A Death in the Neighborhood

 

 

1.

 

When it started, Ms. Baker1 was talking about the aorta or the distance between stars and I was clicking my pen and looking at the empty seats. By this time the school day had settled into midmorning, but there were still four people missing. I was in sixth grade.

 

A third of the way through Science, Ms. Baker got a call on the class phone, and as she listened she turned her back towards us as if to sheild us from the news.The class murmured versions of What’s Going On in a low rumble and in response she slammed the phone down and simply said “The train was late,” deftly executing a classic parental slight of hand.

 

At around 10:45, four kids staggered in and sat down unacknowledged. They sheepishly took out their binders and began scrawling notes, but there was something disorienting I couldn’t quite place—their pens lingered too long in their hands, a dullness clung to their eyes.

 

Ms. Baker went back to writing on the board but her lilting voice was just sound and behind me I heard someone whisper Are You OK. I looked over to see a girl with pigtails mumbling something to another girl in a pink Abercrombie hoodie, who in turn nodded and put her mouth right up to the first girl’s ear. I couldn’t hear what she said at first but as I leaned closer I just caught the end of it:

 

“If you looked close enough, you could see the blood.”

 

2.

 

There’s a list of every teenager who has killed themselves in the Bay Area in the last fifteen years. The website Palo Alto Free Speech Zone conveniently organized all 21 into a table that catalogs their name, date, and method of death. Sarah Riojas, 18, hanging. Cameron Lee, 16, train.

 

The only name on the list I recognize is Shelby Drazan, 17, traffic, since she went to high school across the street from me. I never knew her personally but I knew the story, or at least a version of it: There is a country club next to the freeway, and one day Shelby went there for lunch with her mother and grandmother. She chatted about school and listlessly picked at her chinese chicken salad or club sandwich before excusing herself to go to the bathroom. After about fifteen minutes passed, her mother and grandmother wondered where she had gone, peeking in the bathroom only to find that she was nowhere to be found. They wandered outside and saw a crowd peering over the guardrail, as Shelby had jumped off the 280 overpass into the traffic below.

 

I ran into a friend’s mom at Starbucks, who whispered this story to me with a lurid eagerness that said you’ll never believe this. I don’t think I do. But solid facts are hard to come by—even Palo Alto Free Speech Zone can’t help but evoke the imagination. Next to the strictly empirical name-date-death there’s a “notes" section for each person who died, which hint at a narrative by suggesting the reason behind the suicide (“it was not because of school or family pressures;” "fought depression all his life”) or constructing characters (“Equestrian. Dad: Venture Capitalist. Sister: model;” “Gunn basketball team captain & Merit Scholar”). Others are more opaque: one girl’s note only has a link to a photo of her grave, many of them have nothing at all.

 

2.

 

When people ask me where I’m from, I have my audience-tested Palo Alto speil about Stanford, about the google-glass clad tech bros popularized by the HBO show Silicon Valley, about the James Franco movie, Palo Alto, which I’ve never seen but appears to center around some sexy type of suburban angst which involves losing your virginity to your soccer coach and looking wistfully out a picture window. 

 

But a few months ago I was at a birthday party at a friend’s apartment, introducing myself to someone's long distance girlfriend—a soft-spoken brunette studying to be a psychiatrist. It was the type of party where we clutched red solo cups and struggled to hear each other over the Migos blasting in the background, but because we were drinking gin and tonics instead of Rubinoff and eating dried apricots instead of Doritos we felt that the whole thing was very refined. When I told her I grew up in Palo Alto she responded by darting her eyes towards the floor and getting very quiet.

 

“How was the um…mental health situation?" she asked.

 

"What?"

 

“The mental health situation. I’ve heard it’s uh…" She paused to look at the ceiling, as if she’d find the right words between the rafters. “Like, did you read that article in The Atlantic?"

 

“Yeah."

 

“So did you know anyone who was involved in that whole…thing?”

