By ROGER COHEN
The New York Times
October 8, 2007
History happens, but only just. The lives of individuals, as of nations, may hinge on a millimeter’s difference in the trajectory of a bullet, a road not taken on a whim or the random spray of shrapnel. But there is no undoing what is done.
Nothing, for example, can bring back the life of Carol Ann Gotbaum, 45, whose terrible end in a holding cell at the Phoenix airport was chronicled in a Times report by Eric Konigsberg. Depressive and fighting alcoholism, Carol missed a connection by minutes. She became hysterical and was subdued, handcuffed, shackled, abandoned and found dead with the shackle across her neck.
All this happened fast. We can hear her cry: “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a sick mother.”
We can see the heavy-handed police officers, their sense of mission redoubled by the alcohol on her breath, muscling Carol to the ground.
In their zeal — for American airports are now temples of zealotry — they would not have imagined her three young children, her distraught husband, much less the dislocated life that had put her en route, alone, to an Arizona addiction-treatment clinic.
As it happened, on another perfect New York morning redolent of the endless summer of 2001 (a time when sunlight mocked pain), I was particularly affected by Carol’s story; and here I am writing about her, rather than brave monks in Burma, because certain signals are too powerful to ignore.
In many particulars — her South African upbringing, her uprooted life, her acute postpartum depression after the birth of her last child, her hard-working and often absent husband, her radiant smile overlying pain and her powerlessness before her own self-destructive urges — Carol resembled my mother.
So having read about Carol, my head filled with her disoriented rage before punitive officialdom, I did something I rarely do. I went back and read my mother’s suicide note of July 25, 1978.
The note reads in part: “It’s as though I’ve turned to stone. I can’t relate, I can’t communicate and I can no longer bear the pain and gloom I cause to those I love most. I feel I’ll never completely throw off this mood and hopelessness and depression. I know I have everything to thank God for and be thankful for, which only makes my ordeal worse and worse.”
In conclusion, my mother asks if “my body — any part of it — can be used for research.” With that, she downed valium, antidepressant drugs and gin.
That was almost the end of the story, or the start of a different tale of anguish, but my father, a doctor, found her just in time. Her life hung in the balance and was salvaged. Other suicide notes would follow — one of June 15, 1982, says: “I’m just too tired to fight anymore” — but never again was the attempt so serious.
Technology leaps forward. Medicine advances. Lives grow longer. Diseases are vanquished. But the brain, and in particular the vagaries of mental illness, present mysteries as deep as the elusive enigma of life itself.
When Carol, raised in Cape Town, had her postpartum depression after the birth of her now 3-year-old son, she was a relative newcomer in New York. When my mother, raised in Johannesburg, had hers after the birth of my sister in 1957, she was new to London, with its chill postwar pall.
What happened to my mother in the 1950s — insulin shock therapy, electric shock treatment, hospitalization in harrowing wards; things about which she could never speak without a shudder — were of that time. Nobody would have treated Carol’s despair, or anybody’s, like that today.
But the riddle remains, etched in radiant mothers’ faces clutching laughing children, faces that seem to mock the very idea of panic, delusion and suicidal self-hatred, but contain them nonetheless.
You can look at Carol’s end in many ways: as an innocent’s devastating encounter with terror-obsessed police, as a ghastly but haphazard event, as a death foretold.
In the days of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorism in London, my mother was thrown into what amounted to a holding cell at Fortnum and Mason, the department store, after she left a bag unattended. Under questioning, she became hysterical, confused, unhinged — and was locked up. There was no shackle, however.
Thus do the affairs of the world intersect with individuals’ pain. The upshot then rests on a razor’s edge. Lives veer into a vortex.
Carol Ann Gotbaum and June Bernice Cohen are dead. Cancer took my mother in 1999; she viewed the illness as a trifle beside depression. Her favorite book, unsurprisingly, was “Anna Karenina.” Her favorite line was from “Othello”: “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”