'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person visits with celebrities (“As I rode down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that”).

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

That sounds like a classic case of “theodicy,” with God on trial due to the presence of evil in a fallen creation. This is a theme that — for a decade-plus — GetReligion has noted plays a major role in painful stories of this kind. Not here, I guess.

The only other passing reference to God is Hendry’s observation about the natural beauty of Vadauwoo, Wyoming, a popular location for men to kill themselves:

Some men kill themselves in beautiful places. … We were driving to Laramie, where he hosts a monthly suicide-loss survivors meeting for mostly wives, sisters and mothers left behind. We made slow progress on a rutted road, and [Dan] Hedrick, whose own brother shot himself at 42, pointed out some turnoffs that looked over giant rock formations molded during the final ice age. The copper stones are dramatically placed, defying gravity and making it hard not to believe in God.

“The police have pulled more than a few bodies from out here,” said Hedrick, a 59-year-old graphic designer. “A lot of the men just run a tube from their exhaust pipe into their car. In the winter, this road becomes impassable. You might not find the car for months.” 

What, then, do we read about far more than God?

Guns, guns — and have a few paragraphs passed by without another reference to guns?

This being Rolling Stone, one of the leading channelers of Cassandra during the years of Donald J. Trump’s tenure as the 45th President of the United States, guns are the central villain of Rodrick’s report:

The climactic scene in Westerns has always been the shootout. Now that’s being acted out in a deadly monologue. Activists in gun-friendly states tiptoe around the issue of eliminating guns, instead advocating locking them up to keep them out of the hands of the desperate and angry. Their efforts are noble, but futile. In Utah, 85 percent of firearm-related deaths are suicides. One of the shocking things Bryan learned was that many of these deaths were suicides of passion — impulsive, irrevocable acts. 

“A third of the firearm suicides in Utah happened during an argument,” says Bryan. “Two people were having at it. Not necessarily physically violent, but they were yelling. And someone in the moment, almost always a man, basically just says, ‘I’m done,’ grabs a gun, shoots himself, and he’s dead.” …

I found suicidal men who balked at installing gun locks on their pistols because they were afraid of being caught unarmed when mythical marauders invaded their homes. And I found that the men who survived suicide attempts had one thing in common: They didn’t use guns. Pills can be vomited, ropes can break, but bullets rarely miss.

For years, a comfortable excuse for the ascending suicide rate in the rural West was tied to the crushing impact of the Great Recession. But it still climbs on a decade later.

Yet Rodrick’s report mentions Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams, two of the best-known celebrities to kill themselves in recent years, who managed the deadly act without benefit of bullets.

This is not to deny that guns make it easier for men to kill themselves in an impulsive act of despair or rage. It’s not to deny that gun locks could delay their attempted suicides long enough to help them think better of it. Nor is it to deny that ready access to guns is an essential topic in the discussion of why so many men in the American West find suicide an irresistible thought.

It is to deny — or rather to dispute — a larger denial that the prevalence of suicide in any culture is a signal of some form of spiritual crisis.

It takes a lot to completely avoid the reality that belief in God, belief that death is not the end, and belief that suicide is an act of murder, will discourage people from acting on the desire to kill themselves. But we live in a culture, and especially in a cultural moment, in which to expect such an acknowledgment in the pages of Rolling Stone is the equivalent of hoping that water will run uphill.

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