Could the legalization of same-sex marriage have helped to reduce suicide attempts by U.S. high schoolers? A new study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School suggests so.
Yesterday afternoon at the downtown Charles Center Station, a young man threw his cell phone on the tracks of the Baltimore metro-subway train. Then he jumped after it.
There’s a lot of rhetoric from all sides of the gun control debate. A recent study out of Johns Hopkins aimed to cut through some of that talk and get some real data about the effect of stricter gun laws. The result? In short, making it harder to get guns reduces gun suicides significantly.
Okay, let’s get real — a blood test for suicide is certainly a long way off, if it ever becomes a reality at all. But it’s one step closer to reality thanks to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, which found that alterations in a single gene seemed to cause ordinary stress responses to spiral into suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Two weeks ago, an employee of Johns Hopkins Hospital informed administrators that OB/GYN doc Nikita Levy was taking photographs of patients (“and possibly others,” according to the hospital — though it’s unclear what that means) without their consent. After being barred from contact with patients, Dr. Levy killed himself at his Towson home.
Murky family lore had it that my maternal grandfather killed himself after a tuberculosis diagnosis in the early 1950s. That was it, except for one other morsel concerning a family friend who claimed to have bumped into my grandfather in a West Coast bar in the mid-to-late 1940s. Apparently she spoke his name and he pretended not to know her.
From these sketchy details, I imagined a bitter, perhaps alcoholic drifter with shifty eyes whose life dead-ended in a golden land where so many had sought their fortune. Beyond that, I gave little thought to my grandfather; much less imagined that one day his pathetic leavings would help to explain the pattern underlying my mother’s sad life and why I, too, often struggled to grasp the value of familial love and loyalty.
That was before I stumbled upon a modest trove of family records in my mother’s condo after her death in 2008. I nearly tossed the records, stored in a leather box, which I first mistook for an old, musty book. They could have been just another of my mother’s flea market finds. By the time I found the box, my sister and I had been clearing my mother’s condo of 20 years of impulse shopping, I was ready to chuck everything. Fortunately, I opened the lid first.
Inside were a death certificate, a ring, watch fob, and ephemera including a brief item from The Los Angeles Times employee newsletter about my aunt’s tour of the plant escorted by my grandfather. From this item, I concluded that his elder daughter — my aunt — had tracked him down years after his disappearance. She later sent his effects to my mother, who never showed them to my brother, sister and me.
Piecing together the box’s contents, a more complete picture of my grandfather, a chauffeur named Ernest W.A. Seidemann, emerged: Some time in the 1930s, Seidemann left his wife and two daughters in Atlantic City, N.J., changed his name to Henry Carl Fisher and settled in Southern California. There, he worked in the mailroom of The Los Angeles Times until becoming ill. On Oct. 26, 1954, in a hotel room, he shot himself in the head. He was 58. I was 10 months old.
The box also contained Ernest’s farewell: a terse, typewritten note on old-school newspaper copy paper addressed to a colleague named Jack. “I have been informed that I have T.B.,” the note began. “That means I would have to go to a hospital for a year or two and then maybe not be cured. I couldn’t stand that with my hemroids, (sic). They have been killing me.” He was buried in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, later the resting place of Gorgeous George, Oliver Hardy and one of the Three Stooges.
Not only did Ernest’s wretched end shed light on my family’s affinity for the absurd, it also clarified my own persistent impulses. I could no longer ignore that I hail from a clan of escape artists who favored the unknown to the demands of stability.
I hadn’t run away from Baltimore, where my husband and I reared two beautiful boys, now young adults. Yet I had harbored doubts about my place in this domestic setting, and never felt entirely comfortable with the attendant responsibilities, whether building block towers on the floor, preparing healthy school lunches or finessing that working-mom thing. Some inarticulate force was always pulling me away, telling me this wasn’t where I belonged, even though my mother’s life exemplified the toll of not belonging.
Now I saw how my grandfather’s tragicomic demise foreshadowed my mother’s constant disappearing act. At 16, she made her first getaway, dropping out of school in Atlantic City and leaving home. Via Washington D.C., she found her way to New Brunswick, N.J., where she met my father, a young reporter at The Daily Home News. It didn’t take long for them to marry and make the pilgrimage to the suburbs, two kids in tow and one on the way.
But even then, my mother resisted the role she had signed on for, shrugging off the era’s spic-and-span expectations for running a household. Nor did the banality of suburban life in the 1950s, with its mountains of unfolded laundry and bland prescriptions for motherhood, do much for her morale. She once flew to Miami for two weeks on account of her “nerves” and then refused to come back. I remember my father arguing with her on the phone. Eventually, she returned, tan and more restless than ever.
