What a fascinating, horrifying story, one of almost mythological dimensions. The New York Times tells the tale of Bob Bergeron, a gay psychotherapist who committed suicide in January. Why? His friends speculate that he could not deal with getting older and losing his beauty. He was 49, healthy, HIV-negative, prosperous, and had no history of depression. He was on the verge of publishing a self-help book called “The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond.” Excerpt:
In “Dancer From the Dance,” the seminal 1970s novel about gay life in New York by Andrew Holleran, the protagonist, Anthony Malone, walks into the bay on Fire Island rather than facing getting older and watching his beauty fade.
Had Mr. Bergeron made the same decision?
“We sell this idea that 60 is the new 40, but it’s just lying,” said Dr. Frank Spinelli, an internist in Chelsea who referred numerous patients to Mr. Bergeron. “We tell children there’s Santa Claus, and then they get older, and learn better. I can’t even begin to imagine what Bob was going through.”
Olivier Van Doorne, a patient of Mr. Bergeron and the creative director of SelectNY, a fashion advertising firm, recalled Mr. Bergeron telling him that every gay man peaks at one point in his life.
“He said a number of times: ‘I peaked when I was 30 or 35. I was super-successful, everyone looked at me, and I felt extremely cool in my sexuality.’ ”
Mr. Siegel, the therapist who supervised Mr. Bergeron in the early days of his career, said: “Bob was a very beautiful younger man, and we talked a lot about how that shapes and creates a life. The thesis of his book is based very much on his own personal experience with that. And the book also emphasized what to do when you’re not attractive or you no longer have the appeal you once had. The idea was to transcend that and expand your sexual possibilities.”
Think about what this says about Bergeron’s worldview. He was super-successful even today, at 49. But men no longer looked at him with the same degree of sexual desire. His idea of how to handle aging was developing strategies to have even more sex. He could not live with the limits imposed on all of us by time, by mortality. He preferred to die at his own hand rather than lose his beauty, and accept a diminished sex life.
That’s terribly sad. To find the meaning of life in sex and self-worship. Why on earth would any patient in need of psychotherapy submit to the care of someone with such a shallow, foolish, toxic philosophy?
It’s not easy getting old. My dad, who is 77, has been struggling for some time to reconcile himself to his condition, not because he was narcissistic, but because he was always so physically active, and his body can’t do the things he used to do, and wants to do. Me, I would enjoy being compelled to sit in my chair and have all this time to read, but that’s not what he spent his life loving. It would be like me finding that my eyes had worn out, and I couldn’t read much anymore, and had no glasses. Thinking of it that way has made it easier for me to empathize with him.
But mortality is the human condition. I think of W.H. Auden’s great and wise poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Here it is:
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
Isn’t that something? Don’t fail to notice the references to Narcissus (“Stare, stare in the basin”), and the contemplation of suicide as a cowardly response to the realization that nothing lasts. The “crack in the tea-cup” is how the passage of time reveals that we are mortal, that our youthful illusions are trivial — and how the shock and disorientation of that awareness can lead us to a nightmare of disorientation, when nothing makes sense. Auden says the way out of this despair is through accepting that life remains fundamentally worth living, despite our sadness and powerlessness over aging. That, and the humility to recognize that everybody is broken, everybody is flawed, and the only thing that will get us through is loving each other.
This Bergeron story got to me this morning because just last night, I was working on a chapter in my memoir about my sister. The passage I finished was based on a conversation I’d had with Tim Lindsey, one of my late sister’s doctors. We had talked about what he saw as the broader meaning of the way Ruthie met death here in this small town. I hadn’t thought about what he’d said since I finished the transcript a while back, but re-reading his powerful words last night really got to me. I’m bound to keep the details for the book, of course, but the whole thing was essentially an expression of Auden’s message in this poem. Tim said that what happened to Ruthie — a terminal lung cancer diagnosis at 41, which, as a never-smoker under the age of 45, put her in an extremely small minority — reveals that we have no ultimate power over when death comes for us. The only way to reconcile ourselves to mortality and suffering is through humility — that is, by accepting our essential powerlessness — and by embracing the love of others, both giving it and receiving it. Not “love” in the sense of emotions and sentiment, but by active love: doing things for people, letting them do for you, and simply being present in their lives in a real way.
I really can’t wait for you to read what he said, because it was so well expressed. It got to me re-reading it last night, because it spoke to why I moved back home. Before Ruthie got sick, I would have completely agreed with everything Tim said. The Auden poem has been a favorite of mine for many years. Until I saw my true condition in the bright sadness of her suffering and death, however, I did not realize how very, very far I was from living this way. I’m trying to change that now, but it’s going to take time, and a lot of dying to self, and selfishness. Bob Bergeron was an extreme example of someone who bought the lie, and who literally couldn’t live without his illusions. But he is only an outlier. Though I’m sure I was a lot more thoughtful and philosophically realistic about this stuff than Bergeron, I still didn’t understand Auden’s message, and how he was speaking to me too, until I lived through Ruthie’s death, and saw how she and her community responded to this traumatic inbreaking of mortality by affirming the goodness of God, and of the life He gives us, and by drawing even closer to each other.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, because it runs so counter to what our culture tells us. (Tim: “The American dream is a lie.”) We all have our ways of living the illusion. To me, Bergeron was obviously a fool. But there are people who would see Bergeron’s vanity and foolishness for what it is, yet remain oblivious to how their own faith in their wealth, for example, is a form of the same thing. Bergeron lived and moved in a subculture that affirmed his own deadly illusions. So do most of us, but it can be hard to see for the same reason a fish doesn’t understand that he’s in water. I think of the Gospel story about the Rich Young Man, who told Jesus he was willing to do whatever it took to have eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all he had, give to the poor, and come follow him. The Rich Young Man walked away from him, unhappy. That Rich Young Man was Bob Bergeron. It is me, too. What Jesus was telling the Rich Young Man was that the only way to find true happiness is by total self-abandonment. Tim Lindsey, I see now, was saying the exact same thing to me in our front-porch conversation earlier this year. Hearing this message is one thing; living it is another.