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Suicide in the family: the legacy of Nicholas Hughes

When someone dies of cancer, obituaries talk about “the hard-fought battle.” Not so when the fatal affliction is cancer of the soul, otherwise known as depression. The code word for suicide is “suddenly.” You’d think the deceased had been ambling merrily along until a heart attack or a runaway bus intervened. No defiance, no courage, no grit in that. But the truth is, people don’t take their own lives until they have struggled mightily and long to find reasons for living.

At funerals for those dead of physical causes, there are tributes and flowers and colourful stories that capture her zest for a party, his outrageous wit. Suicides, by contrast, are all but invisible—except when they’re notorious.

Nicholas Hughes, who hanged himself last month in Alaska at age 47, fits the profile of invisible suicides. Marine biologist, former academic, cyclist and hiker. Single, no children, but beloved by his friends and the woman who found his body. Boyish and fun-loving, it’s said. He wasn’t famous or flamboyant; he had no devotees (although, as a teacher, he surely changed a number of lives). But he had a famous mother who, 46 years ago, gassed herself in the oven while Nicholas and his sister were sleeping. Even if you haven’t read a line of her poems, chances are you’ve heard of Sylvia Plath. In the eyes of the world, her death towers over the fearless voice of the living, searching poet. It must have towered over her son as well. With his suicide, he too became notorious. My Google search “Nicholas Hughes suicide” turned up 850,000 citations.

I hadn’t planned to write about Nicholas Hughes. Enough had been written already, I thought. Then in yesterday morning’s New York Times, I found a spare but courageous essay by Linda Gray Sexton, who shares a bond with Nicholas Hughes. Her mother, Anne Sexton, was another boundary-breaking poet who, after years of struggle against mental illness, chose death over the only life she knew. “Nicholas Hughes’s mother, and mine, succumbed to the exhaustion of unrelenting depression,” she writes. “…And we grew up in the wreckage of their catastrophe. Their deaths took away from him and his sister, Frieda, and from me and my sister, Joyce, the solace of a mother’s love. And worse, all four of us, I imagine, had to live with the knowledge that our mothers had quite willfully abandoned us.”

Linda Sexton’s sister does not speak publicly about their mother’s suicide. She’s not alone: many survivors believe they must choose between getting on with their lives and dwelling on someone else’s death. Who am I to say that they’re wrong? Surely people who have faced such a devastating loss have the right to heal as they see fit.

Still, I can’t help but conclude that with silence comes shame. What cannot be shared with a neighbour or a colleague will acquire the taint of fear and isolation. That’s why Linda Sexton tells the truth about “the dark world of suicidal legacies.” She has attempted suicide herself, three times, and she fears for her son, who suffers from depression but “urges [her] to keep writing about it, just as his grandmother did.”

Linda Sexton has a kindred spirit in Britain—novelist Jeremy Gavron, son of the writer Hannah Gavron, who killed herself two years after Sylvia Plath, in the same London neighbourhood. I’ve just read his story in this morning’s Guardian, and I ache for him. Jeremy was four and his brother seven, he writes with eloquent restraint, when their mother gassed herself. His father told the boys she had died of a heart attack, then whisked them off on a ski trip. Now Jeremy has no memory of his mother, whose possessions were quickly spirited away. Well into adult life, he found her brief suicide note in his grandfather’s papers. On the back she had scrawled, “P.S., tell the boys I love them.”

Jeremy had just turned 16 when his father told him about Hannah’s suicide. “I remember that I cried,” he recalls, “but other than that I don’t think I knew what to do with the news.” He has clearly waited many years to write about his mother-the mysteries she took with her and the longing she left behind. He says he read about Nicholas Hughes with “a chill of recognition and pity.” And that “his death was shock enough but in my grief I also felt something older and deeper welling up inside me.”

I’m reminded of Kafka’s famous line, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” The true story of someone’s life and death can serve the same purpose. This is why we need to know the story of Nicholas Hughes, who should still be in Alaska, fishing and hiking and making his pots.

