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!