An Open Letter to Henry Rollins Re: “Fuck Suicide”

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[On Thursday, LA Weekly published an article, titled “Fuck Suicide,” by Henry Rollins, as part of his weekly column. William James wrote the following letter to Rollins and then received the response that appears afterward.]

Dear Henry,

If I may, I’d like to first say that I’ve considered myself a fan for many years. When I was 25, I happened upon an audio copy of Black Coffee Blues, which – I say without much exaggeration – changed my life. I started writing because I read your journals, and then proceeded to fill SO GODDAMNED MANY Moleskine notebooks of my own. I used to tell myself “if Henry Rollins can find time to write every day, then so can you.” And yes, I admit that if you were to scan through those archives, they would be the epitome of what the kids these days are calling “first world problems” but the point is I started writing. I kept at it, even when I didn’t feel like it, because you were so fucking prolific, and I had to try to live up to that standard.

Time passed, as it is wont to do, and soon all those unfocused complaints of mine started to take shape into something better. I started writing poems. I thought at first they were song lyrics, but every punk band I tried to start fizzled out well before we could get anywhere, so I started saying I was a poet instead because somehow that seemed less embarrassing. I still wrote, damn near every day. I started going to open mics and readings. I got brave enough to read my shit in front of people, because – once again – “if Henry Rollins can do it, so can I.” This slowly but surely led to my spending two years on the road with various bands, hollering a batch of poems to sad punk kids before the mosh pit started. As I toured, I read Get In The Van. My copy of that book right now shows almost as much wear as my mom’s Bible – I read it about once a year to refresh my memory. I go into every feature, every show, remembering what Chuck Dukowski once told you, that whether there’s 3 kids or 300, I owe it to them to give it 110%. I’ve always admired your work ethic. I’ve even read passages from Get In the Van to younger writers when I’ve been asked to lead workshops. I don’t much buy into the idea of idols or heroes, but if I did, you’d be as close to one as I’ve ever had. I’m telling you all of this because I need you to know that I’m coming from this as a fan. I read your recent article about Robin Williams’ death from suicide, and felt this great sinking feeling in my gut. Perhaps you know the feeling – it’s the one you get when someone you’ve admired, and even considered a bit of a role model, says something so profoundly against everything you believe that you wonder if you can even in good conscience keep supporting that person.

Let me explain a bit: I have dealt with depression for as long as I can remember. Twice in my life, depression managed to fuck with my brain so hard, it convinced me that I should be dead “just to make everyone else’s life easier” and since the Universe wasn’t getting me there quick enough, I’d have to take matters into my own hands. I gave it my best effort – and thankfully, it turns out that suicide is one of those things I fail at. I am one of the lucky ones. In your blog post for LA Weekly, you spoke of the 40,000 people per year who are not so fortunate. Well, more accurately you spoke of 40,000 people per year who “blew it,” and fucked up by not following your lead and grabbing life by the balls. I’ve read enough of your work over the years to recognize your absolute-zero level of tolerance for what you consider weakness. I also remember being moved to tears listening to you speak about Joe Cole’s murder, and how much you would give to have him back. I have never lost someone the way you lost Joe, and I recognize this. It must eat you alive, to this day. I wonder if your contempt for people who have died from mental illness stems from the belief that every victim of suicide is one more person who got to have the life Joe Cole should have, and just fucked it all up for you? I can only imagine that it’s like ripping open a never-healing wound for you.

Where I start to run into trouble with your comments is the not-so-thinly veiled implication that all suicide victims are selfish assholes, if not cowards. Why not both! This year, over 500,000 Americans are expected to die from cancer. Are they, too, a legion of cowardly selfish assholes, half a million strong? Does their death claw at you in the same way, raise the same bile to your throat? Several years ago, my beloved grandmother died of complications arising from the time she fell in her apartment, hit her head, and scrambled that precious egg to the point that there wasn’t much of her left for us to even say goodbye too. She left us, Henry, suddenly and without warning. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Should I hate her for it? Am I supposed to not take her memory seriously? Was she a coward for choosing to die?