Sylvia Plath reads “Nick and the Candlestick,” one of her many poems to Nicholas, here. She’s magnificent. For “The Fortress,” a poem Anne Sexton wrote to Linda and a longtime favourite of mine, click here. You can read my previous post on suicide here.   


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

April 05, 2009 at 11:11PM

Ms. Maynard,
Suicide has touched me on several occaisons. My 26 year old cousin shot himself in front of his ex girlfriend’s house after she forged checks off of his bank account and he lost everything he had, including a job he dearly loved. His car was merely days away from being repossessed when he killed himself inside of it. His funeral was one of the most ironic I have ever seen. The weather was beautiful and it was an extremely warm March day.
Another friend of my husband’s hung himself after he got strung out on cocaine, his mother died, and his wife cheated on him, all within a year. He left behind two children and a third that he knew was not his. His ex wife told his three year old son that he died from a heart attack. The children are all grown now and have been in and out of foster care their entire lives.

Rona Maynard
April 07, 2009 at 10:10 AM

Lynne, your story reminds me how strange it is that so many people think of suicide as rare. It’s the silence around the truth that sustains this destructive illusion. Thank you for helping to break that silence.

Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel
April 07, 2009 at 9:09AM

When I read of Dr. Nicholas Farrar Hughes’ suicide, I was numb for days. He could have been one of my own children. He could have been me. I have survived three suicide attempts–the latest, and I pray last, at age twenty-one. Depression kills. My heart goes out to his sister Frieda, the last one left standing of the little family that once comprised Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, and Nick Hughes…

And thank you, Rona, for your wise essay, as well as for the links.

Rona Maynard
April 07, 2009 at 10:10 AM

Mrs. Bisquitbarrel, you clearly know more than anyone should about the world of the mortally depressed. What particularly touches me about your comment is the reference to Frieda Hughes, “the last one left standing of the little family.” Frieda has been watching her family whittled away almost since her life began. And I didn’t even mention in my post that Ted Hughes’ second wife also killed herself, along with their young daughter. It’s sadly ironic that Ted Hughes tried to shield Nicholas and Frieda from the truth about their mother’s death. But some blows cannot be cushioned. The harder you try to avoid the facts, the more shameful they become. Thank you for sharing a little of your story with us.

Jules Torti
April 23, 2009 at 8:08PM

Your recent post pulled my mind in many directions today. To my friend Jane who decided this life was too much. To John, in highschool, who thought the same. I thought of the
gas-sniffing Innu in Davis Inlet, exasperated with their frozen isolation and eager to die. Born into Canada’s “killing fields” of Labrador, “the most suicide-ridden place in the world,” their raw sadness with life parallels a small community just outside Tofino, BC. Anashout is best known for the suicide epidemic of 2004 (19 attempts) that left the village reaching for stars.

I thought of Africa where death comes so early in the greedy hands of AIDS. Death happens more than life. If one were to commit suicide, would anyone notice?

Taking your own life–there is unfathomable courage and bravery in the ability to do that.
Thanks for spurring so many thoughts, Rona. You brought what many would like to remain invisible to a palpable place.

Rona Maynard
April 24, 2009 at 5:05 AM

Jules, thank you for the spot-on reminder that the world’s suicide capital is in health-conscious, upstanding Canada. Must differ with you, though, on the question of suicide as an act of courage. I don’t see it that way. Then again, I can’t judge people for deciding to end their lives, as so many cultures have done throughout history. When you’re living without hope, it takes incredible, unheralded courage just to slog through the day and fall into bed.

Jules Torti
April 24, 2009 at 9:09PM

I’m still thinking about all this. Yes, you’re right, there is more courage in deciding to stay.

Did you see The House of Sand and Fog? The suicide scene was, in my mind, almost acceptable, ending a grief as deep and dark as the oceans. It’s odd how movies can penetrate us and linger for years under our skin.

I think I will rent that again. And, What Dreams May Come.

