Least Likely Suicide:
The Search for My Father,
Ross Lockridge, Jr.,
Author of Raintree County
Larry Lockridge, PhD
(The keynote address at the 28th annual convention of the American Association of Suicidologists, May 1995, Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, AZ.)
From: Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 25(4), Winter 1995 Copyright © 1995 The American Association of Suicidology -- http://www.suicidology.org/
"Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life on March 6th, 1948, two months following publication of his best-selling novel, Raintree County. The thirty-three year old author from Indiana left his wife and four children. His second son, Larry Lockridge, five years old at that time, has undertaken a search for answers to what has been called the greatest single mystery in American letters. Here, he describes the psychology of survivorship as well as the convergence of factors that led to suicide-personality disorder (narcissistic), biological (possibly genetic) predisposition to depression, and cultural factors related to success in the United States. A merging of such interpretive methods may be more productive than a privileging of one over the other."
A CHARMED LIFE
My father was Ross Lockridge, Jr., who wrote the novel Raintree County, published in 1948. More people recognize this mythical place-name as an MGM movie of dubious merit released in 1957, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, and Lee Marvin. But the novel itself had been a serious assault on Mt. Parnassus and is still regarded by some critics as the "Great American Novel." My father had nothing to do with the movie, which had little to do with his novel. The screenplay was written instead by the creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.
Born in 1914 in Bloomington, Indiana, the son of a populist historian father and a psychologist mother, Ross Lockridge, Jr., led a kind of charmed life, combining favorable circumstance with hard work. Excelling in whatever he undertook, he was Indiana state champ in typing and short hand, and junior and senior high school class president. Known as "A-Plus Lockridge," he accumulated the highest grade point average ever reached at Indiana University. With only two years of French, he took his junior year abroad at the Sorbonne and finished with the highest academic record of the 1000 foreign students studying there in 1933-1934. He was offered graduate fellowships to both Harvard and Yale, and picked Harvard.
But he wasn't a grind or a nerd. Most people found him a likable person, ebullient yet even-tempered, witty, seemingly never depressed, with a sense of relaxed fun. Some thought he looked like Tyrone Power. And always smiling. He married his lovely hometown sweetheart, Vernice Baker, and they had four kids. He was reliable and faithful to his wife, who was faithful to him. Unlike most American writers, he drank milk instead of booze.
He had decided at age seven to become a writer and never deviated from that. He started writing the novel Raintree County in his mid 20s in 1941, pretending to be writing a doctoral dissertation on Walt Whitman. An act of total immersion and inspiration and great labor, it was to be an epic of America, a revitalization of American purpose, a novel he thought America needed.
He wrote in a fine frenzy surrounded by his growing family and a very supportive wife. He was also teaching full time at Simmons College, where he was elected "Favorite Professor." After five years of extraordinary labor, in the spring of 1946, he put the 2000-page, unsolicited, 20-pound manuscript in a battered suitcase and hauled it to Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. They accepted it in only five weeks.
Then began an enormous publicity campaign and a string of triumphs. He won the MGM Novel Award, potentially $275,000--$2,000,000 in modern currency--which was the world's largest literary prize. Raintree County was excerpted in Life Magazine, which had almost never printed fiction, and was the Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection for January 1948. Upon its publication, January 5, 1948, it got mostly rave reviews from one end of the country to the other. The reviewer for The New York Times said that it was "a cosmically brooding book, full of significance and beauty."
Then, two months after publication, Saturday evening, March 6, 1948, just as his novel had reached the number one position on the nation's best-seller lists, my father went out to the family garage--a structure separate from our new house back in Bloomington, to which we had returned after our stint out East. He turned on the exhaust of his new Kaiser and killed himself. He was 33.
I was five years old at the time, my older brother Ernest was nine, my sister Jeanne Marie was four, and Ross III was two. I was embarrassed that Ernest made such a fuss, screaming and crying upon hearing of his father's death early Sunday morning. I believed my mother and grandmother, who said our father had become very tired and had gone to a better place. I hoped he'd soon be rested up and come back, and like my sister I was later surprised that he was simply gone.
This was a big story in 1948; writing a novel was a bigger deal then than now, and Ross Lockridge, Jr., had been the season's new literary celebrity. It hadn't hurt matters that the novel was attacked by the clergy for blasphemy and obscenity. In a fig-leafed sort of way, Raintree County was the most erotic novel ever published in America. The New York Times carried my father's obituary on the front page, and there were editorials throughout the nation, many of them commenting on the irony that the novel seemed so vital and idealistic. Some dwelt on the homey detail that Lockridge had spent his last day listening to the high school basketball regionals. How very American the story was, in a dreadful sort of way.
