My shrink friends tell me we all have those manageable and managed destructive impulses — stepping off the platform in front of the train or pushing someone else. More powerfully, just living can be relentlessly tough and painful. So suicide peeks in our mental windows or comes in to visit.
Two recent very public suicides fall into a whole different category. Convicted felons, one I knew, killed themselves before sentencing. They had months to decide. The likelihood of years or a decade in prison, plus the certainty of emerging broke, was more than they were willing to live with, literally.
Both left suicide notes, which are not public. Each used a method that was not a cry for help with a good possibility of rescue. Consider:
- Deborah Jean Palfrey, a.k.a. the D.C. Madam, who actively fought charges related to a prostitution ring. She hanged herself in a shed at her mother’s house in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Her convictions were on money laundering, financial racketeering, and illegal use of the mail.
- Edward Paul Mattar III, who spent several years unsuccessfully trying to avoid conviction of bank fraud and related financial conspiracy. He broke his 27th floor Denver apartment window and defenestrated himself.
The Denver Post business columnist Al Lewis got hints of Mattar’s long note. Word from prosecutors is that it was not an introspection nor any type of mea culpa. Instead, it was a list of related details and tasks for others after his death. There’s a bitter irony there for someone ceding his life and ability to act, yet affecting a measure of control on others post mortem.
In contrast, Palfrey repeatedly announced her intention. Author and journalist Don E. Moldea reported that she told him, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first. I’ll commit suicide first.”
Her reference was to the 18 months she spent in a California prison. Her conviction then was for attempted pimping. She did not help herself by fleeing before sentencing. Police captured her in Montana at the Canadian border.
A heavy pointer to her thoughts and feelings on prison was in the Washington Post piece:
Appearing on ABC’s “20/20” program a few months after her indictment, Palfrey spoke of Brandy Britton, a former college professor who hanged herself in her Howard County home in January 2007 shortly before her scheduled trial on prostitution charges. Palfrey said Britton had once worked for her.
“She couldn’t take the humiliation,” Palfrey said. “Her whole life was destroyed.”
While others connected with such sex and financial scandals emerge to new careers and financial stability — sometimes building on the sensationalism and infamy, Palfrey and Mattar would not, could not take that path.
Both were in their 50s and surely had at least one more new beginning before them. Yet, their suicides show us again the unknowable. We cannot understand what another person simply cannot abide, what is just one step too far for another.
Another exit similarity was the decision to make others deal with their extremely unpleasant details afterward. For Mattar, rather than go up one floor and leap, he smashed a picture window, leaving the detritus and repairs for others. For Palfrey, she hanged herself where her mother was certain to be the one to find the corpse dangling. Those dramatic statements underscore the often self-centered nature of what could be called the most egotistic of acts.
Sadly for me, it brought to mind the suicide of my Boy Scoutmaster when I was in junior high. Tom was a brilliant chemist, who had a gambling addiction. He and his wife were also good friends of my mother. I don’t recall ever seeing two people more in love with each other.
He was so in debt to mobsters that the only solution he could see was to kill himself. He did that with cyanide at home. He knew his wife would be gone for hours. From the calculations he left, the poison would be well out of the air in the bathroom long before she returned. He had even showered and shaved.
I was and still am saddened he came to that. We learned a lot of Scout stuff, outdoor lore and practical methods, on many camping trips and our regular troop meetings. He kept us laughing, kept pace with the strongest and most assured of us, while gently pushing the shy and clumsy. He really taught self-confidence.
He was a thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable human, with a tragic flaw. Yet there don’t seem to be too many parallels among Tom, Ed and Deborah. Of course, the only one that counts is that for their various reasons, they were sure they could not continue to the only place they saw life leading.
5/5 Update: The Smoking Gun put Palfrey’s suicide note on its site. Sure enough, she writes that’s she’d come out of prison in her late fifties “a broken penniless & very much alone woman.”