Hope is necessary in every condition. The miseries of poverty, sickness, of captivity, would, without this comfort, be insupportable.
One of my favorite novels is Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. It is an unsettling portrait of the clash between exuberant expectations and catastrophic outcomes. Where what one initially determines to be a boon instead opens doors behind which ultimately lurk unending conflict and soul-shattering despondency. Toward the end of the novel, as the story tumbles toward its denouement, lies one beautifully written yet startling sentence . . .
And once again, while Bahman and my wife and children wait in the Mercedes, its trunk full of luggage for a weekend at the Caspian Sea, I am inside our empty home for something I had forgotten, my briefcase or perhaps a favorite pair of shoes, a last-minute call to Mehrabad, all these things that must occur before we can take our safar together, our long happy journey, these last-moment details that can be trusted only to a father and husband, my hands over Nadi’s nose and mouth and eyes, this discipline to stand firmly in the face of her struggling, her gasping and twisting and kicking.
In those 107 words resides a timeline bookended by feelings of hope for the future . . . in one case alive and attended to, in the other cast aside, shrouded in a fog of despair and madness.
Without the dramatization and details, the story of Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani could easily be that of Karthik Rajaram, a 45-year-old financial manager living in an upscale neighborhood near Porter Ranch, California. Faced with financial troubles deemed insurmountable, he bought a gun, drafted two suicide notes, and then in early October of last year murdered his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons before turning the gun on himself. He left behind a Suburban, a Lexus SUV, and the morning paper.
Paint the same portrait with a slightly more dramatic brush, in hues tainted by scandal, and you get the story of Ervin Lupoe, a Wilmington, California radiology technician and father of five who killed his entire family on the evening of January 16, 2009. He left behind a grieving sister unable to reconcile memories of her loving brother with images of a killer.
Add some bitterly cold Midwestern air, a considerably more peaceful façade with nary a hint of incriminating detail, and a backdrop of domestic upheaval, and you get the story of 51-year-old Mark Meeks of Whitehall, Ohio, a service advisor for a Honda dealership, who, after killing his wife and two children, sent an email with the subject line “Life” to his father-in-law and then took the time to shovel the snow from the driveway in front of his modest, ranch-style home before going back inside and killing himself. He left behind baffled relatives with a slew of questions, no real answers, and wounded hearts.
Experts call is familicide, and say it is extremely rare. In an NPR interview, Dr. Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says familicide, or family mass murder, occurs when a “despondent male figure,” a “rigid . . . depressed” man, gets a fixed idea in his mind that the only way to protect one’s family from an impending disaster is to remove them from the scene. “They kill the victims in order to protect them,” he says, and they are riddled with ambivalence, often admitting before the incident to homicidal feelings, a sign that “they want to be stopped from doing it.” Dr. Schlesinger agrees that financial or domestic upheaval can prod men toward unhealthy fixations and may ultimately trigger desperate actions, and he urges health care professionals to be on the lookout for signs of depression, to not take lightly any homicidal notions in depressed patients, and to be diligent in probing those in their care who show even a hint of an aggressive tendency.
The sad truth is that many men who experience depression will not realize it or seek treatment even if they suspect it. Instead of recognizing the signs of depressive behavior, we guys brush it off as a blue period that will pass.
Or we become stuck.
The extremes of life have a way of tricking us guys. We dwell on moments of joy and peace and contrast them with present debilitating circumstances. We trace the path that led from one to the other and question every decision. Every misstep. We realize that we are to blame, and that our families are the victims of our wrongdoing.
As a result, some men do unimaginable things.
This path, from what once was, or what might have been, to what now is, is a familiar one to me. I’ve skipped merrily along amidst the open and sunny meadows only to later find myself wallowing in the ruts of doubt and second guessing, with no welcoming hand to help me stand up and brush myself clean. Even worse, and perhaps more telling; I have fashioned my own pitfalls and then cursed myself for stumbling.
And yet I’ve never known the extremes others have. I’ve never been wealthy. Never travelled to exotic places. Never tromped through Disney Land. And I’ve never had anyone threaten to take my children away. Never felt the sting of betrayal at the hands of a spouse. To the more affluent or adventurous observer, my pendulum probably appears quite stationary. Too safe. Boring.
Perhaps so. But just maybe that’s what makes me different from men Karthik Rajaram, Ervin Lupoe, and Mark Meeks. Not better than them. Just different. And perhaps that’s why I can weather this road and not become fixated on doing something as desperate and final as murdering my family.
Or myself. I contemplated the possibility once. I came upon a moment in time that seemed too extreme to handle. The thought dawned brightly and burned its way through a haze of tears. For about ten seconds, I felt the world would be a better place without me, that my wife and children would be better off if I were wrapped around a tree. Yet I kept driving. Kept steering when the road demanded it and I arrived home safely. I spoke of it with my wife and we held each other. I made promises. The kind one intends to keep . . .
What’s gotten me all worked up about this stuff?
Tonight at 10:00pm, I will join the ranks of the unemployed. Laid off again. An extreme of the shitty kind. I saw it coming a couple of weeks ago; such is the nature of the field in which I am employed and the times in which we live. But things being as they are upon this road, I’d rather it happen now than later. We will make it through. It won’t be easy. My pendulum will surely sway a bit too close for comfort to the downside of life. But I’ll be clinging to my family. Holding them close and doing what needs to be done to see that pendulum begin its descend back to the middle. And perhaps the momentum will set it on a course toward better times.
Whatever comes, we will be here. Alive. Looking for hope in the smallest of things . . .