The circumstances as reported in the press were that he had gone out to mail some letters after our evening meal and told his wife he'd go to his parents to listen to the basketball regionals. When he didn't return by late evening, my mother called his parents and discovered he'd not been there. While the senior Lockridges were still on the phone, she checked out the garage, where she heard the car engine running. She found her husband slumped behind the steering wheel, his legs exiting the car door, almost as if in last-minute reconsideration. He seemed already dead, but the fire squad attempted to resuscitate him for more than an hour before he was pronounced dead.
The family hoped it would be ruled an accident--the story got out that maybe he carelessly left the car running while listening to the car radio--but the coroner played his hunches and ruled it a suicide.
ON SURVIVING THIS
There were no survivors groups in those days. We children didn't talk about our father much but were always aware of him as a ghostly presence--from various relics and photographs about the house, and from the luminous moments in their life together that our mother would tell from time to time. We idealized him, and my mother never lost her confidence that she had been married to a great person.
I gradually learned to mourn my father. My loss was especially brought home to me when as an adolescent I began looking through the newspaper clippings that told of the prepublication triumphs and the desolations that followed.
I didn't find out it was suicide until I was eleven. A neighbor girl derided my sister one day, "Your father killed himself! Your father killed himself!" So my mother told Jeanne and me that it was time we knew--the neighbor girl was right. But I didn't hear that it was unambiguous suicide until 1989, when my mother first revealed that she had found her husband in the back seat, not the front, with a vacuum cleaner hose attached to the exhaust and leading into the rear window. My aunt had arrived at the scene before the police and hastily put this paraphernalia into a trash can. Some of my father's friends, until last year when my biography was published and these details were made public for the first time, were still refusing to believe that Ross could have killed himself--this laughing, intelligent, purposeful, successful man, the world's least likely suicide.
So my father didn't yield to some sudden dark impulse, as I had thought for many years. It was a premeditated act. He was thorough in all matters and had gone about it efficiently. Discovering that he had been in the back seat instead of the front was an apocalyptic moment for me. A settled image of despairing acquiescence that I had entertained for four decades had to be supplanted by this new one of calculated self-murder. But I was also oddly relieved, because I had felt, all along, that his suicide had some meaning, whatever it was. Suicide is linked to human will. To have discovered, contrariwise, that his death had been all along an accident would have been for me a diminishment of meaning.
My siblings and I never morally blamed him for killing himself. We felt the circumstances must have been compelling, both within and without. We accepted our mother's explanation that he had given up all hope, that he felt he had become burdensome, that the suicide was in fact necessary to preserve his dignity. My mother regarded his departure as a desperate final act of love by someone who felt he would never be well again. He had had a "nervous breakdown." But if only he had held on till spring! she would say. He might have recovered.
The quality of the departed person carries over to the survivor's estimate of the act. Our father had been a kindly, quiet man about the house, a family man, a provider, not a severe disciplinarian, always in our midst typing away, cutting our hair, changing diapers, an enthusiastic person who sang while he did the dishes. Extraordinarily, he didn't sexually abuse us! So his desertion didn't seem to imply hostility or indifference toward us. And we didn't respond to it with resentment and indifference. Rather the suicide seemed to teach us sympathy. In a word, we felt sorry for him. I believe we sensed early on that tragic circumstance mitigates easy moral censure.
Today, as you know, suicide survivors are encouraged to talk things out in the family context. One reason is that resentment against the deceased is less likely to turn inward. We didn't do this, nor did our mother discuss with us in any direct or methodical way what had happened. If we were a dysfunctional family, we somehow functioned and tried to guess what our father would wish us to do with our fatherless futures. My siblings and I have all done okay. We all feel that our mother did well by us.
Suicides live on in different ways, cast their shade on survivors in different ways. This was a literary person, so we had the legacy of his book; we grew up with a novel instead of a father. So much of himself had been invested in it, and in a real sense he died for a book. And this is how we chose to remember him--in the light of his impassioned creativity, and not its desolate aftermath. Reading Raintree County has always been an act of resuscitation for us.
ON WRITING A BIOGRAPHY OF
ROSS LOCKRIDGE, JR.
One morning late in 1988, I decided to write a biography of my father. There were several reasons to do so. His papers and correspondence had not been gathered; many of his friends and acquaintances had not been interviewed, and nobody was getting any younger; and Raintree County was out of print. But mainly it was the mystery of the thing--why had he done it?