 

She looked at me wide-eyed, expectant. This wasn’t the first time someone had asked me something like this; I’ll be at a birthday party or a friend’s family dinner and some nervous suburban mother or melancholic high-school overachiever will start speaking in a particular kind of code. Sometimes they will say distant generalities like Palo Alto seems like an, um…stressful place to grow up and expect me to read between the lines, other times they will ask pointed questions about articles in The Atlantic or the SF Chronicle.

 

That’s because Palo Alto has been launched into infamy as the capital of teen suicide in America, home to not one but two suicide “clusters:” Four dead in 2009, three dead in 2014, all teenagers--the majority dying by laying on the CalTrain tracks near the Palo Alto station and waiting for a train.

 

But this is not inherently noteworthy, as clusters of teen suicides are, unfortunately, not that rare. What gives Palo Alto its headlines is that it seems so inhospitable to tragedy. It has the typical quaint shopping streets and idyllic public schools associated with utopian suburban towns, but unlike the Stepfords and Greenwiches of America, Palo Alto has seemingly managed to phase out the backwards gender politics, the lethargy, the malaise associated with a more antiquated suburban ideal. Instead, Palo Alto oozes possibility— Stanford welcomes thousands of whiz kids into its stucco walls and the booming tech industry beckons siren-like as the seat of innovation in America. Trees curl around major thoroughfares; even the freeways look like they've been plucked straight out of a golden-hour soaked Bierstadt. 

 

This gives the story of the Palo Alto suicide clusters a seductive quality, of the paradisical suburban town with a grisly underbelly, and these east-coast journalists and melancholic overachievers and affluent mothers all ask the same question: why this town, why here?

 

But the aspiring psychiatrist asked me a simpler question: if I knew anyone who was “involved in that whole thing.” I suppose the answer was yes and no. It felt duplicitous to claim that I had any real authority on the Palo Alto Experience, since I went to private school in Menlo Park, a town three minutes away. But, at the same time, my time in Silicon Valley was tinged with the two outbreaks: the first happened the year I moved, and the second happened my senior year of high school, right before I left for college.

 

“Yeah,” I told the aspiring psychiatrist, finally. “But um… it’s not like I have a ‘take’ on it or anything.” I clutched my solo cup a little tighter and shifted my weight back and forth between my feet. “I guess it’s just sad to be in a place like that.”

 

“Oh yeah, no, I totally get that,” she said, in a tone so deferential I almost felt like I should have been the one comforting her. We each waited for the other to say something more, but no one did, and, when the conversation had sufficiently deflated, she gave me a dignified nod and excused herself to get another drink.

 

As I watched her stumble towards the kitchen, I thought about one of my high school friends. She went on meditation retreats, and as such there were weeks at a time where no one could reach her. There was a year in which each time she left town to meditate, one of her friends tried to kill themselves— first her ex-boyfriend, then her lab partner in 10th grade Chemistry. She told me all this in trembling whispers, at three in the morning at a sleepover after everyone else had already fallen asleep. I knew her for eight years and this was the only time I saw her cry, tears splotching the edge of her blue nylon sleeping bag.

 

I wonder what she would have told the aspiring psychiatrist. The more I thought about her question, the less sense it made to me. What does it mean to be “involved” in someone’s suicide, in the first place? Would my friend say that the question of whether or not she was “involved” was one that haunted her, kept her up at night? Would she say that after her suicide year she didn’t go on meditation retreats for a while, because, in some shameful way, she felt responsible for their deaths just by being away? Can you even say something like that to a stranger at a birthday party without freaking them out? Or would she have just demurred, as I did, saying something vague and insufficient before letting the party swirl around her as if she were trapped inside the spin cycle of a broken washing machine?

 

 

4.

If you type the name “Nick Woodman” into a search bar, here is what Google will suggest to you: Nick Woodman house, Nick Woodman net worth, Nick Woodman yacht.