I miss her terribly sometimes. Her birthday was the day after my own, and for years we would always call each other to wish each other a Happy Birthday. Every year since her passing, July 28th has been a miserable day for me, because I keep waiting for her call…it never comes. I’m angry at Death for taking her. I’m angry at the fact that I won’t get to help her make noodles for Christmas dinner anymore. I know the rage that comes when you can’t process grief in any other fashion – I suspect you’ve been raging since 12.19.91. But I know that my rage has never brought my grandma back to life, and I doubt yours has brought you any closer to Joe Cole either.

Unlike some of your recent critics, I know you are not a man without empathy. I know this because I have seen your tireless work on behalf of veterans, I’ve seen you literally screaming about the need for mental health care for returning vets. I know that nobody puts in the work you did for the West Memphis Three if they have no heart. I know that you don’t end up doing damn near more USO tours than anyone except Bob Hope himself if you have no heart. You’ve shown time and time again that you’re more than capable of giving a damn about people. I just have to wonder, how does a man who has given so much of his time campaigning on behalf of social justice and human rights end up violently mistaken when it comes to the disease of depression, and its sometimes fatal symptoms? You’ve long been an outspoken supporter of gay rights – would you be willing to say the same things about Tyler Clementi, or any one of the thousands upon thousands of bullied LGBTQ teens who have died from suicide, as you did about Williams? Or does your wrath only come down on those you deem to have lived the life your friend should have had? Do you ever wonder if maybe the machismo-driven, “fuck ’em if they can’t hack it, strength is all that matters” attitudes such as yours don’t perhaps contribute to the very stigma that keeps so many folks struggling will their mental health issues from seeking help? Remember how I kept saying earlier that my inspiration for challenging myself as a writer every day was “if Henry can do it, so can I?” What I haven’t said until now is that back in 2009 when the knife was back at my throat again, I told myself “why the hell should I get help from anyone? Even Rollins knows it’s all bullshit.” What I haven’t said until now is how fucking painful it was to realize that someone I very much admired couldn’t have possibly had any more contempt for me in that moment than I imagined you would have.

What I haven’t said is that I would have gotten help so much sooner if I hadn’t believed that even asking someone for a sympathetic ear was the lowest form of failure a man could reach…and if I hadn’t filled my head with so much “weakness is for losers” mythology that I fueled into a raging inferno by reading your work.

I write this to you, Henry, with the full knowledge that if you do respond at all, it will be with a “Duly Noted.” Your trademark way of telling me to fuck off. I also know that while you’ve never been afraid to speak your mind, you’ve also never been afraid to acknowledge the times when, after much research and study, you have determined your former opinions to have been in error. I’d like to plead with you – as both a huge fan of so much of your work and as a two-time suicide attempt survivor – to do some further reading. Dig up some research (the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention is a great starting point – http://www.afsp.org) and dig a little deeper into the actual physiological mechanics of mental illness, and how utterly it can gutterfuck its victims. I’m not going to burn your books in the street, or hang your likeness in effigy. Most likely, I’ll dig out my battered and dog-eared copy of Black Coffee Blues, put on a fresh pot, and read a while. I still value the lessons I learned from you, and I’ll never be willing to throw the good away just because of this. But I sure do hope you’re willing to try reconsidering. Victim-blaming and shame isn’t the way to end this epidemic.

But there’s a chance that empathy and compassion just might.

Sincerely,

William James – a once, and (hopefully) future fan.

* * *

“William, thank you very much for the letter. I have been getting a lot of them. I see that I need to learn more about severe depression and evolve on the issue. it is very difficult for me for understand why someone with fans and family could leave them. It is just against my code but then again, I don’t have severe depression. I just feel bad for those kids and all the fans. I have battled depression all my life and it has made times very difficult. I have a few friends who were killed. When someone kills themselves I think of them and get mad all over again. I appreciate the time you took to write me. If what I wrote causes you to toss me to the side, I understand. Thanks. Henry”

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About William James

William James is a poet, aging punk, and train enthusiast from Manchester, NH. He's the founder & editor-in-chief of Beech St. Review, a contributing editor for Drunk In A Midnight Choir, and the author of "rebel hearts & restless ghosts" (Timber Mouse Publishing). Follow him on Twitter (@thebilljim) or at www.williamjamespoetry.com View all posts by William James

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