The news that Marie Osmond’s son, Michael Blosil, has “committed suicide,” is unsettling, as such stories always are. What I find particularly sad about a person dying in that way is the loneliness that seems to be a necessary part of the context. I don’t even like the term “committed suicide,” because it evokes the notion that the person involved was ipso facto guilty of wrongdoing, whereas he or she was most likely making a solitary decision to end the torment of fear or confusion or sadness, or perhaps an indefinable feeling that made life unbearable.
I am shaken whenever I hear of someone taking his or her own life, and I had plenty of opportunities to be shaken in that way in more than 40 years of newspaper reporting. My mind almost involuntarily imagines the path that led that person from the potential with which most of us are born to the mental illness or physical ailment or poor choices or bad luck or combination of factors that made only death seem reasonable.
I went through that exercise when I heard of the death of the actress Brenda Benet in 1982. About a decade before, I had interviewed Brenda and her husband at the time, Bill Bixby. I was struck by how animated they were and especially how charged up they were about their lives together. They both talked at once, and he paced back and forth so vigorously that a couple of times he paced right out of the room and into the hallway. They had struck a balance, they told me, between the intimacy of their marriage and the independence of their separate careers, and they were almost defiant in proclaiming it — so much so, that I began my account of the meeting by writing, “You don’t interview Bill Bixby and Brenda Benet so much as you defend yourself.”
They had a child in 1974 and were divorced in 1980, and the child – a boy – fell suddenly ill and died in 1981. Brenda ended her own life in 1982. How alone she must have felt with her grief.
News of suicide also reminds me of Willard Hershberger, who died by his own hand — when he was 30 years old — two years and a month before I was born. I know of him because he belongs to a class of men who never die to memory — major league baseball players.
Hershberger, whose home town had the comforting name of Lemon Cove, California, had a distinction that he shared with only a few dozen others; he played for the 1937 Newark Bears. The Bears — who had no connection to the present team of that name — were a Yankees farm club and are reputed in baseball lore to have been the greatest minor league team ever. Their record that year was 109-43, and they finished 25 1/2 games ahead of Montreal. The lineup included Joe Gordon, Babe Dahlgren, George McQuinn, and Charlie “King Kong” Keller.
It must have been an exciting experience for Hershberger, a catcher, who appeared in 96 games that season and batted .325 on a team that collectively batted .299 for the season. He was already 27 years old when he made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1938. He was the backup to Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi. During the 1940 season — with the Reds in contention for the National League pennant — Hershberger was standing in for Lombardi when the team lost games on July 31 and August 2. Hershberger picked up a buzz among the players that they would not have lost if Lombardi had been in the lineup. Hershberger was distraught, and he expressed himself to manager Bill McKechnie.
Hershberger evidently told McKechnie that he felt responsible for the losses, mentioned that his father had taken his own life about a ten years before, and intimated that he might make the same decision. This was a private conversation, but accounts say that the manager thought he had calmed the young man. But Hershberger didn’t appear before the next day’s game, and he was found dead in his hotel room.
He was a member of a team, but in the end he felt that failure was his alone. Linda Loman could have been speaking of Hershberger when she said of her husband: “Attention, attention must be paid to such a person,” and I’m sure McKechnie second-guessed himself every day after Hershberger died. But I have had the experience of trying to help such a person and found, in the end, that the loneliness can be intractable, insistent, and that’s the most frustrating and the saddest thing about it.