Rona Maynard
April 28, 2009 at 5:05 AM

Ah, yes, that was a wonderful, resonant, bravely troubling film—like the book that inspired it.

July 02, 2009 at 12:12PM

Your timing could not have been more accurate.
Five days ago my diabetic 45-year-old nephew was found dead in his bed. He had battled depression for much of his adult life, and until the autopsy tells us, we have no idea what ended his life. I have read that eating even cheese or wine could interact with some depression medications causing a sudden rise in blood pressure triggering a stroke.
I, too, believe we must talk openly about depression or any type of mental illness, in the hope making it an everyday topic of conversation might remove much of the stigma and draw family and friends to ease the pain and isolation of depression.

Rona Maynard
April 05, 2009 at 3:03 PM

I thought of you and your family on my walk this sunny afternoon in Toronto. Wherever you are and whatever the autopsy tells you, know that everyone who reads your words will be thinking of you as well. I’m glad my own words have been a drop of comfort in the chasm of your family’s loss.

Carol Harrison
May 28, 2010 at 10:10AM

I was given Sylvia Plath’s story as played by Gwyneth Paltrow and indeed it reminded me of how easy it is, when greatly depressed, to commit suicide or want to die for whatever reason.

My brother, mentally ill, in his late 20’s, was hospitalized for attempted suicide. My mother, so my sister tells me, also suffered from depression. My father suffered devastating depression when my brother was found dead….by our sister, after three days. I’ve often wondered had I died instead, would my father have felt the same way. After my mother’s death in April of 1979, about two or three years later, I experienced a severe meltdown and have been taken anti-depressants since. I never fully mourned by mother’s death and feel that all my present emotional problems are from grief not expressed.

I have often felt the need to cry myself to exhaustion but don’t feel comfortable allowing myself to be myself with my spouse. Because he didn’t mourn his female parent when she died, he’s never known true, unconditional….mother love, I feel awkward express my deep pain. All I need is a hug, to be hugged and justl let me, let the tears of psychological pain, flow. When one’s spouse lacks empathy or insight into themselves, you’re basically alone with your own feelings and emotions.

I know this is a year old but for me, it’s still relevant. My father was diagnosed with bi-polar (manic depression) eventually becoming psychotic. live with three different types of depression, genetic or inherited, reactive and health-related. I have felt in the past, due to chronic pain, like going to bed and not wanting to wake up.

Sylvia Plath’s life was such that she couldn’t handle living any more and gassing herself was the best way out. I myself, don’t have the nerve to even take enough of my medication to make myself die in my sleep. And on bad days which for me, are overcast and/or rainy days when I feel the humidity deep inside, I want the pain to go away….to the point where I feel like I want to die.

I know of a man, whose daughter knows my spouse and he lived with depression and hanged himelf and you’re right….his obituary announced on the funeral home’s website, said so and so “died suddenly”. My own sibling feels that mental illnes (or is it a disorder) is stigmatized. I believe it’s more than time for society to open up its eyes and realize that emotional disorders are as much a part of one’s body as is cancer or some other life-threatening illness.

Why is emotional health gone awry, equated with a person’s ‘acting’ ‘crazy’ and being ‘dangerous’. Not all people with emotional/psychological instability, need to be hospitalized. This attitude towards emotional/mental/psychological disorders….it makes me angry and….frustrated!

After our mother died, after a long battle with colon cancer, our family literally splintered. Each member of our family of four left, suffered greatly in his way and I say “his” because my brother died first from dependence of prescription drugs, alcoholism, and profound mental health problems, followed by my father who I believe, gave up on life as well as being profoundly delusional and under/overuse of lithium as prescribed.

So, the men who despised my sister and I, they’re long dead and now my sister and I, we are all we have and she’s holding on by a thread, waiting to be liberated from her marriage and me, I take each day at a time.

Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 1:01 PM

What a terribly sad and tangled story of familial anguish. You and your sister are still here to tell the tale, to be present for each other, to look for hope and hold fast to what you find.

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