The Angel and the Dragon: A Father's Search for Answers to His Son's Mental Illness and Suicideby Jonathan Aurthur, Jonathan Arthur
On November 1, 1996, Charley Aurthur leapt to his death from a freeway overpass in Santa Monica, California. He was twenty-three years old. It was the culmination of five years of heartache for Charley and his family, as he struggled with severe mental illness, numerous hospitalizations and several other suicide attempts. Despite his family's love, intensive
On November 1, 1996, Charley Aurthur leapt to his death from a freeway overpass in Santa Monica, California. He was twenty-three years old. It was the culmination of five years of heartache for Charley and his family, as he struggled with severe mental illness, numerous hospitalizations and several other suicide attempts. Despite his family's love, intensive therapy and numerous medications, in the end, nothing could save Charley from his own encroaching sense of exhaustion and isolation.
Tragically, Charley's story could be anybody's story. In the United States, more than 30,000 people commit suicide every year; it is the eighth leading cause of death overall and the third among young people aged 15-24. But the effects of suicide are even more far-reaching: Its impact on the family is frequently devastating and lifelong.
Author Jonathan Aurthur knows this firsthand. His account of his son Charley's short life and death is both riveting and compelling. Charley's own letters, poems and journal entries demonstrate the terrible complexity and multidimensionality of mental illness and suicide. In the process, the author addresses his own search to understand mental illness and the inability of many medical treatments to help troubled people like Charley. He also offers an alternative treatment plan known as the "psychosocial rehab" model, which seeks to "treat the person, not the disease." This page-turner will stay with readers long after they've heard Charley's story.
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Read an Excerpt
On Saturday, November 2, 1996, a photograph appeared in the Santa Monica Outlook accompanied by a brief text. The photo shows a police officer standing on an otherwise deserted freeway, holding a clipboard and bending over, examining the pavement. A few feet in back of him is a tarpaulin covering something close to the ground. The text reads:
Bicyclist Jumps Off Bridge
A CHP officer conducts an investigation on the westbound Santa Monica Freeway where a Santa Monica man apparently jumped to his death off the Lincoln Boulevard overpass on Friday morning.
The driver of a Porsche was taken to an area hospital for head and neck injuries, after the man fell on his car, Santa Monica police Sgt. Garry Gallinot said.
The incident occurred at 8:43 a.m. The westbound side of the freeway was closed until 11 a.m.
"Witnesses indicated he rode his bicycle to the overcrossing, climbed over the railing, looked down for a few minutes and jumped," Gallinot said.
The twenty-three-year-old man was pronounced dead at the scene.
His name was not released because relatives had not been notified.
The twenty-three-year-old man's name was Charley Aurthur, my son. The text was wrong in one detail. I had been notified of his death a couple of hours after it happened, although not by the police. Charley had jumped from the overpass while I was at work on Friday morning. A little before eleven a representative of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, finding my address on Charley's driver's license recovered from his body, came to my apartment looking for me. When he found no one there he knocked on the door of a neighbor, who was home and had my number at work. The neighbor called me.
This call was the last in a series of phone calls about Charley I had been getting for more than five years. Five years and three months and six days, actually, since July 26, 1991, also a Friday. Calls from highway patrolmen, calls from school physicians and school counselors, calls from heart surgeons, calls from detectives, calls from psychiatrists and psychotherapists of various persuasions, calls from relatives, calls from Charley's friends, calls from Charley himself. Calls ranging from confusing to disquieting to horrifying to miraculous to horrifying. Calls that echo now in my memory like the clang of nails closing a coffin.
Some of the calls had that sound at the time-the jangling phone the clanging gong of impending doom. Others didn't. All were part of a drama whose meaning I am still trying to understand, a drama that began in confusion and misunderstanding, evolved (at least for me) into some kind of certainty, and then dissolved again into confusion, with no hope of any final understanding. But perhaps through the telling of the story, letting Charley speak for himself as much as possible, some more of him and the meaning of his life and death will be revealed.
Chapter 2 - Wrong Turn at Yosemite
The First Day of the Rest of His Life
Tuesday morning, July 30, 1991
"You've got a very sick boy there," said Dr. Thomas Gray, M.D., Ph.D., psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, looking at me and Lin, my ex-wife, from across his desk through glasses that drooped slightly on his nose. We were sitting in his office, having met him for the first time fifteen minutes before. He had just spoken privately-also for the first time-with Charley, who had stomped out of his office after ten minutes, eyes averted, muttering "He asks too many questions" as he passed us in the waiting room. He was now somewhere in the hallway or perhaps downstairs in front of the building, smoking. At least I hoped he was. I hoped he hadn't wandered off somewhere. Or run away. Or God knows what. Four days earlier he had come back from a brief trip to Yosemite, changed somehow, and I couldn't figure out what was happening.
"I think he's probably psychotic, reacting to internal stimuli-hearing voices," Dr. Gray continued. "That's why he's having a hard time answering questions. There's a lot we don't know going on in his mind that he doesn't seem to want to tell us. It's creating, um, a lot of confusion for him, and it's taking a long time to process our questions."