Evasion became another means of escape. To mask constant discomfort with herself and her predicament, my mother never gave a straight answer to a question. “I’m all right, the world’s wrong,” she’d say repeatedly. Sometimes, though, she’d make a good case for this aphorism. She introduced our subdivision of ranch and split-level homes to an interior design style that she dubbed “Early Halloween.” With a penchant for transforming found objects into objets d’art, such as massive bouquets of dried flowers spray-painted gold and rustic mobiles made of shriveled orange peels, my mother was an early adapter whose DIY projects prefigured shabby chic and Martha Stewart.
My mother savored beauty and fun and the give and take of flea markets, grocery stores and car dealerships. She was also a card-carrying member of the Hemlock Society, and she often took to her bed for days. For me and my siblings, these mood swings were by turn exhilarating and devastating. By the time we moved to Princeton and I was in high school, my mother’s exit strategy had become a continuous cocktail of (mostly) prescription drugs and alcohol.
She also went missing from time to time. While half-heartedly maintaining the appearance of a middle-class matron by day, my mother transformed into a gangster groupie by night, frequenting a Trenton bar known as Vietnam and partying with drug dealers and their associates. On the night of my high school graduation, she tried an even more daring escape by downing a bottle of pills. She had second thoughts and one of those associates rushed her to the hospital.
When I was grown and had my own kids, my mother bolted again. This time, she blamed her exit on the IRS, to which she owed back taxes on alimony. Her rationale had been that her ex-husband had already paid taxes on that money, so why should she? She had a point, albeit a delusional one.
For reasons that owed nothing to integrity, she turned herself in and sold the family home to pay her debt. Although well under 65, she bought a condo in a Pembroke Pines, FL, retirement village where at the time a statue of Red Buttons stood vigilant at the entrance. There, she lived in a self-medicated haze of declining mental health, befriending strangers she met at gem shows and flea markets and even those encountered after dialing a wrong number.
My mother thwarted all efforts to help her, ultimately erecting an impenetrable barrier that no one could ever scale. In her willful isolation, I had learned from the box of family records, she was not unlike her father.
Suffering from T.B., not to mention those hemorrhoids, Ernest refused to seek medical care or the assistance of those closest to him. “It is a rather unpleasant pill to realize that you might have been able to help a friend, but were thwarted by his pride and secrecy from doing so,” a colleague of Ernest’s wrote in a condolence note addressed to my aunt that was also preserved in the box.
Fifty-four years after Ernest killed himself, I finally knew enough to question if he ever knew that I existed — or even cared. And then I contemplated what it meant for my mother to have to live knowing that he had run away, and that she — and her firstborn — meant nothing to him.
I have stayed with my own nuclear family, defying the ancestral tendency to hit and run. But I often wonder why I didn’t make good on hereditary expectations and screw up or run away at many points in my life. Instead of bolting, like my grandfather and my mother, I’ve learned to accept help with personal difficulties. And unlike them, as well, I am not a risk taker who prefers to plunge into the wilderness rather than cope with the familiar and frequent challenges of domesticity.
But my ability to break the mold can’t just be explained by presence of mind, or a beautiful family — something my mother had as well. The answer may lie in an instinctual preference for fight rather than flight. Having made an enormous emotional investment in my family, I would hate to relinquish what I know is hard-earned and mine. Still, that explanation barely begins to explain why I, too, didn’t head for the hills. Perhaps another dusty old box yet to be found holds more clues to that nagging puzzle.
Stephanie Shapiro wrote feature stories for The Baltimore Sun from 1985 until 2008. Currently, she’s a senior writer at the Johns Hopkins Health System and an affiliate instructor at Loyola University Maryland.
On June 2, 1969, an electrical crew was dispatched by the Baltimore County Bureau of Highways to repair two burned-out lights in the fountain at the center of Druid Park Lake. The first man to climb the ladder and look down over the rim made a gruesome discovery: The body of a woman was lying face down in about two feet of water in a depression inside the top of the fountain. The body was quickly identified as that of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker, a 35-year-old African-American divorcee, who’d disappeared five weeks earlier “under mysterious circumstances,” according to The Baltimore Evening Sun.
Shirley Parker was a bookkeeper, barmaid, and waitress at Baltimore’s famous Sphinx Club. Beautiful, vivacious and popular, she was a secretary in a branch of the Urban League and volunteered for the NAACP. She’d been married twice, first to a man who lived in Pennsylvania, and then to a disk jockey named Joe Parker, who owned a record store on Edmondson Avenue. She was the mother of two sons, one who lived with his father in Pennsylvania and a second, David, who lived with Shirley and her mother.
