Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about the failings of feminism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Fashion designer Kate Spade’s death by apparent suicide, discovered Tuesday by a housekeeper, has hit a tender nerve, particularly in New York. On Tuesday I saw media crews and onlookers surrounding her apartment building; and on Twitter, there was a steady, sad hum of wonder and lament – equal parts women recalling their first Kate Spade handbag (almost always the iconic box style) and reminders that success does not buy happiness.
Indeed, much of the shock surrounding Spade’s death has to do with the fact that she seemed, to many, to lack nothing. She was regarded as an industry icon: even though she had not been involved with her namesake company for more than a decade, she had her hands in several other recent ventures, including an accessories label called Frances Valentine, named after her 13-year-old daughter.
She was rich: She sold that first company in two parts for a total of nearly $100 million. People magazine reports that her 25-year marriage to Andy Spade was seemingly “perfect.” She was beautiful. And she was young, 55. (Disclosure: My husband is a friend and business associate of Kate’s husband, Andy, though we did not know Kate well).
It seems obvious enough, but seems to constantly surprise us that money and success do not solve all problems, even if so many of us try to believe that they do, and that just a little more of either, or both, will be the answer to whatever plagues us.
Suicide is complex, tragic and very common. The number of suicides are now twice that of homicides, around 1 million a year (and women make twice as many suicide attempts as men). And yet, the topic remains taboo. Many families who lose loved ones to suicide don’t like to talk about it, or about the mental illness that so often causes it. It bears a stigma that has been hard to shake.
The irony is that the stigma comes from the sense that suicide is an easy way out when, in fact, it’s often the very last resort following a long pattern of anger and hopelessness (it’s also usually a violent way to die). Another reason we don’t like to talk about suicide: It’s uncomfortable, and often so unexplainable.
It stirs up feelings of loneliness, a reminder that no matter how much we think we might know about a person or a family, we never know the whole story. And in fact we don’t know why Kate Spade apparently ended her own life. It might have been depression, or something else. As singer Josh Groban tweeted, “Depression does not discriminate and comes without warning.”
When someone dies in this way – and especially when someone notable does — it’s natural to want an explanation, and in the days and weeks to come, many may attempt to offer that explanation. A New York Post columnist offered, in a piece on Spade’s death, that the world of fashion was “seductive and brutish … cruel and transactional.”
Asking for help
The suicide rate in the United States has seen sharp increases in recent years. Studies have shown that the risk of suicide declines sharply when people call the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.
The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.
Indeed, the aesthetic for which she became famous stands in opposition to the dark circumstances of her death. Her clothing and accessories were known for being colorful, whimsical, upbeat and full of life; the Kate Spade girl, Spade once noted, was one who “eats takeout on china and drinks champagne with pizza.”
What some saw as an entirely optimistic approach to fashion may well have been an attempt to ward off her own demons – although, of course, we simply don’t know yet.
Mostly, though, Spade’s death challenges the kind of thinking that keeps many of us going: that certain “achievements” — whether it’s fame or money or family — are indicators of a happy life and content mind. We begin to understand that there is often a contrast to what we see on the surface — and, in Spade or any other celebrity’s case, to what we see in ads or on TV — and who someone really is. We learn that what we see may have nothing to do with reality. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.