Aging & Suicide :: the Dark Side of After-40
New York City therapist Bob Bergeron seemed to have everything to live for: a thriving private practice counseling gay men; famously good looks; his own apartment in the high-priced Chelsea neighborhood; and regular trips to Europe.
According to friends, acquaintances and clients, he was always very upbeat. At 49, he may not have been the head-turner he was in his 20s, but he was still undeniably handsome. His daily visits to the gym were proof that he had been able to maintain a toned physique.
To his friends, family, colleagues and his publisher, he appeared excited about the forthcoming publication of his first book, a self-help guide on a subject he knew well. The title, "The Right Side of 40: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond" describes the fruits of several years of Bergeron’s own practice -- not to mention his own real-life experience.
Invisible after 40?
The book was apparently meant as a counter to all the negative feedback gay men get that they don’t age gracefully, that they become invisible once they lose their looks and youth, that they’ll grow lonely in old age, and that the best years of their lives are behind them.
So an April 1 cover story in the New York Times’ Style section caused a huge amount of comment and consternation, not only there but throughout the United States. Bergeron, the article noted, had committed suicide around New Year’s Eve. He was found days later in his condo with his head in a plastic bag.
The suicide note he left was written on the proposed cover of the book and included the line "It’s a lie based on bad information" with an arrow pointing to the title. Its publisher has since cancelled the book’s publication.
Actually, Jacob Bernstein, the Times reporter who wrote the story, wasn’t the first to report the therapist’s death. Local gay newspaper Gay City News did a shorter piece in mid-January authored by an acquaintance.
Roots of suicide
The Times story, however, went into possible root causes for the shocking suicide in some depth. Not surprisingly, the gay blogosphere quickly picked up the Times story, not only because the Times still to some extent defines the news cycle, but also because it focused new attention on what is perceived as the great fear among gay men. Jacqueline Suzanne, who, as author of the novel "Valley of the Dolls," probably put it best, if most brutally when quipped about women (and by extension gay men), "40 is our Hiroshima."
Despite the bromide about 60 being the new 40, gay men are said to worry that as they grow older and lose their looks, they will wind up alone and invisible. (In a corollary, those who never had the looks may not share the concern.)
Many gay men on several blog sites commented that they do, indeed, have few friends, seldom go out of the house except to work, are lonely and afraid, and occasionally contemplate thoughts of suicide. They site the vehement age segregation on most profiles on Internet hook-up sites, and the lack of other older men in bars as evidence that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find romance late in life.
Others, however, insisted suicide for someone with as much going on as Bergeron was the easy way out, and that it implied a mania over good looks. Still others pointed to the sexual nature of much of gay life. Author Ethan Mordden may have put it best in one of his novels when he quipped that charm and wit won’t carry you far when you’re wearing a Speedo.
In a case of either "kill the messenger" or personal discomfort, some comments on the major social network sites turned it back on the Times writer. They accused him of homophobia because of the emphasis in the article on looks and age.