John-Paul Flintoff

Bridge of broken dreams

Jumping off the Golden Gate

Warning: This article is dark

I wrote it for The Sunday Times. I recently noticed that lots of traffic seems to come to this page from Google. I don’t know what you were searching for, but if you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samarians, by email or phone 116 123.

I know what I’m talking about. I’ve had cause to call Samaritans myself.

At the hospital, after surgery on his broken back, Kevin Hines was visited by a Franciscan monk. “His name was George Cherry,” Hines remembers. “He’d pray with me and do the rosary.”

Cherry told Hines he’d been blessed, given a second chance. “He said I couldn’t just sit on my butt. He said I had a voice. I had to use it. I had to tell people my story.” Hines wasn’t immediately impressed. “I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s a bit heavy, I don’t want to talk to anyone about this again.’”

But soon afterwards, his family priest said much the same. He begged Hines, as a favour, to write something down. And soon Hines found himself at a school, giving a speech to dozens of 13- and 14-year olds.

What Hines told the children was this: on a weekend in September 2000, he’d written a suicide letter, bought sweets for a last meal, and ridden a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco, where he lives.

Like many suicidal people, Hines had a plan: if someone noticed his despair, he would stop. “I’m crying softly to myself, waiting, you know, for that… for that angel to come down and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ And that in itself is just a grandiose kind of the psychotic nature of suicidal thought. That’s not how the world works. People don’t have telepathy.”

On the bridge, a tourist asked him to take her picture, but failed to notice his tears. “And she walked away. I took a couple steps back and I ran and threw myself over the rail. At that moment, the second my hand left the bar, I thought, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to die. What did I do?’”

[ read: I had a period of insistent suicidal thoughts ]

The drop typically lasts four seconds at 120mph. Hines used the time to manoeuvre his body so he would hit the water feet first and survived the jump. He’s not exactly proud of that: “I make it clear when I talk to kids that what I did wasn’t good, not awesome, not cool. I say it was terrible, it hurt a lot of people, still hurts them.”

That first time, at the school, the children clapped and hands went up. “They wanted to know what it felt like to jump, what it feels like to hit the water. Some asked really intelligent questions, like, ‘When were you diagnosed with mental illness?’ and ‘What is bipolar disorder?’ and ‘What are you doing now?’

Afterwards, encouraged by their teachers, 120 children wrote Hines personal letters of thanks. “I read them all, and six of them were kids who needed help.”

In ancient Greece and Rome, suicide was seen as honourable or heroic. Eleven instances of suicide are mentioned in the Old Testament: they’re reported simply, with no negative overtones. But in the early years of Christianity, St Augustine pronounced suicide a mortal sin, and for many centuries those who died by “self-slaughter” were denied burial in hallowed ground.

England and Wales were the last countries in Europe to decriminalise suicide: until 1961, people in Britain were still being sent to prison for attempting to kill themselves.

Today, at least 140,000 people attempt suicide each year in England and Wales. That’s about 12 men and three women in every 100,000 people. One in five who tried will try again, of whom 10% will succeed. In the US, the ratio is higher: 18 men and four women in every 100,000 kill themselves. The most popular location for suicide in the US if not the world is the Golden Gate Bridge.

[ read: Death Of A Salesman ]

In 2004, 24 people killed themselves by jumping. All but one were caught on camera by Eric Steel and can be watched in his forthcoming film, The Bridge.

Having seen it, I can confirm that it makes bleak viewing. And it’s hard to tell if you’re merely viewer or voyeur. Many people, hearing about Steel’s film, shudder with revulsion. How can he have filmed people jumping, and why would he want to show them?

Another charge levelled at it is that it might provoke “copycat” suicides. Following a serious drug overdose in the TV hospital drama Casualty, presentations for self-poisoning increased by 17% in the week after the broadcast and 9% in the second week. Of those who’d seen it, 20% said the show had influenced their decision to take an overdose and 17% said it influenced their choice of drug.

It seems odd that anyone would need a model for suicide, but there is plentiful evidence that this is the case. On a web page devoted to jumping off the Golden Gate, I found this: “I had no idea there would be information about this? It is a plan of mine in time to travel there, get a cheap motel for a week or so and write my goodbye letters. I can’t believe others have that same plan? Do you know how much a motel would cost me? Also, can a pedestrian walk to and on the bridge? I appreciate any info you might have. Thank you…”

The comment was posted in 2004 by a man called Patrick, who may be dead now.

[ read: I’m one of the lucky ones ]

Meeting Steel in London, I asked if he had misgivings about making his film. He didn’t. “People seem to fear that you can be influenced by this, as if it were infectious, like a cold,” he said. “The message has been, ‘Don’t show.’ But the bridge already does have a copycat problem.”

A grizzled, unshaven man wearing a dark denim shirt and jeans, Steel looked terribly tired. He was jet-lagged, he said. I wondered if the weary appearance may also be due to the criticism he’s faced recently. “Originally, criticism of the film was from people who hadn’t seen a single frame of footage. I think people are just so afraid of this, they’d rather find a way to condemn it beforehand. And make me the bad guy.”

