Suicidal Thoughts: The Creative Lives and Tragic Deaths of a Prince and a Pauper




WHEN THE 63-year-old comic genius Robin Williams hanged himself this past August in the bedroom of his waterfront Tiburon home, the score of demons he was battling was said to include Parkinson’s disease, ongoing alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and fears of career failure. The Oscar-winning actor may also have been suffering from an undiagnosed case of Lewy body dementia, a surprisingly common condition involving mental impairment, personality changes, and possible hallucinations. After a lifetime devoted to making the world laugh, his suicide and sufferings came as a shock to his devastated fans, including me, a former entertainment reporter who had covered him at the start of his career.

Kitty-corner to Williams on the cultural grid was a writing and teaching colleague, 59-year-old novelist Les Plesko, who leapt to his death from his apartment building roof in Venice, CA, one September morning in 2013. Some of us who knew of his past sufferings and the troubles he faced that autumn weren’t questioning why he killed himself as much as what kept him going for so long. Now, a year after his death, the gentle natured, Hungarian born, American raised writer’s semi-autobiographical novel No Stopping Train (Soft Skull, 2014) has been posthumously published to the critical acclaim he’d dreamed of. It received a coveted starred review in the Library Journal as “a masterwork in language and imagery […] a powerful meditation on his country’s history and the expansiveness of humanity,” declaring “serious readers of literary fiction will rejoice.”

Despite their differences, both Williams, the prince who seemed to have it all, and Plesko, the pauper who scrabbled hard for all too little, were artists undeniably devoted to their calling. And their deaths raised questions in my mind about the prevalence of suicide amongst such highly creative people. Is there a link between suicide and creativity? Or is that simply a myth, if an increasingly popular one?

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“The conventional thinking is that creative people have more psychological problems than the rest of the population,” says Dennis Palumbo, a former screenwriter (including the film My Favorite Year, and episodes of television’s Welcome Back Kotter) turned author and licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues. “What they have is more access to their feelings.” Those in other lines of work like lawyers or bricklayers, who don’t have to dig within themselves for their raw material, can suppress their emotions, including “the more intolerable ones.”

Globally, suicide is on the rise. According to a 2013 Newsweek cover story it took more lives worldwide than “war, murder and natural disasters combined.” We’re apparently killing ourselves at a greater rate now than we’re killing each other. Whatever that high watermark for humanity implies of our times, authors are said to commit suicide, and suffer the mental illness that can lead to it, at twice the rate of the general population. E.L. Doctorow joked to The Paris Review “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” Or was he joking? The long list of self-murdering writers includes Virginia Woolf, who suffered mentally while capturing those torments on the page, to Ernest Hemingway, whose family has had five suicides over four generations, to Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, to Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Spalding Gray, and David Foster Wallace.

Writing about Williams’s death in The New Yorker, Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, noted the “force of will” most people lack to follow through on the suicide impulse. This led me to wonder if an artist’s ability to act on self-destructive urges might be connected to the force of will required to commit to their creative pursuits in the first place.

“Creative people are more proactive,” says Palumbo, who also contributes to the Psychology Today website. “They put themselves out there, suffer the slings and arrows more than non-creatives. They have a greater sensitivity to their environment.” Because they are more in touch with their feelings, “they’re more likely to act on them.” A bricklayer might have the same feelings but find release through drinking, or rely on religious restrictions or family ties to keep them from acting on the urge to kill themselves. “Creatives are the iconoclasts,” Palumbo says. “They’re not religious and they’re likely to be estranged from their families.”

I met Williams twice, first when I was a beginning journalist and he was still unknown, a brilliant, improvisational comic at San Francisco’s Holy City Zoo in the mid 1970s. The charming, self-effacing performer was just one of the gang I was interviewing then, even though his unrelenting, lightning wit put him on par with Jonathan Winters. Our second encounter was for Rolling Stone in the fall of 1978, as he launched into the TV stratosphere with the hit series Mork & Mindy. I spent a giddy day wandering the streets of Manhattan accompanied by his multitude of comic characters. The Williams I encountered had no on/off switch — he was always hilarious, endearing, and sweetly childlike, whether making his croissant do a crab dance across the breakfast plate or hailing a cab as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I never thought of him as crazy, but a huge, driven talent whose youthful zeal and wild imaginings were certain to carry him far. Despite inhabiting an ever-changing array of characters moment by moment, I don’t believe he could have been anyone but himself.