 

This is because Nick Woodman is a billionaire, famous for inventing the GoPro. He also went to my high school, and a few years ago he showed up at the school gym in the requisite chill-CEO uniform of a company T-shirt and jeans to receive an alumni award for his achievements. 

 

He took a pointed, particular joy in returning to his alma mater because he was such a blatantly terrible student. He could point to each teacher who was still around from his era and explain exactly how the teacher in question hated him, and spent a good amount of his speaking time doing just that. It was clear Woodman came back to high school to gloat— he held up his plaque with manic glee and tossed GoPros into the audience like confetti.

 

Then he got to the meat of his speech, the GoPro creation myth: Woodman gave himself until 30 to invent a product and start a company, and if he failed, he decided he would finally try and get a “real job." After he drove his first company into the ground, he got the idea for the GoPro filming himself with a disposable camera while he surfed in Bali. To raise the funds for his venture he and his wife sold shells he found on the street, and, crucially, borrowed $230,000 from his parents before the GoPro took off and he finally made his fortune.

 

This speech was a standard grade Follow Your Dreams (Don’t Worry; Failure is an Important Part of Life) sort of narrative, but in the context of the suicides, Woodman’s speech took on a darker tinge. With no clear explanation for the preponderance of suicides in Palo Alto, the community landed on stress as the culprit. This might strike some as strange, as typically, stress is a temporary condition: something specific, usually work, stresses you out, and then, once you complete the task at hand, the stress fades.

 

But in Silicon Valley stress is treated as a constant state, an existential condition. The most famous evidence for the Silicon Valley stress epidemic, cited in all of the articles about the suicide clusters in mainstream publications, is an op-ed in the local paper called “The Sorrows of Young Palo Altans,” in which Carolyn Walworth, a student at Palo Alto High School, described the catastrophic effects of the stress crisis in lurid detail. She suggests that the crushing pressure to get into Ivy League schools steamrolls Silicon Valley’s teenagers. Because getting into college requires such overwhelming dedication to meaningless labor— studying for AP’s, filling out SAT practice tests, driving back and forth from brand-building extracurriculars—high school students feel like animated corpses, walking resumes. The implication is that adolescent life in Silicon Valley is so anxiety-inducing and life-sucking that it could drive a depressed kid over the edge.

 

But the piece is strange evidence for the Palo Alto suicide problem. Walworth only mentions suicide three times, and does so only to distance herself from the suicide clusters. While she says that she feels “nothing but empathy” for the depressed and suicidal, she maintains that “not all problems relating to suicide and depression are directly correlated to school.” The closest she comes to connecting the dots is when she says that if you’re already struggling from depression, being in a competetive, stressful environment “can’t help.”

 

Instead, this piece is masterful in its use of euphemism, of implication. Her depictions of stress center around melodramatic imagery of disease and death— she describes stress as a “physical pain," and "a fresh gunshot wound" that means kids are "gasping for air,” unable to "draw a measly breath in”—and waits for the reader to fill in the blanks.

 

I read this article right when it came out, in 2015. I was a high school senior at the time, steeped in the mileu Walworth describes—the grade-grubbing drudgery, the masochist machismo in bragging about how much time one spent doing homework at night. I’ve heard of a girl whose mom was so committed to her productivity that she would spoon feed her dinner while she did her homework, as if she were an infant, so as not to distract her from her work. My high school friends had achievements so improbable that when I describe them it seems like I just picked qualities out of a hat at random (i:e, mathematitician/judo champion/outdoorsman, pageant queen/particle physicist/poet). These accomplishments required a near-robotic level of discipline— if I casually mentioned an episode of TV I had seen the night before, inevitably, someone would respond in a nasally whine: “Wow, you’re so lucky—I don’t have time to do things like that anymore.”

