Last summer, Russell Armstrong, the husband of huge-lipped Bravo celebrity housewife Taylor Armstrong, hanged himself. This event came after months of filming, a period of time in which his volatile marriage led to a public separation. He had been an awful husband, we were led to believe from the Housewives franchise. He would skip out on counseling sessions, bully and abuse his wife, and even though the couple was throwing $60,000 birthday parties for their 3 year old daughter, it was widely known that they were experiencing financial difficulties. They were not the Maloof family with their casino fortune, or the Vanderpumps with their restaurant and club empire. They were climbers, and a lot about their lives didn’t add up. Bravo filmed them anyway.
It was unfortunate for Bravo when Russell committed suicide, not just because it raised questions about how people on the Housewives react to fame, but because they had completely finished filming their most recent season. They had to go back and re-edit the show. It’s not entirely clear what they took out of the show, but after watching the past season, which concluded last night after after a 3-part, 3-week long reunion special, it’s clear that they tried as much as possibly to eliminate Russell’s suicide. Yes, his marriage with Taylor was definitely a large part of the series arc, and provided much of the main dramatic conflict. But Russell’s death, the result of his own hand, was basically an unmentioned elephant in the room. It was something every viewer knew had happened—it was highly publicized before the season even started—but it was also something that Bravo did not want to deal with. So they barely brushed the surface, which is unfortunate, because this is the same exact way most people deal with suicide. Remaining silent about suicide is perhaps the most painful, least helpful thing a person can do when trying to deal with it. And yet it’s everyone’s impulse: feel ashamed by the tragedy, by this act that’s so heinous and horrible it causes you to nearly shut down; be so sad and regretful about it that you never want to talk about it again. Just keep it yourself, and beat yourself up in the process.
A very close friend of mine committed suicide in 2009, and the impulse to ignore it, to pretend that it doesn’t both hurt and sting every time you think about this person is impossible to resist. And yet it’s what I try to do. And I’m not alone; suicide is often called the silent killer because it’s an outcome that people don’t talk about. Yet it happens all of the time.
I think it’s a topic so shrouded in mystery for these very reasons. People tend to blame suicide on themselves, rather than on the person who took their own life. There’s a lot of guilt and shame on the people left behind, so they tend not to talk about it. It’s the strangest of enigmas: it’s an act that’s always on your mind, yet it’s one that never feels appropriate to talk about. If you do talk about suicide, you’re the guy bringing other people down. There’s a time and a place to talk about everything—except suicide, it seems. For me, it just never seems like it’s the right subject. And on top of that, what do you say? It’s a tragedy. Do you just leave it there? “I don’t understand it.” That’s all I have to say, and that doesn’t feel very like a productive conversation to me.
After my friend died there were a few occasions when I broke down crying while I was out drinking with friends. They were spastic little exchanges that were understood by some of my friends, and sort of brushed off by others who probably assumed that someone else was better capable of helping a distraught person like myself. And that’s fine. I probably would behave the same way if roles were reversed. Some of my friends would commiserate with my sad sack self, offering the same words of support as everyone: “I don’t know what to say. It’s just such a strange, weird thing.” And that’s basically all you can say about suicide. It’s crazy.
In a freshman literature class, my favorite professor told us never to label something crazy, because once you labeled something crazy you couldn’t pick it apart and figure out what it was. It was just crazy—and there’s no explaining it away. If it is just some kind of bizarre, out-of-touch thing that doesn’t make sense, then hard-working, logical brains can’t pick apart and try to make meaning out of it. And that’s what suicide has always been for me: crazy. I have no idea what puts a person in the place where they are willing to take their own life. There may be certain circumstances that feel dire and distressing, but I haven’t been able to put two and two together when it comes to why someone figures they are a candidate for such a drastic, life ending action. I don’t think much thinking happens. Suicide is beyond something a reasonable person does. And at the point when someone decides they will take their life, that must be what they are feeling: life is beyond comprehension. It’s a dismal urge of utter and complete nothingness, with little in the way of fact or logic to back up their action. It’s chaos. And that’s why I think think we don’t talk about it. We like concrete information and facts. We want to know why. But if we were capable of establishing this why, we’d be much closer to the thing itself, and getting closer to the beast that makes people take their own life is a horrifying thought in and of itself. We don’t necessarily want to understand it.
After my friend died I slouched for about six months. I got skinny because food wasn’t important. I convinced myself that I would figure out life. I had recently graduated from college, and was ‘working’ as a freelance writer—the quotes exist to designate an overall lack of productivity and money-making—and I was more depressed than I’d ever been before. I think, more than anything, there was a question hanging over my head, one that’s still there. Why. It’s a plot that’s unfinished. It feels icky and incomplete, like I need some greater power to come in and explain it to me.
Housewives probably isn’t the correct venue for a discussion about suicide. Generally, they’re in the business of light-hearted, ridiculous drama. But things have become serious, and the show isn’t prepared to deal with it. One thing Bravo has found, over the course of their various series, is that they are actually following peoples’ lives, and sometimes very serious, very confusing shit happens. I don’t expect Andy Cohen, Bravo network’s kingpin gay and executive producer credited with the Housewives boom, to provide an answer to Russell Armstrong’s death. But sweeping the whole thing under the rug feels as disrespectful as what the show already did: bringing this couple’s very serious problems into the light. It’s not entirely Bravo’s fault. The couple signed up for this. But what Bravo has done is used a candle to show someone’s sore, and accidentally lit the whole person on fire in the process. Instead of putting out the fire, they’ve backed away from it. And I guess that’s what you do when you’re making a reality show. You want to watch the drama, and not be part of it.