On Chefs, Suicide, and Connection

(I wrote this a while ago with the thought of getting it published somewhere. That didn’t happen so here it is.)

Following news of the suicide of another high-profile figure, we have been flooded with stories related to suicide, depression, and mental health. Questions of why this happened, how it could be prevented, and what we should do next abound. These reactions are expected and necessary, but I find myself reaching for connection in the midst of my grief-induced loneliness.

I never met Bourdain personally. But I, like many others, was introduced to him through his work. He stood out, often referred to as the “bad boy” of celebrity chefs due to his brash, straight-talking persona. Yet it didn’t take too much effort to see behind the act. His shows and writing were filled with thoughtful reflection, insight, and personal accountability. He spoke the truth of what he saw even when that could have ended his career. But more importantly, he revealed his shortcomings and his errors, and allowed himself to be changed by what he learned. A raw curiosity, a desire to learn from mistakes, and putting himself out there for all to see is what drew me to him. Bourdain could do what many seasoned counselors can’t, and he inspired me to regularly step into that which I did not know.

As I look at the tributes and comments many have made, I can see how many people from all over the world are affected by this loss. Those who were closest to him request privacy, as they rightly should. Friends and acquaintances share stories with sadness tugging at their throats. But there are many people with stories like mine – people who never met him directly, never shared a drink or a handshake, and yet we feel as hollowed out by this experience as if we had lost our closest friend.

Is it so strange, though, to think we could be deeply affected by the presence of someone we did not physically meet? Is this feeling just the surface reaction to the shock of suicide, or is there something more to this? But perhaps the question to ask instead is, why shouldn’t we be affected by an inexplicable loss of someone who influenced our lives?

I wonder if our tendency to dismiss the grief associated with the loss of a public figure is rooted in a cultural stance driven by rugged individualism, the spirit that says one person can withstand anything. And yet, we easily forget that the one cannot stand without the many. While we look at our personal successes and failures, we tend to ignore the many people who came before us, those we needed to become who we are today. We can see the people we know directly, but we lose sight of those whose influence worked in the background, the many people we may have never met who helped shape our understanding of ourselves. Thus, when we lose someone who has shown us something about who we could be, of course it is devastating because we are left wondering who is left. But in a society that prizes the individual above all else, admitting our need for others gets redefined as a weakness instead of a strength.

Our social-media interaction style gives us the illusion that we are together, a mere Instagram away from the next person. The exposure someone like Bourdain gets means we have more access to the figures who influence us. It becomes possible to find people all over the world giving us a sense that we are not alone. Yet it also makes the divide greater because our posts, tweets, and shares are one-dimensional snapchats of ourselves, preventing us from engaging in the risk of vulnerability that is also required to be known and to know others. I am left knowing that Bourdain made an impact on my life, but our relationship will always be one-sided. His death confirms that there will never be a chance for me to know more.

Here we come to the tragedy of suicide, the act where only those who have done it truly understand it. We who remain can only get so close to making sense of it and usually have to settle with angry acceptance. We want to be able to prevent it, yet it is the fact that it has already happened that reveals our powerlessness.

I will make no claim regarding why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. He alone in that private moment knew the reason. Perhaps I refrain from speculation because in Bourdain I recognized a familiar interior struggle, the desire for authentic relationship shrouded by the angst of isolation. We fear that if someone knows the real us, they will leave us and we will be alone. Yet it is not perfection that breeds genuine relationship; the experience of being disappointed by another means we have shared our humanity. Imperfection becomes its own beauty because it is through our flaws where we find our common humanity. Our limitations create the need for each other.

Loss ironically reveals the significance of our connections. While we may need to accept that the physical person is gone, we seek the ways in which we can hold on to what mattered. Bourdain meant something to me, and I want that meaning to go on, to find a way to flourish. It is a way to keep those connections valuable, even though the person is no longer there.

I wonder if Anthony Bourdain had any idea about all the people who felt connected to him, who now see emptiness where he once stood. If he had known, would it have made a difference? Would I be writing about something else, hopefully something mundane, if he had been given a glimpse into how much we need his risk-taking, his plain-speaking, his mistakes, his foibles, and his passion – how much we simply need him?

I am tempted to provide comfort and say this will all get better. But that seems disingenuous to the memory of someone who easily called “bullshit” when he saw it. The truth is, this hurts; we will find few answers and more questions. We may want to say that if suicide can claim Bourdain, it can claim any of us, so why bother. But maybe this is what Bourdain has given us, a final demonstration of his own humanity so we can be affected by it. Instead of retreating from those we do not know, we can sit down, reach across a table, and share a meal. Maybe his absence can continue to remind us how we need each other’s presence, and it is the risk of being ourselves that leads to togetherness.