I set out to solve it as best I could, wondering why I hadn't undertaken it earlier. Growing up with puzzles in the family or skeletons in the closet, we tend just to let them lie there as our permanent inheritance and don't consider that they might still yield to our inquiry.
Early into my research, I opened a Chinese fortune cookie that read: "The answer you seek is in an envelope." I stuck this on my mirror and hoped it might prove prophetic--a single determinate answer to the riddle.
But my search has suggested instead that it was a convergence of factors, internal and external, that trapped him. Any simple talk of what "caused" the suicide doesn't get at it. Though I have worked with a sample group of only one, I still believe my father's case may have implications of interest to suicidologists. I would not presume to propose a "convergence theory" of suicide or of the depression that often leads to it. But the case of Ross Lockridge, Jr., offers striking confirmation that to speak of a "cause" or "causes" is no simple matter.
For the next three years my pursuit of my father was pretty relentless. In the summer of 1989, I took a rental car from one end of the country to the other, armed with a tape recorder. I poked into attics and archives for letters and evidence, and interviewed my father's surviving friends. I became an amateur sleuth.
For instance, after a year of trying, I recovered hospital records from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he had entered under an assumed name late in 1947. In a supreme invasion of his privacy, I arranged to have his shorthand accounts of his own dreams transcribed by a world class decoder. I recovered much of his correspondence, including a letter he wrote the day he died. I recovered his suicide note (the press reported that no note had been left) and the autopsy report. By the time I finished, I had filled three large filing cabinets.
The biggest single source was my mother, with whom I taped scores of hours of interviews. She wanted this story told at last. She had not dated for 16 years following her husband's death--which speaks volumes in itself--and had never spoken in depth about her relationship with him and her perception of his death. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was halfway through the actual composition of the biography but swore she'd still be here for publication day. She made it, because on April 25th, 1994, Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr. (Viking Penguin) was published simultaneously with a new edition of Raintree County (Penguin Books) on what would have been my father's 80th birthday. My mother died three and one half months later.
In a sense her life, as well as that of her children, had been dominated by this single founding catastrophe of our family--the huge legacy of suicide, which my siblings and I feel to this day, and which is a sorry disproof of the suicide's wishful thinking that he or she may be disburdening loved ones by this efficient form of self-removal.
WHY DID HE DO IT?
In a real sense the total narrative of his life is the explanation I offer. But I'll comment briefly on the story I have told in Shade of the Raintree. There are three principal "interpretive lenses" that have bearing, each explanatory in part.
First, I uncovered aspects of his upbringing that suggest a vulnerability in his personality, one related to his great ambition itself. His mother was an accomplished but professionally frustrated person, an MA in psychology who assisted in courses at Indiana University but who gave up any hope of a doctorate or career. She communicated a kind of pedagogical distance in her relationship with her four children. Aware of this, she resolved to love her children unconditionally--as I discovered in her papers. But she was her self a disappointed writer, who tended to find her own fulfillment in that of her brilliant youngest son. Her four children felt they were admired and loved for their deeds.
Ross Senior was an evangelical proponent of local history, known as "Mr. Indiana," who toured the state evoking the local heroes "on the spot" where history was made. He was an impassioned orator, a real character. He too looked to his youngest son to carry on his mission of historical evangelicalism--his son would become, he hoped, an extension of himself. Ross Junior initially learned shorthand and typing to serve as his father's amanuensis for his various history books.
So there were the psychological determinants, which, as you know, are largely discussed today in terms of "narcissistic" theory. I found evidence of my father's early anxiety concerning his own abilities and achievement--this in a kid who seemed so well adjusted, never depressed, always smiling. But in a high school diary, for instance, he worries about whether he has as many brains as the kid with an IQ of 189 who got his doctorate at the age of 19. This tale of achievement was narrated one evening by his mother over dinner she was writing her MA thesis on intelligence testing.
It is still difficult for me to believe that my father may have had a "personality disorder" from an early age. As you know, Heinz Kohut sees the positive uses of narcissism in its linkage with creativity, whereas Otto Kernberg takes a dimmer view of narcissism, of whatever degree or kind. I don't see my father's decision to be a writer at the age of seven as evidence of a pathology. There was something grand about his ambition. But I can see a process of compensation even so--in his idealization of his mother, for instance--and an attendant vulnerability was manifested later on. Tellingly, he kept his great ambition secret from his parents as a child; it was his sphere of freedom, even as it played out their best hopes for him.