And Les Plesko could not have been anything other than the literary zealot he was, a dedicated, focused, and most serious writer. While his prose was beautiful, I found the disturbing stuff of his writing sometimes hard to read. Nonetheless I admired his art and his total devotion to it. His existence remained perpetually underfunded. He lived in a tiny, spare apartment, getting around by bicycle in car-centric Los Angeles, and sporting a sufficiently disheveled appearance to be mistaken for a homeless person. Satisfied with an existence that seemed more Eastern European than Westside Los Angeles, he devoted decades to his writing, producing four novels, as well as teaching an enormous and faithful cadre of students at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

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“A book is a suicide postponed,” observed Emil Cioran, the Romanian philosopher. The misanthropic author of On the Heights of Despair, The Trouble With Being Born, and A Short History of Decay had contemplated suicide for much of his life. He’d also lived in Paris since 1937, including during its Nazi occupation in World War II. Yet he died of natural causes in Paris at the age of 84. Could living in the City of Light while writing dark thoughts be an antidote to early check out? Or perhaps writing about life’s purposelessness gave Cioran sufficient purpose to keep his own going. The balance Cioran found allowed him to live out his life, despite his lengthy arguments against it.

My own most serious contemplation of suicide as a teen didn’t go as far as considering an actual plan. I remember driving my car, a 1962 Pontiac Tempest inherited from two older siblings who’d already flown the coop, to a phone booth on the boulevard of our one boulevard town. It was raining and cold. I dropped a coin in the slot and dialed the number I’d gotten somewhere for a suicide hotline.

I was crying. “I need help,” I said.

They put me on hold.

After a few minutes, I got back in my car to drive for hours on the Northern California freeways, sobbing, my windshield wipers beating rhythmically, until my tank of gas gave out. Somewhere deep down inside, in that moment, I knew it was a great joke that had been played on me. And for that, I am grateful.

But there would be other challenges. I nearly lost my mind in my 20s working on a book about Jonestown. Trying to understand that mass suicide of people, most of whom came from my home region, the San Francisco Bay Area, just as I was struggling to begin my own adult life, nearly devoured me.

Then there was the day in early 2006 when I decided my home of 20 years was trying to kill me with its demands for constant repair and maintenance. Even its pleasures were isolating me from the larger world. I sold it and moved, finally able to finish my novel. If it takes a certain force of will to create art and another measure of it to commit suicide, perhaps the struggle, the precarious balancing between a productive life and the option of a tragic end, can help keep some artists alive. My ambition to be a writer pulled me through the darkest days.

Les Plesko was born into a far bleaker situation — Hungary in 1954. He was two when his mother and stepfather escaped the Hungarian Revolution for America, abandoning the boy to the care of his maternal grandparents. By age seven he was reunited with his family in postwar, booming California, a place that must have seemed like a helium-filled carnival balloon compared to the grim cinder blocks of Soviet existence. By the time he learned to speak English, everything in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s was being questioned. He dropped out of college, fell into a string of the oddest of odd jobs (flagman for crop dusters! Country & Western D.J.!), took up heavy drinking and serious drugs. After a long slumming spell, he found writing in the legendary workshop of Kate Braverman, which is where I met him in the early 1990s. It was there he got clean and sober and for some 20 years continued to produce his singular literary efforts. He was the workshop’s star, the first to publish a novel, the autobiographical The Last Bongo Sunset, (Simon & Schuster, 1995). It was praised for its dark lyricism and “spare and controlled” style, but it sold poorly, as such critically acclaimed works often do.

He kept his day job as an editor of technical books and took up a career teaching through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program and private workshops. On a trip back to Hungary he discovered that his biological father, whom he’d never known, had been a well-known actor who killed himself leaping from a building. Was this dramatic foreshadowing, something known on a cellular level, or romantic inspiration? Plesko published two more novels with a small, independent press in Venice, while seeking for some 15 years a more legitimate house to publish what he considered his magnum opus, the Hungarian novel No Stopping Train.

In the last months of his life, he suffered the end of a major romance, shrinking income prospects, deteriorating health, and the continued rejection of his great work. He’d also begun drinking again. When I last saw Les, a few weeks before his final day, he told me the entire stock of his third book, Who I Was, was locked in the garage of his now bankrupt publisher. I didn’t know what to say. The publishing world had been in a depressing state of collapse for years — but I was happily about to publish my second book with the small, independent press, Counterpoint. I suggested he consider contacting their edgier imprint, Soft Skull, which I felt matched the style of his work. I don’t know that he ever sought them out. Ironically, it was Soft Skull that ultimately bought No Stopping Train, thanks to efforts spearheaded by another Braverman workshop alum, Janet Fitch (author of the Oprah pick White Oleander and Paint It Black) and Counterpoint/Soft Skull editor Dan Smetanka.

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Regardless of the scope of its success, demanding creative work done so fully and for so long by the likes of Plesko and Williams requires an extreme and extremely draining sensitivity on the artist’s part. This hyper-awareness of both the miraculous and miserable in human existence can prove life threatening. “Creatives are swimming in their feelings all the time,” Palumbo says. “They’re much more impacted by their interior life than non-creatives. Everything they do is attached to feeling. They’re on the surface and in their face everyday.”  

