A Psychiatrist’s Elegy for Anthony Bourdain
His suicide seemed so outside the realm of possibility. But maybe it wasn't..
Posted Jun 13, 2018
“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” —Willa Cather
I can’t call him Tony because I have never met him. He is Anthony to me. I only know him from his show, Parts Unknown. I never read Kitchen Confidential, which is now next on my list. Yet I felt like he was my friend. His death left many of us in shock and horror. It felt like a betrayal. He was this profane Buddha. He was Walt Whitman. He brought us together with the elegant basics — good food and good company. He taught us that we are all one behind our races, our languages, our cultures, our palettes. He was giving and generous. He listened. He was a citizen of the world, welcome at every table. Cultural differences added spice to our cuisines. I’m sure he’d agree that we should all intermarry, but keep our ethnic foods.
His grisly suicide seemed so outside the realm of possibility. But maybe not. The secret is, character always plays true. He had talent, and the discipline to follow his passion and become a master chef. And yet, something always lurked back there. He was a bad boy who never quite reformed from sex, drugs and rock and roll. It haunted us imperceptibly. It showed through like a pentimento. The heroin addiction was back there. You never know. He always had the presence of mind to correctly say it was not a disease. He took responsibility for his actions.
He spoke the truth with that quiet smoky voice, from his cigarette-fueled past. He walked around in that tattoo-stained body. He continued to drink and smoke weed with the best of them. Despite his fearlessness, he always seemed wistful. Despite his martial arts, I felt a fragility.
I don’t really know what happened. I don’t know what darkness lingered there. As a psychiatrist, I’m the first person to say that the public has no idea about the real story behind the story. We all have our impressions, our projections, our fantasies, but we have no idea.
In watching him on television, you could sense his aloneness, while the world invited him to their table, as he engaged in that charming way he had. In retrospect, his significant suicidality after his first divorce foreshadowed things to come. We hoped this was behind him. Certainly he’d grown up since then. He still made references to suicide. One never outgrows the need for love. He recently appeared very happy with his life. Relationship problems are the leading immediate cause of suicide, along with finances, failure, loneliness and loss. But often this is not the real cause; rather, it’s some internal darkness and self-hate. The not so-hidden dark side of Anthony Bourdain surfaced, the side that we all assumed and hoped was gone or at least diminished. We were wrong.
Our fantasies about Anthony Bourdain died with him. He was a wonderful, inspiring, but flawed man. It’s a huge deal that he was the father of an 11-year-old girl whom he abandoned and betrayed.
We have a rising toll of suicides in our world today. This is an extremely disturbing fact, the tenth-leading cause of death. The suicide rate has gone up nearly 30% in the past 18 years in the U.S. This is a complicated issue without simple causes or solutions. We have internet bullying. We have loneliness and isolation. We have families in dissolution. We have a preponderance of psychiatric treatments that ignore the heart and soul of what it is to be human. Life is difficult, and requires struggle and resilience and caring to carry on.
One thing I want to emphasize is that each of us is an individual. We have our own hidden worlds behind public perceptions. We have our own private motivations that others aren’t privy to. Suicide weakens the faith of others to keep on going and embrace the struggle that is life. Suicide is contagious. It makes the survivors feels guilty. It makes us feel there is something we could have and should have done. The effect is to put blood on our hands where it doesn’t belong. I hope those close to him come through this misplaced guilt.
Bourdain’s suicide is particularly disturbing and undermining because he seemed to embody the courage to go on and fight, to put your demons behind you and make the world a better place. He seemed to have arrived. He seemed to embody helping people connect and not be so alone. Food is love. He was a humanitarian who bridged differences and brought truth and beauty to the world.
I’m so angry that he did this. And I will miss him like he was someone that I know and love.