Starting on January 1, 2004, Steel shot 10,000 hours of film. He had one set of cameras at bridge level and one at water level. There were two cameras in each place: a wide angle and a telephoto. And the cameras were controlled all the time, from sunrise to sunset.

Before shooting began, Steel discussed intervention with his crew and they agreed always to try to prevent a suicide attempt. Direct-line numbers for bridge officials were saved on everyone’s mobile as speed-dial numbers.

“The first day, so many people made us concerned. We couldn’t hear them talk, we weren’t experts at body language. We saw hundreds crying, dozens pulling their hair and mumbling. Those ones never jumped. The first person I saw jump was in jogging clothes. He’d run out onto the bridge and was laughing on his cellphone. He hung up, took off his sunglasses and jumped in a matter of seconds.”

One man, Gene Sprague, bestrode the bridge for 90 minutes. “I watched him walk back and forward. I never knew he was going to do this. He looked free to me, with his hair blowing around, then he sat on the rail and died. He must have thought, ‘I’m going to kill myself, I’m not going to kill myself.’ Now I know so much about him; it seems he spent his whole life doing that.”

The film includes an interview with a photographer from Pittsburgh, who began taking pictures of a girl about to jump, then put down his camera and hoicked her over the rail to safety. She bit him, but he sat on her until help arrived.

In later days and weeks, she came back to the bridge. “She had this routine with a hat and her make-up. And when we realised it was her, we called (the authorities).”

What makes the film compelling, Steel says, is not the deathly footage, but the act of bearing witness. “What we witnessed was also witnessed by others. That act of witness is in the world we weren’t the only ones. If it was just about the footage, we’d have dropped the interviews.”

He’s talking about interviews with the families and friends. After the bodies were recovered, they were brought to Marin County, where the coroner, Ken Holmes, has the unenviable task of notifying families. Typically, these families have questions, then more questions.

At Steel’s request, Holmes asked families if they’d be willing to be interviewed in the film. “Most were agreeable,” Holmes says, “though a couple refused to discuss the idea that this was a suicide at all.”

Steel did the interviews himself. It was never easy. In March he saw Wally and Mary Manikow: their son Philip had died in January. “I wanted to get the stories at the point when families were maybe out of the most intense period of grief, but still trying to work out what was happening.”

Mary Manikow recalls feeling ambivalent. “The feelings were very raw. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk… When a person jumps, people feel it’s all their fault. I had a daughter, Sharon, 24, who committed suicide two years earlier. To have it happen twice, I thought, ‘What is wrong with me?’ I felt really alone.”

After the interview, Steel recalls: “Mrs Manikow made us dinner, lasagne. The neighbours were just over the fence, and I asked if they’d been helpful when Philip died, and she said, ‘I don’t think they even know Philip has gone.’ That was one of the most haunting things for me.”

[ read: It’s too exhausting to cry any more ]

Controversially, Steel did not tell the families and friends that he had the suicides on film. “My biggest fear,” he explains now, “was word would get out about what we were doing and someone who wasn’t thinking clearly would see it as an opportunity to immortalise themselves on film.”

He planned to tell the families at the end of the project, and show the footage if they wanted to see it. But before he got the chance, the local paper found out about the project and public controversy exploded.

So he got in touch with the families he’d interviewed. “I said, ‘You have to believe I’m a sensitive person. We’re all doing this to save lives, not to exploit people.’ Almost all of them felt that way, but (some) didn’t.”

As Steel sees it, the individuals made a choice to kill themselves publicly. Holmes, the coroner, evidently likes Steel, and believes his intentions to be honourable, but takes a slightly different view. “I don’t think I can say there is a difference between people who kill themselves publicly and privately. Many of them go into a zone. That girl. She didn’t care that the man with the camera was there. She was hellbent. And the man with the long hair didn’t look at the people nearby. There was seldom, if ever, any eye contact.”

This is Steel’s first film as director, but he has worked in the movies for years as an executive. At Disney he worked for Jeffrey Katzenberg, then left to work for Scott Rudin, a well-known producer in New York. For a long while, he wanted his own project.

“Then I read this article in The New Yorker magazine about the Golden Gate and the suicides, and thought, ‘I should do this.’” He was at work, a mile from the World Trade Center, on the morning of 9/11. “If you took out binoculars, you could see people jumping. That’s what I saw. That idea of people jumping and making a choice stuck with me.”

[ read: Nurses Took Away Anything I Might Use To Hurt Myself ]

As he puts it, Steel has had “a hard life”. His brother died of cancer at 17, and his sister was killed by a drink-driver 18 months later. “I have to say, I’ve had a lot of despair. There have been mornings when I’ve woken and thought, ‘Why don’t I kill myself?’ It enters our heads and passes through. Like it does for many people. I don’t think this is necessarily morbid. We all think a bit about dying. As rough as my life has been, when people meet me they don’t suddenly think, ‘Oh, you’ve had a life of great losses.’ You never know what people are struggling with. We’re trained to present the strongest image we can. We don’t wear signs that say, ‘I need help.’