 

But even I had trouble relating to her depiction of teenage life in Silicon Valley. It felt not only melodramatic but deeply crass to equate studying for the SATs in your affluent suburban hometown with a gunshot wound, to turn too much homework or a bad night of sleep into something fatal. 

 

But even if this conflation of stress with depression seemed exaggerated, it reflected the way we talked about mental health at my high school, or, perhaps, more accurately, didn’t talk about it. If our we had any meaningful discussions about depression, I do not remember them, but when the second suicide cluster hit in 2014, we talked about stress with such frequency and absurd intensity that a girl in my class wrote a piece for the school paper titled “We Already Know We Are Stressed.” We had endless student-teacher forums about instating mandatory free periods or starting school an hour later to reduce student anxiety, while teachers spoke to us about the absurdity of college admissions, all the while repeating "stress does not equal success.” Nick Woodman was supposed to be a comforting reminder that you can spend high school surfing instead of studying and still end up a billionaire. 

 

Like Walworth’s piece, these were never connected explicitly to depression or to suicide— there was always a level of plausible deniability. But I’d maintain that if you looked close enough, you could see the substitution happening—why else would we have obsessed over it so much? A week or two after one of the suicides, one of my English teachers began to cry in the middle of class, seemingly inexplicably, because she was worried about how stressed we were. The day after someone killed themselves my senior year, we had an assembly, and we wondered if the administration would talk about it. But they simply said “this is an especially stressful time of year, be sure to take care of yourselves” before dismissing us back to class.

 

Stress became a way of talking about being sad without allowing it to become a real, status-quo threatening Problem, a way of making depression easily diagnosed and easily solved. Not getting enough sleep? Go to bed earlier. Too much work? Do less. In removing the language for depression we traded one problem for another—a depressed kid could simply be described as “stressed,” and it would not technically be incorrect. 

 

But when the kids who die look no different than those who don’t, it's hard to tell whose sadness is a problem and whose is merely matter-of-fact. I’ve seen two mothers, both of whom have depressed kids, feed each other euphemisms about their children “having a hard time” through pursed lips, without realizing that the other mother had gone through the same experience. One has to read between the lines, to look harder, if you look hard enough, you can see the blood.

 

5.

 

One day the whole school went out to the soccer field and saw a Buick flipped over, smoke coiling out of its battered hood. After a minute a football player from my Bio class crawled out of the car in a daze and gazed at the destruction. He seemed unaware of the audience around him, and spent a few moments wandering around the field sonambulant, before pausing as if to remember something.  He bolted back into the car, launching himself through the crumpled door, and dragged a small girl’s limp body out onto the field. She coughed weakly as he laid her onto the grass.

 

He dialed 911 but his voice was overwhelmed by the small girl’s labored breathing, slowing before stopping entirely. The field was silent. The football player pressed his hand to her heart to check her pulse, but there was nothing there, and he fell to his knees and wept as the girl bled onto his lap. The paramedics came and loaded the girl onto an ambulance, but the football player stayed still, trancelike, his head in his hands. We watched him weep for what felt like too long. Then the paramedics carried him onto the ambulance, and they all drove away, the siren dopplering into the distance.

 

We stood there for a moment, tacitly asking each other, was that it? is it over? After a confused silence, we all walked back to class, and next week the small girl and the football player came back to school as if nothing had happened.

 

This performance was the culmination of “Every Fifteen Minutes,” a program designed to scare teenagers away from drunk driving by simulating fake deaths. Some of them were dramatic, like the soccer field car crash, but most were banal— every fifteen minutes, the Dean of Students would come into class and read a script that stated: “I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I have a tragedy to report. It has come to my attention that X died last night after a drunk driving accident. We are deeply saddened to lose him/her, take care of yourselves in this trying time.” Then the administrator would put a hand on X’s shoulder, bring him/her outside, and that was it— they were gone.

 

None of my teachers knew quite how to respond to these interruptions. The correct thing would be to play along. Some took a moment of silence. Others smirked at the pageantry of it or mumbled something chilly and snide. Most nodded solemnly before returning to the quadratic formula or The Scarlet Letter or the history of the Civil War. 

