The following piece contains graphic depictions of suicide and discussions of sexual abuse.
SNOW days are a special occasion around the northern parts of the country, but no more so than the mid-Atlantic. In neighboring, northerly and Great Lake states, the school districts were more snow-tolerant in both removal and what kids could handle standing outside at a bus stop. The mid-Atlantic regions sat in a sweet spot where there was enough snow to get plenty of days off in the winter, but not enough for the state to provide a larger force of plows and salt trucks. That equipment went to places like Erie, by the lake where snow was a given.
In Pennsylvania, my sister and I woke early on many school days to huddle around the small transistor radio in our kitchen, crossing our fingers and squeezing our eyes shut in anticipation of the list getting to the L’s and announcing, “Lancaster Christian School… Closed for the day.” My sister and I would explode in a cheer, my mother often joining as she was the school nurse and it meant she got to stay home, too. On January 22, 1987, at 9 a.m., The temperature at our house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania dropped from 27 F to 0 in a matter of minutes and wind blew 5 more inches of snow against the sides of our family house as I ate my apple and cinnamon oatmeal at the dining room table. Later, my sister, mother and I would gather downstairs to watch The Price is Right with the eraser-headed Bob Barker. We weren’t alone in this day-off ritual: most of my friends have fond memories of the Showcase Showdowns of our youth.
My sister and I were sitting cross-legged on the spongy, white carpet, staring up at the 19-inch screen of our old Zenith TV. A giant, gray box with a bulbous green screen and dials to change the channels, we were constantly fucking with it to get it to work right: smacking it on the side, jiggling the cables in the back. When we settled it, it settled us. That morning, like so many others, we sat gawking at the box until we felt like going out in the snow and completely exhausting ourselves. We moved through the morning cartoons (GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and MASK) to the game shows (TPIR, Press Your Luck), then getting out of the house before the soaps came on. My mother rocked behind us on a yellow and green plaid recliner with a thick fantasy book open and resting on its pages in her lap. There we sat, watching the contestant spin the giant wheel with glittering numbers on it when a news break interrupted the show.
Here’s what I remember:
“This is WGAL with breaking news from the state capital today as Pennsylvania State Treasurer, R. Budd Dwyer is about to start a press conference where he is expected to announce his resignation following a conviction of…”
I let the anchor trail off and exchanged an annoyed look with my sister before turning back to the screen and letting my gaze soften on it, slipping in and out of attention and wishing we could go back to the second half of The Price is Right. Three old white dudes were stuffed into brown suits at a white folding table and the one in the middle was talking. He was a balding, brown-haired man, beefy and looking hot under the collar. I heard cameras ticking off pictures and watched as the flashes lit shadowed the three men on the wood paneled wall behind them. The men bookending him remain faceless, but the man in the middle, R. Budd Dwyer, holds firmly after 35 years. Red-faced, frustrated, fuming, sweat beads carving lines down the slope of his fleshy forehead. He was angry and scared and I had no idea what he was talking about.
The man pulled out a manilla envelope, stood and said, “Now, nobody do anything, I don’t want anyone here to get hurt,” and he pulled out a large, black revolver. The man then stuck the barrel of the revolver into his mouth, there was a pop and something brown behind him on the wall, and R. Budd Dwyer slumped forward, dead by suicide on live TV.
“Oh my god,” my mother punctuated from the recliner behind us. I turned and saw her leaning forward with her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide behind her big, plastic framed glasses. The chunky paperback fell to the floor.
“Mom!” my sister shouted. “You took God’s name in vain!” startled more at our conservative Christian mother’s slip than the live gore we had just witnessed.
“I’m sorry, you kids shouldn’t do that, I’m just so shocked. You shouldn’t have ever seen that; they shouldn’t ever have showed that.” My sister and I looked at each other, barely processing what had just happened.
“Why did he do that, Mom?” I asked calmly. Our lack of shock betrayed the intensity of our mother’s.
“He accepted a bribe and got caught,” she said simply, as if that explained it all.
“What’s a bribe?” I asked. My older sister rolled her eyes and turned back to the TV.