Good travels, Tony. I will miss you.

Oh Captain, My Captain

I don’t typically write a post like this in my director’s blog. But this blog has morphed into something other than just a chronology of film-making; rather it has become the place where my life gets reflected in relation to this work, or how this work gets reflected in my life. So I think I’ll break with my usual and write this post, because I feel a need to get the words out and this seems the best place to do it.

Yesterday we learned that Robin Williams died, likely taken by suicide. I am stunned, shocked, saddened, numbed, outraged. Sometimes I feel the tears come and yet they don’t really fall. I feel awkward wondering how is it possible that I could be so affected by the passing of someone I never actually knew? He was a comedian; actor; personality; mystery. I’ve no idea what his personal life was truly like, or what his character contained. I only know what I saw…I only know the ways in which I was influenced.

And that’s the part that keeps coming back to me – while it is true I never really knew the person, I do know the ways in which I was influenced by that person.

Can I imagine my life without ever having the presence of Robin Williams in it? Actually no. I first saw him in Mork & Mindy…Ok, quite possibly the role he may have wanted us all to forget but that was where I and so many other people noticed this way-out-of-the-box personality. In truth, he was one of my first crushes. Granted, I was all of 5, so it was one of those innocent little kid kinds of things where you just stand in awe of someone. Curiously enough though, I still to this day find myself more drawn to someone who can make me laugh over anything else. Have you met my husband? Proof enough.

Where would I be without Dead Poet’s Society? Hitting me at those critical teenage years, how else would I have come to embrace the phrase, “carpe diem,” and run amok in the woods with my friends as we reenacted scenes and lines and imagined ourselves to be superheroes. We believed we could overthrow all nasty, tyrannical, oppressive baddies while looking great standing on top of a desk. We were nuts. Most of all we were inspired.

Am I about to say that everything he did was inspirational? No. Mrs Doubtfire didn’t make me want to change my life. But it did make me laugh and cry, all at the same time. The World According to Garp is still one of my favorite films and I secretly enjoyed Moscow on the Hudson. Popeye sucked but Toys was bizarrely enjoyable. Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting will always remind me that being outside of the box is the best way to live.

Now because of the manner of his death, there has been much written in just the short 24 hours after the announcement about depression, mental health, cries for help, suicide, and on and on with the endless list of how tragic it was that he may have succumbed to an illness. He could’ve prayed, he could’ve reached out, others could have noticed, no one saw it coming. He battled drug addiction and major depression. Who knew the clown was so down.

Ok, really, I did. And so did everyone else who has ever stood on the edge of society. To have a wit and social criticism as sharp as Williams’ means you have come to intimately know the ills and injuries of the world around you. Laughter and pain innately go together, because the only way to make meaning out of insensible suffering is to mock it, laugh at it, diminish it to the absurdity that it is. Williams stood simultaneously within and outside of social convention, and what some will call madness is also his genius. He was intentional schizophrenia at its best.

I’ve read some posts (I read too much) that talk about humor as a mask for mental illness. I’ll grant that as a possibility. However I will also oppose my mental health brethren on this point. I see Williams’ loudness, humor, boldness, and veracity as those things that stand against the position of mental illness in his life. He could laugh in its face as if to say, “See, I am not all addiction and depression. You are just one part of me, and I am many parts more.” What he gave to all of us is what needs to be remembered and held close to be used as the shields and swords that battle the confining labels of mental illness, of diagnosis. We are not DSM-V codes. We are people who can laugh and cry, all at the same time. Being ill doesn’t mean I can’t also be well.

I don’t know why he suicided. I don’t think anyone will ever know why, in spite of the rampant speculation that will take place now and for a very long time. Will I get angry at the thought that suicide could’ve taken another of our wonderful, crazy spirits that burned way too hot and bright while it was here? Will I fear that suicide and depression will try convince more of us to forget our fight and take us away? Yes. But I also remember when Williams said comedy was the ability to test where the limit is, and sometimes you have to cross it to know it’s there. You’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever seen, and I’ll always remember that. I don’t know if you’ll ever know how many people were affected by you, but we all know the void that is now left in your place. No one can fill it. And I will miss you.


Crying, By Sam Taylor Wood