 

They erected gravestones right next to the lockers, and students played death, stopping to mourn at their classmates’ fake graves, while the Dean of Academics dressed up as the grim reaper and wandered aimlessly around the school’s grounds.

 

At the time it seemed strange to me that we had spent so much time mourning fake deaths when actual deaths were happening seven miles away. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have an “Every Fifteen Minutes” for suicide.

 

But then again, “Every Fifteen Minutes” functions under a very specific logic: when teenagers see how scary it is to die of drunk driving, they will be more afraid of death, and because they are afraid of death, they will not drunk drive. In practice this logic didn’t exactly hold up, as in the world of “Every Fifteen Minutes,” there was a sense in which it was preferable to be dead than living. I remember being mildly disappointed I hadn’t been picked to die, as being dead became somewhat of a status symbol— there was a rumor that the administration picked which students died based on how much they’d be missed. 

 

The administration was already somewhat worried about romanticizing suicide— they adhered to the school of thought in which merely mentioning suicide in a public setting asserted it as “an option,” and rendered it more attractive to those who were already depressed, so perhaps it was better that they didn’t transform it into a spectacle.

 

Besides, maybe it wouldn’t be so different. We’d still have the speeches of “take care of yourself in this trying time,” the creeping fear that someone you know might be next. 

 

I still think often about the football player wandering around the field, listless, despondent. Even though we watched him from far away, I remember his face shifting while he watched the small girl die as this sense of deep, pervasive guilt descended upon him, this sense of if only I could have known. I thought of my friend with the meditation retreats who beat herself up for being away, knowing intellectually that it had nothing to do with her friends’ depression, but feeling gripped by remorse anyway. I recognized it in my classmates as we walked back from the field, as if we were carrying the football player’s guilt collectively like a weight tied to a bunch of balloons. 

 

6.

 

When I was 12, Stephen called to tell me he had just tried to throw himself off a building. He was my best friend in middle school but I hadn’t seen him in a while — I got back home from sleepaway camp only a few days earlier. I was picking my brother up from the playground. It was one of those summer days so hot that you couldn’t tell what was exhaust and what was just air, and everything smelled like sunscreen and tar.

 

I paced back and forth on the blacktop with the phone pressed to my cheek as he explained to me what happened, but looking back on it I can’t recall anything we said to each other. The only thing I remember was being surrounded by screaming children and feeling like each child had a scream just for me. Later that night I turned the phone call around in my mind, wishing I had a speech for him about all the specific ways I loved him, but all I had was I'm so sorry and I'm here for you and all those words felt punctured, deflated.

 

If he had thrown himself off the building, he would have died the same year as the first suicide cluster. He would have been “involved,” to use the words of the aspiring psychiatrist— his name and age would have been catalogued in the table in the Palo Alto Free Speech Zone. Sometimes I wonder what his epithet would be. 

 

But even as I’ve played a tape loop of our friendship over and over again I still couldn’t tell you why he wanted to die. Our friendship was based on doing bad British accents for each other and having impassioned arguments about whether the Arctic Monkeys or the Sex Pistols sounded more like sex. The only disoncerting thing was that he didn’t sleep much. He constantly skipped class to nap but always reassured me that he was Totally Fine, Really. When I asked him how he was he’d say: “I'm really tired, that’s all.”

 

This banality is the scariest thing about suicide. Ultimately, suicide is just a thought that won’t go away—it’s a dulling, a distance, a sublimation. It’s like trying to swim in a pool with no water, or turning out the lights at night and bearing the darkness at the room. What are you supposed to do with a pain you can’t see, a pain with no core? How do you know it’s there?