“Someone paid him money to do something illegal.”
“Oh. Huh,” I nodded like I understood. I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t understand what he did or what made him do it. Suicide was outside the boundaries of my imagination, it had yet to be introduced. Budd Dwyer taught me something that day and I have kept it with me ever since.
Over the next five years, suicide became a consistently constant companion and has never left me for good. Not really. Dark thoughts invade my happiest moments for no reason, turning my attention away from what is in front of me and putting me in a hypothetical future, if even for a few moments. Trauma was the seed, and, 35 years later, I’m starting to think Budd Dwyer was the water.
MY mind is one of those dark and macabre places best left running from, not towards. I am the person who can’t sleep and puts on a horror movie to relax me. I stalk the stacks of the internet, reading about cults, serial killers, plunging depths the squares would never dream of. I’m not alone and I’m not weird. The fellowship of the dark is a wide and diverse space and most of us are very compassionate and conscientious in our daily dealings. A lot of speculation and discussion revolves around why I and others like me are quieted by the caliginous. In the end, it’s more important for the rest of the world to know we exist, and we are harmless, unlike the subjects we tend to obsess over.
The impetus for my trips to the shadow side of life starts with my childhood. It was full of abuse and complex trauma. I dealt with depression as a child and increased in intensity when I was in middle school. By the time I was 14, in the 9thgrade, and had just lived through another very publicized gunshot suicide: that of my middle school hero, Kurt Cobain. By Christmas of 1994, the common thought of I wish I was dead turned to I want to die, and finally, I want to kill myself and this is how I’ll do it.
There weren’t guns around the home, we weren’t that kind of family. My dad didn’t go fishing or camping or anything like that; it wasn’t our family’s style. My mother was a nurse, so what we did have was a lot of medication. One weeknight when I was 16, I tried telling my mother about these horrible thoughts and images in my head that drew out a profound sense of sadness, loneliness, and isolation. I told her I had started smoking pot and using other drugs and I thought it was part of the problem. I told her I wanted help and she spit in my face.
“When I see how your father looks at you, I see the same hate I used to see in my mother’s eyes when she looked at your Uncle Tim.” My mother’s response to my feelings, my confessions, was to tell me my father hated me. It only served to confirm what I already felt: My entire family was against me, they hated me; they wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. Thoughts of my family were the only thing barring me from swallowing a handful of pills and diving headfirst into oblivion. The following afternoon, before anyone came home, I took 10 Demoral, put on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and clicked to Comfortably Numb and set it on repeat. I laid down in my twin bed, looking out over my small, dim, and dirty room. Letting the music rinse over me, I closed my eyes and waited for the void and slowly drifted out of consciousness.
My mother was screaming.
“God damnit, mom. What?” I sluiced out. My head was at the bottom of the deep end at the pool, bobbing up and down, swimming in and out. I forced open my eyes, each weighing three pound and were Velcroed to my eyeballs; everything was ringed in its own halo of light. I was still in bed, but it was dark outside. My mother stood over me, still screaming hysterically and holding the empty, opaque, orange bottle of my father’s old pain medication.
“You took your fathers pills to get high, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?” more unintelligible screaming as she left my room and walked across the upstairs landing to her and my father’s. I heard her muttering and punching numbers into the phone. I felt more fucked up than I had ever been, which isn’t saying much seeing as I was only 16. Honestly, I felt fantastic for the first few minutes, enjoying the high until I realized the high was far too much for me. I began seeing bugs crawling under my skin and beneath the sheets like some sort of afterschool special. Is that what I’d become? An afterschool special? A warning, like that girl who took LSD and jumped out of that window?
“Talk to your uncle,” My mother hollered at me, handing me the cordless phone with the long, silver antenna extended out of the top. I put the phone to my ear.
“Who the fuck do you think you are, huh? What the fuck do you think you’re doing? What are you doing to your mother? I oughta drive down there and beat your ass with a baseball bat,” my uncle was screaming now, too.
Fuck this noise, I thought and pressed the hang up button, threw the phone on the bed and laid back down, fascinated and frightened by these little black bugs under my skin and sheets.
