Friday, February 12, 2010

On Death, Dying and Alexander McQueen

The Saville Row-trained, "enfant terrible" of fashion Alexander McQueen was found dead in his London apartment yesterday. He was arguably at the height of his critical acclaim, his unique role cemented as the leading avant garde designer who happened to also have commercial appeal. He was just 40 years old and he purportedly committed suicide.

As with any suicide, people have been speculating about the "why".  As if there was just one reason, as if we will ever know, as if it even matters. Nevertheless, the reports are pointing to the fact that McQueen's mother with whom he was extremely close died a couple of weeks ago. Her funeral was scheduled for today.

The headlines also remind us that Isabella Blow, the woman who discovered him and helped propel him to stardom, committed suicide in 2007. Friends say he was never quite the same after her death.

Hard to imagine losing two women so central to McQueen's very being didn't factor in his decision to end his life. One gave birth to him physically, the other professionally.

It's always fascinated me...the myriad of responses people have to the death of a loved one. Sure psychologists have identified the typical stages of grieving. But how each individual passes through those stages and how each individual manifests those stages varies so widely. That seems to be the one given for those of us left behind.

One of the reasons may be that as a society we don't address death very openly. We'd rather not talk about it. We'd rather pretend it's not the inevitable outcome.

And so we've become conveniently obsessed with youth and beauty. We've come to look at the sick and aged as disposable. Or worse: invisible.

This means that when you lose someone you adore, you don't quite know what to do and where to turn and how to be. The immediate rituals - the funeral, the black, the flowers, the coming together - can help. But when that is all said and done, you go back to your life and your routine and you are alone with yourself.  And you realize there is a gaping hole at the center of who you are...well it can be disconcerting to say the least.

It's like that phantom limb syndrome. You still feel the person. They just aren't physically present anymore. The relationship the two of you shared - that unspoken, intangible connection - is gone. Or it has become one-sided. It exists only in your memory. It is but a memory. And yet you are supposed to go on, pretending a part of you didn't die too.

There is an added layer of nuance when the person you lose dies by his own hand. There is a different flavor to the shock and the pain and the horror of a suicide. It smacks of rejection and guilt. There is this murky molasses of regret that envelopes the ones left behind. Regret for saying certain things, regret for not saying certain things.

And there's that gut-wrenching feeling of not having been enough. It can make you question what you shared. It can make you question your own worth.

I lost one parent to suicide half a life time ago. And I can tell you every time I hear the word I am transported right back to that moment. I am sixteen again. I am in shock and denial. I am angry and confused. That's what happened this morning when I heard about McQueen. I felt gutted.

But the news elicited a new gnawing thought today in addition to the familiar pain. Sure, I instantly welled up at the thought that a person so gifted, so lauded, so beloved could be in that much pain. But today in the same breath I wondered for the first time if he was so gifted and talented and lauded and beloved BECAUSE he was in so much pain. Did the storied curse of creativity claim another life?

I know, I know. Pain isn't the singular purview of the creative. All of us suffer, in some way or another, at some point or another. But artists typically transform that pain into something, well, at least "productive."

They transmute the despair or loneliness or heartache into something beautiful or affecting or brave or truthful. They hold up a mirror to our own struggles and reflect back something comforting or illuminating or both.

They don't necessarily do it because they want to. They do it because they have to, because it's their way of coping - either learned or pre-destined.

And so I think it can become this vicious circle. Where artists are validated for their emotional vulnerability and feel the need to summon it to be perceived as valuable. It's this weird symbiotic thing where we feed off them feeding off the pain.

It's interesting to think of all this in the context of the image that is probably most closely associated with McQueen: skulls. He was the kind of artist that routinely plunged into the darkness, the morbid, the grotesque, the primal, the other.

And we let him. On some unconscious level we thought: "better him than us." And when he surfaced on the other side with beauty and perspective, we were awed and delighted and applauded.  Thus setting off that parasitic chain I describe.

In his last days, McQueen alluded to all this in 140 characters, via Twitter of all fucking things. He tweeted: "from heaven to hell and back again, life is a funny thing. beauty can come from the most strangest of places even the most disgusting places" and then "why people ignore the ugly things in life but within this they are missing the beauty that lies under the rotten fruit!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Haunting words to leave us with...

Today as I wore my new McQueen scarf close to my heart and visited the memorial outside his store on Melrose, I began to think that maybe we all have to consider the price someone pays for the beauty and entertainment and art we consume. And maybe we should never assume we know what other people are going through. Maybe we should consider that when we see the glossy image of success and fulfillment and wealth sometimes there is something rotting underneath the perfect veneer. Not always. But definitely sometimes.

Today I decided we should all be less judgmental and kinder. To each other and to ourselves. And more honest.  With others and with ourselves.

