Putting out his cigarette, he calmed walked to the edge of the rehab center, climbed over the six foot fence, and flagged down a taxi.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Airport,” an answer came.
The cab streamed through the night, a yellow bullet down a black highway toward LAX. Arriving at the terminal, the passenger pulled his head low to get out of the vehicle and walked into the airport.
He bought a one-way ticket to Seattle. It would be the last plane flight of his life.
Shuffling between the seats, the passenger spotted a familiar face — Duff McKagan, guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. He plopped down beside the colleague, apparently happy to see an acquaintance. The pair started chatting.
“All of my instincts told me something was wrong,” McKagan would say afterward.
Of course, hindsight bias is a funny thing. Did McKagan really know something was wrong? Could he really know what would happen? No one can say.
What we do know is this: Kurt Cobain said goodbye to his McKagan after they landed, grabbed another taxi, and sped off into the dark. A few days later, the Nirvana lead singer would be found dead, with a shotgun beneath his chin and blood leaking from his ear.
He was 27 years old.
The Tragic Artist: Epidemic or Outlier?
Though I’d heard Cobain’s story before, this round of research hit particularly hard as I’m now closer to 30 than 20.
He was 27. A kid.
Most recently, EDM producer Avicii tragic and early death only a few days ago. Avicii was born only 14 days before me.
What is happening here?
I dove down the Internet rabbit hole, greedy for more information. The sunrise spilled across my back yard and through my office window. As I devoured more information about Cobain, other names popped into my head:
- Amy Winehouse
- Jimi Hendrix
- Chris Farley
- Sylvia Plath
- Robin Williams
- Janis Joplin
- Wolfgang Mozart
- John Belushi
All these people were known for outstanding creativity. All of them died sooner than they should have. If they did not intentionally deliver the fatal blow themselves, than they certainly did so as a result of another form of abuse.
What is it that causes a case like this? Are there any common factors in what drives an artist to the level of self-loathing seen in so many famous stories? Is this truly a trend, or merely a case of our remembering tragedy? Can we tell why these events happen?
And if so, can we guess who might be next?
A quick note. On Twitter the other day, I said this:
Writing a big post about why creative people tend to be tortured/suicidal.
What thoughts do you have?
What questions do you want answered?
— Todd Brison (@ToddBrison) March 26, 2018
Which was answered pretty quickly with this:
I think it depends greatly on how you define creativity. And I think you’ll find this myth to not hold water if you think of creativity as creating something new. Because engineers do that all the time, and we don’t tend to think about them as suicidal. Does that make sense?
— Gal Podjarny (@galpod) March 26, 2018
Gal is right. As a matter of fact, I’d argue ALL professions need creativity. However, for the sake of this argument, it’s important to point out that we’re looking at professionals in the Arts, and NOT arts-based professionals. (see here for a definition of creativity vs. arts vs. The Arts)
Blood is Bait
Let’s start from the bottom – Why does it seem like artists always die early?
Humans are biologically hard wired to respond to tragedy. We can’t help it. So long as there are headlines which say “X Number of People Killed in _____,” we will look at them. We will read them. We will obsess over them.
Why does this happen?
I believe there are a few big reasons:
#1: We don’t want to die.
When terminal cancer patients are in the late stages of their disease, some go through a heartbreaking process called terminal agitation. This stage is crushing to both the patient and her caretakers. At this point in the deterioration, the victim knows he or she is dying, yet cannot prevent it. Many times, they’ll go through haunting symptoms such as moaning, restlessness, flailing of the arms and legs, loss of bladder control, and general anxiety.
This is often due to a psychological desperation to stay alive:
“Patients facing death may be distressed, and spiritual and emotional needs have to be addressed. This can be challenging if the patient is in the dying phase.”
For most of us, not dying is a primary goal in life. Since that’s the case, our animal brain is tuned in for ways to prevent the annoyance of death occurring too soon.
What better way to prevent death than by learn some of its causes? At least on a biological level, it makes sense that we gravitate toward stories of death. Most of us don’t want that to be our last headline.
#2: Scary stories are sticky
You heard the one about the razor blade in the apple, right?
Several years ago, a horrible story spread like wildfire — children had died or become severely injured because of razor blades, pins, or needles embedded in the candy they received at halloween. A simple bite could cause irreversible harm.