My mother and father took me to the hospital where they were informed that it was too late to pump my stomach and they observed me over night. Sitting on a gurney in a hospital hallway, I tried squishing the bugs away, but it didn’t work. Eventually I fell asleep.
The next morning my parents told me I was going to Charter Westbrook, which everyone at school knew was for crazy, fucked up teenagers on drugs. I had a couple friends who ended up there and the execrable stories they told when they returned scared the shit out of me. Sexual assaults, beatings, constant verbal abuse from residents and staff. No way fucking way in hell I was going there, but my parents were convinced I was a drug addict. They didn’t know I was trying to end my life; they wouldn’t know for a long time.
An epic shouting match ended with my parents capitulating and not long after, they sat me down and told me I could do whatever I want.
“No curfew?” I asked.
“No curfew. Do whatever you want. We don’t care. If you get in trouble with the cops, it’s on you. Don’t come crying to us.”
Suicide may have been a foreign concept to my mother and father, who were legalistic, conservative evangelicals. I don’t think depression existed to them until it was thrust upon them later in my life, when they could no longer turn away. Christians didn’t get depressed, and they thought I was a Christian. They knew about some of the abuse, but not all of it, and didn’t recognize their role in the torment I felt at home. Not that it would have mattered, we’re talking about two people who tried to exorcise a demon out of me when I was having a mental health meltdown in 8th grade (we’ll leave that for another essay). For me, suicide became more and more a part of my everyday existence.
At some point in my 20s, I realized that I would have suicidal ideation at the strangest times: I could be at a party, laughing and drinking with friends, I could be on Christmas morning opening gifts with family, I could be riding my bike through the county park on a perfect spring morning, and suddenly I would picture myself launching from a bridge, or putting a gun in my mouth, like I’d seen Budd Dwyer do so many years before.
My constant suicidality is a result of complex, ongoing trauma when I was younger, but I must wonder whether it was actualized by witnessing Dwyer on television on that snow day in 1987. I must wonder: Did seeing that man put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger put the near-constant imaginary movies in my own head?
THE website where I find the original video of R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide is called Deep Gore Tube.
It’s a website devoted to videos depicting gory, true events captured on film. Now, I love horror movies and gore and blood spray just as much as the next person who loves horror movies, gore, and blood spray, but I’m not interested in digging through real-life footage of grisly events throughout history, so I left the rest of the site alone. But I watched the footage I hadn’t seen in over 30 years; God help me I did.
“No, no, no,” The balding, middle-aged, white bear of a man with a deep voice spoke as he held up a revolver procured from a nondescript manilla envelope. Media lights shine and sparkle off the revolver’s chrome chamber and long barrel. “Don’t, don’t don’t. Don’t anybody move, this is gonna hurts someone.”
“Don’t do it Budd!” Someone yells from offscreen.
“Budd, don’t do this!” Screams a woman.
More shouts of protest as the talk, balding man raises his hands, the empty one palm out. He puts the gun in his mouth and doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. There’s a pop and R. Budd Dwyer falls to his knees and then to the floor, held up by a desk and the wall. Blood is on the wall behind him, and the camera then zooms in on his face, rivers of dark crimson gushing from his nose and mouth, flowing heavy and forming a pool on his shirt. Another river cascades from the crown of his head, through the bald plains of his forehead, down past his left eye, then dripping onto his crisp white collar.
A screaming terror ensues.
“Oh my god, no!”
“Oh shit, oh fuck!”
“Ok, ok, everyone calm down.”
“We’re need someone to call an ambulance and a doctor and the police, don’t panic.”
“OK everyone, don’t panic. Don’t panic.”
A man in a three piece suit stands at the table of the press conference, arms raised elbow height, palms down. He’s making the “calm down” gesture. It’s quite futile, these people just witnessed someone die by suicide right in front of them.
And so did I.
The video is incredibly disturbing, and I force myself to watch it over and over so I can describe it accurately. Afterwards, it is painted on the inside of my eyelids for a few days. I take a rest from working on this manuscript to become more tranquil with the video, to write about it with a clear head.
