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Anderson Cooper

My brother's suicide

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the September 2003 issue.

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I try not to imagine him hanging from the ledge. Try not to imagine him falling.

Did a couple out for an evening stroll catch a glimpse of him before he let go? Did a family gathered around the dinner table see him plunge past their window?

That's the thing about suicide. Try as you might to remember how a person lived his life, you always end up thinking about how he ended it.

My brother killed himself on a warm summer night in New York. I was 250 miles away, in Washington, sitting on one of those silent subways the city is known for.

You always hear tales about brothers who can feel each other's pain. This isn't one of them.

When my brother died, I didn't feel a thing.

Carter Cooper. I rarely say his name out loud anymore.

Strange. He was 23 at the time, two years older than I was. I'd always considered us close, though now I'm not so sure.

As kids, we were together all the time. He was fascinated with military history and always led our childhood campaigns.

Carter went to Princeton and seemed to thrive amid the ivy walls and green lawns. After graduation, he wrote book reviews and started editing a history magazine; he talked about writing a novel.

Politics was a passion, but he wasn't suited for the rough-and-tumble of the game. He felt things too deeply.

"There's no wall between Carter's head and his heart," a friend of his once said. That was true.

He was gentle. Which makes the violence of his death that much more incomprehensible. "He was the last person I'd imagine doing this" -- after his death, I heard that a lot.

Looking back, there was only one hint that something was wrong. He'd broken up with his girlfriend, but having never been in love, I didn't understand how tough that can be.

It was the April after he graduated college. I'd come back to New York for a weekend, and my mom told me he wasn't feeling well.

We spoke on the phone, and he seemed anxious, distracted, as if his thoughts were elsewhere.

That night he slept in my mom's apartment, and I remember going into his room and talking with him in the darkness. I can't recall what we talked about, but it was frightening to see him like that.

When he went back to work, back to normal, a few days later, I was glad to forget the episode.

I ran into him three months later on July Fourth weekend.

He was a little disheveled, but that was nothing new. He was vain enough to have nice clothes but not organized enough to take care of them.

"The last time I saw you, I was like an animal," he said.

I knew he'd started seeing a therapist, and I took it as a good sign that he could joke about things.

It was only later, after I met his therapist, that I learned Carter hadn't really confided much to him.

I can't remember if we hugged that day or not. He said he'd see me later that weekend. I never saw him again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He was dead when I got there. A young boy in the arms of his mother and father.

I'm fast-forwarding now, a couple years. Somalia, 1992.

Famine is creeping across the country; in a town called Baidoa, dozens die every day.

Roving bands of kids armed with AK-47s ride around in tricked-out "technicals," pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in the beds.

I'd come here to be a reporter. At least that was the excuse.

The only thing I really knew is that I was hurting and needed to go someplace where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside. Somalia seemed a good place to start.

My final year of college had been a blur. I'd spent most of my time trying to figure out what had happened, and I worried that whatever impulse drove my brother might be lurking out there, somewhere, waiting for me.

On the outskirts of Baidoa, in a hovel of twigs, I watched the mother lift a kettle. Squatting, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, pouring what little water she had left over her boy's head.

His eye sockets were hollowed out, each rib clearly visible. The parents had already watched three boys die.

This was their last, he was 5 years old. He was just one boy, just one death -- in Somalia it happened every day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was July 22, 1988. Friday.

My brother returned home sometime in the morning. He had his own place but said he wanted to move back into my mom's penthouse apartment.

It was hot, a day made for air-conditioning, but he asked that the sliding glass door to the balcony be kept open while he napped.

My mom checked on him several times throughout the day.

In the early evening, he woke and went into my mom's room. "He seemed disoriented," she would later tell me. Agitated.

He asked her, "What's going on?" "Nothing," she assured him, but he moved quickly down the hall.

My mom followed as he passed into my room and through the sliding glass door.

Outside, he sat on the ledge of the balcony, his feet dangling over the edge.

At some point he tilted his face skyward as an airplane passed high above, a glint of silver in a late-summer sky.

I still wonder: Was a voice audible only to him urging him forward? Could he even hear my mom a few feet away, begging him to come back?

"Like a gymnast." That's how she would describe my brother's swing over the ledge. He clung on for a moment, then he just let go. "Just like a gymnast," she'd say, over and over.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fast-forward. Sarajevo, 1993.

Somalia seems like forever ago. Back then I didn't mind waiting around for weeks in dingy African hotels.

I practically lived in Nairobi's Ambassadeur, where evangelical Christians met in the Sarova Room every day, singing "Jesus, God is very, very wonderful," while a man on the street with steel hooks for hands and plastic prostheses for arms waved them wildly in the air, screaming passages from the Old Testament.