The story of Shirley Parker’s last evening contains some contradictions. Most agree she was last seen on the evening of April 23, 1969, fashionably dressed in brown hip-hugger slacks, a yellow, orange and white print blouse, a rust-colored coat and pile-lined, knee-length boots. At the time, she’d been dating (and supporting) a 33-year-old man named Arno West. The night she disappeared, Mrs. Parker had gone to meet friends at a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue where, during the evening, she’d learned that Arno West had used her paycheck to buy a pants suit for another girlfriend, a woman who worked for the Social Security Administration.
According to witnesses, Shirley stormed out of the bar around midnight and went directly to Gwynns Falls Parkway, where West lived with his mother. Neighbors say they heard the couple arguing loudly on the porch. West later told police that Shirley was “very upset,” but denied the claim that he gave her “a nasty blow.” After their fight, however, the couple seems to have calmed down. West took Shirley out to another bar, then to visit friends. According to the Afro-American newspaper, “Mrs. Parker seemed angered about some matter and that he took her for a drive to cool off.”
After the drive, West said Shirley asked him to drop her off her in Druid Hill Park, near the lake. “After she got out of the car on Cloverdale Road, near the park, and started walking, he told police he became worried and followed her,” reported the newspaper, adding that before he drove off, West noticed Shirley climbing over the 15-foot-high iron railing around the lake. He returned to the scene, then “he handed her purse to her after she was persuaded not to enter the lake.” He then drove her home, according to West, though Shirley’s mother, Theresa Wright, said Shirley never came home that night. Later that week, according to West, he noticed Shirley’s purse hanging from the inside of the railing surrounding the lake in Druid Hill Park and reported it to the police.
Those who knew her say Shirley Parker just wasn’t the kind of person to leave home with no explanation, and her family was immediately alarmed. A nationwide search led to sightings as far away as California. One woman claimed she’d seen Shirley in Baltimore the morning after she was reported missing. A Baltimore medium said she was getting vibrations in the case and promised she’d soon have an answer. She predicted that Shirley’s death “will soon reveal one of the most horrible crimes in history.” Three weeks later, baffled by the lack of clues, the police dragged the lake in Druid Hill Park, but no body was found.
That’s because Shirley’s body wasn’t in the lake, but in the fountain, where it was discovered on June 2. But what was she doing in the fountain, and how did she get there? Her body too decomposed for the coroner to determine the means of death, only to rule out several causes. She wasn’t strangled or stabbed, and she hadn’t used narcotics. “There were no needle marks, and we were particularly interested in whether she died this way,” said Dr. Edward Wilson, an assistant medical examiner, in an interview with the Afro-American. Dr. Ronald Kornblum, also an assistant medical examiner, reported to the Afro-American that the body showed no gunshot wounds, but it was “possible other indications of foul play had been washed or decayed away.” The recorded verdict was death by hypothermia, though Kornblum admits, “it is possible she was drowned before she was placed in the fountain,” though not possible that she drowned herself.
“It remains a questionable death but was never a murder,” Sgt. Roger Nolan, the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Department’s Cold Case Squad, told The Baltimore Sun.
Reportedly, Shirley was upset when she went missing, which might suggest suicide. She was a strong swimmer who’d won awards for the sport in the past. Perhaps she tried to drown herself and found it more difficult than she’d anticipated, making her way to the fountain in the middle of the lake. Did she climb up the fountain to signal for help? If so, why, in this busy park, did nobody hear her shouting? If she’d changed her mind about suicide, why not simply swim back to the bank? It’s hard to believe anyone would choose to commit suicide by sitting in the middle of a fountain until they died of hypothermia; it could take hours just to lose consciousness, especially on a hot summer night.
Yet the other possibilities seem equally remote. Some believe Shirley was drowned or knocked unconscious by Arno West, who then hid her body hidden in the middle of the fountain and, if she was still alive, left her to die. But the body bore no signs of trauma, and even though West was reportedly a strong swimmer, could he really have dragged the body of a 100-pound woman, dressed in her coat and boots, three hundred feet across the lake? Even if that were possible, could he then have pulled her body 20 feet up the long metal ladder at the side of the fountain?
Unsurprisingly, after Shirley’s body was discovered, witnesses appeared with memories they’d previously forgotten to mention. Some said they saw a rowboat on the water that night; others say they saw Arno West looking at the fountain through a pair of binoculars. West failed a lie detector test; nevertheless, he was released without charge, since no crime had been committed. According to the Afro-American, the police referred to missing links in the case, inconsistencies, and “possibilities beyond belief.”
Forty-two years later, a mystery still hangs over this act of violence or despair.
Mikita Brottman teaches literature and film studies at MICA.