Singer and activist Judy Collins knows all too well what mental illness and suicide can do to the family and friends left behind. Collins is a charming, quick-witted and intellectual woman who, since the loss of her only son to suicide, has become a passionate advocate of suicide prevention and survivor healing. Collins was keynote speaker at the May 25 annual meeting of People Incorporated, a Twin Cities non-profit serving people with mental illness.
Throughout her life, Collins has had firsthand experience with suicide. The most devastating was in 1992 when her son Clark Taylor, on his third attempt, committed suicide at his home in St. Paul. The husband and father was 33.
Collins first became aware of suicide at age 10 when her father told her about a neighbor who killed himself. She eventually married this man’s son. He is Clark Taylor’s father.
At 14, her own suicide attempt became a major turning point in her life. Collins gave up concert piano, took up the guitar and soon spiraled into a 23-year alcohol addiction. As a 17-year-old working in a local resort, Collins had to become involved when a female patron committed suicide. Collins had to help the woman’s husband carry the body from an upstairs room to the resort lobby.
“I’ve thought about it since then and I wonder if it was suicide… I never saw the note, he [the woman’s husband] had it all cleaned up and was wandering around in the rain,” she said. To hide the cause of death is often an immediate survivor response due to the stigma and taboo of suicide.
“And that’s why suicide and murder are so linked, they are so much a part of the same rage game,” she said.
Along with hundreds of songs and poems, Collins has written seven books. Her keynote topic was from her most recent memoir, Sanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength, which interweaves her journal entries about her son’s death with her life journey. Her first memoir, Trust Your Heart, centers on her own struggles with mental illness.
“It tells a lot about my own mental health issues, my attempted suicide, alcoholism,” she said. “All the things we did in the sixties that we thought were political but actually they were just the result of mental illness!”
As writers she and I talked about terms and language surrounding suicide, how it perpetuates the stigma and how the phrasing we use can have negative connotations.
“Absolutely! I haven’t addressed it very much but I think it’s a very important aspect of the negativity we surround our lives with, and also the drama,” she said. “I’m very interested in the solution to things. I’m not interested in the drama anymore.
“That’s why when Clark killed himself, I never read Alvarez’s book, The Savage God, which is basically about Sylvia Plath,” she said. “It doesn’t talk about the solution, just about the drama. And that’s not enough for me. I can read a thriller and get drama. I want to read about solutions.”
Next week: Collins discusses her son’s suicide.