In terms of nonbiological explanations, the diagnosis "major depression related to narcissistic disorder" has the greatest force. As you know, narcissists don't love themselves enough. This diagnosis was reached independently by Herbert Hendin, MD, psychiatrist and suicidologist; Kenneth Lewes, PhD, clinical psychologist; and Roslyn K. Pulitzer, ACSW, all of whom I asked to read a draft of my biography.
Following acceptance of the novel, my father entered a period of "grandiosity." For a few months he felt he had indeed written the "Great American Novel" and didn't try to conceal the fact. His publisher encouraged him in this. But grandiosity is a flip side of depression. He went into a profound depression a day after giving in on a contract dispute with Houghton Mifflin, a dispute that seemed to collapse his entire sense of identity as a writer. He appears to have suffered a severe "narcissistic wound" that undercut his earlier grandiosity, and he never recovered from the depression this brought on.
The dispute coincided with the moment of the novel's completion. We all know the "letdown" that follows upon great exertion. Creative people often wonder whether they are still writers or dancers or composers. At this moment my father was all the more vulnerable to the shame and anger the contract dispute precipitated. By publication day, he felt he was an imposter, his novel a failure. He could never write again, he feared.
So much for "personality disorder." But there is strong evidence for a second reading of matters--biological or possibly genetic predisposition. My father's double second cousin, Mary Jane Ward, wrote the novel The Snake Pit which was the best-selling novel in 1946, only two years before Raintree County. It, too, was sold to the movies. This was a pretty good showing for a family of Hoosier hicks, as the press pointed out. Mary Jane Ward wrote her largely autobiographical novel based on her incarceration in Rockland State Hospital, New York, in 1941.
She was diagnosed at the time as suffering from schizophrenia, but like many she was probably suffering from bipolar illness. She was hospitalized four times during her life, hospitalizations that seemed not to coincide with any particular stress, that seemed to come out of nowhere. Even so she managed to publish eight novels, three of which dealt with mental illness. At the time of my father's illness, when he was entering a hospital under an assumed name, she was ironically a national spokesperson for openness about mental health is sues. Sadly she was no more able to help my father than was his loving but completely baffled wife. My father was baffled, too, and feared there was something wrong with his physical brain, not just his mind.
Manic-depressive illness has cropped up in my family tree elsewhere. Kay Red field Jamison has recently documented at length the link between this illness and creativity (Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Macmillan, 1993). The jury is still out, of course, over whether there is a depression gene or genes. And Ross Lockridge never exhibited manic symptoms, unless one admits of the category "hypomania" that is thought by some to characterize states of extreme creativity. But the severity of his unremitting depression--amidst much wonderful circumstance and some dire circumstance that could otherwise have been weathered--suggests to me some kind of biological predisposition.
So my father's case gives strong evidence both of a personality disorder related to his upbringing--an argument based on nurture--and of a biological-genetic predisposition, based on nature.
So much for psychological factors as such. But what about a third way of reading my father's life and death--in terms more of cultural or quasi-sociological factors? These concern "success in America"; writer-publisher relations; the fact of Hollywood, of sudden wealth, of sudden fame. They also concern a narratological modality, the sequence of events that relentlessly caught up my father. All of these, too, were astonishingly evident in his life, and in writing my biography I was myself swept along by their momentum through his 33 years.
The ironic underside of the series of successes that attended my father's initial completion of his novel was that each was an emotional and creative bloodletting. I'll briefly summarize these.
The novel was initially submitted with a closing 356-page dream section--it was one third of the novel's conceptual apparatus, and he was deeply attached to it. But his publisher politely insisted that he drop it. And he did so with great pain. That his novel was so amenable to cutting and slashing made him begin to doubt its worth.
Then the MGM Novel Award came along. At first he turned it down, despite the fact that our family had less than $100 at the time, because it was conditional on his cutting 100,000 words. This he refused to do, supported by his wife, who warned him not to sell his soul. But after an all night session with moguls at the St. Regis in New York, he gave in, agreeing to cut 50,000 words--and felt he had sold out in a Faustian pact.
Then he got into a terrible dispute with his publisher, as I've mentioned, over splitting up the enormous MGM revenues. He felt Houghton Mifflin was cheating him out of some $24,000 ($157,000 in today's currency), and he wrote a series of tortured letters to them, arguing his position and that of his lawyer (who perhaps should have been writing these letters himself). He thought it a matter of principle, but he was ashamed to be arguing about money; he regarded his novel as a spiritual testament. Throwing in the towel on this dispute triggered the depression that set in the very next day, October 21, 1947.
