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The Hemingway suicide curse

By LOU MARANO   |   Oct. 10, 2001 at 2:53 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Dr. Clarence Hemingway's suicide in 1928 reverberated through the generations, showing why it's never an option to kill yourself if you have kids.

"I don't want to say you 'taint' your future generations, but it's real close to that," said Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

No matter how much pain you think you've caused your loved ones, it's nothing compared with the pain your suicide will cause, Bell affirmed.

The latest casualty seems to be Gregory Hemingway, 69, who was found dead on Oct. 1 in a private cell at the Miami-Dade Women's Detention Center.

Gregory, the youngest of Ernest Hemingway's three sons, went by the name of Gloria, The Miami Herald reported. Five days before his death from heart disease, he was arrested on Key Biscayne after a park ranger reported him walking naked on a highway median.

On Friday the Herald reported that the last of Gregory's four wives (he also left seven children) said he had been diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder and sometimes skipped his medication.

Major depressive disorders can have a genetic component, but not everyone with such a predisposition is fated an end as sad as Gregory Hemingway's. Life experience also plays a part.

The keynote sentence of Gregory's memoirs, published in 1976, was: "I never got over a sense of responsibility for my father's death." Of course, Ernest Hemingway -- depressive, alcoholic and ill -- killed himself on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho.

"The pathological sequelae following a suicide are tremendous, and that's separate from the biological vulnerability," said Harvard's Douglas Jacobs, a suicide expert in clinical practice. The "not uncommon" view of survivors is: "How could that person have done it to me?" and "If I were good enough, he wouldn't have done it," the psychiatrist said in a phone interview.

"They're walking around with a confluence of both anger and rejection," Jacobs said.

The suicide of Clarence Hemingway -- depressive and diabetic -- caught the author amid revisions to his second novel, "A Farewell to Arms." In a letter to his editor at Scribner's, Max Perkins, he wrote: "I was very fond of him and feel like hell about it."

Fictional characters are not authors' exact counterparts, but "Nick Adams" -- the protagonist of many of Hemingway's best short stories -- is as close to being his creator's alter ego as one encounters in serious literature.

"Fathers and Sons" (1933) finds Nick, like Ernest, back in the United States after living in France. Nick remembers his father as he drives through a small town at night, his own young son asleep on the seat beside him.

Nick's father had taught him how to fish and shoot, "and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time." Then, perhaps intentionally, Hemingway puts the cart before the horse.

Nick's father was sentimental, the author tells us, and, like most sentimental people, he was both cruel and abused. Of course, sentimental people don't start out cruel. They set themselves up for abuse, which can make them cruel.

"Also," Nick mused, "he had much bad luck, and it was not all of it his own. He had died in a trap that he helped only a little to set, and they had all betrayed them in their various ways before he died.

"All sentimental people are betrayed so many times. Nick could not write about him yet, although he would, later. ... If he wrote it, he could get rid of it."

Nick is startled out of his reverie by his son's question of what it was like when Nick hunted with the Ojibwa Indians as a boy in the Michigan woods. "And my grandfather lived with them, too, when he was a little boy, didn't he?"

The boy, who speaks English with French sentence construction, asks what his grandfather was like. "Why do we never go to pray at the tomb of my grandfather?" he wants to know.

"I can see we'll have to go," Nick concludes.

Hemingway did later "write it." That is, he dealt with his father's suicide in his writing. But he never "got rid of it."

"When I work with clients whose parents have killed themselves, they almost never really recover," Georgetown psychotherapist Annette Annechild said. "The prognosis is bad. Not that they'll kill themselves, but they almost never get over it."

Why?

"The biggest thing we give our children is the optimism to believe that it's worth living," Annechild said. "When a parent kills himself, it's like saying: 'I couldn't figure it out. It's not worth it. And, more important, you're not worth it. Your love wasn't worth staying for.' "

In addition to whatever genetic component is handed down, the abandonment "is just a hideous legacy for people," she said.

Hemingway's novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1940) is set in civil war Spain. At the conclusion the American protagonist, Robert Jordan, having accomplished his mission of blowing up a bridge, has his leg crushed under a wounded horse. His partisan comrades must abandon him in making good their escape from behind enemy lines.

Jordan, armed with a submachine gun, fights the temptation to kill himself as he awaits the coming of the fascists.

"I don't want to do that business that my father did. ... I'm against that," Jordan thinks, and then reconsiders as he contemplates the possibility of capture, questioning and torture.

"So why wouldn't it be all right just to do it now and then the whole thing would be over with? ... I think it would be all right to do it now? Don't you?"

Then, in italics, come the words: "No, it isn't. Because there is something you can do yet."

The "something" for Robert Jordan was to kill at least one more enemy soldier. To live on for one's children, even in pain, is no less heroic.

Three of Clarence Hemingway's six children took their own lives. Ursula, suffering from cancer and depression, died of a drug overdose in 1966. In 1982, Leicester, a diabetic faced with the loss of his legs, shot himself in the head -- as had his father and famous brother.

In 1996 the model Margaux Hemingway -- daughter of Ernest's oldest son, Jack, the little boy in the car -- died from a barbiturate overdose.

Gregory Hemingway "adored his father," his widow told the Herald. A bartender recalled that Gregory had been "distraught" about five years ago after seeing a one-man show on the author's life at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. "He was saddened by reliving that," the bartender said.

Nelia Real, the officer who arrested Gregory, said he appeared to be drunk or impaired.

"He was a very nice guy. He wasn't nasty," she said. "I felt really bad. I felt like maybe there was something wrong with him mentally."

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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