Suicide sometimes proceeds from cowardice, but not always; for cowardice sometimes prevents it; since as many live because they are afraid to die, as die because they are afraid to live.
English writer Charles Caleb Colton published that paradoxical aphorism in Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words, his book of short essays released in the early 1820s. Nearly two centuries later, his terse observation on what causes people to take their own lives, relative to why some don’t, is an ardent reminder of the fragility of individual sanity and what influences it.
As friends go, Chuck (not his real name) was my first. We were preschool playmates drawn to one another by the selective forces of human sociality, contained by a set of anthropological parameters generally established later in life. Like children of ethnicity who flock together to maintain a diverse identity among the majority, we built a bond constructed from comparable constraints. Even at age 5, we were aware of our parallels: each born to young mothers, a distinct disinterest in the pastimes of “normal” boys, and hair possessing similar shades of sunrise.
But as we grew older and intensely self-reliant—because of internal issues involving our own sexuality—our striking likenesses dissipated. The imparity between our juvenile character was proven in how our thresholds for effusive torture polarized as we matured: Whereas I could weather an onslaught of emotional abuse, Chuck could not. As a result, my very first friend, the one person who would have understood my own burgeoning plight most, fashioned a noose, affixed it to the back of his bedroom door, and said farewell to an insufferable existential existence.
Though the circumstances of Chuck’s suicide are shady—even a few months after he was buried, his mother maintained he was murdered—it’s likely that this slight, bright boy of 17 succumbed to the demands of those who didn’t understand his sexuality, or care to, for that matter.
When Chuck came out to his mother, a chain-smoking, blue-collar kind of woman, he was told if he “chose to be that way,” he also must disclose to his grandparents that he was gay. It was a burden that didn’t fall lightly on the bemused teen—who, in his earlier youth, had possessed an affection for lighthouses and a dingy stuffed dog he lovingly, if not effeminately, called Le Mutt. He became withdrawn, distant, and suddenly contemplative.
Anyone who knew Chuck well was aware that his grandparents weren’t just members of his family with whom he was forced to endure holidays, or otherwise preserve relations because they shared the same blood. Instead, they were a team, three shots of espresso who genuinely and explicitly enjoyed each other’s company. The duo doted on their grandson with vivacity, showering him with the sort of elderly adoration of which only grandparents are capable.
Over the years, this reciprocated fondness formed a relationship that Chuck couldn’t bear to see falter. The thought of these two people, for whom he had unconditional love, turning against him the way his mother had wasn’t feasible. It was easier, he thought, to end it all—to spare the rest of those he cherished from the embarrassment of being related to a “gay.”
Years later, when I came out to my own parents, I thought of Chuck, of how if we hadn’t lost our will to sustain a friendship despite the restrictions of time and space, our lives—or at least his—might have turned out better.
Before he committed suicide, we had, in the years beforehand, only managed a handful of correspondences via handwritten letters. In none of those letters were we confident enough to discuss what we felt inside—the frightening, albeit enlightening, sensation of attraction to the same sex. The opposite was true, in fact. We faked curiosity about girls to appease the other, in fear of tarnishing a lifelong friendship had one of us not responded with acceptance.
Still, I wonder how he might have handled his demons had he identified an ally.
Would he have felt as isolated and forlorn knowing that the person with whom he had shared his childhood felt the same way?
And would he have had the wherewithal to initiate a slow, painful death if he had someone to reassure him through analogous experience that we were normal, that we would be OK, and that we would trudge through our troubles together?
They’re questions to which I never will know the answers. Before I could admit to myself that I was gay, before I was comfortable enough in my own skin, he had given up his. But his sacrifice is not something I soon will forget, nor one that has failed to impact my life.
Chuck’s death imparted to me the criticality of disallowing others to manipulate my personal fulfillment. When I came out, like my friend, I could have chosen cowardice over contentment in order to liberate myself and my family—whose emotional reflexes unleashed injudicious hostility toward what they did not, or will not, comprehend—from introducing homosexuality into their lives.
But, I didn’t have the gall.
Instead, I chose, as Colton describes, cowardice in another form—because, as his forethought detailed 200 years ago, I’m afraid to die.
I am not afraid, however, to live out and proud, despite the ignorant and unintelligent opinions of others.
It’s a choice that has given me a sense of self-satisfaction I’m convinced bestows from beyond—for lack of a more tangible origin.
Michael A. Knipp, a New York City-based freelance writer, is the founder of Line/Byline Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].