Celebrity Suicide and the American Dream

June 1, 2017 Updated: June 1, 2017

Suicide is the most untimely and disturbing of endings. Even the gravity of murder can pale in comparison to taking one’s own life. The bleakness of that final decision, especially when it is made by those who have been elevated to hero status in the public eye, is hard to reconcile.

Chris Cornell’s death last week was unexpected by everyone, including those who knew him most. It was news that was hard to reconcile with, especially for adolescents of the 1990s when Soundgarden and Cornell played a pivotal role in the music of the era.

Fifty-two is not old and by all accounts, Cornell was a happily married, devoted father whose music was reaching a new, appreciative audience. It doesn’t add up. The role prescription drugs had to play will never truly be known, but somehow things got so bad inside this man’s mind that ending his existence was his only perceived way out. To leave a wife and children behind only adds to the complexity of that decision.

When someone achieves the American dream by reaching the pinnacle of material success but then chooses to take his own life, we are left with a difficult disparity to grapple with. This is one of the reasons that conspiracy theories abound following a celebrity’s death.

Robin Williams’s suicide was even more baffling when contrasted with his lighthearted public persona. It’s hard to put the two together when the extremes seem so apparent. It throws our frame of reference into disarray and gives us pause to reconsider our own notions of success and failure.

Despite having the world at their fingertips, celebrities can find themselves living in a prison of fear and disconnection.

Mental illness is on the rise and the rich and famous are not immune. Brave faces in public can be deceptive.

Kanye West’s recent bizarre behaviour indicates mental instability and it’s little wonder, considering the level of scrutiny that accompanies his life and the invincible public persona he has crafted.  There is no wiggle room for failure; the facade must be kept up and the posturing of invincibility left unchallenged in order to remain at the top.

The creative soul can be sensitive; prone to darkness in difficult circumstances. Creativity has its price and for those who are not taking proper care of themselves, that price can be despair. The best art is soul-baring, and those who take the risk to become great at their craft must simultaneously bare their souls and build an outward persona that will protect them from an unforgiving world looking to pounce on any perceived weakness.

Despite having the world at their fingertips, celebrities, especially those in the creative arts, can find themselves living in a prison of fear and disconnection.

For those at the top who have achieved hero status in the eyes of the world there is nowhere to look to for counselling or guidance. Their supposed infallibility can have them believing in their own myth, and attempting to reconcile their weaknesses with that mythology can lead to a breaking point. This means that they can fall deeper into despair than the rest of us when things go wrong.

The Pursuit of Happiness

The American dream has come to mean achieving happiness, often as a result of having wealth and power. This has become the overarching goal for many, each clamouring to get ahead of the pack to achieve the promise of happiness through strictly external means.

When America’s founding fathers enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” in the constitution they would have been wise to clarify just what constitutes happiness.

Ironically, fulfillment, a truer measure of happiness, comes most easily with acceptance and gratitude. Beyond basic needs, material success isn’t shown to increase life satisfaction. In many cases the opposite is true.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places self-actualization as the highest level of achievement, followed by self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and love. Basic material needs are at the bottom, but still, a lot of people focus their efforts entirely on accumulating material possessions as a means to fulfillment.

Society has elements to it that perpetuate the struggle for dominance and material success. Stepping out of that paradigm requires introspection and intention.

Sometimes it takes the untimely demise of those we have placed on a pedestal to remind us to take a step back and reconsider what we value. Understanding that darkness can overtake the best of us might foster more compassion and less judgment for both ourselves and others.

Ryan Moffatt is a Vancouver-based arts reporter, musician, and pop-culture pundit.