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When your day is long And the night, the night is yours alone When you’re sure you’ve had enough Of this life, well hang on

Here is my eulogy from last night’s memorial for my friend George Hodgman. His life was filled with literary highs: bestseller, critical acclaim, meeting hundreds of people who turned out for his readings. And a film in the works. But as with many writers, depression settled in and boxed out hope. I share this with the hope that any fellow sufferers get the help they need.

Call 1-800-273-8255

 

I’m Betsy Lerner, George’s literary agent. He was also one of my first friends in publishing. George was a copy writer when I met him at Simon and Schuster over 30 years ago. I knew from his catalogue copy that he was a gifted writer and always pushed him to do his own work. When George gave me the first pages to Bettyville, I knew they were amazing, but I’m also a pragmatist and I felt the need to tell him that we had some challenges. First, that gay memoirs were still difficult to sell and that books about dementia were even more difficult. Fine, he snapped, I’ll go to Binky. George knew how to push my buttons and enjoyed doing so with relish. For the record, he continued to threaten me with going to Binky whenever I told him something he didn’t like.

Some of you know that the last months of my life have been filled with loss. My mother died in April, my beloved niece Ruby and nephew Hart were killed by a drunk driver in June, and then my dear friend took his life in July. There are days when I can hardly keep my head above water. My family has sadly had a crash course in grieving, and tonight I want to share four things I’ve learned. I apologize in advance for bringing you down.

1) Please don’t say that George is in a better place. A better place is sitting next to me at the National Book Critics Circle Award. A better place is sitting between me and Carole at the Discover Prize and watching George give his acceptance speech. A better place is watching him take Raj off leash in a wide field in Paris, Missouri and clapping while his dog cantered through the open air, filled with love for this magnificent beast more horse than dog in that moment, or sharing a ciggie after on his mom’s stoop and pulling a few dead petals from the fading roses. And better place is certainly having his lemon chicken at Il Cantinori with his publishing friends dishing up the best and latest gossip in town.

2) Please don’t say you wish there was something you can do. You can support the George Hodgman scholarship or any organization that you believe in. When a new assistant editor joins your publishing house, you can take him or her to lunch and make them feel less anxious and more welcome. George always did that. He arranged a reader for a friend going blind to read to him twice a week. He’d give a homeless person a twenty, or a sandwich or a cup of coffee. I always said George was the most wicked and the kindest person I knew. We can all be more kind. I can be more kind.

3) Please don’t say George is no longer suffering. Suffering is life. Suffering means you can go to one more meeting at Perry Street. Suffering means you can go to a movie. Suffering means I can drive you to rehab again and you can work on recovery because no matter how much a person wishes to die, life also beckons if only in a quiet voice. Life wants you at least as much as death. By the way, when I drove George to rehab, he had heard that Liza had been a patient there and when he wasn’t sleeping or eating powdered donuts, he was singing every Minelli song he could remember at the top of his lungs. Later he dubbed our journey Driving Miss Crazy

4) Last, please don’t say there aren’t any words. We are the people of the book. Words are exactly what we have. Words meant everything to George and he approached every book he worked on with the same expectation: excellence. He wouldn’t rest until everything was right: the structure, the prose, the narrative arc, the emotional impact. He always had a vision and cajoled and prodded and nurtured his writers until they got it. He put many writers on the map and on the bestseller list. Even when publishing bounced him out, a legacy of the books he acquired continued to win accolades and land on the list. George was deeply serious about his books, but he also knew about razzle dazzle, how to make it sparkle. He made everything more sparkly. When it came to Bettyville, George had the courage to find his own words, his own voice. When George found the words they were everything you might expect: kind, loving, beautifully observed, hilarious, heartbreaking. When my mother was failing, George had shown me the way in Bettyville. It’s a playbook on how to care for our aging and dying parents with patience and love. He gave us those words.

What is your experience with suicidal ideation in yourself or others?

46 Responses

  1. Betsy, these are some damn perfect words. I thank you for them; George’s memory is honored by them.

    I am so very sorry for all your recent losses. I experienced quite a few losses myself this year. And yes, I feel the “better place” for my loved ones would be here with me, right in my arms.