At night, the bar opened, and sweaty red-jacketed waiters served frosty Tusker beers, weaving between black businessmen and prostitutes in shiny emerald dresses.

But now, a year later, in Sarajevo, I couldn't stay still for long.

If I started off looking for emotion, now all I wanted was motion. Like a shark that forces water through its gills to breathe, I believed that if I kept moving, I could stay cool.

Keep the camera rolling, the truck gassed, a Clash tape in the dash.

Sprawled on the floor of the Holiday Inn, listening to the thud of mortars on nearby buildings, watching tracer fire shoot past the blown-out window.

The pain was all around: houses, whole towns, nothing but rubble, roofs blown off or burnt down, walls crumbling, half-starved dogs skulking in the streets, women running for cover clutching the tiny hands of their kids.

And the smells: Charcoal fires, cooking fuel, mud, blood, human waste, musty and sweet; the smells stick in your throat, weave into your clothes -- they become part of the fabric.

When I first arrived in Sarajevo, I wore my flak jacket all the time, slept with it near my pillow. Now I hardly ever put it on.

You're surrounded by people who don't have Kevlar vests and armored cars. You're in their homes, asking for their stories.

You want them to risk exposing themselves to you. You can't ask that if you're not willing to expose yourself, feel the closeness of another, the sense of loss in their embrace.

When the airport was shut, you'd arrive in Sarajevo pumped with adrenaline from the tumble down Mt. Igman, a winding road that for a time was the only way in and out of the city.

When the fog lifts, the snipers can see you.

You've got to start early, drive fast. Whipping down the road, "Charlie Don't Surf" blaring from the cassette player, you hold on to the dashboard and hope the road isn't so wet you lurch off, hope the morning mist holds long enough, hope the Serbs are still asleep or too hungover to aim straight.

The first time down, I quizzed my driver at every turn: "This stretch coming up, is it dangerous?"

He'd just smile. After a while you stop asking questions. Just sit back and watch, like it's happening to someone else.

The last time, halfway down, I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror. Drained of color, eyebrows furrowed, my mouth frozen in a lunatic grin.

When I finally made it into the city, all I could do was laugh.

It was all about the motion. I'd get back home and find I wanted to leave again.

It was like I could no longer speak the same language. I'd go see a movie, out to a club -- and a few days later I'd be rushing back to the airport.

I saw on one of those Jacques Cousteau programs that they'd discovered some sharks who don't have to keep moving to breathe. I found it hard to believe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the weeks following Carter's death, I could no longer sleep in my room. The sliding glass door to the balcony remained open, though I never set foot out there again.

For a few days reporters and cameramen milled about, following the comings and goings.

I stayed inside, leaving only once to go to his apartment and pick out a suit for his burial.

The place was just as he'd left it. A half-eaten turkey sandwich sat on the kitchen counter. The air was stale, the bed unmade; it still smelled of him.

I can't remember the smell anymore, can't even think of how to describe it. But I knew it then, and bent down to inhale him once more.

There was no note.

On his desk I found a piece of paper with a single sentence in quotes. "The cuticle of common sense that had protected him over the years from his own worst tendencies had worn away, leaving him increasingly vulnerable to obsessions."

It was from a book he was reviewing, but I wondered for weeks if it had spoken to him in some secret way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You smell the bodies before you see them.

Rwanda, 1994. Over three months, 800,000 people will be killed in a genocidal bloodletting. Rebels will take over the country and end the slaughter.

On the outskirts of a town, along the side of a road, a bus has overturned. A half-dozen bodies are splayed in a ditch.

Nearby, a pickup has run off the road. It is silent except for the flies buzzing and the vultures circling overhead, waiting for me to leave.

From the truck's windshield, a man's torso sticks straight out, his legs emerge from the open passenger door. From a distance he appears to be moving. Up close, I realize it's only maggots.

I couldn't tell you if he was a Hutu or a Tutsi, couldn't tell you about the rest of the dead lying in the ditch. Did it really even matter?

There had been dozens of bodies that day, dozens of deaths. Each one a mystery, a tragedy to someone.

I stopped trying to make sense of it all. We are trained to ask why. Why did he do it? Why did he have to die? I no longer need to ask those questions.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My brother is buried next to my dad. I like to think of them together.

I used to think suicide was a conscious act. A plan made, then carried out. I know now it's not always like that.

My brother was a sweet young man who wanted to be in control. In the end, he simply wasn't.

None of us are. We all dangle from a very delicate thread.

The key is not to let go.

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