 

In trying to understand the Palo Alto suicides there is a sense in which we are circumventing this problem. When we ask ourselves why so many people die in Palo Alto, we locate the problem in a place rather than in a person. In some ways this makes things easier—it’s sociology instead of psychology. No longer do you have to reach through the murkiness of someone’s emotional life and pull out a story that feels plausible; instead we talk about patterns, statistics, stress, and work backwards to explain why someone died. Most popular suicide narratives function this way: the narrative thrust behind teen drama 13 Reasons Why, for example, makes each titular "reason" for the main character’s suicide a physical tape that one studies, tracks, holds in hand. In making this move we remove depression from the caverns of the mind and transpose the source of pain outside of itself. It gives pain linear progression, a face, roots.

 

But I think that, in some ways, this move is the problem. Palo Alto is not a sadder place than most places. To argue that it is would be ridiculous; even among other affluent communities, Palo Alto doesn’t have a monopoly on depressed try-hards. Children of the meritocratic elite overwork themselves all over the country, from Andover to Los Angeles, and they’re not throwing themselves in front of trains. 

 

The Palo Alto suicide clusters create a paradox; when so many people die in the same place, in the same way, it seems irresponsible to ignore the correlation, but depression is a tautology—no matter what the stories say, the depressed aren’t suicidal because they weren’t loved enough, or because they did not get enough sleep. They are depressed simply because they are. 

 

Perhaps what makes Palo Alto a habitat for suicide is not that it is sadder than most places, but the opposite. With its golden-hour sunsets and oozing possibility and near-constant chipperness, Palo Alto is not a particularly easy place to be depressed. One feels like Walworth in “The Sorrows of Young Palo Altans”— melodramatic, crass, complaining too much. Much easier to sublimate it, to dismiss it as “stress” or transform into something more palatable.

 

But when nobody has the language for sadness, depression becomes harder and harder to diagnose.  We wait for definitive proof, as if there were some way of deducing that someone's pain is real depression and not just run-of-the-mill anhedonia. But soon it’s too late: we get the call on the hot blacktop, we see the blood on the tracks, we cry, we go home.

 

7.

 

After that day in the summer Stephen moved to another school, and slowly we stopped seeing each other. We became friends only nominally. We’d often run into each other at a supermarket or a Starbucks and exchange stale pleasantries like I miss you and we should hang out, but somehow, we never did. 

 

Finally, one day we decide to go the beach. We get burritos from the taqueria down the street and smoke. We’re both somewhat surprised to see how easily we get along, even after so much time apart, and we spend a while trading quips about the music we’re listening to and anecdotes about our boyfriends. But eventually the conversation turns to mental health, and cautiously, I ask how he is. He tells me he has an official diagnosis now, and that he has gone off medication, but that his boyfriend has helped tremendously. He tells this story in a practiced way, so quickly, and with such a pat, happy ending it almost feels flippant. But I tell him that it’s good to hear he’s feeling better, and he smiles weakly before changing the subject.

 

As we drive down the winding path towards the beach, the radio gets vague and staticky, so Stephen shuts it off. In the few moments of silence I watch him drive and think about the time we took a Drama class together in middle school. We’d play this game, “Mirror, Mirror.” It’s pretty easy: one person matches the other’s motions until they move as a unit, so no one from the outside can tell which one was leading. 

 

I was never good at this particular game. I moved too abruptly, so it’d be obvious I was calling the shots. But Stephen was much better—his trick was to close his eyes. As his eyes fluttered shut I would have to close my own eyes in tandem, and then he would take my hands and lead a slow, blind dance. You can get into sort of trance when you are so mutually attuned to each other. Sometimes we’d even take on the same breath — four seconds to inhale, eight to exhale. 

 

There is something beautiful about this kind of closeness, a wordless, edgeless empathy. How nice it would be to play an endless game of blind mirror, to eternally hold each other in hand. How nice it would be to share a breath. 

 

To protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this piece, I have changed their names, genders, relationships, and details, aside from those of public figures (Drazan, Woodman, Walworth, etc).