  2. i’ve only thought of suicide in the hypothetical for myself. if i got sick with a terminal illness, etc. but the biggest fucking scare of my life was my daughter saying she had a “weird thought” of throwing herself in front of a bus in Ottawa, couldn’t say where the thought came from, it just arrived in her head, unannounced.

    she got help immediately and was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder that was running high at that point. thank god for pharmaceuticals for her and therapy for me.

    rea
    ps i’m so sorry for your losses, Betsy. i don’t know what else to say. it’s too much but there you are.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about your losses, Betsy. There are words and you nailed them in George’s eulogy. Hold on, hold on … xo

  4. I loved George Hodgman because of the way he came through in BETTYVILLE, and now I love him even more because of what you shared in this eulogy.

    Wow. True words. Every “don’t say,” is spot on.

    My mother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in February. She’s already gone and I know for a fact she didn’t want to die. I knew this because of what she said as she went through treatments. I knew this because while in hospice, she would surface from the drugs and her face would crumple. She cried over the awareness of where she was and what it meant. Those eighteen days by her side are some of the most difficult days I’ve ever had or will have.

    “What is your experience with suicidal ideation in yourself or others?”

    I suppose we’ve all had the thought at some point or another. I used to have dramatic recreations of what people would do when they found me. I could bring myself to tears over the idea of their sorrow. It’s been a while since I’ve thought like this, but years ago when I was going through some emotional turmoil, I’d think about sleeping pills – nothing messy for me. Just slip away quietly. Then I read how sleeping pills can make you deathly sick, and can backfire unless you know what you’re doing. Too complicated. Might as well slog on.

    Three people I knew very well committed suicide – all three used a firearm of some sort. Two were co-workers I’d known for decades, and the other was my brother in law. I think about their thought processes as they prepared. Were they calm or on the brink of an internal meltdown? Were they afraid or fearless?

    I no longer have those thoughts like I used to. Having Stage IV cancer tends to alter that. When it’s not your choice, maybe that’s what makes one so determined to stick around. I no longer know what might happen. The damn stuff has come back three times, but as long as I have options, I have hope.

    So, I’m here, and want to be here. No more thoughts of leaving Earth. Now, on the other hand – if my doctor says “I’ve done all I know to do . . .” I’ve had a very serious thought of taking myself to one of the six (maybe it’s eight) states where the right to die is legal. I’d go to Maine – they’re supposed to pass the law – if they haven’t already – my mother’s birthplace.

    • We love you.

    • We love you.

    • Donna, if my arms could reach from here where I sit at my computer, and they would stretch out across the land, over the farms and rivers and mountains to you, and I could take you and give you a warm and tender embrace, you know I would. We’ve never met and know each other only through this place and Facebook and our writings, but you are dear to me and I wish that, if I had such long arms, I might have at their ends the hands that could pluck from you the cancer that bedevils you and threatens your life. But I don’t have those arms, I don’t have those hands, I have only these arms and hands with which I tap out these words on my keyboard and send them your way, with love.

    • There’s a warm southern breeze passing through today and I’m thinking of you. Peace.
      Love,
      MikeD

    • donnaeve, please know that you are not alone, we are here, and that we, a multitude of writing misfits, are thinking of you.

      rea

      ps fuck cancer.

    • Yes, Donnaeve, hold tightly to hope. There’s research & new treatments and breakthroughs everyday. What a journey for you. I didn’t know.
      Keep writing those beautiful books.

      • Many don’t know – I usually like to talk about more interesting things, but Betsy’s post got me. Thank you – and yes! Every time this damn thing pops back up, my oncologist seems to have a lot of options to offer. There are better days ahead, I’m sure.

  5. “Words are exactly what we have.” And you have used them perfectly. I’m so sorry for all that you and your family have gone through.

  6. First, Betsy, thank you for sharing with us your words for George Hodgman. I am sorry —

    No. I don’t know what to say. I truly never know what to say in situations like this. I don’t know if English has the right words, or if it did once have them but times have changed and we have changed and the words we once used no longer carry the meaning and import they once had.

    I am sorry that life involves so much suffering and I am sorry that you have had to experience such suffering and I am sorry I am powerless to stop you or anyone else from suffering, sorry as though it were my fault and in my power to rectify, but it’s not, all I can do is say I’m sorry, Betsy for your losses, sorry that my words are so paltry and weak.

    “What is your experience with suicidal ideation in yourself or others?”

