A National Book Award–winner pays tribute to a Yale roommate
In February 1982, in the middle of my freshman year, I was invited to a party by the most glamorous sophomore I had ever met. A third of the guests were people I actually knew; a third were people I had seen around and wished I knew; a third were people I had never seen because they inhabited a stratosphere too exalted to have been visible to me. Spandau Ballet, Pat Benatar, the Human League singing “Don’t You Want Me,” which nowadays feel to me as sweetly nostalgic as “Dixie,” were at that time fresh as the morning dew. There were some people doing cocaine in the bathroom, because it was, after all, the 1980s. I would not have been more thrilled and dazzled to have been invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer one year earlier. I had hated high school and had always felt marginal there, and now here I was with all these amazing people, and I was having one of the best times of my life. I always say that Yale was the beginning of the self that I have been ever since, and that party has always stuck in my mind as the moment when the shift became official.
A theatrical-looking man was holding court in one of the rooms of the dorm suite, and we got into a long conversation, and if that party felt like the center of the universe at the time, he seemed to be at the center of that center; everyone came over to talk to him, and he kissed and hugged with real affection all the spikiest people there. I was flattered by his attention, and a little bit mystified, but I settled in and we talked for much of the evening. When I grudgingly decided I should leave at 3 a.m., he said to me, “Would you like to be roommates next year?” Startled, I impulsively said yes. The next day, I mentioned, casually, to several people that I might have Terry Kirk as my roommate. Some seemed rather awestruck, and some were rather cynical, and some asked if I were really up for all that. I wasn’t sure about anything; I wasn’t even sure if Terry had meant it. But two days later, I ran into Terry, and he said, “Well, well, well! Are we going to room together?” And I said yes with the same feeling with which, later on, I would deal with love and adventure and travel and life, that feeling of looking both ways, deciding it was dangerous, and leaping anyway.
Many years later, when we talked about that time, Terry said that he didn’t want to room with anyone he might sleep with—which canceled out a sizeable chunk of the undergraduate population—and that he liked me more than anyone else he was not physically attracted to. I spent some time trying to decide whether this was a compliment, but I think it was true and mutual. I was hideously repressed at the time and mostly unwilling to acknowledge a physical attraction to anyone, but I was not attracted to Terry. I kept sexual and romantic attraction very separate then, and nothing suited me better than a completely unerotic but deeply romantic friendship, and that is what we had. I wanted to be wild and outré, but I was constrained by an ingrained respect for decorum. There was nothing Terry could imagine doing that he wouldn’t actually do, and this terrified and thrilled me. He generally wore a green Austrian loden cape, and a mad hat with a feather in it. He usually had a boyfriend and a girlfriend going, sometimes more than one of each. He was interested in everything and everyone; I learned from him that categories were idiotic.
Spring break, freshman year, I panicked. I spent the summer thinking it was a mistake, but it was too late by then. We had managed to get an enormous suite in Silliman, and I spent the first few weeks of that first semester avoiding him, which was not easy to do given that we were in bunk beds. Sometimes, on a Saturday, I wanted to come back to my own bed and go to sleep, and was peeved about the presence of 70 other people at a party for which Terry had rethematized our room into a construction site, complete with orange cones and scaffolding and what appeared to be a large hole where part of the ceiling had once been. Sometimes, I would want to study and not be distracted by the Christmas lights he had installed in the small cove molding that ran around the room. Sometimes, I wanted to have a couple of friends over to prepare for an exam on Tennyson, and I was disoriented by having, in a living room that was over 200 square feet, a dropped ceiling made entirely of various kinds of root vegetables tied to lengths of fishing line that had been taped to the ceiling and then backlit with red gels. Sometimes, the people smashing their champagne flutes in our fireplace seemed like a bit much at 5 a.m. But for all those times, there were also conversations about music, which Terry understood much better than I did, and about architecture, which I didn’t really understand but Terry did, and about friendship itself. There was a gradual revelation on my part that I was judgmental about his friends, but that he was always welcoming of mine, and that he could make anyone feel like a celebrity with the quality of his attention, even when the purpose of his attention was to seek their attention for himself.
It took me many years to realize how difficult I’d been to live with. While I’d been drawn to Terry for his absence of repression, I was also repulsed by it. His sensuality challenged my respectability, and this made him subject to all my insecurities, of which there was no short supply. I used to get mad at him, to discount our closeness, yet he had a doggedness; he never gave up on me. By the end of the year, we were permanent friends.