Tom Gray said this all in a calm, slightly halting voice. He looked to be in his forties, our generation. Soft features, light brown hair gray at the temples; Scotch-Irish, I thought, maybe Welsh. Quiet, a little shy sounding, not full of himself or his degrees or decades of practice. Humble, even.
Which is what made his matter-of-fact use of the word "psychotic" so chilling. Everybody used it as a joke, of course-Lin had a phony college sweatshirt that said "Psychotic State" across the front-but till now I had never heard it in connection with anybody I actually knew.
"I think he needs to be hospitalized," Dr. Gray was saying. "Given the auto accident, I'm, um, a little concerned for his safety. We don't know what caused it, and he won't tell us. I think he needs to be under supervision." Dr. Gray was on staff at the mental health center at St. John's Hospital half a block away. The psychiatric unit had an excellent nursing staff. He could vouch for the care Charley would receive.
Hospitalized? That word, at least in a psychiatric context (I was used to Charley going to emergency rooms for broken bones and lacerations), was as bad as "psychotic." The only experience I had ever had with mental hospitals had been twenty-five years earlier in New York when my mother, in the throes of midlife crisis, had swallowed sleeping pills and been put in a psych ward for observation after having her stomach pumped. But she had gotten out in a few days and had never been back, and my memory of the place was dim. My only other strong associations with psychiatric hospitals were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Bell Jar, Nazi nurses and electroshock and lobotomies.
What was going on? Dr. Gray had known Charley for a total of ten minutes, and Charley apparently hadn't even said much. Psychiatric unit? What did Dr. Gray know that we, Charley's parents for eighteen and a half years, didn't? Or more likely, what had he inferred from the little Charley had said before stomping out? I glanced at Lin to see if she was as confused as I was.
For me it was a continuation of a confusion I had been feeling, more and more acutely, since the previous Friday, when the first call came, the first nail.
It had been from the California Highway Patrol in Mammoth Lakes near Yosemite. Yosemite was two hundred miles northeast of Santa Monica, where I lived and where Charley was staying with me for the summer. He had driven my car up three days earlier to meet Lin and go camping with her and two cousins.
He had been in an accident, the CHP officer was saying on the phone. Driving out of the campgrounds that morning to come back to LA Charley had gotten lost on a mountain road and run the car into a ditch. It was unclear why; weather conditions were good and no other car was involved. Charley, who seemed fine physically, had been taken to the local hospital, examined and CAT-scanned for head injury. Nothing appeared wrong or irregular. There were no signs of drugs or alcohol.
Then the officer asked me, after the briefest pause, whether Charley had a history of mental illness.
No, I said. Why?
He had been acting odd, the cop said, gunning the engine when the CHP arrived, trying to drive out of the ditch. I asked why that was odd. Well, the cop answered after another slight pause, the car didn't seem drivable. In addition, Charley had been on the wrong road, going in the opposite direction from LA, and didn't seem to understand that when they questioned him. Later at the hospital he had walked out of the ER half-dressed, gone into a convenience store and picked up a sweatshirt in plain view of everybody, just taken the sweatshirt and headed out of the store, so he hadn't been arrested, just led back to the hospital.
The cop asked again if I was sure Charley didn't have a history of mental illness. I said of course I was sure. What about the family? Any history of schizophrenia? Delusions? No, I answered (what was the guy talking about?). I said it sounded like Charley was in shock. Yes, possibly, the officer said. We talked a minute longer, he giving me names and phone numbers, and that was that.
I left work immediately and rode home on my bicycle-the crashed car in Yosemite was the only one I owned-trying to figure out how to get Charley back to LA. That was my only real concern now. Of course it was too bad about the accident. But Charley had been in many accidents, many hospitals, in his day. He had been accident-prone since he was old enough to run into doors and dive off porches, a sort of lifelong "terrible two" Lin and I had nicknamed "Emergency Room Charley" when he was still little. In fact he hadn't been to the ER for a couple of years now, so he was about due for a trip. This one didn't even sound that bad; no broken bones this time, no lacerations. Too bad about the car, of course, but really, who cared? Charley was okay, that was the main thing. Even the CHP officer hadn't denied that the strange behavior could be explained as shock.
Neither had he mentioned, nor was I aware of at the time, the skepticism with which people familiar with such matters have come to view single-car accidents that seem to happen for no reason.