    I have a friend — a good friend, an old friend, she and I were lovers for a time, there was talk of marriage — she is the smartest person I’ve ever known, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve known some pretty smart persons and I’m pretty damn smart myself — she was smart enough that I couldn’t run any of my relationship games on her, she called me out every time — and she was in school, getting one of those writing MFAs I’m constantly bitching about because I don’t have one and feel threatened and inadequate — and she was a person of somewhat sometimes volatile mood. She was on the phone one night with one of her classmates, and they were going on with each other about how sucky life was — and it is that, sucky, among other things — and they talked each other into a suicide pact. They were to hang up their phones and kill themselves immediately afterwards. The next morning — you see where this is going — and this is a true story — she woke up and was like, Wow, we had a really downer convo last night, I should call him later and see how he’s doing, but after class, I’ve got to get to class — but after class, when she called him, there was no answer. There was never again to be from him an answer. She was in therapy for two years after this.

    For my part, being a sensitive artistic, writerly person, yes, I’ve had suicidal ideation, more when I was in the younger, self-dramatizing years. Such thoughts were more common when I was living the decades-long roller-coaster life of drug and alcohol abuse — and what is such a life but the slow suicide of someone who is both afraid to live and afraid to die — but for actual, concrete, actionable thoughts of suicide, one time comes to mind. I was in my late 30s and yet another affair had come to an end, yet again because of drug abuse. I stood in the conference room of the 19th-story office I worked in and had such a strong impulse, in my despair — for I was already on the broken side of my first marriage and of countless other affairs of the heart wherein I sought that love which, if one does not receive it in early youth, one seeks it forever after and never can find it, no matter what else may be found — I stood near the window in this conference room, looking out, and had such a strong impulse to throw myself out through that window that I quickly turned and walked away. Spooked myself, I did, and I promised myself that, if I ever felt again such a strong urge to kill myself, I would call a hotline first — that I owed it to my family to do that.

    There has been no time since then — and that was twenty-five years ago — but there was one other time, five years before that, when my first marriage was on the rocks and I had come to NYC to make a new life — but I was in such despair, I had lost my wife, my child, my business, my home, and here I was in one of the toughest environments — I was devastated, and one morning I stood on the platform at the 59th Street Columbus Circle Station and as the D Train pulled in, I had an almost overwhelming urge to step off the platform in front of the train — I can still see that train pulling in. But the key word here is “almost.” That night, I telephoned my wife — we were not yet divorced — and I asked her, Can I come back, can we try again? She said, Let me think about it. And so she thought, and we spoke again the next night and made the arrangements for us to try to put our marriage back together. In the end, the marriage did not last, but that’s not the point. I didn’t tell her, If you don’t take me back, I’ll kill myself. I’ve never told her how desperate I was when I called her that first night — maybe she could hear it in my voice, but maybe not and maybe it didn’t matter, we had a pre-school child to raise and she was not interested in being a single mom — but would I have done it? Thrown myself off the platform in front of the train? I don’t know, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. We had a child to raise. I had books and stories to write,

    Now, here, these days, many days and years later, here I am in Chicago, with my second wife, and I have told her that if she ever sees me with a pistol in my hand — and I do not own a pistol — but if she ever sees me with a pistol in my hand, she is to call 911 immediately, because my having such a weapon would mean that I was about to shoot someone, probably myself.

    It helps to know one’s limits, one’s triggers, one’s bounds. Would I kill myself if I thought it was the thing to do? Yes, though I’ve always maintained that as dying is the last thing I want to do, I’m saving it for last. Would I talk to anyone about it first, keep the promise I made after the incident by the window? I don’t know. I hope never to have occasion to find out.

    Thanks for listening, Betsy. Thanks for being there.

  7. I never saw it coming. In retrospect, yes, the signs were there, but friends and family members who have taken their lives didn’t communicate their pain verbally. I sometimes felt I saw something in their eyes, but at the time did not realize the extent of their despair. I miss my friend Eddie most of all. I’ve thought I had a broken heart, but I never knew what one was until he was gone. He liked to smoke pot and golf, not necessarily in that order.

    Your eulogy is beautiful and you’ll always miss your friend. Fuck grief. I mean, embrace it, but pound the walls, too.

  8. Dear Betsy,
    What a horrible time of grief and sorrow you’ve had to experience. I’m so sorry for it all. I pray that you can stay strong.