Did leading life so strongly with their hearts, as Plesko and Williams did, inevitably lead to their heart-breaking ends? In a few television interviews posted on YouTube from his last years, Williams speaks so tenderly, at times, you wonder if he might begin to cry. Is that because of an overbearing awareness of the sadness in the world? Or simply his own personal sadness? Said to have suffered from depression for much of his life, he also entertained thousands of American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, becoming the Bob Hope of his generation. His long-term marriage ended in divorce in 2008, and in early 2014 the sitcom that was to be his return to television was cancelled. By summer, Williams’s humor could no longer keep him aloft.

He had been out of rehab for a month before he took his life. “Deeply, deeply depressed people don’t have the energy to commit suicide,” Palumbo says. “They can’t get off the couch. It’s when they’re moving out of the lower rungs, the deepest well of depression, that they begin to formulate a suicide plan. They realize ‘I’ll probably be feeling like this the rest of my life’ and they don’t want to.’” It may not be that suicidal people want to die, he adds, as much as they want their “psychic pain to end.”

Psychic pain cuts both ways, as I’ve been suggesting, both enabling and debilitating, and it was certainly part of the writing package for Les Plesko. In a piece written for his students titled “The Writing Life,” he promises:

Writing will break you and mend you. It will tear up your heart, but the heart heals and grows stronger. You will shatter yourself as you now know yourself, and you will welcome the shattering. […] Writing will infect your life until it is your life, and there will be no turning back. You will learn what bravery is. You will be utterly and irrevocably transformed.

These are the lessons we learned from Kate Braverman, who preached a literary faith. But few of her students believed as deeply as Plesko did. Excavating his own pain, while mapping humanity’s transgressive corners, combined with the continued rejection of his work, may ultimately have lost him in the dark.

“In the end one needs more courage to live than to kill oneself,” Camus asserts in The Myth of Sisyphus. The late William Styron arrived at a similar conclusion in his 1989 Vanity Fair article and subsequent bestselling book of the same title, Darkness Visible.

At 60, Styron wrestled with a debilitating depression that left him yearning for death. His salvation came with a seven-week mental hospital stay. Ushered away from everything familiar, he landed in a quiet place in which to focus on getting well. Few people, let alone most writers, have access to such luxuries, especially today. The author of Sophie’s Choice lived another 20 years, dying at age 81 from pneumonia.

If Styron had managed to kill himself, we inevitably would have sifted through his life for causes. People would point to his months of debilitating depression before the act and the dramatic foreshadowing of his three novels in which major characters commit suicide. This is a natural, necessary response by the living — an effort to restore order. But Styron’s great gift was to return from the abyss, as Dante wrote, “to see the stars again,” and report on his terrible visions. “Darkness Visible,” the original article, remains available online. It is a powerful journey through one man’s madness and eloquent testament to the hope awaiting those who can survive their own. Those who make it back alive, he wrote, have almost “always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”

Styron’s doctor preferred treating his depression with drugs, but Styron knew they weren’t working. He felt his hospital treatment ultimately saved him, but mental hospital stays were stigmatized then and remain so now — see the shaming of Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes. Robin Williams received treatment in a rehab facility for substance abuse, something so common as to be acceptable. Would Williams have benefitted more from mental health hospitalization? We’ll never know, but we might at least consider the damage done by our ongoing evasions of serious psychiatric concerns.

“We accept the disease model of substance abuse,” Palumbo says. “Depression is still considered a weakness. We’re more likely to say we’re suffering from alcohol or drug abuse, rather than panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. People are still afraid of mental illness.”

Williams’s 23-year-old daughter, Zelda, recently tweeted: “Mental health IS as important as physical health,” and “Let’s help stop the misconception & support those who need our help. Healing the whole starts with healing minds.”

Like so many economically marginalized Americans, Les Plesko may not have been able to afford such help, even if he’d wanted it. The social safety net is thinner now than ever. All too many in Plesko’s situation, particularly at his age, find themselves facing homelessness, cut off from proper medical and mental health care.

Whatever the true circumstances and ultimate reasons leading to their tragic ends, Plesko and Williams found themselves unable endure Styron’s “despair beyond despair.” Their greatest courage may have been that they lived as long as they did and created as much as they could despite their personal torments. At the end of Fitch’s second novel, Paint It Black, an intense examination of suicide, the main character Josie, who has lost her lover to it, concludes finally “who can judge another man’s suffering?”

David Foster Wallace, who ended his life in 2008 at the age of 46, compared the potential suicide  of the “so-called ‘psychotically depressed’” to someone standing on the ledge of a burning high-rise. They may choose to jump rather than wait for death from the oncoming flames.

“Nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump,” he wrote. “Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

The unfortunate reality for some artists is that those flames may have escaped from creativity’s controlled burn.

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Nancy Spiller is the Los Angeles–based author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (with recipes) and Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned From My Mother’s Recipe Box.


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