Monday, April 06, 2009

The Rise And Fall Of Christine Chubbuck

Why not really end it all? Prove to the world that I'm not a fraud. Just walk out to sea with my hands held above my head. Walk on, until only the fingers are visible... a last, defiant gesture to a hostile world.
So goes the would-be swansong of Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, as his downward midlife crisis spiral hits rock bottom and he ditches his clothes on a cold beach and walks out to sea; an ending foiled only by the temperature of the water. Perrin pulled himself out of the middle aged mire through three jet-black, pathos-laden series of "The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin", but there's a mostly forgotten victim of a real-life depression and breakdown that, I think, it's time got some more screen time.

I like a good biography, but I'm always suspicious of "biopics", knowing full well that Hollywood prefers to meddle with the facts to make a story better. (Who, having researched the real story of John Holmes, can watch "Boogie Nights" again without giving themselves an eye-roll migraine and wondering why they didn't just make a straight-up (no pun, etc) Holmes movie rather than that patchy, disjointed, pretend one?) I'm genuinely surprised then that the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck hasn't been snapped up and mangled.

Before Howard Beale was as mad as hell, before R. Budd Dwyer provided "an update on the situation" across the noon newscast, local news anchor Christine Chubbuck shot and killed herself live on her Florida TV talk show.

It's not an impossible stretch of the imagination to believe that Chubbuck could have been a trailblazer for women in TV news. It was very much still a man's playground in the early 1970s, but she was an extremely competent, talented and ambitious journalist who was on the rise. WXLT's owner, in order to fulfill FCC's regulations rather than as a reward for hard work or recognition of talent, gave her a mid-morning community affairs show that she worked hard on in the hope that someone in the larger adjoining market would see and snap her up. By all accounts, it was only a matter of time. An intense work ethic, a flare for current affairs and - sadly - good looks are a combination that get you places. Chubbuck had all three in spades.

On the morning of her death, she turned up to work in a good mood, and prepared her broadcast to begin with a newscast, something her co-workers found unusual. Days previously, she had had a blazing argument with her 26 year old news director who wanted the station to cover more "blood and guts stories", as per the station owner's wishes and that old and tired newsroom edict that "if it bleeds, it leads". Not long afterwards, and much to the delight of her gore-hungry so-called superior, she offered to report on suicide. It was gleefully approved with, one assumes, much hand-wringing, and Chubbuck spoke to a local police chief about how one might throw a flawless seven. He states that he went into great detail on bullets, firearms and where on the head to shoot.

According to reports, Chubbuck started the programme with three national news stories and then prepared the introduction to a locally produced film about an area shooting. The film jammed, and Chubbuck calmly flipped over her script, retrieved a handgun from under her desk, and uttered her infamous final words:

"In keeping with channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, we bring you another first; an attempted suicide."

Bang, slump, fade to black.

It's not clear whether by "attempted" she actually meant to kill herself (although she had left suicide notes for her family) since her hand-written script listed herself in the third person as being "in critical condition" at the local hospital, or whether she meant "attempted" as in it's dictionary definition, where success is a feasible outcome. Whilst it's easy to retro-diagnose, it seems clear that Chubbuck suffered greatly from severe depression, probably for most of her life.

Despite a promising career that was rooted firmly in the upper second half of the 20th century, what Chubbuck really wanted out of life was far more suited to the first half; to be a "housewife" and mother. Within a month of her 30th birthday, still a virgin and with a warning from a doctor after the surgical removal of an ovary, that she had a short amount of time to conceive or she wouldn't ever be able to, Chubbuck had little suitors with which to embark on the Stepford Wives life she dreamed of. A co-worker she had picked out as being the solution to all of her problems had rejected her advances and - worse - was romantically involved with her closest friend, who - even worse - was within days of leaving Sarasota for a bigger career in a bigger market. Her childhood seems to be equally as unhappy: divorced parents, still lived with her mother, had difficulty connecting socially - particularly with men - to the extent that her mother estimated she had been on less than 25 dates in ten years, with no single encounter numbering any more than two or three subsequent dates. In high school, she organised a "Dateless Wonder"club for herself and her equally lonely friends. There had been another suicide attempt with pills four years previously.

Yet there was a loving side to her, with much money spent on friends and time spent volunteering at a local hospital where she would perform shows for developmentally challenged kids with self-made puppets. It was inside a bag of these home made puppets that she hid her gun. Time and love spent on others, those things that are supposed to bridge the perceived gaps in a life seem to have meant very little to her. Her mother told journalist Sally Quinn, "if you look at it on paper, her suicide was simply because her personal life was not enough."

