The Abyss Claims Another Lawyer
I am deflated suddenly, staring out the window wondering about the point of it all. News is just now breaking that another lawyer has committed suicide. The body of Meriden’s John Ivers, 50, reported missing this past weekend, has been recovered. A self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the police say.
Did it have to come to this?
The scoffers out there will mutter it’s no loss, another lawyer dead. You know the jokes: “What do you call a dozen lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”
Ready for the answer?
“A good start.”
We’re hated until we’re needed, and then we’re the last best hope of desperate people.
There’s something toxic about a steady diet of despair and rage. Lawyers talk about it all the time; this has been a summer of long facesthe courthouses have a funereal feel to them.
When a lawyer takes his own life, it no longer surprises.
But the shadows cast by deaths such as these darken all they touch. Wresting with these shadows is dreary, even dreadful.
Why this death? When did the ordinary consolations of life no longer sustain? When did this man decide that he was no more than the sum of his sorrows?
Something like survivor’s guilt takes root. The man to my left in the law’s trenches is gone. Nothing but memories remain now, and the searing sense of loss, even anger, over what remains — the commitments unmet, the unyielding pain of loved ones, and, perhaps deepest of all, a sense of renewed vulnerability.
Before I knew that Ivers was dead, I sat outside a courtroom in Hartford discussing the practice of law with a younger colleague. He asked me about the year to come — a lawyer’s year begins after Labor Day, when the courts’ new term begins. What trials did I have coming? As luck would have it, my year will be devoted mostly to death: a couple of shootings in alleged drug deals gone bad, a dead infant, a mother run off the road by the driver of another car, a dismembered body. Bridgeport, Hartford, Middletown, Stamford — I’ll travel the state a troubadour of death this year.
Homicide cases are dark fascinations. The stakes are high, the sense of drama keen. They bring out the best in advocates, paradoxical as that sounds. But sometimes the darkness seeps in.
I told my colleague that what worried me was the expectations of my clients. So much riding on each case: fear, anger, grief the daily grind. I wonder, sometimes, whether I want to keep at it.
He scoffed. “You love it,” he said.
I wonder, I replied.
Did you hear about John Ivers? I asked. He’s turned up missing. His car was spotted near a park.
“Let’s hope he’s living on a tropical island,” the other lawyer said.
I looked at him, puzzled.
“C’mon,” he said, “don’t you think about walking away from it all and taking off? We all do,” he said.
It’s true, I suppose. I just returned to the office after a long vacation. Candidly, I sometimes wonder whether vacation is worth the turmoil. Before returning to the office I slide into a funk for days, daydreaming about living in a small cabin in the north woods somewhere, beholden to no one.
Then this news of Ivers’ death, a man I would nod to in a courtroom, sit next to as we waited for our cases to be called. He was not a friend, but he was a colleague, shouldering the same wheel of sorrows.
His death chastens.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster ... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you,” Friedrich Nietszche warned more than a century ago in a book titled “Beyond Good and Evil.”
The abyss just swallowed John Ivers. What did he see?
What lead him to turn this dark and final corner?
Sure, we all have troubles, and suicide casts its pall over lawyer and non-lawyer alike. One in four Americans will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. There’s nothing special about the death of a lawyer.
I get all that. I really do.
Lawyers, doctors and others in the helping professions sometimes develop a false sense of immunity from life’s difficulties. Shepherding others through the valley of the shadow of death yields an illusory sense of power, as though we can outrun the demons haunting our own lives.
“Wrong,” Iver’s death screams.
Another friend and I talked about Ivers the afternoon his body was found. This friend is also a lawyer. He’s actually a dead man walking, and he knows it.
Years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four intestinal cancer and was told he wouldn’t live much longer. He fought back. Improbably, and without real explanation, his cancer disappeared. He’s lived beyond his sell-by date, and he knows.
“We’re a small bar here in Meriden,” he told me. “We’re hurting. This is bad,” he said, his sorrow dripping off him like a tear.
I didn’t know what to say in response. I mumbled something lame about only the good dying young.
“I gotta go. Clients are waiting for me,” he said, and he left to attend to the business of living.
I hadn’t intended to write about this death. I was filled with outrage about any number of things, and, as is my wont, was looking forward to picking another fight, tilting at another windmill.
Instead, I spent the late afternoon staring out the window, wondering how fast and how long a lawyer must run to stay one step ahead of the monster that swallowed John Ivers.
Nietzsche was right about the abyss. It is seductive. I wish John had not succumbed