The suicides of successful famous people always prompts a convulsion of mystified grief (“I had no idea!”), often leavened with well-intentioned resignation: “You just never know what people are going through, huh?” We observe the disconnect between their public face and private pain and grieve that anyone could keep up such an excruciating charade.
The deaths of designer Kate Spade and culinary adventurer Anthony Bourdain this week have been especially evocative of that apparent incongruity: They were both people whose lives had become their business, both people whose livelihood depended on maintaining a specific public profile. Bourdain was the expansive guide to new territories, a professional enthusiast whose occasional snark only served to set off his joyous embrace of life. Spade was the meticulously attired entrepreneur, her crisp but witty designs an apparent extension of a life so utterly coordinated that she and her husband didn’t just have matching tastes, but matching clothing lines.
The tributes from both of these celebrities’ friends and colleagues will deepen the portrait held by casual fans; Bourdain seems to have had a particularly special ability to connect with those he crossed paths with. And I don’t mean to imply that either Bourdain or Spade were engaged in active subterfuge or just constantly shilling. It’s just that both their careers depended on an audience’s desire to own a little bit of the lives they led. Spade sold that opportunity in physical tokens, while Bourdain depended on fans tuning in to the commercials between rides on his shoulder as he took the trips they could only dream of.
The public’s shock at their final acts speaks to the seamlessness of Spade’s and Bourdain’s products, the completeness of the illusion that we really knew these two people. We are not supposed to think about the actual humans who were at the center of that lucrative idealization — that would be off-brand. We are not supposed to think about the fragility and high-stakes nature of their performances, how they may have felt our covetous admiration as a weight rather than as a buoy, a misinterpretation that is almost incomprehensible to those of us who looked up to them. Didn’t they know we loved them?
Celebrity suicides can feel like a mystery — but you don’t have to be famous to keep a dark abyss between the narrative for the world and the stories you tell yourself on the inside. Recent research about suicide suggests that most people who end their own lives do so without bridging that void: A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study released this week found that 54 percent of those who killed themselves had no previous mental health record. And ask anyone who has had a loved one die by their own hand: “Didn’t they know we loved them?” is the refrain of all mourners of a suicide.
But regular people can wind up with the same urgent need to maintain a celebrity-like front to the world. Our culture says that everyone should aim to “be their own brand,” a fiction that can feel easy to maintain as long as we have a screen between us and the world. On social media, we all have the tools of an “influencer,” and we don’t think twice about applying a filter to who we are, capturing only our best side. The stakes can feel just as high as the ones a celebrity faces. And anyway, pressure to conform to whatever story we’ve created for ourselves doesn’t come from highflying investors or an international audience: It’s based in the simple fear of revealing yourself to be flawed and how the world (or just your friends and family — your world) will respond when you do.
Our friends and family, meanwhile, feel the same tension we do and may even sense it in us — but all too often shy away from approaching us about it. Their reticence might be based in a parallel fear of not being who they’re supposed to be: A worry about saying the wrong thing, about being inadequate to the task of providing support.
I’ve learned in the hardest and most beautiful ways, though, that having one’s facade crack in public can be the first step toward aligning your outsides and insides.
As someone with bipolar disorder, I have been through times when my depression was too intense not to break through to the surface, even if it was inconvenient or embarrassing. On Friday morning, after reading about Bourdain’s suicide, I posted on Twitter about a specific incident when I lived in New York, trying to keep a crying jag to myself while commuting on the F train. My head was hung down and it was crowded; I thought I was doing a pretty good job of keeping it to myself. Then, at one stop, a hand appeared under my nose, holding a packet of tissues. I instinctively grabbed them, but the person who held them for me moved on before I even saw who it was. That stranger kept me going for another day, which led to other days, which eventually led to long-term help. I asked at the end of my post Friday for people to share examples of other times someone had just gotten them through the day.
There were hundreds of responses. Some involved the kindness of strangers: a restaurant manager who comped lunch for someone obviously in distress, a parent who got overwhelmed at a store and had someone offer to help with a fussy child. Some involved an unexpected thread of intimacy in a professional setting: a nurse who took the time to do an extra kindness or a boss who gave time and support beyond what was required. Lots of people singled out airline employees for patience and the occasional necessary luxury (whether it was an extra packet of cookies or help getting on a direct flight home). And there were stories of friends showing up with Chinese food and a DVD box set at the exact right time or family members giving over spare couches — or even loved ones coming to help and knowing not to talk, but just to be present for the person who was suffering. There were kids who expressed the clear-eyed, unconditional love that adults forget to practice.
At first, what I noticed about these stories was the generosity of the person who gave aid and how so many started out by that person simply asking, “Are you okay?” — and meaning it. That is one very important part of the equation, evidence that maybe we’re not so bad as a species, after all. But then I realized that’s not actually how the stories started. These stories exist because before anyone offered help, the person in need somehow showed they needed it. Intentionally or unintentionally, willingly or unwillingly, they closed the gap between the celebrity version of themselves and the version we all prefer to keep under wraps.
We are all more generous than we realize, I think. When we see that messy, damaged, imperfect version of someone else, we want to help — because, of course, we see ourselves. I was a fan of Bourdain and Spade, but to the extent I saw myself in them, it was a better iteration of me — more together, more talented, more adventurous, more likable, more stylish.
I wish I had known, and I wish they had known, what we had in common: that we deserve to be helped, that, in fact, we can all be helped — if we let people know we need it.