I was always frustrated by one area of impenetrability, which was that Terry never flagged in his enthusiasms. There was beauty in that, but there was also a closedness in it. If something went wrong, he was always immediately thrilled by what he had learned from it. If it rained, he was rapturous about all the indoor things we might never have done had there been sunshine, and if we were arguing, it was always sure to make us closer. At the time this characteristic seemed like only built-in cheerfulness, but now I know that it was a way of keeping despair at bay, and reflected a terrified vulnerability, as though he knew that the slightest incursion of darkness would be enough to swallow him whole. It was a pleasant quality in doses, but it precluded certain depths of intimacy. You couldn’t see Terry and not have fun, and sometimes, you wanted him to be bored, or tired, just for a minute. There had to be sadness in him, but you couldn’t reach it except when it came out of him in quick, rare flashes of anger, and it’s hard to be friends with someone who will never be sad with you.
I moved to England and he moved to Italy, and I eventually stumbled my way out of the closet and began chipping away at some of the kinds of denial that had made me treat him badly when we lived together for that year. He would fly up to London to see me, and I would go and stay with him in Rome.
In 1989, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In the summer of 1990, my parents went on what was to be their last trip to Europe, and I got a call from my mother. She and my father had been walking through the Borghese Gardens, and she suddenly heard someone calling her name, and turned around, and there was Terry. He had given them a little tour through the gardens and explained things about the architecture, and my parents had invited him to join them for dinner that night. “You have such nice friends,” my mother said to me. “Look at all the worlds you’ve opened up to me.” Ten months later, my first book was being published, and my mother and I had planned a wonderful party in New York for the publication and, though we did not acknowledge it, for her to say goodbye to the world. Before most of my local friends had acknowledged the invitation, Terry had announced that he was going to fly back from Rome for the event. While he was in town he stopped by my parents’ apartment for a brief visit. He was the last of my friends to see my mother alive.
In the years that followed, I thought Terry had life figured out. He had a few Italian boyfriends before he settled down with Marcello, whom he loved and whom everyone else loves, too, a gentle, charming, and intellectually accomplished man. Terry had a job teaching at the American University of Rome, and he took many of his students for walks through the Eternal City. His classes were always oversubscribed, his enthusiasm almost violently contagious. He wrote a book on Italian architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries and published it with Princeton Architectural Press. I was floundering, not yet married, writing out of a place of darkness, living ambivalently in New York. I saw Terry a couple of times a year. I couldn’t tell him so much about my depression because I thought he wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. Terry seemed not to be needy, and so I had trouble needing him.
The last time I saw Terry, he was staying with me and my husband, John, at our house on a visit to New York, autumn of 2008. He thought he should look at jobs at American universities because they had tenure systems, and the university where he was teaching in Rome did not. I told him he was crazy. He lived with Marcello; he was in the most beautiful city in the world. He was visiting New York to give a guest lecture at NYU to a packed house. Why on earth would he want to be junior faculty in an obscure Midwestern college? He said his book hadn’t received the critical reception he’d hoped. He was worried about the precarious finances of the American University and thought he might lose his job. I reminded him that he was the most popular faculty member there, and that Marcello could deal with their economic needs if need be. Terry was restless and discontent, but then, Terry-like, he brushed aside his own anxieties, and when I expressed concern about what was going on with him insisted that everything was really fine. I was at that point rather newly married and a father and distracted by my own life, and I accepted his reassurances.
A few weeks later, he wrote to me about how he felt he was a bad friend, dwelling particularly on the fact that he should have made the effort to come to our wedding, which he had missed. He wrote, “I have had a rather rattling summer, a deep taking-of-stock of a lot of things, fears, illusions, and the beginning of therapy, at last. Marcello has also been enormously supportive as I readjust this arrogant and frightened thing that is my self. He has taught me what love is, and my eyes are opened to what real friendship is as I see it working around me.”
I replied that if he weren’t engaged in real friendship, we wouldn’t have been real friends so very long. Three months later, he wrote, “In this moment of looking back and looking forward as the new year bids, I wanted to express the warmth I feel for you and the gift of friendship you have offered me. I want to learn how to unwrap the gift better.” Depression expert that I had liked to think I was, I didn’t think to be alarmed by any of this. I thought therapy sounded like just the right thing for him, and that, supported by reassurances from the many people who loved him, he would eventually resolve whatever was causing anxiety.
Terry’s journals indicate that he started to think seriously of suicide on July 30, 2009. He wrote that he had no friends; his career was a failure; he was afraid he would be fired; he was completely alone in life. “I had to remind him all the time of his accomplishments,” Marcello later told me. “His books, his articles, his students who loved him, his friends.” In his last journal entry, Terry wrote, “Nothing attaches me to the world except Marcello. The rest is a total failure.”
