Episode 4: Judy Collins: Sanity and Grace

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In this extraordinary, fearlessly intimate and heartful conversation, Judy Collins talks about her family life, the death of her beloved son by suicide, and her refusal to deny or attempt to banish its reality. She beautifully expresses her passionate and learned advocacy of changes to the acculturated attitudes toward suicide that cause prolonged and unnecessary suffering among all those concerned. The openness and depth of this conscious conversation is an example of the power of true dialogue to uniquely illumine both heart and mind. In the course of it and as it comes to a truly transformative and surprising conclusion, deeply revealing observations of hidden and healing patterns come through Duncan and Judy that were not apparent to either of them before the dialogue. It ends with a recording of Judy’s ballad “Wings of Angels” written for her son after his death (see Judy’s bio summary attached). To order a full transcript of this program, or a CD or MP3 of the complete one hour pair of dialogues with myself and Judy Collins, you can contact me at duncan@personallifemedia.com or at my website: www.livingdialogues.com. Many thanks again for your attentive deep listening in helping co-create this program. All the best, Duncan

Transcript

Judy Collins: Sanity and Grace

Announcer: This program is brought to you by PersonalLifeMedia.com.

[intro music]

Duncan Campbell: Welcome once again to Living Dialogues. I am your host, Duncan Campbell. Again I am delighted to have as my guest, Judy Collins, known to many of you for her many beautiful albums, for her concerts, and perhaps less so, for the number of books she has written, as well as a film she made, which received an Academy Award nomination, "Antonio: A Portrait of a Woman," about her piano teacher as a young girl. She has also started her own label, Wildflower Records, which contributes portions of it's proceeds to charity and non-profit organizations. She has written a number of books, including, "Trust Your Heart," "Singing Lessons," a biography, "Voices," "Amazing Grace," "The Judy Collins Song Book," and the novel, "Shameless."

But here today, she is here to talk about her most recent book, "Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength." And paradoxically, we are here to actually celebrate with joy and wonder, and also experience and talk about the psychic and heartache associated in her life with the suicide of her son, Clark, over 10 years ago, and the journey that that stimulated in her, and in many of her friends, and now in those of us who have got the great good fortune to share this beautiful book.

So, Judy Collins, it is a real pleasure to have you back on Living Dialogues.

Judy Collins: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here, Duncan.

Duncan Campbell: I would just like to perhaps start this particular dialogue with maybe two or three statistical things that you bring forth in the book. Just to give people a sense of this hidden taboo subject. They are, that by various sources, there are between 650,000 to 750,000 suicides a year in the United States alone.

Judy Collins: Suicide attempts.

Duncan Campbell: Suicide attempts. And one of 10 is successful.

Judy Collins: Yes.

Duncan Campbell: It is the leading cause of death among young people, 18 to 25 years old. Dr Schneidman, who is the acknowledged authority on this, and a personal friend of yours, He is in late eighties now, in Los Angeles. Very cheerful, and a very humanist fellow...

Judy Collins: Wonderful man.

Duncan Campbell: ... and a wonderful man: has said that, every 18 minutes someone commits suicide in the US. So, it is far more extensive than we are really told in the media. Because it does remain, as he and you and others have said, really the last taboo in our society. We've obviously gone quite a ways going through the sexual taboo. Even money now can be talked about in a new and empowering way...

Judy Collins: Oh! Yes.

Duncan Campbell: ...although that's still in the taboo area. But suicide is perhaps, the deepest and most frightening taboo, because it speaks to all of us, in a very personal way; as we read in the book, in a sub-conscious way. We might start this with one of Dr Schneidman's favorite authors, Herman Melville, whose own son, as we find in your book, committed suicide, and who was the author of Moby Dick.

Dr Schneidman keeps a copy of Moby Dick on his desk, because among the brilliant words in the opening paragraph is the following, which we quote, early on in the book: "Whenever I find myself going grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I count it high time to get to sea as soon as I could. This is my substitute for pistol and ball."

This is among the opening passages in Moby Dick, before the great adventure starts. So it is someting that is a recurring theme, I think, in the recesses of the unconscious of any human being anywhere on the planet; this dark road, this mystery of taking one's own life, which is at one and the same time, our birth right, if you will, our empowerment of the grace of free will.