It seems such a waste of such a promising life to end, purely because the ultimately unattainable goal of total happiness wasn't being met fast enough. Her family were not surprised that she took her own life, but were disturbed that she did it so publicly. Removing emotion, the psychology of a suicide attempt belies that. A suicide attempt is invariably a cry for help or a sign of defiance or protest. Chubbuck's first attempt was the cry. Her second was the sign. By doing it so publicly, she was making sure that not only would she live forever in the annuls of TV history as the first televised suicide, but that those who had rejected her or hurt her could see how it made her feel. She had the world at her feet and countless opportunities lay ahead of her, but the one thing she really wanted, she couldn't have, and it tore her apart. It was her last, defiant gesture to a hostile world.

Despite some horrifyingly tenacious research by "death hags" on hideously poor taste websites, no video of Chubbuck's intentionally public suicide has ever been sourced. Her family won an injunction against the TV station, preventing them from releasing the recording publicly and were given possession of the only known video tape. If they've not destroyed it, chances are it will be degraded to the point of being unplayable due to thirty-five years of improper storage. And that's probably a good thing. It is, however, terribly sad that there seems to be none of her day-to-day work that has survived or been distributed, meaning that her legacy will always be that of a ghoulish anecdote, a holy grail to a desensitised generation who, instead of remembering the person, would post 'reaction' videos on You Tube and turn her name into a verb or a punchline.


Laura said...

Relax. We death hags know that she wanted us to see it otherwise she would have not done it live on tv. We are very interested in her and not about making her a verb or punchline. We all would have liked to have known her in real life. And you are right, the work she did do has been kept under wraps which a shame.

Spike Nesmith said...

Thanks for the comment (and the link from Find-A-Death)

I'm not doubting that there's genuine interest in her as a person amongst some of you "death hags" (perhaps despite the name) but lemme tell ya... the guy offering twenty five grand for the tape isn't helping your case much. Nor is the link to the rather gratuitous "Faces Of Death" video.

The unchecked drooling over the prospect of any sort of lead in the thread sort of proves my point that it's probably better that the footage stays missing. Maybe you guys at FAD would handle it with care, but all you have to do is search YouTube for "Dwyar reaction videos" to see what the Chubbuck tape would very quickly become once it got out into the wider world.

Besides, check my next post. I'm officially a hypocrite! Does this qualify me as a "Death Hag"? =)

Spike Nesmith said...

I learned something today!

It's just been pointed out to me on the forum that "Faces Of Death" is a fake! So have that stricken from the record.

Michael555 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael555 said...

I'm also from Findadeath, and I know you probably think that I'm just out for some kind of morbid thrill with the Chubbuck tape, and I am a little bit admittedly, but for me it's also about the statement she makes and the shocking way that she made it. I remember when I watched that E! documentary and just being completely flabbergasted at how crazy the story was.
I'm also very interested in her as a person. I also was suicidal at one time and I can relate and understand her situation. I wish someone would do a documentary on her, it'd very interesting to know more about her life and see more than the three pictures we've seen of her. I know there are Budd Dwyer reaction videos on youtube, but honestly, I don't think Christine would even care if there were. She shot herself live television and then asked her footage to be broadcast on different stations if I remember right. So would Christine care? I don't think so...but that's just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

why has nobody out there picked up on the fact that she probably suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome? she suffered depression, anxiety, and had an ovary removed, amongst other symptoms.

Anonymous said...

Bite Me. Death Hag

Heather said...

It truly does amaze me that people say, "but s/he was so successful/loving/smart/whatever..."

Depression doesn't discriminate. I think people who have never had to cope with it either in themselves or in another, they think of it as just a colossal bad mood.

People say things like, "what's so bad it's worth killing yourself over?" or "what have you got to be depressed about?" and it's clear that they just don't get it. You don't decide do be depressed. You're not depressed ABOUT anything. Sure, in many cases, there is a precipitating factor - say, divorce, death of a loved one, loss of job - but not everyone who experiences those things also experiences the total leeching-out of life-force and personality alteration that is Depression. It's an illness, and while suffering from it, even smart, loving, successful people do things that they would not if they were truly themselves and not fighting Depression for dominion over their lives and personalities.

If anyone learned anything from Christine Chubbuck, I hope it's that.

Anonymous said...

Theres only one actress who would ever be suitable to play Chubbuck and that's Heather Donahue.

Anonymous said...

As a healthcare professional who had to go to four different endocrinologists before they diagnosed my lean PCOS, I agree with anonymous that lean PCOS was the primary contributor to her symptoms. It is a shame this syndrome is overlooked and attributed to a character flaw. My deepest hope is that those souls born at the wrong time, before they could receive proper treatment, are at peace after their struggle in this often insensitive world.