As a result of this unawareness I was hopeful when I met Charley at the airport later that night, even though I could see right away that something was wrong, or at least different. His face was flushed and his expression was a little dreamy as he sauntered into the waiting area, smiling when he saw me, giving me an affectionate hug but holding off my return hug so that the pack of cigarettes he was fumbling for in his breast pocket wouldn't get crushed. Yes, flushed, dreamy, glad to see me but also a little-what? preoccupied? above it all? By now I'd learned a little more than what the CHP officer had told me and was anxious to find out from Charley exactly what had happened, since the new information didn't quite add up either. A mental health worker in Mammoth Lakes, a woman named Sydney Quinn who had helped care for Charley at the hospital and arranged his flight home, had told me during one of several phone conversations a few hours earlier that Charley had talked about suffering from insomnia; it was the reason, he had told her, for the accident. She asked me whether Charley had been depressed, since insomnia often is a symptom of depression. No, I said, Charley didn't have a history of depression and had seemed fine up to the time he left Santa Monica to go to Yosemite. Ms. Quinn also mentioned some "bizarre writing" the CHP had found in the ditched car, a notebook of Charley's where he talked about "everybody being down on him." She didn't have the notebook, though (and I never found it later), so she didn't know anything more about it. Neither did I, I told her.
Later in the evening I'd spoken with Lin, reaching her in Santa Cruz (south of San Francisco) where she had gone for the weekend after driving out of Yosemite separately from Charley that morning. (Lin lived a few miles from me-in Culver City, like Santa Monica a part of greater Los Angeles-but was planning to move to Santa Cruz the following week.) She hadn't been as surprised as I'd thought she would be when I told her what had happened. She said she'd been a little worried about Charley herself and had even considered not letting him drive that morning. He hadn't been himself since he'd arrived at the campgrounds three days earlier complaining of insomnia. He'd been acting a little wild from the beginning, which she had attributed to the stress of the long drive through the unfamiliar desert and mountains. The first afternoon he had gotten a bicycle from somewhere and when she followed him in her car to a recreation area he'd ridden recklessly, darting into the road without looking for cars. That night there was a full moon and he hadn't been able to sleep. He'd seemed moonstruck, running around in the woods, jumping off picnic tables. The next night there had been an incident. Charley had stood too near a girl about his own age, fixated on her. When he wouldn't let her alone the girl told her father and the father complained to the campground director, and Lin had to talk to the father to calm him down. Charley had kept acting strange, running around the woods. Then at four in the morning he had come into her tent and crawled into her sleeping bag as he did when he was a little boy, saying he was scared. Lin had wondered whether he was on drugs. When she asked him he said yes, he'd been smoking a little pot.
Which seemed to explain things. That and Yosemite itself, Lin said. A park employee she had talked to about Charley had told her that the wild beauty of the place had a reputation for making people a little crazy when they were there, which made her feel better; Charley had always been impressionable. But he had seemed sober and alert in the morning, saying he had slept and was fine driving, so she'd let him go. Now of course she was second-guessing herself. But like me she had no reason to think Charley wasn't basically all right. For all his accident-proneness he had always been mentally stable, rational and reliable. If he said he could drive, he could drive.
I had thought about all this as I waited for Charley's plane to get in, hoping that the shock from the accident had worn off during the two-hour flight, that he'd gotten a little sleep or at least rest and would be able to tell me what had happened. Of course I was vaguely aware that the "moonstruck" stuff, like the "bizarre writing" stuff, contradicted my shock-from-the-accident theory. It meant that he had been acting strange before the car crash, not just after. But how strange, and for how long? Now, here at the airport in the presence of Charley himself, I quickly saw that I wouldn't be getting any simple, sensible answers from him, at least not right away. He didn't volunteer any information about the crash, which was both a little odd but then again not odd given the traumatic nature of the experience and the shock that he still seemed to be experiencing. But at the same time he was here, with me, alive and safe, a little flushed and spacey (but who wouldn't be after the kind of day he'd had?), and his physical presence made everything else secondary. Despite his history of emergency rooms and other minor idiosyncrasies I had always felt a certain basic confidence in Charley and his older sister Jenny. Jenny was twenty, about five-eight, a honey-blonde. After a few slightly white-knuckle years of early adolescence (white-knuckle for me), she had settled down and was now taking advanced placement classes at Santa Monica College, getting ready to transfer to UCLA. Charley was tall as well, slim and handsome in the androgynous way of a David Bowie or River Phoenix, also honey blond with soft brown eyes and eyelashes like palm fronds, his sister and mother's beauty translated into male terms. He had survived his freshman year at a tough school, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Lin's alma mater. At the end of school in May he had come to LA to stay with me and work for the summer to help pay for school. He had found a job busing tables at a Greek restaurant three blocks from my apartment, working evenings and sometimes lunches. During the day when I was at work he played Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Scott Joplin on a little upright piano I'd rented for him.
All that had been up to Tuesday. This was Friday. Whatever was going on now, less than four days later, how bad could it be?
¬2002. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The Angel and The Dragon by Jonathan Aurthur. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
Meet the Author
Jonathan Aurthur was born in New York City in 1948 and attended St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in motion pictures. In the late 1960s through the early 1980s, he worked as a community organizer and documentary filmmaker. He was also the editor of a journal of political theory called Appeal to Reason and the author of a book on political economy called Socialism in the Soviet Union. He currently lives in Santa Monica, California, and by profession is a proofreader and copyeditor, as well as a writer. Aside from his late son, Charley, he has a surviving daughter, Jenny.
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