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.