The Cult of Personal Responsibility Is Killing Us

I've been a little less productive than usual – missed deadlines, delayed email responses, it's unlike me. It's not just parenting small children in a pandemic (although it's definitely partly that) or anxiety borne of being very knowledgeable about climate change as it begins to have a very noticeable impact all over the world (definitely that too), it's also personal tragedy, which has combined with all of the above to further fuel an obsession with what I see as the root of every problem in America: the fetishization of individualism, a particular form of individualism that is too extreme to allow for a functional society. I've been reading more books and doing more interviews in my quest to trace the origins of that particular sickness, but today, an essay on how the American obsession with individual success plays out.


The Cult of Personal Responsibility Is Killing Us

Working backwards from the absence of a note, you dig into the signs—had he seemed depressed, checked out? He'd been to the doctor recently, had he gotten bad news? Was this a delayed response to past trauma? Were there signs of dementia? Any clues in his email inbox? Perhaps a secret note saved under some obscure document name on his desktop?

The last place I looked for my dad's suicide note was in his car. It took me a week to get to it because it was parked in the garage, right under the beam from which he'd hung himself with what my mother described as "a very intricate setup with ropes and a pulley that he had to have been engineering for weeks." I found an envelope that I thought might contain a note, and pocketed the $200 cash I found there instead. I don't even remember what I spent my inheritance on, probably gasoline and cardigans.

It was about a week after the first known case of coronavirus had hit the U.S., but we didn't know that yet. Politicians were playing the stock market, but headlines were quiet. In a few months we'd be quarantined and the entire state of California would be on fire, but for now I was just sleepwalking through personal tragedy.

I made my mom coffee every morning. I got used to the flavored creamer she uses. A couple of times we went out to eat with my brother. It felt like being really high and still trying to seem completely functional.

"How are you this evening?"
"Oh we're great, thank you, how are YOU?"
"Also great, thanks! Can I start you off with anything from the bar?"

I don't usually drink at family dinners because my dad and my brother are both in AA. My brother is fine with other people drinking, but my dad always sort of acted like you might have a problem if you felt like you needed a glass of wine. Since my father had hung himself, I ordered wine with this dinner. (fucked up but)

I slept surprisingly soundly that week in my dad's childhood room (he and my mom had moved into the house he grew up in when my grandmother died about 20 years ago). The closet held something like 200 Hawaiian shirts. When he'd quit his job in the 70s and decided to strike out on his own, my dad had decided he would never wear a tie to work again. Hawaiian shirts became his thing for the rest of his life.

By about the fourth day after I got there, mom had shifted into cleanup mode. Going through things, parceling out his stuff. I took his 50-year-old sweater from Mexico, the one he always said he wanted to be buried in—just the sweater and nothing else. Maybe I'll make that my dream.

I handled wrapping up his work stuff. He'd just sold his business, and the new owner needed some files, a few checks, but mostly he wanted answers, which I wasn't at liberty to give. I thought we'd just have a hand-off of papers, but he wanted to sit down, visit. He took me to the McDonald's that apparently he and my dad used to go to. He bought me an egg McMuffin and told me my dad was worried about my husband's income. I thought this was a weird thing to tell someone you just met. He wanted to know when the funeral would be. I didn't know.

I felt weird leaving a week later, but I had just launched a new climate reporting project, and still had to take calls and even a work trip. I felt like canceling, everyone said I should, but I needed two more interviews, so I went. I canceled everything but the necessities, and wandered about New York, lost and miserable. I saw people, made small talk and even real talk, I looked fine and seemed fine, but I wasn't there. I was in my head, remembering every five minutes or so what had happened, like that condition where people have constant mini strokes. I drank coffee, I cracked jokes, but the only moment I inhabited my body was at this weird grilled cheese shop that probably seemed like a really clever idea in 2010. I managed a "hey, how's it going?" to the cashier, whose arm was in a sling. "Enh, it's a grind," he said.

Tell me about it.

***

The questions other people asked were annoying. How old was he? Did he have a history of depression? And then, when I explained this was his third attempt, "Ohhh, soooo." As though somehow that makes it less of a shock, like suicide and cancer are basically the same thing. Which is why I never know whether I should tell people or not. If I just say he died, they go "Oh that's so hard. I remember when MY dad died, blah blah blah." And I just want to yell, "THIS ISN'T LIKE THAT. AT ALL!" Which is of course not fair. But if I tell them the whole story, I get the "had he tried this before?" or "did you know he was suicidal?" followed quickly by a sort of, "well you should have expected it" reaction. And then I just want to punch them in the face and walk away.

