tree. I do know at least one of the secrets that led him to take his life and how damaging long-lasting guilt can be.
Decades later, I decided to write a story in which he—let’s call him Don R.—was a character. I had to research “suicide by hanging.” The gruesome physical details I read made me regret confronting the painful memory. I realized that because I hadn’t seen Don’s body, part of the terrible impact of his act had bypassed me. But I also realized, after he appeared in a second story and a third, how much and for how long, his choice to end his life affected me.
When Don took his life, I—and his other friends and family—were halfway across the country in the Midwest. I was in Lawrence, Kansas—a listless undergrad who had returned, to my own and my parents’ dismay, from a semester at Bryn Mawr. I felt like a failure. My academic drive faltered, my mood plummeted. I found myself looking for any reason to affirm that life was really, really painful.
My first sight of Don R.’s high-voltage grin jolted me. His blue eyes sparkled, and he bounced as he walked around the K.U. campus—sometimes affectionately called “the Athens of the Midwest”—in his white leather Adidas Pro sneakers. We met through mutual friends, and when he asked if I’d like to go see Easy Rider with him, I grinned back an enthusiastic Yes.
I remember sitting next to Don in the darkened Granada Theatre on Massachusetts Street. As Peter Fonda straddled his Harley with its “ape hanger” handlebars and American Flag gas tank, I was acutely aware of Don’s body in the seat next to mine. Finally, his hand, with its long, almost feminine fingers, reached for mine. Later that night, after he’d walked me back to the Jayhawk Towers apartment I shared with two other young women, he kissed me. His black mustache tickled in a way that excited me, and my tongue played greedily with his.
Those were hippie days, and I eventually left the straight-laced high-rise apartment to join a group of friends living in an old blue Victorian house on Ohio Street. Don didn’t live with us but came often for dinner and drugs.
Don would occasionally ask me out, though not as much as I would have liked. Mostly we saw each other as part of a group.
That summer, Don and I and three other friends rented a mobile home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The other four got jobs in town waitressing and doing carpentry work, and I spent hours in the mobile home pretending to write. We smoked marijuana and sometimes made a foul-tasting but effective peyote tea.
My small bedroom in the mobile home was paneled in dark wood, with a built-in drawer unit that held jeans and t-shirts. I put a single mattress on the floor.
One night, Don and I ended up on the mattress. I thought we were going to make love, but after we’d kissed and fondled a while, everything stopped. I immediately assumed I simply wasn’t pretty enough, sexy enough, good enough for this handsome, smiling man.
I spent the rest of that summer with an ache in my heart. I analyzed the situation with Don for hours. I read Colette and settled into a sense of myself as doomed lover. Something was missing, and for me at that point in my life, it was Don. This was more evidence that life was hard, and I wallowed in pining.
What I didn’t realize until much later—and remain guilty about to this day—was that I wasn’t the only one pining.
One night, after drinking peyote tea, we sat at a small red formica and chrome table in the trailer. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but at some point in our conversation, Don suddenly stood up and said, “I’m a homosexual.”
I can still see the look of shame on his face. Remember, this was the Midwest. And the year was 1969.
I am ashamed to say that I don’t remember if I hugged Don immediately or not. I do remember at some point walking out in the dark night towards Fish Creek, which ran through the mobile home park. I remember crying. I remember talking to Don later that night and hope that at least some of what I said was comforting and not totally wrapped up in my own shock and disappointment.
When summer ended, the five of us returned to Kansas. Don and I remained friends, both individually and within our group.
At some point, one of the men who’d lived in the blue house on Ohio Street moved out to San Francisco and joined Morehouse, an experimental community formed by Victor Baranco. Part of Baranco’s philosophy was “responsible hedonism.” Anyone staying at one of the groups’ communal homes could ask for whatever they wanted: a new TV, sex with a housemate.
Baranco was a pioneer in sensuality research, and some of his teachings can be seen today in the “slow sex” movements of Orgasmic Meditation and One Taste.
I had my own brief brush with Morehouse, spending a weekend in one of their group homes. I learned later that part of the Morehouse psychological system was to expose peoples’ self-deceptions and patterns of protection. I can still remember sitting cross-legged on the floor as a woman who lived at the house called me “a rabbit.”
I knew she was right. I was shy, bespectacled, tongue-tied. Her words to me felt really harsh and made me feel worse than I already did about my flaws.
I fear that something similar may have happened to Don R. while he was there.
He visited Morehouse several months after I had returned to Lawrence; he killed himself after he’d been living in one of their houses for several weeks. I learned of his death when a friend called me in the house I was then renting.
There have been many times in the years since Don’s death that I’ve wished he had made his announcement “I’m homosexual” in today’s environment, in what is somewhat, though far from completely, a more forgiving time and place.
I’ve wished that I had been mature enough to look beyond my own heartache and help resolve his. I’ve wished I hadn’t been and didn’t still remain a rabbit. I’ve remained haunted by thoughts of what I could have done differently.
And I’ve sometimes thought of that first date to see Easy Rider.
When Peter Fonda’s character talks to a statue in the cemetery while tripping on acid, director Dennis Hopper asked the actor to think of his mother, who had committed suicide when Peter was ten.
Later, the character Fonda plays, Captain America, says “You know, Billy, we blew it.”
I wonder if on some level that is what every person who has lost someone to suicide feels.
Donna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Foreword reviews 2017 Book of the Year Bronze Winner, Finalist in Paterson Prize for Fiction), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference (poetry chapbook). She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, four Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Confrontation, Gargoyle, and many other journals and anthologies. www.donnabaierstein.com