Earlier this month, around 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, a young PayPal executive (only 39) jumped in front of the train in Menlo Park (a suburb of San Francisco north of Stanford/Palo Alto, and now the new home of Facebook). He was formerly the vice president and CFO at Skpye. He had a wife and three young children.
Yes. That. Story.
Normally, this wouldn’t have been news to me, except that I was driving the second car to pull up at the scene. We were stalled at the tracks, and well, at times like this, it is difficult not to take notice.
I didn’t see the man throw himself in front of the train. I wondered though, did he step onto the tracks casually, holding a newspaper, pretending to be distracted? Was his final gesture dramatic? Did he wait for several other trains to pass before he decided it was time? I wondered, did he eat a fibrous breakfast? Did he bother with a usual cup of coffee?
The end result was the same: I saw his body, oddly bent and limp, splayed. Still. In my memory, he was wearing a suit, but that could have been a detail I added later. Perhaps he defiantly wore pajamas, tennis shorts or his golf pants. I wondered how much thought he put into the last pair of pants he would ever step into.
No one was hovering over him or giving him CPR. The police hadn’t arrived and there was only the faint sound of an ambulance, what seemed like miles away. The sound was dull, because there was no sound. There was no panic. There was death.
A woman cupped her hand over her mouth and talked slowly into a cell phone. A jogger passed along the tracks, his dog tugging him forward, as he kept glancing back.
In many ways, it was like any other Monday morning, it seemed, everyone still had somewhere to be. We waited for instructions. When the police arrived, the body was quickly covered and traffic was redirected. I drove to my favorite neighborhood chain coffee shop which was fraught with screaming toddlers and espresso machines. I was feeling restless, impatient, and a little sick.
Although, I think a Monday in Menlo Park, like a morning in any suburb, can have this effect.
The experience reminded me of being in Japan. Riding trains in Japan was kind of like that saying from It’s a Wonderful Life (also, a great suicide narrative), “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” only, “Every time the train stalls, someone jumped into the track.”
While staying with a friend in Yokohama (a thirty minute train ride from Tokyo), this happened often. My friend explained to me that suicide was a serious pain in the ass for commuters.
Suicide rates are high in East Asia, particularly in Japan. It is the leading cause of death in men aged 20-44. While some theories base this on predictable factors (high unemployment, depression and societal pressures), there are also more interesting cultural theories supported by a long history of honorable suicide, including ritual suicide by a Samurai (seppuku or abdomen slice and disembowelment) and the notorious kamikaze suicide bombers of World War II.
Suicide has also been linked to “saving face” or preventing shame to the family. “Face” or mentsu is a traditional concept in Japanese culture, referring to a social image to the extent to which they fulfill their ascribed social roles. Essentially mentsu is a metaphor for an individual’s public image. “Losing face” means failure to meet societal expectations. There is both an occupation with this concept of mentsu, as well what appears to be a very clear divide between the public and the private life in Japan.
I remember sitting on the train thinking everyone was reading really boring books without titles. And for some reason women liked books with floral patterns. This was until my friend explained that people use book covers so that no one knows what they are reading. Any reading material that was consumed, like many other things, was something to be kept personalized and private.
The other day, a friend pointed out to me that “Facebook” also has a double meaning, in this way, the “Face” is literally your online persona, or the face that you present to the world (a public image), very different from your private life.
Does a “hidden life” also create a hidden tension? Perhaps creation of “face,” the separation of the public and private is more extreme in Japan. Perhaps Japanese suicide rates are an extension of this extreme.
Fans of Mad Men both revere and also pity the protagonist, Don Draper, who works desperately and painstakingly to keep both a past self and a domestic life hidden. Successfully at first, he orchestrates affairs and even has viewers believing that this clandestine philandering is noble. Interestingly, at the end of Season 4 and the beginning of Season 5, we see this desire to blend the private and public realms. No longer are his wife and affairs kept secret, he remarries a woman who works at the agency. He fondles her in his office and seems not to care that he unveils the real, even affected Draper. Once a critical tension in the plot, it also seems that Don no longer obsesses over the potential exposure of his true identity as Dick Whitman.
Do we harbor a secret desire to reveal ourselves? I would say, yes.
My initial reaction to the executive suicide was cliché: it was a little selfish. We were all held up in traffic. The train conductor was no doubt traumatized and then, the clean up, but I couldn’t help think that there had to be something else behind this. Why suicide? Why public suicide? Why Monday morning at 9:00?
What struck me more about the executive’s suicide was not his desire to die, or his decision to commit suicide, but the precise manner of his death. What smacked of a modern tragedy, was his decision to publicly declare who was, even if it was only the mental illness, bipolar disorder and depression he had tried to keep hidden throughout his career (as his family explained in the obituary, he had “lost his battle”) .
At the intersection of the tracks—this man’s private life, could not go unnoticed.