There is a twist in the plot, here. My memory of watching Dwyer off himself was missing the gore, the detail. It’s as if my 7 year old brain burned these images out as soon as I saw them. In one eye, out the other so to speak. As I watched, 35 yeas later, a lot of questions ring around my skull. Why did Budd Dwyer do this? What drove him to such a public self-execution? How did it get played in full on network TV on a well-publicized snow day? Why did the camera operator zoom in?
BUDD DWYER was a social studies teacher and football coach who at Cambridge Springs High School, a 45-minute drive south from the freezing Lake Erie. In 1964, Dwyer ran for the office of state representative for District 6 on the Republican ticket. He was elected and subsequently re-elected in 1966 and 1968. The turning of the decade saw Dwyer now running for state senator, which he also won and was re-elected twice. After fifteen years of service to the state house, in 1980 Dwyer ran for the office of State Treasurer where he edged out his Democrat rival, Al Benedict. He was re-elected to the seat again in 1984.
On May 10, 1984, Dwyer awarded a no-bid contract to California-based Computer Technology Associates (hereafter referred to as CTA) which was owned by Harrisburg, PA native John Torquato Jr. The contract was awarded to the computer concern so they could track the payouts of FICA funds to state employees who had overpaid in taxes. The most salient facts were that the 4.6 million dollar award was overvalued at millions of dollars. A sharp-eyed comptroller from Pittsburgh noticed the discrepancies. In late July 1984, a CTA employee named Janice Kinkaid released a sworn statement that said Dwyer had received $300,000 in kickbacks from the computer concern after the contract was awarded. Federal investigators started the case, and Dwyer tried numerous times to derail the investigation. In the end he was charged with conspiracy, hightail bribery, and mail fraud. Furthermore, by obstructing a federal investigation he violated the Hobbs act and received another charge for this.
The case was open and shut. Torquato Jr. and several of his associates were indicted in October of 1984. During their trial, Torquato testified that his associate, William Smith offered Dwyer a $300,000 bribe to receive the overpriced contract. Smith denied this and said the contribution was for Dwyer’s political campaign. Smith failed a polygraph, and by the time of the trial had changed his story, admitting to the bribe but noting it was upon Torquato’s insistence.
Finally, in July 1986, Dwyer was finally indicted. William Smith, to reduce his 12-year prison sentence, testified against him (it didn’t work, Smith finished out his sentence). During the ensuing trial, more details about the investigation were released. In 1984, Dwyer won approval for special legislation that allowed him to have sole control over FICA funds, setting him up to control the contract offering. Dwyer attempted to conceal his involvement by erasing an important day in his planner where he met with Torquato and Smith and was offered the bribe. Furthermore, CTA was found out to be a fly-by-night computer company with only three employees and little to no experience. It was found that Dwyer also rejected a bid from a Pennsylvania based operation who claimed they could do the same work in less time for half the money. Confronted with these facts, Dwyer dug himself deeper with his shovel of lies to cover the charges.
On December 8, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty of eleven counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, racketeering, and was facing a sentence of up to 55 years in prison and a fine equal to the bribe he took. Dwyer subsequently wrote to then President Ronald Reagan requesting a pardon, and US Senator Arlen Specter for support. Dwyer angrily railed against the media, stating they crucified him. Dwyer blamed the uneducated, rural jury for not understanding the complexity of the case. This was all to no avail. There was no conspiracy to oust R. Budd Dwyer from the State Treasurers office.
Budd’s sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987. On the night of January 21, he contacted his press secretary, James Horshock and asked him to set up the fateful press conference the following day. The press was rounded and turned out in force. Initially, Dwyer asked for certain journalists and outlets to be barred, as he remained committed to his claims of conspiracy by the media. In the end, no one was excluded. Journalist rushed to cover the event, where everyone, including Horshock, believed Dwyer would officially resign from his seat as State Treasurer before being sentenced the following day. He read his statement then pulled out the gun.
THERE is a second part to this story: the airing of the tape. Dwyer’s on-camera death is a flashpoint for the political history of Pennsylvania. The footage was indeed shown across the state of PA, to children who were home due to the New Jersey blizzard that was affecting our state. Still, it depended on where you lived if you saw the footage.
In the urban borders of the state, Pittsburgh to the west and Philadelphia to the east, the footage was not shown. There was a break-in from the news, but they reported the event instead of showing it. Edited footage was shown on some Philadelphia newscasts at 5 and 11 pm respectively and full audio of the press conference was played on other stations in both cities. In the south-central part of the state, which included the cities of Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster, the entire footage was shown.
Backlash was immediate and powerful and anchor/producer of WHTM out of Harrisburg appeared at 12:30 p.m. to apologize for showing the tape, saying the station did not do a sufficient job of preparing the audience for the content. However, WHTM aired the footage in full again at the 6pm hour, as many families were sitting down to dinner. ABC27 also ran the footage twice. WGAL ran a slightly edited but still shocking clip. When contacted for a story running on the 35th anniversary of Dwyer’s death by suicide, one long-time WHTM assignment editor stated the event still casts a pall over the station.
Returning to school a few days later, I can’t recall the conversations I would have had with my friends. I doubt we talked about it beyond a mere mentioning and asking if anyone else had seen it. 35 years later, I have asked over a dozen of my friends from that area if they remember the press conference. Not one of them knew what I was talking about; they’d never heard of Budd Dwyer. On the other hand, my sister immediately responded in the affirmative as did my mother.
The footage is not hard to find on the web. Since it was broadcast in its entirety, it’s available on several different sites that cater to the grim fascinations of many. The event inspired a top ten hit in the 90’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” by the band Filter. Various metal bands have used the audio as a backtrack to their songs. It is infamous amongst a certain crowd. People are fascinated by it. I’m fascinated with their fascination. I wonder if it’s because they can see themselves in a situation where they’d have no way out.
PREDICAMENT based suicide occurs when the victim has no previous history of suicidal ideation, no severe and disabling mental health diagnoses, and no indication of a plan. The suicidality stems from a predicament (such a cheap word in this context) occurring in the victim’s life, such as facing 55 years of prison time. Or facing a painful, terminal diagnosis, or dying in protest such as Thich Quan Duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Vietnam, 1963. The loss of a fortune, the unexpected, sudden loss of a loved-one, or the jumpers on 9/11: these are considered predicament based suicides. Each of the victims found themselves in a situation with (to them) no discernable way out other than death.
Budd Dwyer turned out to have an entirely different reason for dying by suicide. While he certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of his life behind bars (Club Fed is not a real thing, Dwyer would have been in for misery), he knew if he resigned or was removed from office he would forfeit the 1.25 million dollar pension payout his wife would receive. Rather than saddling his wife with a life of destitution while he wasted away behind bars, Dwyer opted to die by suicide to ensure she would receive the pension.
Suicide in my life has not been predicament-based. Initially, it was a maladaptive reaction to the complex trauma I’d experienced. As I grew older and inched into my thirties, I began noticing the suicidal ideation vaulting into my head space when I wasn’t actively depressed or anxious. Today, at age 43, I recognize these random suicidal thoughts to be a behavioral reaction, one that I have learned and wired into the schematics of my brain. It’s a construction that is difficult to get away from. Especially when you’re a musician and have seen too many of your friends die this way.
The first person I knew to die by suicide was when I was 24. I remember was an author, and I didn’t know him exceptionally well, but he was well-known in my scene. He and I had started hanging out just prior to his death. I still don’t know what pushed him over the edge. Within the next five years I would lose two more friends to suicide by several different means. When I began working in case management at age 26, I lost clients to suicide. It was a constant concern when I was a psychotherapist. The number of funerals I have attended due to suicide is more than it should be. Death by suicide has been omnipresent in my life since I was 7 years old.
THE PSYCHIATRIC emergency room (PER) at University of New Mexico hospital is a grim, beige-bathed cluster about a mile away from the actual ER. First I took my clients when they were in crisis. Then I took myself. I went to UNM’s PER more times than I can count. I was held and observed on two occasions. In my 20s and 30s, my suicidality was disabling. Jobs were abandoned, friends on high alert, and my life was constantly unraveling and stitching back together. In 2014 I was placed into residential treatment to address my constant thoughts of death. It didn’t seem to help.
When I was officially declared disabled in 2016, I began working as a touring musician, thinking this was a burnout free zone for me. It wasn’t. My death wish continued and often worsened on these weeks-long cross country jaunts. There were several occasions when my wife had to fly to where I was, be it Twin Falls, Idaho, Cle Elum, Washington, or Indianapolis, Indiana, and drive me home to safety. I cannot think of one tour that didn’t end in this type of disaster. By the end of 2018, only two years after I’d started embarking on a musical career, I was sidelined. Nothing was working. My wife and I seemed out of options and I was truly on the edge.
Following yet another rescue by my wife, we decided it was time to make a physical move and we left New Mexico behind, heading for the coastal range of Oregon. People say you can’t run away from your problems, that they will always find you in the end. While this may be a dependable adage, it isn’t the whole truth. Running from your problems often results in the space one needs to address the problems. Then, once the problems catch up, the individual has a plan and place to operate from, finally confronting the problems head on with enough healing behind them to be effective. This has been my practice for a long time.
WHAT if Dwyer had space to run? Would he have survived? I don’t think so. This is one of the differences between mood-based suicide and predicament-based suicide. The predicament must be the locus of control for the person’s life. There are no exits or places to run, there is no shadow where you can hide from it. With my moods, there were escapes. I could distract and comfort myself with cannabis, cartoons, horror movies, music, and lies. There was New Mexico, and eventually, Oregon.
Hiding from my suicidality has given me the space to think clearly about it. Now, I know that when my mind wanders off trail and starts going dark for no apparent reason it’s a function of habit. A sad habit, to be sure. A damaging habit. A maladaptive habit.
But just a habit, nonetheless. Today, as I stare out the into the first gray gloom of the Oregon rain seasons, I’m not bogged down with the darkness. I haven’t had a truly suicidal thought in a couple years. Because I ran, because I hid. Because I gave myself the space I needed to figure it out, to unravel the sweater.
Last week my wife met me after work at one of our favorite brewpubs in town. It was a crisp and sunny autumn day and I was nursing an ice cold Bavarian pilsner from the Octoberfest event the previous weekend. I tore off a piece of soft pretzel, squinted into the sun, and smiled at my wife as I chewed. She laughs at my face There was a singer-songwriter singing beautiful songs on stage, a lot of laughter was echoing across the concrete floor and reverberating off the wooden, outdoor booths where everyone sat. There was a long line for the bar, but I had my full beer in hand, and it didn’t worry me. Suddenly, an image flashed in my head: Me, my mouth wrapped around the long barrel of a silver revolver. I pull the trigger.
“What’s wrong?” my wife asks as she notices my change in countenance.
“Nothing,” I smile, and the macabre image disappears in the blue pools of my wife’s eyes. “Nothing at all.“
IN the 35 years since Budd Dwyer’s public suicide, we have learned a lot of new facts about the man, most notably his desire for his wife to receive his pension when he died. She did– to the tune of 1.28 million dollars. At the time it was the largest death benefit the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System had ever paid out. It would be worth 3.1 million if adjusted for inflation in 2022.
We later learned that Dwyer handed a manilla envelope to his press secretary that held a suicide note to his wife. Another manilla envelope handed to his deputy press secretary held his organ donor card and instructions to get him to Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA for their harvesting. They couldn’t carry out this final request because Dwyer’s body was left sitting in that room for too long, the organs had all died.
We learned that there were men and women who did actively and physically try and stop Dwyer from pulling the trigger. We learned there was absolutely no knowledge of Dwyer’s plan by his political team and associates. We learned there was a man behind the controversy, behind the shock, behind the barrel of the gun.
We learned the person who replaced Dwyer after his death by suicide, Catherine Baker Knoll, was elated to show guests to her office the bullet hole Dwyer’s shot made. We can still see the bullet hole marking the wall of the office to this day.