I know I for one haven't always been candid with my loved ones about what I've gone through. How I've spent the last 15 years fundamentally devastated by my stepfather's death and terrified of losing my other lifeline, my mother. How I've spent half that time feeling like a failure for never achieving enough or doing enough or being enough. How I've felt like an alien for not wanting the same things out of life as other people, for thinking differently, and making choices differently.

I haven't shared that I can understand that oppressive weight of depression and hopelessness - I have lived it. And that I can understand wrestling with the demons and with my spirituality and the meaning of all this - I have done it.

And I think that is probably the most important thing you can share with someone: how you are human and how you are flawed. How you ache at times and get your heart broken. I think it's so important to reach out to each other and be truthful and real and present. You never know, it could save someone's life. It could even save your own.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lee McQueen, in the arms of the two women you loved.

I did not know you, I did not know your pain. But I thank you for all the beauty, inspiration and truth you created in your lifetime, and now leave behind for us.

In your work and even in your death you affected my perception - and that is the hallmark of a true artist.

Your spirit lives on - delicate and beautiful and gilded. Like a butterfly.

For more on McQueen and his life, read this.

For resources on battling depression and loss,
click here.

And to support the Trevor Project, a wonderful organization dedicated to suicide prevention among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth,
click here.


Sheri, RN said...

Beautiful and inspiring post even if it does revolve around death/suicide. Very well written ::hugs::

Kate Miller Events said...

Thank you for this D. I completely and wholeheartedly feel the same way that you do. Gutted. Yesterday was a dual-experience for me with the loss of this incredible artist and a close friend. It's been tough trying not to ask why - but I guess we may just need to for a little while until we are okay with the question going unanswered.

Big hugs to you!

tam pham said...

stunning writing. XOXO.

sopamaggie said...

Americans see death as an option, said one of my Spanish professors in undergrad. It struck me as true.

Equally true is how isolating the stigma of suicide is. Two of my dearest friends met me for dinner and their first meeting. In conversation, one said that he had one brother (omitting another who had committed suicide years ago), and the other casually flitted her hand in the air when asked about her family. It's complicated she said. (Stepfather killed himself). I was struck by the missed opportunity for two people to connect, but also felt that it was not my place to share their secrets. I wonder how many opportunities like that flit by us each day.

Anonymous said...

absolutely beautiful writing. your post really affected me. you see, at the end of this month, it will be the 1 year anniversary of the death of someone I considered family and although that person didn't die by their own hand but by another's, it's been a year of whys, gilt, should haves, and could haves. your piece touched me and i thank you for that.

Sable Crow said...


This is your gift at its finest, and it is a pleasure to read. Intricately woven, deeply considered, and delivered in a black satin box. Thank you for your words, and your insight. There are at least three passages in this post which will stay with me, like a tune when a song has ended too soon.

Always with love, and also with shadows,
Sable Crow

Sheila said...

Great post, very well written. I too have lost someone (cousin) to suicide, and what you wrote about is something I can relate to, I just never put it into words, and thanks for doing that so eloquently.

Thumbelina Fashionista said...

Haunting and moving post/tribute to McQueen. The fashion world lost a legend.

Anonymous said...

I could not stop reading this post (and your previous entry about your step-father's suicide, which I am so sorry I missed the first time around).

This was so beautifully and poignantly well-written (and was your other entry). Thank you so much for sharing this.

Amanda said...

"They transmute the despair or loneliness or heartache into something beautiful or affecting or brave or truthful."

"As with any suicide, people have been speculating about the "why" - as if there was just one reason, as if we will ever know, as if it even matters."

I can't even find anything to say except this is one of your best posts. I love the words, I love the pictures...a fitting tribute to one of the greatest artists of our time. Thank you for sharing with the world.

Jessica said...

This is one of the most eloquent and touching pieces I have read in the wake of McQueen's death.

JCH said...

Having just lost my grandmother, not but three months ago, I get teary-eyed reading your lovely words.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

D I just want to say that i follow your blog religiously and this is the first time i comment. Your post was so thoughtful and just written perflety

Jean Bean said...

In June before the spring men's shows he gave us a rambling statement about creative exhaustion and the anguish of making art. It was clear he was wrestling demons, and that the relentlessness of the fashion system was taking a distressing toll on someone who bled for his art, even someone as prolifically creative as McQueen. No other designer gives us such elaborate spectacles that are so deeply considered, four times a year. I am bereft.

Brava on your writing.

WendyB said...

Such a loss.

shellbell022 said...

I thought this was beautifully written and really touching. Thanks for putting this up for us to read.

InnyVinny said...

This just blew me away.

Great writing, D.

Kimmy said...

Long live McQueen!!

This is probs the best dedication post I've seen yet. So moving, great writing and the best compilation of photos everrrr.




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