“It’s up to us to feel we can pull someone back. If the standard view is that we should go along with our lives, let others get on with it, that’s like the most disturbing part of the film, where joggers just pass by people about to jump. With Gene (Sprague), if he really wanted to kill himself, maybe he’d have done it before. He did let his friends save him, once before, in St Louis. I don’t think it’s entirely black for these people. We didn’t include the footage of people who tried to swim when they hit the water and why would you do that if you didn’t want to live?”

Why didn’t he show that?

“To me, it seemed like the stories that were important were about people living, then coming to the moment when they weren’t living. We did show one body being pulled out, but we didn’t show it over and over. Suicide-prevention experts would love to have the film narrated by experts, but I wanted to show the way it felt, not explain.”

Steel says most documentaries these days are illustrated essays. “The Enron film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Al Gore’s film they’re all interesting but I wanted this to have no narrative.”

As a result, the film is discomforting to watch, not only because of its subject. The seemingly unstructured shape, the moody, artistic longueurs, and the unsensational direction combine to flirt, at times, with tedium. Watching it, I found myself wishing for something dramatic to happen rather shamefully, because that could only mean another suicide.

I also wondered if the film suffers from the necessary absence of its “stars”: Steel made a choice to include only still photos, no home-movie footage or anything like that.

“The only movement of the camera is the tracking one way or another on the bridge. The film is very much like still photos. The director of photography said I was crazy, that it would never work. I said, ‘You have to just trust me.’

“When someone dies, there’s this big splash. And within minutes, it’s like nothing ever happened. All the ripples go away. The traffic keeps moving, the pedestrians are walking, and the water’s going under the bridge, but for the families, that ripple keeps going for ever.”

Steel’s greatest wish is for suicide, and the mental illness that lies behind it, to be better understood. “My grandfather died in the 1960s of prostate cancer and people didn’t talk about that then. Now you have marches and badges for colon cancer. But we don’t have the same kind of coverage for mental illness.”

He adds something that astonishes me, but turns out to be correct: “You’d never know from the media that twice as many people die of suicide as homicide in the US.”

All the same, I wonder if he needed the actual footage of suicides to raise awareness. Why not make a film using only the interviews with family and friends? I mention Werner Herzog’s award-winning documentary, Grizzly Man, in which Herzog chose not to show the footage of the naturalist Timothy Treadwell’s death by mauling. Instead, viewers see only Herzog, listening to the ghastly audio.

“When you have footage, when people are forced to confront it as a witness, it changes the picture completely. People say I’m bad because I filmed it! Rather than say they’re the bad guys for letting people kill themselves year after year after year.”

He’s talking about the bridge authorities his fiercest critics who refuse to put up a barrier on the Golden Gate.

“If there were a two-mile stretch of road and two dozen people died at that stretch of road year after year after year after year,” he says, “the people responsible for that stretch of road would feel compelled to take drastic action to stop 24 people from dying the next year.”

It’s this point that seems to have secured support from the families and friends of people whose deaths Steel filmed. Mary Manikow saw it for the first time at the Tribeca film festival in New York. “When I saw myself up there I felt very exposed,” she recalls, “very vulnerable. Suicide is a very private affair.”

But she says taking part in the film was absolutely worthwhile. “Watching people jump is sombre, and shocking. I think it made a great impact. I don’t regret doing this film. I feel positively pleased.”

Kevin Hines, the rare survivor, jumped off the Golden Gate four years before Steel set up his cameras there. But Hines agreed to take part in Steel’s film, and provides a stirring account of his fall. He now considers Steel “a friend”, and agrees with Manikow about the project’s merit.

“I don’t think this is a voyeuristic film,” says Hines. “It’s a beautiful movie about life and death. Eric Steel has made a movie that’s going to change lives.”

As a figurehead for suicide prevention, Hines who continues to struggle with bipolar disorder has met all kinds of people. “I have talked to CEOs and homeless people, and they say, ‘Why don’t you let it go?’ or ‘Snap out of it.’ That’s sad. You see a guy with a broken arm and you know it’s broken and you say, ‘Let me sign your cast.’ No one wants to sign your forehead when there’s mental illness.”

He hopes the film will teach people to change that attitude. He also hopes to teach young people that the things that worry and upset them will not endure. “When I end my speech, I always say to the kids, ‘You realise that you might be 45 one day?’ and they say, ‘Yeech!’ ‘You might have grey hair…?’ ‘Yeech!’ My point is, today isn’t everything.”

Most of all, he hopes to prevent anyone having to learn to value their future life in the same horrific way he did. In the 1970s, he says, somebody did some research and found 28 people who jumped, like Hines, and survived. “They talked to them about it. It turns out, as soon as they hit free fall, they all thought, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to die.’”

First published in The Sunday Times.

Once again, if you are even thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans.

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