The pressures didn't cease. Thereafter, BOMC asked him to cut a sex scene, which he did, though the novel was in page proofs. In a state of exhaustion he was still revising his novel down to the wire.
When the novel was published on January 5, 1948, my father had only the previous day emerged from three sessions of electroconvulsive therapy in Methodist Hospital, Indianapolis, where the admitting doctor underdiagnosed his condition as "reactive depression" and sent him home with the notation that his patient was "recovered." In retrospect it was clearly major depression, with suicidal ideation and hallucination.
He believed only the negative reviews. On the day of the evening that he killed himself, his hometown newspaper in Bloomington reprinted a portion of Hamilton Basso's pan that had appeared two months earlier in The New Yorker. (Basso had erred both in the title of the novel and its author's name, calling it Ross Lockwood's Raintree Country). I believe that this shame before the hometown folks--a major critic blasting the midwestern novelist in a leading eastern magazine--was the trivial event that triggered the suicide of an already very depressed person.
So it was one thing after another, in a relentless sequence of events that wore my father down. He was a vulnerable person caught up in a web of events he couldn't negotiate. There was an element of bad luck that did resemble a conspiracy of fate. In his late writings, as in his rather abstract and impersonal suicide note itself, he spoke of how his life seemed predetermined, as if everything had been settled for him by the age of ten. In effect, he asked to be forgiven for what was beyond his control.
So I didn't find an envelope with a single answer to the mystery. Rather it seems to have been a convergence of factors--of personality disorder tied in with his great ambition, of a probable biological predisposition, and of cultural and circumstantial entrapment--that led to major depression. Baffled by what was happening to him, and fearing he would never be well and could never write again, he killed himself. Life, he wrote in his final words, is still a miracle, but it is not necessarily "a good miracle." He was not depressed because his vision had failed him; rather, his vision failed him because he was depressed. He wasn't depressed because he couldn't write a second novel; rather, he couldn't write a second novel because he was depressed. But after the depression had set in, cause and effect had become interrelated in a downward spiral from which there was no recovery.
My sample group is only one, as I've said. Suicidologists deal with larger groups in gathering data and reaching conclusions. But I wonder whether, despite the extraordinary nature of my father's suicide, there isn't something representative about it or even quintessential. Perhaps he is a pointed illustration that suicide and the depression that often leads to it may often resist single explanations, that a convergence or several factors may be at play. Perhaps a merging of various methodological inquiries or interpretive lenses would be more productive than a privileging of one over the other.
I offer this as a lay person more or less dragooned by my own circumstance into the field of suicidology. I know, though, from the theory wars raging in my own discipline of literary criticism that various exclusivist theories of historicism, gender studies, deconstruction, cultural studies, and what have you, fuel debate but often miss opportunities of creative rapprochement.
By the way, I disagree with my father's closing argument about fate, though after the fact he is absolutely right--what happened happened. But he could have been saved, through social enlightenment that would have made it permissible for a public person to be mentally ill and not go into hiding. He could have been saved through the antidepressant drugs we have available today, or possibly through the explorations that suicidologists and others are undertaking into the mystery of suicide.
As for myself, I've never thought of myself as a "survivor." It's not only that I've thought the term should apply only to people who have endured Buchenwald or its equivalent. It's also that I see my father's life more in terms of its achievement than its tragic conclusion; and to have been his son still seems to me more a privilege than a burden. His legacy to my siblings and me has been more light than shade. But certainly the death of that person 47 years ago has had the greatest single impact on me and my siblings. A suicide doesn't often "close things off" for others.
I'd say to suicide survivors that there is some value in writing about it in a personal way--about the deceased person, about the fact of suicide, and its legacy. Writing gives us the sense of repossession in some degree, and it is also a way of organizing our emotional lives. It doesn't have to be a 500-page biography.
As for whether writing my father's life has been "cathartic," as I've been often asked--or an exorcism--I'm not sure this has happened or that it is even the right expectation. Do we really wish to "purge" the people who have left us? Writing about a suicide is a way of continuing the relationship, perhaps in a finer tone, not burying it. But we also don't wish to be dominated or paralyzed by the dead. And writing can be cathartic in that other sense of the Greek word: offering not purgation but clarification. But because most suicides elude total explanation, I suppose Shade of the Raintree is a book I will always be writing.
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