    All the testimonies here have left me shaken and sad this morning. Yes, I’ve been around suicide, illness and senseless death. Our human condition often sucks and some get hit harder than others. I haven’t wanted to kill myself, as writing saved my life. I don’t know how, it just did.
    Hold on, everyone, as best you can.
    Love.

  9. There is a line in Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which comes to mind at times like these–“How can the dead be truly dead when they remain in the hearts of the living.” I will always remember George as he was when I met him while I worked at Simon & Schuster. He was funny and charming. Thank you Betsy for this remarkable tribute.

  10. Have I thought about “it”?
    Contemplated how to do “it”?
    Wondered about the reaction to “it” experienced by those left behind?
    Sure.
    But:
    Utter surprise.
    6 months and 23 days ago as I lay in the ambulance at 3:30 am being rushed to the hospital while experiencing what I thought were the last few minutes for my poor damaged heart to continue beating I was sort of excited about what I would discover on the other side. I wasn’t afraid. I had no regrets.
    But:
    My words at this moment attest that I lived.
    I’m glad I did.

    Oh how I could go on about this.
    That Bettyville is hard to read. (Was it my face on the page I saw?)

    But, if things change and suffering becomes the bone picked, like Donna, I’ll be in Maine. I love Maine. And Tetman, sweetheart how grand it is that for our friend Donna, for now, you can keep your arms and hands to yourself.

  11. I tried once as a teen. Not since- though I’ve struggled through black moments that were mired in hopelessness. I know that hopelessness and that it kills. I’ve also watched many kill themselves slowly with alcohol or drugs. I wish they knew how much they meant to us. Thank you for your moving piece.

  12. This poem has always consoled me. So sorry, Betsy, for your tragic losses. My deepest condolences go out to all of us, for we will all need it, sooner or later.

    On Another’s Sorrow
    From Songs of Innocence
    -William Blake

    Can I see another’s woe,
    And not be in sorrow too?
    Can I see another’s grief,
    And not seek for kind relief?

    Can I see a falling tear,
    And not feel my sorrow’s share?
    Can a father see his child
    Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

    Can a mother sit and hear
    An infant groan, an infant fear?
    No, no! never can it be!
    Never, never can it be!

    I myself have never experienced suicidal ideation, but I have at times heard echoes of suicidal thoughts from one of my kids. He’s a musician– sensitive, volatile, self-judgmental, exquisitely talented. Somehow he manages to pull himself out of depression, but I am ever vigilant.
    I hear it from my husband, who suffers from chronic back pain; if he ever finds himself paralyzed and unable to walk, he says, he’s checking out. But as you say, Betsy, life tugs, if ever so quietly.

  13. Such terrible losses! My heart goes out to you and your family- your dear sister and her husband. Such sorrow. I’m so sorry.

  14. I am so sorry you’ve had to experience all of these losses. My mom died of a drug overdose on New Year’s Day last year. It was like being caught in an undertow. Nothing is the same after. But that “live now” whisper, that kept me in the world. Wishing peace for your and your family.

  15. I needed several days to do more than weep over your sincere poem to friendship, loss, and the anxiety about facing the days to come. When one’s life veers into a series of tragedies and sadness, the rest of the world certainly becomes an annoying reminder of everything trite, rude, self-centered and cruel. Grief, for me, is now a sort of hibernation; a time for stepping away from the every-day to reflect and assemble new courage to live onward. I, too, have lost loved ones to drunk drivers, to suicide, to AIDS, to the ineptness of the Corps of Engineers, to bureaucracy and misplaced priorities. Please find a small comfort in knowing that many are living this journey, too. Take our offered hands, for we understand.

  16. Betsy, this was a beautiful eulogy, and I am so sorry for your losses. I can tell you this. When I lived in New York many years ago, I didn’t realize how much trouble I was in with depression, compulsive eating, and suicidal ideation until I read your book Food and Loathing. These are not things I like to talk about or admit to anyone. I was just lucky that I found you and your words. Sending you lots of love.

  17. Wow, your words are very powerful – thank you!

    At 17, I attempted suicide. I am now 65. I am a writer and psychotherapist. I am grateful that the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly lessening. The more we can talk about it, write about it, speak about it, the more we will heal from the silence that’s been pervasive for far too long.

  18. Thank you for the comment. Thank you for knowing how to help people. Betsy

  19. Thank you for your work helping people. Thanks for the comment. Betsy

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