In her recent book Resurrection: A True Story of Power and Forgiveness Patricia Mc Dermott writes a deeply personal account of the death of her younger brother, Matthew, to suicide. What the author has done is provide a valuable insight into the factors that undermine the resolve of young men. It is a book about suicide risk, exploring the pressures that come to bear on young men of character and compassion. Matthew was all of the above. The book also explores the depths of suicide grief and the emotional roller coaster that awaits those who have lost someone they love to suicide.
Matthew moved to Temora, a small country in New South Wales, to take up a casual position in the English and History department of the local high school. Six months later Matthew was dead. He was 28 years old.
As with all suicides it is important to ask “Why?” As our knowledge and understanding grows we are better placed to develop more effective suicide prevention strategies.
Thomas Joiner writes, “If suicide behaviour is part of a process that can be understood and tracked, there is hope of intervening.”
Researchers are agreed that loss of hope is fundamental in reducing a person’s commitment to life and increasing the risk of suicide. Author Dutch Sheets says, “Hopelessness, if not checked, is a death sentence.”
Researchers also remind us that there are multiple factors involved in eroding a person’s faith in the future to the extent they end their life. Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event. Although one event may appear to have triggered the suicide, it is unlikely to be explained by this alone.
Reading about Matthew’s life I have identified a number of significant losses, all potent forces capable of dismantling hope. What follows is a summary of those losses, drawing from the text all the relevant background information and merging it with my thoughts.
(1) Loss of a positive role model
McDermott reminds us that “The family is very important as the starting point for the construction of male identity.” It would be easy to digress at this point and talk about the societal pressures that are intent on redefining manhood but I won’t. Matthew’s grandparents were alcoholics. His father drank, smoked, and gambled. When he was sober he was basically uncommunicative. His parent’s rarely displayed any affection towards each other. Matthew’s father died in 1988.
(2) Loss of family
Matthew’s sister Patsy was 15 years his senior. When she eventually left home to become a Catholic nun Matthew was then alone at home with Mum and Dad. He missed her a great deal and any regular contact wasn’t possible. It fell to him to keep a lid on what was a troubled, volatile relationship between his parents. Matthew later confessed to his sister that he kept a baseball bat under his bed to protect his mother from his angry, abusive father.
(3) Loss of vocation
Matthew entered St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly in 1992 having completed an Arts degree at Wollongong University followed by a Masters several years later.
It was while studying for the priesthood that Matthew developed a love of rugby union. It was also during this time that Matthew expressed his sadness and incredulity that the seminary would offer refuge to a paedophile. Matthew had zero tolerance for sexual abuse. Matthew completed a Bachelor of Theology in 1995 but left the seminary as he had fallen in love with Deslea.
(4) Loss of relationship
Deslea was also studying theology. Matthew asked her to marry him but she said no. Matthew was distraught because he felt he had given up his vocation to marry her. It is difficult to know but he may have also shared the bitterness felt by his mother about these events. We do know he was devastated. Matthew lived by the family ethos – determination, hard work and stoicism but it was costly, especially when you’re harbouring a broken heart.
(5) Loss of career
Matthew moved to the country in 1996 and started work at the Temora High School. Matthew was a gregarious person with a huge laugh and a big heart. He was a tactile person, a bloke who, unlike many his age, showed affection by touch. He became an acolyte at the local Catholic Church. Matthew was also appointed coach of the first XV rugby team. He was a hit with the senior students at the school and invited them to his home to play board games and watch videos.
A group of junior girls targeted him. They would snigger when he approached and make disrespectful remarks. Matthew’s response was to hand out detentions but this seemed to harden their resolve. Following a game of touch rugby in which Matthew played, simply to make up the numbers, a complaint of sexual assault was submitted suggesting inappropriate touching. Matthew was suspended on full pay without any explanation as to why.
(6) Loss of reputation
Matthew was heard to say on a number of occasions that it didn’t matter whether he beat the allegations, the mud would stick. The incident attracted the attention of the Department of Community Services and the Department of School Education. It must have seemed to him that the very depths of his soul were exposed to the world and he had no way of protecting himself.
The Temora girls could not have known just how potent sexual allegations could be in Matthew’s case, yet they struck him at his weakest point. Matthew was suffering from mental agony caused by the injustice of the situation, the sheer unreasonableness of it all. He was caught up in mental turmoil which threatened all the values he held and threw them in doubt. Matthew wrote a note in which he said, “My reputation is in ruins……I’m not a pervert but in this era where allegations of this kind are made you are guilty till proven guilty.”
(7) Loss of connection
Some of Matthew’s closest friends stood by him and endeavoured to help him work through the many challenges he faced. However, the two prominent communities, the school community and the church community, were found wanting. So often the focus is on following procedures and looking to your own interests rather than addressing the hurt and shame experienced by the so-called accused. It has become too easy for businesses and organisations to distance themselves from their vulnerable members, to separate themselves from the ‘tainted’ for fear that may be tainted also.
When Matthew was suspended, he received minimal counselling. He was given several telephone numbers that would link him to support services. The coroner was scathing in his criticism and stated Matthew was denied natural justice, and was provided no practical and professional help. When Matthew called the welfare officer at the NSW Teachers’ Federation he was told that he could receive no assistance as he wasn’t a financial member.
Matthew resigned from his position as an acolyte at the church which was accepted without any discussion as to whether this was really necessary or in his best interest. The church was fearful of being embroiled in yet another sexual abuse scandal and this took precedence over Matthew’s need of love, acceptance and feeling needed.
(8) Loss of transparency
Matthew’s distress was evident to his closest friends. They could clearly see that he was dismayed by his suspension and by the accusations. He protested his innocence and wrote a written response to the allegations. He spoke to his mother on the telephone a number of times. He explained that it was like being on a roller coaster. He also revealed that he hadn’t been sleeping well. There was an outward calmness and yet Matthew was inwardly disintegrating. Matthew was being selective in what he was sharing. He was being catapulted toward a tragic end and no one knew.
(9) Loss of identity
Matthew saw himself as a failure. He was consumed with self loathing. He raked over his life pinpointing his mistakes. Life had lost its appeal. He was tired of the knocks. He was incapable of hearing that he was loved, valued, and unique. Where could he turn? Wherever he looked the way forward was blocked. His choices were evaporating before his eyes. How could he return to teaching? How could he return to the church? What had life to offer?
(10) Loss of life
Matthew took his dog Rayner for their last walk together. They walked around behind the teachers’ flats and up the rough lane for a couple of hundred metres. Matthew took a vividly striped silk tie and a piece of string. He stopped below a sycamore tree and looked at the overhanging branch. Matthew was eventually found lying face down in the light scrub. Rayner had been keeping vigil over his body for 80 hours.
McDermott writes, “Suicide is often seen as a rational conscious act, but many people who die by suicide are victims themselves. They are frequently powerless to halt the drive toward annihilation and self-destruction.
All of Matthew’s life choices concertinaed down to a brief moment and he wanted to stop the pain. He had lost hope in finding an alternative. He had decided there was no other answer to his struggles. As each option dropped away, ending life was the only remaining solution.
But this is all speculation.”