It is always difficult to hear about the death of a famous person you have admired or whose work has informed your life in some way.
It is always difficult to find out that a person has died by suicide.
Take the death of Keith Flint and, for me along with many others, you have combined those two things.
I was never a massive Prodigy fan, but all the same, as a teenager growing up in the 90’s their music informed my youth, perhaps in more ways than I was conscious of at the time. I found Charly both intriguing and confusing in those teen years when trying to bridge the gap between being a child and an adult. My brother had the Out of Space single on tape, and it often came thumping out of his bedroom and across the landing into mine. Voodoo People became the soundtrack to my – once infamous – 16th birthday party. Many memories framed with the raucous energy of Keith and his pals.
In the week or so following the announcement of his death, I was drawn to listen to Prodigy tracks and watch footage, as I’m sure many people were. I was blown away as I watched their famous performance at Phoenix ’96 on Youtube, the footage grainy and dated but the content as relevant now as it was then. It was over 20 years since I was first blown away as I watched it on a video, taped off the telly, in my family home. I recall hoping that my mum and dad wouldn’t come into the room and ask about the swearing, the noise and Maxim’s coloured contact lenses – I don’t think they would have ‘got’ the Prodigy.
There are a couple of things which strike me in the wake of Keith’s suicide.
Firstly, there is the manner in which his death was made public. It was reported that police were called to Keith’s home at around 8am on the morning he was found. By lunchtime that day, his death by suicide was all over social media. Four hours from his body being discovered to the news being public property. Whenever anyone famous dies by suicide it is easy to forget or bypass the fact that there is a family, friends and colleagues who are experiencing the loss in a way that the public are not. I cannot imagine having this degree of public interest alongside the overwhelming shock, disbelief and raw pain which is felt on hearing the words which tell you that a loved one has ended their own life. I am sensitive to the fact that it was Keith’s friend and bandmate who announced his death initially, and probably did so in a blur of confusion and bewilderment out of love for his friend, but I cannot help but feel uncomfortable with way the news came about. There just seemed no dignity, no sensitivity, no carefully worded and thought out statement to break the news. It seems that we are in an age when everything is so immediate – gratification, news, entertainment – with very little kept sacred or private. Can we not allow ourselves two seconds to breathe before the latest news is blurted out on Instagram or Twitter?
This may sound rich coming from me, who regularly blurts on social media, but I absolutely always consider who I might be affecting by what I write. I firmly believe that this is a responsibility which comes with writing or posting anything publically. My blog is not just my story, it is Ian’s story, it is my mum’s story, my dad’s story, my sister’s story, the story of all the people who loved Ian – family, friends and colleagues – and it is the story of other people who have been bereaved by suicide or who have felt suicidal, whether they knew Ian or not. What I say and the way I say it is always considered, read and re-read, edited and tweaked. And on March 4th, as a survivor of bereavement by suicide myself, I could not help feeling desperate for Keith’s family as the news of his death was pasted over the internet. Revealing details about the death of anyone in the public eye must be done in a way which respects those closest to them. It must acknowledge that the deceased person’s fame will necessarily mean that the mourning and grief of loved ones, colleagues and acquaintances will play out in a very different way to the mourning of the public.
The second thing which strikes me is something which I have felt following every other suicide of someone in the public eye since the issue became hyper-sensitive for me following Ian’s death. I felt it after the death of Robin Williams, of Kate Spade, of Gary Speed, and it is discomfort around the way the media has reported the news and some of the details given. It is enough for the public to know the someone has taken their life – the manner in which this happened is never going to be necessary information. Yes, as humans we have a natural morbid fascination for details but is there really any merit in us knowing the exact circumstances of any tragedy like this? It is quite possible to write about and report on a particular suicide, and on suicide in general, without being gratuitous and – most importantly – without triggering or traumatising anyone vulnerable or personally affected by these issues. Mind, Time to Change, the World Health Organisation and The Samaritans have all provided guidelines around reporting about mental health and suicide. These guidelines are very accessible on Google, and they are not rocket science. I had and have many, many difficult feelings about the way in which my brother ended his life, but I would never write about this publically. These feelings are for me to work through alongside my family, my friends, and various therapists, they are not a relevant part of anything that I wish to say about suicide in a public forum.
One final aspect which I have found difficult in the wake of Keith’s death has been the somewhat trite posts on social media about suicide awareness and depression. I saw a post which was a collage of photos of famous people who have died by suicide, smiling, with a caption which expressed astonishment about the fact that all these people who were suicidal were also smiling. Surely in society we now know that depression does not always look like tears and withdrawal and misery? You can smile and still be depressed; you can be depressed and still smile.
Likewise, I have seen social media posts which have suggested that we must all ‘check in’ on each other because we don’t know who might be struggling. Now, whilst I fully support the intention in keeping conversations open, in talking talking talking, and in trying to help and reach out to people who are struggling, the problem I have with this idea is that it places responsibility for potentially stopping a suicide with the person’s loved ones. I can speak from personal experience that this is a very, very uncomfortable notion to be left with as a bereaved person. I knew all about Ian’s difficulties, we spoke frequently – even on the day he died – and I did not stop him ending his life. It has taken me years to acknowledge and accept (and I still struggle with guilt and boundaries) that this was not my fault – the reason being that it was way out of my control. For someone who is genuinely suicidal, the issues are going to be far deeper and far more complex than requiring one conversation to solve. For me this simplifies the issue and I find that frustrating, even though I know it probably does so from a place of good intention. At Ian’s funeral I recall an old friend of his saying that he wished he had phoned him more, and making a comment along the lines of ‘you never know if one conversation might change things for someone’. I remember prickling immediately and thinking ‘does that mean you think that by phoning him you could have stopped him dying?’ In which case, by definition, this friend must have thought that the support I gave Ian was not good enough and he could have done better and changed the outcome. I do acknowledge that there are occasions when one conversation does change the path for someone intent on suicide – for example the well documented situation of Jonny Benjamin. I am not saying that we should avoid these conversations and that we should not try everything we can to help people struggling with suicidal thoughts, but what I am saying is that sometimes, however hard we try and whatever we do, suicide is not preventable. To argue anything other than this makes the issue one dimensional, and it is anything but.
I feel that this has been a somewhat ranty blog and I apologise for that and acknowledge that I come at Keith’s incredibly sad death from a sensitive and personal place – and I don’t mean to be critical. I suppose what I am trying to highlight is that discussions around mental health and suicide, and the way that these issues are reported, are important parts of understanding the incredibly intricate issues. We must begin to acknowledge this more readily – for the legacy of those who have died, for the sake of their loved ones and for the improvement of society’s response to mental illnesses which prove terminal.
Rest in peace Keith. I am so sad that your story ended this way. Thank you for all the memories.
Until next time,