Saturday, September 10, 2011

There but for Fortune

Another post in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day. Yesterday, I reviewed a documentary on Phil Ochs, the sixties folk singer/political activist who tragically wound up hanging himself at age 36. Richard O’Connor, author of the 1997 classic “Undoing Depression” (updated in 2010) happened to read my piece. A pivotal segment of his book weaves Phil Ochs into themes of caring and empathy and depression. I have taken the liberty to extract key paragraphs from his book here ...

I grew up in the sixties, a time of optimism for our country. To some of us, there seemed to be a rebirth of caring, of empathy and egalitarianism. A popular song talked about the prisoner, the drunkard, the hobo, with the refrain "There but for fortune go you or I."

We assumed that, if things were bad, they could be changed, and we might even trust our government to direct the change. ...

That our culture today fosters depression is borne out by the increasing prevalence of depression among young people. A series of studies have shown that people born between 1940 and 1959 suffer depression more frequently and earlier in life than those born before 1940, not only in the United States, but in most of the Western world. Rates for mania, schizophrenia, and panic disorder have stayed about the same, suggesting that something cultural is at work. Our society is depressing. We don't feel optimistic about the future, we don't trust our leaders, we don't see opportunities to engage in rewarding careers. Is there anything we can do as a society that might slow down or reverse the epidemic of depression?


Drug abuse, crime, the gap between rich and poor, child abuse, divorce - the rates keep going up in all our most distressing social problems. It's hard not to wish the problems would go away. It's very hard to feel "there but for fortune may go you or I." That kind of empathy, letting down the walls we put up to keep ourselves snug and secure, can be very painful. In the case of the young man who wrote the song with that refrain, it may have cost him his life.

Phil Ochs sang "There but for Fortune" at Newport in 1964, and Joan Baez made something of a hit of it a year later. Ochs was one of the leading lights of the folk-protest movement of the late sixties. He showed up at the Chicago convention in 1968 and led the crowd in I Ain't Marchin' Anymore and The War is Over, two anthems of the peace movement that he had written. His guitar was entered into evidence as a defense exhibit at the trial of the Chicago 7. Pete Seeger said, "Phil was so likable, so earnest. And good golly he was prolific. He'd have a new song every two or three days. And they were good, too."

But after 1968 Phil's candle started to flicker. His marriage ended in divorce; his recordings, though respected, were never the breakthrough hits he wanted; he started drinking more and composing less. He developed a mysterious stomach ailment that had him believing he was dying for almost a year. When it was diagnosed and cured, he went on a manic drinking spree. He took on another personality, calling himself John Train. John Train was loud, obnoxious, and violent. He became paranoid and started carrying weapons. He got thrown out of the clubs he used to headline. Once he was arrested after running up a limousine bill he couldn't pay. The police allowed him to call his lawyer to come down to the station to bail him out. Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General, showed up at the precinct station.

By December 1975, Phil was past the manic episode, worn out, depressed, and broke. He went to live with his sister on Long Island and spent his days watching television and playing cards with her children. In April 1976 he hanged himself with his belt from the back of her bathroom door. He didn't leave a note.

This was a gifted and beloved young man who threw his life away. I can't help thinking that part of the reason was the pain his vision cost him - the pain of putting yourself in the place of the "other guy," of not allowing yourself to feel safe and superior to a faceless, anonymous other, but knowing except for a few lucky breaks you might be in that position yourself.  ...

Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Depression is as fresh and insightful today as it was when it was published in 1997. The 2010 updated edition is even fresher.  Check it out on Amazon.


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