Kate Spade and the Illness Hidden With a Smile
Suicide, no matter how well we know a person, usually comes as a shock, even a violation, putting the lie to our conviction that existence is to be cherished. The fact that taking one’s own life can exist on a parallel track with our ordinary days, in which we go out to dinner or put our children to bed or worry about growing old, always puts me in mind of W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Overtly about the poet’s gazing upon Bruegel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus,” the poem evokes the relativity of tragedy and the isolation of despair: “About suffering,” it begins, “they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position: how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
We are all, always, outsiders when it comes to other people’s pain. But there is no starker reminder of that truth than suicide.
Serious depression, which almost always precedes suicide, retains not only the stigma of mental illness and is thus often undisclosed even to one’s nearest, but is also a fairly disguisable illness. Most often, it leaves no track marks. It comes without benefit of casts or bandages. It can be covered up with a smile and denied even by the one enduring it.
Having suffered from acute depression since I was a very young girl, I am all too familiar with this paradox. I learned early on — no one wants to be around a sad girl, after all — to artfully distance myself from my own downcast mood, to whistle a happy tune around my peers as well as adults in official positions, such as teachers and doctors.
But no amount of performing undoes depression’s private power. When you are down under it, depression obliterates the world around you. It makes you feel as if the experience of being consumed by darkness will never end.
I didn’t know Kate Spade, who hanged herself with a red scarf in her bedroom on Tuesday at the age of 55, other than through the prism of her insistently cheerful and whimsical accessories. But everything about Ms. Spade and her designs suggested a sunny temperament, from her candy-colored aesthetic to the perky image she projected. We have a hard time squaring a seemingly successful woman — one with a highflying career, a family and heaps of money — with a despondency so insinuating that it led her to end it all. All this helps explain why Fern Mallis, the former director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a friend of Ms. Spade’s, called her death “so out of character.” In fact, it turned out that the bubbly girl from Kansas City “suffered from depression and anxiety for many years,” as her husband, Andy, said.
Then again, one might wonder if suicide is ever in character. In its fierce turning against the instinct to preserve oneself it seems closer to a deformation of character than an expression of its natural state.
I have a more than passing interest in the subject of suicide, having fought such impulses for years. I have been hospitalized for depression several times in the past four decades, and I have two bookshelves of my library devoted to the topics of suicide and depression. These include studies and histories of suicide by writers such as Jacques Choron and George Howe Colt, as well as books on the meaning of depression, from Robert Burton to Julia Kristeva.
I have read these books in an effort to break suicide’s unholy grasp on my own melancholic imagination and to try and track the essential mystery of the act down to its psychological roots, although I also realize there is a heritability factor, based on identical twin and adoption studies, of somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. In my case, given my belief that the manner in which I was nurtured left much to be desired, I have always tangled with the genetic component, wondering if it really applies to me and how one would know, anyway.
Doing all of that reading, in addition to writing a memoir exploring the origins of my own depression, has partly broken the fatal allure of suicide. But only partly. There is still a side of me that veers in that extreme and violent direction when something goes wrong, that responds as if to a siren song when I hear of a person who has killed him or herself. “You got out,” I think.
Sometimes I think part of the thing that keeps me here is witnessing the silence that suicide leaves in its wake. There is no going back from the act, no way of trying to unravel the story and certainly no way of making it come out differently in the end. It inspires a collective gasp, after which, and so rapidly, the hole — the vacancy — closes over and we all return to our lives.
Some will inevitably blame Kate Spade for her decision or call it “selfish.” I don’t agree. It is very hard for those who haven’t suffered from serious depression to understand the hold it has on its victims — how it wipes out human connection, abnegating the claims of love or need, and the way suicide can begin to seem like an imperative, an escape rather than an ending.
But I grieve for her husband and, most of all, for the 13-year-old daughter Ms. Spade left behind, who will carry this trauma with her forever. This leads me, in turn, to think of my own daughter, now 28, who has watched and helped me pull through some of my own dire moments, keeping us both, for worse and better, in this, our one and only life.
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.]