But at the same time, in many cultures it has been treated with such shame, that anyone who does commit suicide, is either not buried with proper ceremony or rights, they have their name obliterated in the family history. And untold generations of pain continue because of the fear, basically, we have, to talk openly about the many things associated with this phenomena. From deep, deep sorrow, to actually celebration and affirmation of life. The whole gamut, that you describe of your own experience from the last ten years so beautifully in the book.

Judy Collins: When I was young, 10 or so, one of the things I used to do with my Dad, who, of course, was in the radio business. And I grew up going down to the radio station and singing with him, and playing the piano, and very involved in music always. But we always read.

I, when I was 8 or 9, all of us were expected to read Moby Dick. That was an important part of our education. And I opened the book, as a matter of fact, "Sanity and Grace", from a scene from my own childhood, of sitting with my father, while we read Moby Dick together. And I quote that wonderful passage of Melville's. I am reading Moby Dick again myself, and it does happen literally on the first page.

And when I met Schneidman, because I went out to Los Angeles to meet up with him. Because I was so impressed with his compassionate, wonderful writing on suicide survival, and he is a Melville scholar as well as a student of the subject of suicide.

I want to read you something now that is very interesting, because we think of it as a right. And I think, it is always been, kind of, hovering in my mind, as a subject, as it does for many, many of us. But I want to quote Richard Momeyer, who says,

"Suicide is an act that does not occur in a vacuum. Having a right to do something provides us some entitlement to do it. It does not assure that doing it is right. It is appropriate to set very high standards of justification for exercising the right to suicide, given how often it is undertaken in an ill-considered manner; how frequently suicides suffer diminished competence from mental illness; and how widespread and serious and often devastating are the consequences for others."

Now, I am not an expert, except that my own life I suppose, is some kind of a guide for myself, at least along the subject, because I have had some experience with it. But, I really wrote this book for the people who are left. I don't know that it has anything in it that might prevent, but I think for the survivors, of which there are -- now, since I was a kid reading Moby Dick at my father's elbow in Denver -- there may be six million survivors of this act that are struggling with their various -- some of them very much in the past, some in the present. That's why I wrote this book, because as a survivor, you get this legacy as something that you have to deal with yourself.

So all the things that I have read and thought and pondered, and that have healed me, are really directed towards the people who are left behind. Now one additional statistic that I won't mention, because I think that number is so shocking. And that's only the ones that we know about, Duncan.

Duncan Campbell: Exactly.

Judy Collins: Those are the only ones that are admitted. There are people that say that all self-inflicted wounds that wind up in emergency rooms are the results of suicide attempts. I don't know how true that is, but I heard that.

Among the casualties of suicide, are the 20,000 a year, who don't succeed, but who render themselves incapacitated; totally injured to a degree where they can't work, or they can't walk, or they can't function. That's another statistic that we don't know much about. I quote in this book, from Geo Stone, who wrote a book called, "Suicide and Attempted Suicide." Very, very, profoundly important book. Because what he wants to do is have you know about this. He wants to educate you.

And as you are saying, you have to pull off the dark covers off the subject, so we can pull this into the light and look at it; and having done so, look at our healthcare programs, and say, "Are we doing the right things for the survivors? Or for the potential suicides? Are we treating mental with the right kind of ammunition? Are we treating depression and alcoholism? Are we reaching into the communities, where we have to put..."

You know, there are so many gifted people who are suffering; who have either gone, or are being, disabled emotionally by the experience of having to survive the suicide of a loved one.

Duncan Campbell: And not only that, but there are the people who have made the attempt in their minds, but it has never actually been enacted.

Judy Collins: Oh! Yes.

Duncan Campbell: And there could be countless hundreds of thousands, millions of those.

Judy Collins: Absolutely.

Duncan Campbell: I know in my own life, there has been at least three times when I have had a very deep experience in that way, where I never actually gotten to the point of doing anything about it; but at the same time, have been at that level of darkness and despair that there wasn't really apparently any other way out, although I never acted on it. One of the things that is really beautiful about your book, is that you do talk so well about how not only is it a question about the people who are surviving, but the people who have made the attempt; of understanding where they must have been. And we can know that by looking into our own heart.

