"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I met a woman at work nine months ago. We clicked immediately but I refused her advances because she was married, to her second husband, in fact. After a few months, I could no longer resist the attraction. Immediately after we kissed, she told her husband they hadn’t been in a real marriage for a long time and she was leaving.
She asked him to discuss dividing their possessions. Shortly after, he went upstairs and shot and killed himself.
As you can imagine, she will never be OK. For the first couple of months, I stayed awake 24 hours a day with two mobile phones in my hands in case she needed me. At the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I told her she needed to see a professional, as I am not skilled in counseling and the strain was too great for me. Since then, we somehow launched into a downward spiral of shutting each other out, then hurting each other, and now lying as well.
She spends her time with her parents and 18-year-old son from her first marriage. We live in such a small town that we cannot go out for dinner, spend time with friends, or see each other much at all. When she first returned to work after the tragedy, I would come by her cubicle on bad days and give her a small gift or trinket and a hug, until one of her colleagues warned me that he would cause trouble. A week ago she left her job because she needs more time to heal. I’ve tried to continue finding creative ways to distract her, make her feel normal, and be together.
I am convinced I will never work through this guilt. When I see her old spot at work where her family pictures were, when she spends holidays with her husband’s family, when I go on a social networking site and see pictures of her and her husband, my world gets shaken like a snow globe. Nearly every time I am left alone I break into tears. I am overtaken by the irrefutable fact that my actions led to the extinguishing of a living flame and now it is snuffed forever despite what I would give to change things.
My parents got word of what happened and no longer speak to me. My roommate is moving out tomorrow because he’s grown angry and hateful after unsuccessfully helping me through this. I am nearly completely isolated and I clearly need to dedicate more time to work on myself. Almost everyone I speak to insists that I need to leave her, especially my psychiatrist, but how do you break up with the woman you love after she’s endured such a traumatic loss?
Overcome with Guilt
Dear Overcome with Guilt,
Your actions did not cause this suicide. They did not lead to it. You were not central to it.
You did not advocate for this person to commit suicide, or provide the means for this person to commit suicide. You knew nothing of any suicidal inclinations he might have had. You did not know him. He did not know you. Presumably, if he knew of your existence, he knew of you only as one of his wife’s co-workers. You did not sleep with his wife. Nor did you know that, after kissing you, his wife was going to go home and tell him she was leaving him.
The one thing you did was that you broke a well-understood obligation not to kiss his wife. That is a real obligation, not to kiss his wife, which you broke. You are not supposed to kiss other men’s wives. You knew that. You did it anyway. That is something to feel remorse about. That is something you did that was wrong.
If it were possible to make amends, that would be something to make amends to him about. Unfortunately, because he chose to take his own life, you cannot make amends to him for that.
So you will have to live with that.
That’s your situation. You committed no crime. It’s not a nice place to be. But it’s not eternal damnation. It is the wretched confliction of feelings that arise when we are tangential to a tragedy.
You are tangential here. You were not central to the suicide and you are not central to this woman’s life.
I think your psychiatrist, who has more knowledge about your situation and more understanding of you as a person than I do, and is professionally trained and licensed to guide people in their affairs, probably should be listened to.
You should leave her alone.
We don’t refrain from kissing other men’s wives because we fear the husband will commit suicide. But there are certain things we might expect a husband to do if he finds out that we kissed his wife. In the movies, a good punch in the jaw is the agreed-upon right action. It’s a non-fatal expression of contempt and serves to reassert the husband’s dominant role in the wife’s affections. Seeing the man she kissed lying unconscious on the ground, she will either run to him, thus affirming that her affections have shifted, or she will run back to her husband, affirming that she recognizes her best bet is to stick with the one who is good at punching. That is how the movies portray these things. We know that real life is different. But we still like going to the movies.
Your response is sort of like a movie. You are all histrionic. You are all saying things will never be the same; you are staying up all night with two cellphones. This is a little overdoing it.
So how exactly did you harm him, and did you harm him in any material way, or only by way of your attitude toward him? You didn’t sleep with his wife, but, knowing that he existed, you did disregard him as a person. You disregarded his status as the husband. You in a sense depersonalized him; you disregarded his existence. That is what we do when we fool around with someone’s spouses; we depersonalize a stranger, or a person known to us; we do things that we know would hurt that person if he or she were to find out. This is not a good thing to do. It probably makes it easier when we do not know the person, but whether we have met or not met, we still know that some person exists whom our actions would hurt if they were to be found out.
This is why we refrain from such things — because we know that they can hurt other people. Generally speaking, our actions do not lead to other people’s suicides, especially the suicides of people we do not even know. Rather, suicidal people make choices over which we have no control. If we could reliably cause the suicides of others, rest assured it would be against the law.
In certain cases advocating for another person to commit suicide has been prosecuted. This man sought out depressed people, “posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.”
That’s a little different, I think you’ll agree. “While it is illegal in Minnesota to encourage suicide, there is no such federal law,” according to an ABC News account of the matter.
Out of another situation in which a person’s suicide was aided by information and interaction on the Web, H.R. 1183 has been proposed, which would “make it a crime to use the Internet to help someone commit suicide.”
I find that interesting, personally, because my 2006 column titled “What’s the best method for painless suicide?” continues to get many hits every month from people some of whom are expecting to get practical, how-to advice. Some of them even write to me angrily or disappointed that I don’t show them where to buy poison or name the best bridges to jump off of.
People do get over the suicides of loved ones. They meet in groups and talk on the phone with hotline counselors and go through their lives. The pain and shock abate. And there is evidence to show that how we talk about such things affects how we will feel. So I would guard against saying such things as she will never get over it. It isn’t helpful. One who has been through such an event may feel outraged that others do not seem to understand its power; they do not seem to understand how deeply we have been hurt or how long the hurt persists or the many small ways in which our day-to-day functioning is impaired afterward. This is true. So it is hard to go through life grieving. It is hard to grieve among strangers who do not know the cause of our halting responses and occasional lapses into blank emotion-filled silences when we are tugged violently by the anchor of the underworld.
That is what it is like to go through life grieving. It causes one to wonder if it might not be better to wear a black armband for a while, so others, even strangers, know to tread lightly. It is hard to go through life with a burden like that.
But it does not change the philosophical or logical problem. You did not cause this suicide. You played a part in this suicidal person’s personal drama. Or, that is, not even you played the part, but your image; this person’s image of you played a part in his own drama.
When you say, “I am convinced I will never work through this guilt,” you do yourself a disservice. Why not instead tell yourself, “I will work through this guilt.”
A part of us, of course, likes the sound of “never.” A part of us clings to it. And inasmuch as it allows us to feel the complete depth of the shock, it serves a purpose; it is poetic language. It is dramatic language. It indicates severity, or degree.
But beware the effect of such pronouncements, because they also work as prophecy. So find more poetic language, if you can; say that the depth of it is tearing you apart, that you feel devastated. You may need some kind of catharsis. Catharsis means working through. In fact, come to think of it, catharsis may be exactly what you need.
And, despite what you say, she will be OK. And you will be OK, too. But it will take time. for now, I suggest you listen to your psychiatrist. Leave this woman alone. Give it time. Back off.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)