Year Nine: The Best Thing We Can Do
Spirit Day

Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.

Comments

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Rob

Not only is this a wonderful tribute, Lee, but it's also a profound take on the nature of suicide. I really appreciate your insistense on people having the right to take such action, even if of course none of us would ever want them to. Brava. And my condolences. Requiescat in pace, Jean.

Cathy

This is beautiful. Blessed be. Cathy

Daniel Quat

touching, accurate. Thanks lee for saying what i'd like to be able to say so eloquently. You've captured so much of the Jean I knew. (and I was her wasband)Daniel

Anthony Picco

It's nice to hear a little more about Jeannie. Altho I knew her for the past 4 years I did not know a lot about her personally. We interacted in discussion groups about philosophy & spiritual matters, so the conversations only became personal occasionally.

Jaymie Meyer

Thank you for this moving tribute and picture of beautiful Jean.
Jaymie Meyer

Ana

I knew of Jeannie through others and/or the AWEX discussion group, nonetheless, the passing of a beautiful soul affects us all. Thank you for sharing your Jeannie with us.

Gil Bento

Hi Lee, we don't know each other but I was also a friend of Jeanne's. Your tribute really captured her personality and spirit and, yes, aside from being one of the sweetest people you'd meet, if there's one quirk about her that will always stay with me is her devotion to music and movies!

I spent a lot of time with her over this past summer as I was interning in the city and I did notice a gradual change over her. In the beginning of the summer she was happier than I'd seen her since I had known her. I distinctly remember one particular afternoon when she and our friend Sid and I were hanging out in front of her parent's building just talking. I have this image in my mind of her with her hands in her pockets just laughing about something and it struck me that she seemed like a little girl in the throes of spontaneous joy. It was very touching to see her doing so well.

Towards the end of the summer a number of things came up, not the least of which was the move into the new place, that caused a lot of stress for her and she began to feel depressed again. I knew she was going through a tough time but she was always so rational and cool about her situation that this time didn't seem any different from other times when she was feeling that way. I don't think that anyone could have changed the course of events. Jeanne was a very analytical person as you said, and not prone to rash decisions. And although I can't fully understand how she was feeling, I respect her decision.

I also agree with you about the need to not judge people with mental illness. One thing she always seemed to ask from people, directly or indirectly, was to not be judged or thought weak or wrong for feeling depressed or suicidal. Far from being a weak person, she always managed to find humor in life, even in the midst of her most miserable times and never did I feel that she played the victim. If anything, she went out of her way to not burden people with her problems. Perhaps she should have burdened us more, although, as I said, I'm not sure things could have turned out differently than they did.

I'm in shock, like most everyone, I guess. She was probably the closest person to me that's ever passed away and it doesn't seem real that I'll never see her again. I also thought she would go on to publish her memoirs and make a big success of it. Her thoughts on mental illness and religion/spirituality were very incisive and it seems like the right time these days for a new perspective on so many of these topics.

More importantly, she left her mark on my life with her gentleness and sweetness and I'm sure that somewhere, or everywhere, there's a trace of her essence that's peaceful, and at home. Be well Jeanne...

Lee Kottner

Gil, thanks for adding to this. I think each of us saw a little different side of Jean and it's always hard for one person to give a complete portrait. You're right that Jean was not a weak person and never played the victim. She was very rational about her mental state, and that's one of the reasons I find I really must respect her decision. I'm not sure any of us could have changed her mind either.

And thanks for that image of Jean laughing. That's beautiful. I can absolutely see that and it's something I'll carry with me now too.

Alison Kitchkommie

Hello, you do not know me, and I did not know Jean well. I attended a few AWEX meetings with her before I moved from the greater New York City area back to the South. She was a lovely woman, and I am grateful for the interactions I did have with her, but also for this post, which allowed me a little insight into the more personal side of her life, this fantastic woman who was so greatly loved. Thank you and be well.

Jer

My first suicide was my uncle. I was 7. They pulled me out of my 1st grade classroom on a Monday of the last week of school that year. I was confused when the principal told me to pack everything up because I wouldn't be returning to school. This was not like my parents. My parents were firm believers in making me go to school unless I was too sick to stand up.

When we got in the vehicle and left the school, Mom finally told me that my uncle had shot himself in his bedroom that morning. I started crying immediately in shock and grief - no one had to explain to me what that meant. We lived next to a highway with a lot of outdoor pets, plus we ran a mini-farm.

It was also my first funeral.


When I was seventeen and going through one of the roughest years of my life (2nd runner up to the year my first fiance dumped me with one of the most pathetic explanations, ever) the step-sister of my best friend shot herself minutes after we left her to go to see A New Hope in the theatre. (Again. We'd taken her and one of the brothers about two weeks before.) The last thing I said to her was that I loved her. She said she loved me, too. Then her other step-sister found her lying in bed with a .22 bullet hole in her temple.

I forgave my uncle a lot faster than I forgave Steph. And myself, because I was the last person to see her alive, the last person she asked anything from.


I think this is my weird way of saying that I sympathize with you and understand where you are completely. *hug*

Lee Kottner

Hey Jer, thanks for this. I'm still amazed by how many people I know have gone through this experience. I'm sorry about both your uncle and your friend's step-sister. Those both must have been really rough, coming out of the blue like that. And thanks for the hug. That really means a lot.

regina conlon

Hello, and I knew Jean when I was a girl. My mom told me about her death yesterday and I was profoundly saddened by it. I have such fond memories of her - she was so kind to a 10 year old who had no older sister. I remember a sleep over at her house in the Poconos like it was yesterday. I thought that she was just great! She took the time to be nice - genuinely nice - to a kid. Not many teenagers would ever do that. Although our parents remained friends, I never saw Jean again after her parents sold their house, but I would think about what had become of her and would ask my parents about her from time to time. I saw her father last year and asked to to tell her how fondly I remembered her, and I hope that he did. I hope she finds peace and her family and friends can go on. Sincerely, Regina Conlon

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