By Hunter Bivens
(after Heiner Müller’s “The Father”)
On a Tuesday morning in October of my tenth year in California, I learned of my father’s suicide. I was eating breakfast in my car before a meeting of the Committee on Teaching, and I got a text addressed to me and to my brother. It thanked us and said goodbye. I wrote back, “Hey don’t do anything weird out there,” and went to my meeting. In the meeting, I was distracted and contributed a number of badly timed generalities. Later that day I was scheduled to teach Kafka. “The Judgment.” No shit. And this after I had recently had my students read Freud on the Oedipus complex and how dreams work.
My father had already planned to take his life on September 17. “You’d be surprised,” he would email himself, “how much work you have to do to kill yourself.” Apparently, he had run out of money, never having made back what he lost when Bear Stearns, where he was head analyst for food companies, went down in 2008, and then blew whatever he managed to scrape together in the ten years since. He was paying his bills with credit cards while pretending to be a retired man of leisure—his days spent playing golf and writing books with his wife about the unlikely recoveries of wounded soldiers and their pets. The funeral was full of “Wounded Warriors” and their mothers, and the Coast Guard brought a flag, since the old man had once joined the Coast Guard to avoid being sent off to Vietnam. The Tuesday before that ceremony, though, he had woken up and written two very literary suicide notes, one to his wife, and one to my brother and I, where we are both addressed in the third person. Then he put on his jacket, gazed once more at his wife, I hear, and went out to buy some light bulbs. He drove to the parking lot of the Island Oasis, an abandoned restaurant outside of Ocean City on Route 50, and got out of the car. After calling 911 to tell them where he was, and what he was going to do, he shot himself in the mouth and blew his brains out of the back of his head. I assume he used the Beretta, because I found the Smith & Wesson in his drawer later. He had called his life insurance company to make sure he was past the suicide exemption. Again, it had basically taken him a month to put his affairs in order. I’m sure there were a lot of forms, emails, and phone calls.
Because the suicide was so unexpected, many of us approached it as a kind of mystery to solve, or a problem of interpretation. This desire to understand, to figure it out, was, though, quickly undercut—thrown in our faces even—by the extraordinary clarity of the letters that my father left behind, precisely because they openly asserted what all of us would have liked to spend a couple of days arriving at in earnest, mournful discussion. He was a writer. His writing had carried him out of the small, southern gothic town where he grew up, and he had spent about twenty years writing for the big dailies in Philadelphia; he was actually nominated for a Pulitzer for a long series on the Campbell’s Soup family in the early ‘90s.
“The reason,” he wrote, “was appallingly rational: Despite an MBA degree from Wharton and a successful 20-odd years on Wall Street, I had simply run out of money.”
I imagine the old man in the parking lot of Island Oasis, with the gun in his mouth gazing across the street at a water park, empty now in late autumn.
Hunter Bivens is an Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He received his PhD in German Studies from the University of Chicago and is the author of Epic and Exile: Novels of the German Popular Front (Northwestern UP 2015) and numerous pieces on GDR literature and film and proletarian-revolutionary literature. His current project is a book on labor and feeling in socialist realism, titled The East German Construction Novel of the 1950s: Work, Affect, and Obstinacy.