“Be happy, well-behaved and don’t make trouble for anybody” is a credo that’s led to suicide in many a troubled Southern gentlemen – this and more as actor and improv comedian Sam Pancake talks to Tragicomedia‘s Nancy Gershman. Raised in West Virginia and based in LA, Sam has worked extensively in film, television and the stage. Visit Sam’s International Movie Database page here.
The most reliable target for suicide… is not the head Suicides by troubled Southern men led me to be my own man
Ministers and mental health consultants can be mentally ill too We are not supposed to be anybody’s savior The danger of keeping one’s own counsel No regrets lets you hit the pillow and wake up like a child There’s as much ridiculousness in death as in life Your To Do List
“There is a recurring and rather sad theme of suicide, depression and alcoholism in my family. The Pancakes are from rural West Virginia – fairly affluent, here since the 1730’s. My granddaddy John I (short for Inskeep), lived in Mill Meadow in a 52-acre, 22-room house. He shot himself in the heart when I was 4. When I asked my mother much later, “Momma, why in the heart?” she told me, “Oh, Sam. The head is not reliable.“(A rather good metaphor, I thought at the time, for memory, mental illness and suicide.)
At 6 my father moved us to this ancestral home. As a little child, I knew exactly where Granddaddy shot himself. At the time, it was the maid’s room. Today, it’s my father’s study.
The good news was that at Grandma’s house, we had horses, dogs, cats, a great big barn, we lived on the river, had canoes and a 52 acre outdoor playground – even Civil War trenches. The bad news was this cloak of darkness. Father – who never himself dealt with the loss of his father and was pretty shut down emotionally-speaking – moved right into the house, while my mother never wanted to move in, but it’s where she lives to this day!”
“Granddaddy’s suicide was not kept from me, but one before that was. I’d be out drinking with friends, and they’d make a drunken reference to my father’s first wife. I later found out that my father originally married the Governors’ granddaughter. He didn’t know her that well, they lived near Mill Meadow, and after three months had a huge fight. She was driving back one day and drove headlong into a truck, later ruled a possible suicide. I confronted my mother about it, and she said “I can understand why anyone married to your father for three months would want to commit suicide.”
That made two suicides he never dealt with. Jump forward to 1998 where I’m making it as an actor, living with a charming but troubled southern boy, David, and he commits suicide while I’m asleep one night. That was an incredibly traumatizing part of my life because he was bi-polar and we had what you call a “complicated relationship.” I realized later he zeroed in on me so that I’d be his caretaker in the last days of his life.
David hung himself in the garage. As we cut him down, he seemed taller than his usual self and that’s when I realized his neck was broken. I thought I heard his heartbeat, but it really was mine, I was shaking so much. The coroner came so quickly and the body was removed so quickly I didn’t even have time to process anything. Thankfully my sister, a social worker, was there with me.
But I am really clear now about what my father went through with his father and his first wife. So one of the courses I’ve taken is to be unlike my father and not lock down my feelings.”
“Granddaddy wasn’t terribly mentally ill; he probably suffered from Undiagnosed Depression. He also suffered from a small stroke and was bedridden – and that was the difficulty. As children we were told “Granddaddy didn’t want to be a bother so he took himself out of the picture.” Of course the message that a child hears in that is Be happy, well-behaved and don’t make trouble for anybody.
Did I mention my father was a Presbyterian minister? He also was the County Mental Health Consultant. How this legally happened, who knows. Somehow, he got this position and went to the office every day. He most certainly had Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and later on, his own small strokes would alter his personality. Funny how the world completely revolves around him, yet narcissism saved him from suicide.
Father exhibited a lot of bizarre behavior in his day and we were all under my father’s spell. But I have some of my father in me. Like his dark southern voice.”
“After my roommate David died, I got into a Christian-based suicide support group, which was terribly depressing but it helped me. I realized being David’s unwitting caretaker was a lot more than I signed on for. Yet the minister of the group told me, “You are not supposed to be anybody’s savior. Just know that you are relieved for being responsible for his life.” That was a lesson my father never learned.
When I called my parents after David’s death, my mother handed the phone to my father, the mental health consultant. All he said was: “Very sad, Sam. Suicide shakes your faith in God and man,” before handing the phone back to Mother. My grandfather on my mother’s side – an Old School Christian – wrote me a long multi-page letter that said basically, depression isn’t real. If your friend had taken Christ in his heart, he wouldn’t have committed suicide.”
“Father was the patriarch – four brothers and sisters and 21 cousins. But really he was a terrible example for the family: insulting, critical, irascible, trouble-making. His partriarchy was in name only.
In an emergency eulogy I wrote for my father (at some point when we all thought he was about to die), I acknowledged the way he behaved but also how he showed me what a good Southern gentleman was. Respect for the land; how to tell when there’s going to be a harsh winter; the names of trees and animals. But Father also taught me that I must live my life in contrast to him. He taught me what not to be. It’s one kind of inspiration.
The novelist Ellen Gilchrist once wrote, “I grew up in a world so polite that nobody told the truth about anything.” The leitmotif in our family was too much politeness and keeping one’s own counsel. You’re never supposed to talk about what you’re feeling.”
“I got sober last summer, after 30 years. My bottom wasn’t that low. But now when I open the closet and visit regrets – it’s about not handling alcoholism earlier. On the other hand, I didn’t have any DUIs; my health came back after rehab, and the universe is unfolding the way it’s supposed to be. I have very few moments of regret and many moments of happy, joyous and free.
I don’t have any natural depression. It was all from the alcohol. In the 90’s, between suicide, drug overdoses, the post-punk crowd, AIDs – I was going to memorial services almost every 6 months, if not more often. For decades I couldn’t sleep. But now I hit the pillow and wake up like a child.”
“My sense of humor is my greatest gift from my dad. He had a wicked sense of humor. I’m so grateful because today I can see the humor in anything. For those who can’t get the hang of it, I say: Don’t be afraid to laugh in times of grief. There’s ridiculousness there.
Don’t swallow the pain and not deal with it. Examine all your feelings and acknowledge them because you’re going to find something that tickles you …. that’s just absurd or ridiculous enough to make you laugh.”
1. If there is a suicide in the family, especially if it is a young adult who “died before their time,” openly displaying the photograph with other family pictures will often cause too much pain. Find out where relatives are filing away these personal photographs. Are they hidden in a desk drawer with “old papers” or kept in a “special things” box containing belongings that still carry their faint scent?
2. Collect stories about this individual who committed suicide from everyone who knew them, such as relatives, BFFs (best friends forever) from high school or college; even colleagues who socialized with them after work or during retreats when more personal stuff might have surfaced between the two of them.
3. Next, commission a legacy artist with a background in oral history to gently collect these stories from you, or directly from a list of contacts you compile. Trained in meaning-making, a good legacy artist will be able to create a storytelling photomontage about this individual’s essence – fashioned from memories, photos and personal belongings.
4. Take a look at Curtis’s Healing Dreamscape which is a life review composed of 9 images. Looking at it, you’d never know that the image of his youngest daughter who committed suicide was “collaged” into the picture. The beauty of this gift for Curtis’s 70th birthday was that for the first time since her death, Curtis could take in a picture of his entire family with both his daughters – in bathing suits – posing together on his favorite boat.