Friday, October 1, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

Mitchell Heisman killed himself on September 18th. He put on a white tuxedo, white shoes, a white tie and white socks, walked into Harvard Yard, and shot himself in the head with a revolver he had bought a few years earlier. He was 35. To all outward appearances he was educated, intelligent, attractive, and healthy. He had completed college and held down various jobs. None of the people who knew him well—family or friends—thought he was suicidal.

But he was, and he had been for a long time. I didn’t know Mitchell Heisman, and I dismissed the original news reports with a “that’s too bad” kind of response and forgot about it. But this week there was an article in the Boston Globe by staffer David Abel whose headline caught my eye: “What he left behind: A 1,905-page suicide note.” What Mitchell left was, in fact, a document of 1,905 pages, with 1,433 footnotes and a 20-page bibliography. In the hours before his death, he scheduled a blast email with his completed work attached to hundreds of people, to be posted after his death; to others he sent a CD copy in the mail.

It took Mitchell five years to write his suicide note, and after five years of intense research, he concluded that life is meaningless.

As I writer, I had several immediate responses to this. The first was, two thousand pages? How many of us manage that much, even over a writing career?

My second was more complicated. Clearly Mitchell was obsessed with his subject. He was very focused, living a Spartan life in order to concentrate on his opus. He was analytical, even of himself and his own motivations.

Was he depressed? I have no training in psychology, but I would guess that if someone is depressed to the point of taking his own life, it would be in the throes of depression, when everything looks bleakest. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could actively nurture his depression by concentrating on such a grim subject as the total pointlessness of existence—for five years.

Was Mitchell insane? Is anyone who takes his own life by definition insane? Can one who is insane write a cogent and persuasive document?

But one thing I think we can say is that Mitchell was a writer. He wanted to communicate his views to other people—but not until he was ready, on his own terms. Maybe all writers are just a little bit mad. We hear voices in our head. Sometimes we have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality—and in choosing which we prefer. That much we share with him.

But there’s another aspect: writing his book kept Mitchell Heisman alive for an extra five years. While we might disagree with his conclusions, working them out and setting them down gave his life purpose and direction. His mother said he was happy when he finished the book. He took his life when he had nothing left to say.

Maybe that’s the lesson we can take from Mitchell Heisman’s death: we live to write, and we write to live. May we never run out of words!


Sandra Parshall said...

What a sad story. We can never truly know what's going on inside another person's heart and mind, but from a lifetime of observation I've come to believe that psychological disorders are present in some people almost from birth. We all know people who seem chronically down even when good things are happening to them. We all know people who are never satisfied with any amount of success and are constantly complaining that others are plotting against them. These people will never be happy.

It may be that nothing would have persuaded this young man that life had meaning. It's unfortunate that he couldn't shape his writing for a better purpose. My heart goes out to him -- and I'm grateful that my own writing has brought me into the wonderful mystery community!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

One of the lessons of this story for me is that emotional states have nothing to do with the intellect. The fact that this man arrived at his conclusion that life is meaningless via reasoning and research does not mean that he wasn't depressed. A dear friend of mine killed herself many years ago after reading many pessimistic philosophers and concluding that she could prove things would never change for the better. In retrospect, it's clear she had bipolar disorder that could have been treated nowadays. Depression colors one's belief in what is possible, and that fuels tragedies like these.

Ingrid Pierson - Massey said...

Allthough tragic,what a fascinating story. This is material for an entire book in itself.