You spoke last time about Yogananda saying, the world is my office, but my heart and my mind are my home. Here is another quotation that illustrates where that great mystery of suicide may have lead certain people, how they may have found their only alternative. And it is from a poem by Charles Smith, and I quote.

It is called, "Family Plot" and it begins: "He was the saddest case. A boy starving at the feast, keeping his uncomplicated vigil before the cannons of the dark." And then you say, "Oh God, let me not starve at the feast. Let me believe in the awakening. The coming of the winter sun after the solstice. No matter how dark this winter has been, let me feel the nourishment of the feast of light of the new dawn, the return of the sun, the new beginning."

And those are your words, and they are very beautiful. Because it reminds me of George Harrison's wonderful, exhilarating song, "And Here Comes the Sun." And you can feel in it the end of the long winter, the return of life itself. And when you are in that dark place, and you can't see that. You need to remember the kinds of things that you are talking about in this book; to cultivate the habits of reaching out, of sharing, of not giving in to the political correctness, of taboo, of not remaining quiet, because it is actually dangerous.

Judy Collins: It is very dangerous. I can't tell you how often I think about that secret suicide that hovers in part of our family, and how it may have affected my son. I don't mean to take this personally. I know this is not personal because life doesn't happen personally to make me unhappy. I mean, it is what happens in the universe. So I have to deal with things as they come along and do what I can to always know the dawn is coming, and to have that kind of faith.

It does take faith. I think often of the Christmas story, of what happened in the Yule log, and all the wonderful primitive celebrations that had to do with light. Lighting great fires and trying to attract the sun back; because people were so afraid that it was gone and it wasn't coming back. I think that's what happens to us; this darkness comes from the loss of someone from suicide.

By the way, I don't want to, in any way, negate the great depth of grief from all loss. It is great and it is deep, and it is always personal. But there are things about the suicide loss which are different. And they have to do with a kind of perpetuated thrusting of guilt and anger and sorrow upon the survivor.

You wouldn't say, if your uncle or your brother, or your son or your mother, had died of cancer -- you wouldn't say that it was your fault, and you wouldn't have that kind of societal burden. It is a different kind of thing. So, in order to remove it -- not to remove it, because there are always this pain -- but in order to make it understood a little more, I think, to talk about it and bringing things into the light, so that they don't make us sick. The secrets don't make us sick, is what we have to do.

Duncan Campbell: In fact that is one of the things from the "Twelve Step" program. Their favorite slogan says, you are only as sick as your secrets. They want to open a dialogue with other human beings, and open a dialogue with the higher power, whatever that may mean to you. As you say, it could be the doorknob that lets you open the door. It is not the imposition of some kind of Christian faith, or some kind of religiosity. It is actually just a recognition that as a consciousness in the world we are all part of a larger mystery and that's the surety.

Judy Collins: We had two suicides recently in New York, NYU, couple of students, separate incidents. And the President of the University has gone public in a way that is, in a way, so fresh, and so healing. It is so important that he is talking about it. And I understand from a friend that there have been other incidents there, but they have always been hushed up. And this happens normally.

There was a school in the midwest where one of the teachers decided that she wanted, because of the high incidence of suicides among teenagers, and there it is a very high incidence. About half of the suicides in the country are teenagers. She wanted to bring attention, so she started a class among the young adolescents; and the parents got wind of it and shut it down.

I don't think today they would shut it down, because I think there is more understanding that this is a complicated issue, connected, as you have said, with many threads that the culture at large has to deal with. We have to deal with mental illness, we have to deal with depression and alcoholism. We have to deal with so many issues, and they all can be looked at as part of what the ingredients are of solving this problem.

I am always in favor of solutions, and I am also in favor of a group. I think, if you don't have a group, if you don't go to a church, if you don't have a, I don't know, a book club. If you don't have a place where you can remonstrate, and discuss, and weep, and complain, and laugh -- you got to get a group. Get a grip and get a group.

Duncan Campbell: Get a group and get a grip.

Judy Collins: That's it.

[laughter]

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell