A Suicide Remembered
Rev. Alan Stewart
The letter that Andrew Renouf left before he ended his life on October 17, 1995, was addressed: "To Whom It May Concern". We gather here today, whether we knew him or not, because we are concerned, deeply concerned about the pain he experienced and the issues that he brought to our attention as women and men in a civilized society.
We want to make sense out of his death.
We want to learn from his experience.
We want to receive his last will and testament, his legacy, as he asked.
We are attempting today to hear his cry, to learn and self-examine ourselves from his scream, which in this letter he made as loudly, as clearly, as emphatically as possible. He used his whole life to propel these words into our consciousness and into the fabric of our society. As his letter was his last will and testament, for all concerned, we are extending his legacy today by sharing his inheritance as he passed it on, in this letter.
As Andrew was a man, I will speak first about what the letter may point to in terms of those of us who are men; what we can glean from Andrew; what is his legacy for us?
In this letter, we are either Andrew, or there is an Andrew who is our acquaintance, our friend, our brother, our co-worker. We are reminded that four times as many men kill themselves as do women.
The trigger that seemed to set this death on its course was that Andrew had no money. Do we measure a man by how much money he has in his pocket or his bank account? The first thing that he mentions in his letter is the 43 cents in his account. He obviously felt that 43 cents pointed to his worthlessness, the 43 cents was a metaphor for how he felt and how much he was valued on the open market. Andrew had no connection to the amount of money that was garnisheed. He had no connection to the value of the money that he had actually earned the previous month. His value was focused on the 43 cents that was left to keep his account open.
Andrew was a man who did not have a place to take his pain. He says that he has no family, no friends. In the years that he lived on this planet, why did he not have any friends? Why did he feel there was nobody to call? Why was there no man or woman he knew personally that he could reach out to and that they would grab his hand? Why was there no brother-in-law, no buddy from work, no friend of a friend, no clergy? Why was there no "best friend"?
To respond to Andrew's letter, we men have to ask ourselves if, along the journey of our lives, we have been investing in relationships to help us live our lives. Are we cultivating, investing and risking to have good friends? Do we make excuses that we are too busy? Are we sabotaging our own lives by living in isolation from our brothers and sisters in our own communities or families? Are we in a life-long process of estrangement?
Do we hide our pain? The name 'Andrew' means "manly" or "strong". Does our notion of strength mean to go it alone, to be silent, reserved, to hide our feelings and pretend that we are in control and that everything is OK when it most definitely is not OK? When somebody asks us how we are, do we lie to them and say that we are fine? Do we hide our feelings under the pretence that other people do not want to know? Do we blame the unwitting for our lack of self-expression? Are we hostage to what we think that other people think of us?
Do we cultivate safe places, safe times, and safe people where we can really be who we are? Can we ever give ourselves permission to be vulnerable? Have we found someone we can trust with our secrets?
Andrew's letter says that estrangement, going it alone and hiding pain, spells d-e-a-t-h.
In his pain, Andrew chose to end his life. We who gather here without that pain can say that there were other choices he could have made. He could have told a police officer or clergyperson that he was suicidal, or walked into an emergencyward of a hospital. Strong men are not supposed to say, "I need help. I am scared. I feel like killing myself. Help me!" This is a lie! Our choices determine our life or our death. As men we are free to ' choose to get the help that we need to get through our difficult times and live our lives.
What does this letter say to women?
The loudest message that this letter says to me in regards to women is that "men feel". Men do feel. We may teach men not to show their feelings, but men can and do feel as deeply and as profoundly as any woman.
Andrew mentions that he has not seen his daughter in approximately four years. While I am not privy to the intimacy issues of the Renouf family, I can say that fathers naturally tend to love their children. A mother's or father's relationship with their child is separately authentic from their relationship with each other.
I can say that children need the love of both their father and their mother. The access that mother and father have with their children, aside from obvious abuse, should not be determined by the issues that the mother and the father have with each other. Each parent can say that we are having problems with each other, but we both love you very much. We know that children feel guilty about a marriage break-up and they need to know that both parents love them. It takes years to recover from taking sides, and that same taking sides sabotages future relationships when those children become adults.
Society says chat men are producers; they bring home the bread. Andrew's letter screams to us that he cannot produce without limit.
There is a limit to what a man can produce.
There is a limit to what a man can take.
If we, as a society, teach boys that to be a man is to control, and then, as in Andrew's case, we take all of that control away to the point that the only way for him to keep any control is to stop the wage garnishee, then by definition, we oblige him to make that choice.
Andrew mentions two government agencies: Family Support Services and Welfare. One garnishees his wages, the other tells him that he still really has the money the other agency took away. It is the classic case of the right hand not letting the left hand know what it is doing. What this did to Andrew is profoundly heinous in an age of computerisation, fax machines and telephones.
For Welfare to say that he made more than $520 the month before is not true. It is a lie.
Not only is it a lie, but the Family Support agency had all the documentation to prove to the Welfare people that Andrew Renouf did not have any of the money he had worked for during the previous month. The Family Support Services, in reality, did not support the Renouf family. The policies of the Welfare Office and the Family Support agency were contributing factors in the destruction of the Renouf family.
Fathers are part of the family unit.
Husbands are part of the family unit.
You may listen to what I am saying and say that there are many issues here:
- the issue of child support
- the issue of gender discrimination
- the issue of alimony
- marriage breakdown
What I would like to say to you is that there are no such things as issues, there are only people, flesh and blood men, women, and children. If our attitudes and agencies do not work to support the health of women and men and children, then we must change and adapt our attitudes and agencies so that they do help all people.
The terrible reality of this story is that everyone lost.
- a daughter lost her father
- an ex-wife lost her support
- society lost a good and productive member
- and Andrew lost the most precious thing: his life.
Surely a system that makes everyone a loser has got to be wrong.
The most radical thing I have to say is that the solutions to life's difficulties need a partnership that includes both men and women. We need both sides to achieve the full equation and we need to have the same rules and the same attitudes for both men and women.
There is a place in Los Angeles where there is a small mountain in the middle of an urban area. There used to be an observatory there before the city lights made it impossible to see the stars. It is a place where lovers go to park. It is also a place where people go to commit suicide.
One evening, a police car drove up the winding road, just to see a young man climbing over the rail to jump off and commit suicide. The first policeman dashed to grab him, but he was too late to get a good hold on him and keep his balance without falling over the cliff himself. There was a moment when it looked like both of them were going to fall to their deaths. By then, the second policeman was able to get around the car and grab the first policeman and pull them both to safety.
The ftrst policeman was nearly killed. He was later asked, "Why did you do this? Why did you risk you life, your future, losing your family and everything for a total stranger, a man you didn't even know?" He replied that when he touched him, he "became" the other man. To let go and let him die would have been like losing himself. He would not have been able to face himself the next day. He became the other man.
So, we are more than our brother's keeper. We are our brother; our brother's and our sister's welfare is directly linked to our own. When Andrew died, part of us died with him, men and women alike.
May God give us the grace to reach out in compassion for each other, to attend to each other's pain, that we might all live in mutual trust, esteem and love.
Rev. Alan Stewart, Westview Presbyterian Church, 233 Westview Blvd., Toronto, ON. (416) 759-8531