My dad could probably count on one hand the number of times he'd been to therapy. At a certain point he claimed to have a drinking problem and joined AA—I'd seen him drunk twice in my entire life, and remain 90 percent sure to this day that he exaggerated the whole thing and gave up booze because "the program" offered a sort of masculine group therapy that he could tolerate. I hope my father got some help there but it would have been nice if he could have seen an actual therapist because he needed one.

The second time my dad tried to off himself was before I had kids, more than a decade ago. That time, he took a rusty blade to his throat. When we checked him out of the hospital they gave us 2 weeks worth of antidepressants and said we'd better get lined up with a psychiatrist, stat. "Okay, can you recommend anyone?" I asked. The nurse just blinked. "You'll need to call his insurance and see who they cover," she said. I spent the next two days hunting down a psychiatrist and a therapist for him, and wondering what the hell had happened to the other guy who was discharged at the same time and had taken his brown paper bag of belongings to the bus bench, no one there to pick him up, no one to make 100 calls to therapists.

Three days later we had to go to my great uncle's funeral. For the first time in my life, I saw my dad out of a Hawaiian shirt. He had to wear a turtleneck to cover the wound.

But in the aftermath of that incident, he was taking his meds and seeing a therapist, and it was working. A couple years later he became a grandpa, and he loved it. My kids called him Papa and he referred to himself as Papacito, both words that showed up on a growing collection of novelty mugs, hats, and t-shirts in his closet. For a really long time, everything seemed okay.

***

Back in 2020, on my way to D.C. from New York, I hopped the wrong train, wound up in New Haven and sat on a bench in the station there half giggling half crying on the phone to my mom about it. But I eventually caught the right train, got to my hotel, and got about 7 hours of sleep before I had to be up to do an interview.

A British news channel had asked to interview me about BP's claim that it would be "net zero" by 2050. The English anchor kept trying to turn everything I said into a cute joke. "On the one hand, oil companies *should* be investing in carbon capture technology, but they often overstate its potential, and their investment in it, which is greenwashing," I said. "So sort of a little bit nice, but a little bit naughty, eh?" he said. What the fuck? It had taken all I had to get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and set my laptop up correctly for this interview. All I could do now was stare at him in confusion.

When that was over, I gazed mindlessly at Twitter, a thing I somehow found soothing in grief, and saw various people arguing about flying and climate change.  It reminded me of the people who'd wondered why I couldn't stop my depressed dad from committing suicide. Or the people who ask questions like, "can't you just hire a nanny?" when I talk about what is shaping up to be a decades-long struggle to figure out consistent childcare. Maybe these things sound completely unrelated—climate change, mental health care, childcare—but to me they are all layers to the same uniquely American issue: the idea that each of us can and should solve systemic problems on our own.

***

Three weeks after my dad died, coronavirus hit the U.S. for real, and quarantine began. A couple weeks after that, my husband had all of his work canceled for the rest of the year and the funding for the project I'd been working on unraveled. Then schools closed and digital homeschool began.

All the individual "solutions" I'd come up with were obliterated by systemic forces beyond my control. Because of course they were—what am I, one middle-aged mom, in the face of so many crises and failing systems? It was devastating, but it did feel good for a minute to finally, permanently accept defeat.

For a few months in those early days of the pandemic I thought maybe this would be the thing that would jolt America out of its obsession with personal responsibility. And then pretty soon everyone was making up their own guidelines to a global pandemic, so apparently not.

Which got me thinking about my poor dad, banging his head against this wall his whole life, always thinking that if he could just run more or eat healthier or maybe read the Bible more, that would sort his head out. That if he just worked a few more years, maybe til he was 80, he could retire without having to worry. He had bought into the American dream so hard, the idea that if you just worked hard enough and you were talented, things would work out for you. And if they didn't, well you probably hadn't worked hard enough or maybe you just weren't that smart or talented.

The idea that he should be able to solve everything on his own was so ingrained in him that when he couldn't—because none of us can—he thought it must be a personal failing. He never got to that moment of acceptance that I did, with everything crashing in around me. He missed the pandemic altogether, but an even deadlier and more implacable virus got him, one America still hasn’t begun to reckon with.