On Monday, October 12, Terry visited his therapist in terrible shape. He had almost made a suicide attempt that day, and stopped himself at the last minute because he was afraid of the effect it would have on Marcello. The therapist gave him some kind of tranquilizing medication, and he calmed down, and when she asked whether he was sure he was OK, he said that his mind was now clear. Terry went from her office to a meeting with the architect who was to fix up the apartment he and Marcello had recently bought, and talked to him for two hours about various construction details. The therapist, meanwhile, did not call Marcello, who was in Berlin on business, because she did not want to violate patient confidentiality.
Depression is a disease of loneliness, and the privacy of a depressed person is not a dignity; it is a prison. Therapists can be perilously naïve about this. Marcello and all of us who loved Terry were locked out by the same privacy that kept him locked in. Privacy is a fashionable value in the 21st century, an overrated and often destructive one; it was Terry’s gravest misfortune. The unknowable in him, which I thought was just a kind of static, was actually his heart.
On Wednesday, Terry Rossi Kirk, 48 years old, drove two hours to an unimaginably beautiful spot in the countryside, parked his car, climbed up to 2,000 meters, where he would not be seen or found, and slit his wrists.
When he did not show up for therapy that day, his psychiatrist called the police, and the police went to the apartment and broke in, and they called to tell Marcello about the note they had found, which said, “I can no longer live. I’ve gone to Switzerland. I’m sorry, Marcello.” Because there is assisted suicide in Switzerland, Terry and Marcello had agreed that if either got to be old and senile, the other would “take him to Switzerland.” So Marcello knew at once what this meant. The police asked Marcello if he knew where exactly Terry might be, and Marcello said, “It’s not the real Switzerland.”
After Terry died, Marcello said to me, “His lack of self-esteem was like a black hole; nothing could ever fill it up. He had a consuming need for attention. He was unsatisfied and frustrated; there was something inside him that didn’t work.” Then he said, “Terry was really two people. One of them was the performer, the charming, cheerful Terry. The other part was this dark Terry, who was almost another person, this Terry with no respect for himself, no love for himself, no self-esteem. This lonely Terry. They were both real, both parts of him. Even the people who knew only the performer knew a real Terry.”
The first response to the news of someone’s self-annihilation is to start doing things, connecting to the people he knew. You listen to his favorite music and you read his favorite books; you dig out all his old letters. You write about him; in your head, you write to him. In doing these things, it was as though I noticed for the first time how much I had loved Terry. I don’t know whether it’s worse to imagine that speaking such love might have mitigated his despair, or to imagine that it would not.
All that happiness under the banner of Yale, that becoming of ourselves? It was awfully high concept, as it turns out. Terry has broken hearts over which he did not know he held any dominion. If he had known, would it have saved him? Would this aftermath of his suicide have been enough to prevent it? If we had loved him alive the way we love him dead, might he be alive still? Do his failed hopes mean that the joy he felt was never real? And the joy he gave to other people? Can it live on in the world without him? Was death always written in you, Terry? Should we have been able to see it? Did we keep ourselves blind because we were careless, or because we had only fooled ourselves that the surfaces in which we traded were depths?
Extreme happiness is often a window onto sadness if we know enough to look through it. And yet I had continued to believe in a permanent Terry-ness impermeable to damage. I did not realize the pressure Terry felt to be exuberant, and the extent to which he sensed he had failed whenever he was blue. From this perceived failure there grew a great darkness out of keeping with his lifelong affect, and in the end, his personal etiquette of jubilation eclipsed his clinical decay, so that even those of us who specialize in the psyche could not see it.
But why, if he had enough Terry-ness left to choose so beautiful a spot, did he not want to live? What suddenly makes hope seem like a naïve posture, when it had cushioned you for so many decades?
No one who has known someone who killed himself can feel free of the burden of guilt. A suicide is the failure of a thousand chances to help, of everyone’s capacity to save the person who has died. Suicide takes you back to tragedy as a through line that holds experience of every kind in place. Terry’s other friends and I, grieving together, have agreed that we could not have changed his sadness, but I like to think I might have taught him the pleasure of sadness, something his ruthless merriment kept him from learning. We all might have explained that it is possible to be overcome with sorrow and still find meaning in that sorrow, reason enough to stay alive. The strange thing is that Terry is one of the people who taught that to me; our friendship was a long lesson in resilience. In my times of darkness, he was part of the scaffolding that held me in the world. Terry, who cheered my mother up before she died, has now died himself for lack of cheer. Isn’t there some mathematics to fix that damaged equation?
Ten days after the suicide, Marcello told me via e-mail that he had been called to the morgue to prepare Terry for cremation. “I was told to bring some clothes,” he wrote to me, “and I think that Terry would have appreciated his Yale jacket.”
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the 2001 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. Excerpted from Yale Alumni Magazine (July-Aug. 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Solomon, reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.yalealumnimagazine.com
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.