The big problem with that? It wasn’t true. Not even close.
So why is the rumor still spread today?
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, sought the answer to this exact question. Why do some pieces of information — like the idea of glass-filled fruit — seem to be glued in our brain, while others — like the details of high school history class — seem to disintegrate?
According to the Heath Brothers, there are 6 elements at play here:
What’s important to note here is that all of these elements don’t necessarily have to be in play here. Even if we don’t know how credible a story is, if it is concrete, simple, and emotionally charged, we will likely remember it.
(Maybe this is why celebrities die all the time on the Internet).
In the case of our creative people, it is difficult to forget phrases like “he was found with a shotgun pointed at his chin.” Or, in the case of Jimi Hendrix: “drowned in his own vomit.” These two descriptions leave little to the imagination.
The terror of these stories spreads like wildfire, leaving us with a laundry list of legends gone too soon.
#3: Hedwig Van Restorff
Other than sharing a name with a famous owl, Van Restorff has another reason to be remembered by artists.
The PhD-holder has a cognitive bias named after her which is also referred to as the “Isolation Effect.”
Essentially, the Isolation Effect says that we will remember one different item in a list IF it is presented next to many items which look, feel, or are the same.
You can guess what that means, right? It means we remember Kurt Cobain, but are less likely to recall Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, or Stone Temple Pilots. This is true even though the latter are of the same genre.
Quite simply — fireworks draw more attention than a long, enduring flame, despite their being made of the same element. Are creatives really more emotionally volatile? Or do we just remember the bright lights?
Death as a Marketing Strategy
Without giving you a source, a name, or a year, it’s likely you would remember this picture.
If not, one or two details would begin to stir as I reminded you about a certain parade in Texas, a funeral held in 1963, and a captive world watching the march of a dead president.
At the time of his assassination, John F. Kennedy did not exactly hold world-wide approval. He was hated by members of his own party. He was called “naive” and “dreadful” by many other members of Congress. His declaration to reach the moon served as cannon fodder for his opponents, who called it “a science fiction stunt.”
In 2013, JFK ranked at the very top of the polls for presidential approval rating at 90%. NINETY PERCENT. You probably couldn’t get 90% of Americans to agree on the color of the sky these days.
I feel quite comfortable in saying there is no chance Kennedy is anywhere near the top of that list without the brutal assassination, unforgettable funeral, or inescapable controversy surrounding his death.
For those in a creative profession, early death seems to be the ultimate play for immortality. It is the perfect punctuation for a life filled with turmoil and beauty and brilliance and pain.
Can you imagine Chris Farley, old and grey, waving at a camera during the Emmys broadcast? Or Amy Winehouse calmly strutting to center stage to announce the winner of Album of the Year in 2025?
The more relevant question — Would you remember them if they did?
But why does it happen?
There’s a simple explanation for why we might feel creative people are more in danger for early death or emotional trauma.
Maybe they are.
In 2017 a study revealed for the first time that people who do arts-related jobs are not one, not three, but four times more likely to commit suicide. Female artists specifically are in the most danger. According to the study and (of course) the coloring of my own opinion, here are a few reasons that might be the case:
A) Crazy Hours
I remember once hearing an interview from Mac Powell, the lead singer of a christian band called Third Day. When asked how his first child affected his sleep, he said this:
“The three-o-clock feeding is not a big deal.
It’s the 7 A.M. feeding which is killing me.”
Of all artists, musicians probably have the least control over their own schedule. A painter paints when she feels. A writer breaks into prose whenever he wants. Musicians must operate at peak performance daily for months at a time, often between the hours of 7 P.M. and 1 A.M.
This is almost the biological opposite of what most require.
B) Sex and Drugs etc.
“I’m well aware of certain things that will destroy a man like me
But with that said give me one more”
— Ed Sheeran, Eraser
It is simple for me to sit here at my comfortable desk and promise I will never do cocaine or ecstacy. But it is not thrown in my face on a regular basis.
My psychology teacher once told me of his high school friends. They all wore long hair, all smoked, all wore black, all made trouble in school, and all spent late nights listening to loud music.
Do you know what they called themselves? “Nonconformists.” Years later, he reveled in the irony:
“We all refused to conform… together.”
Creative people are not immune to the primal desire to fit in with a tribe. Their norms are simply different. Given the regularity of which artists would be exposed to substance due to their community, it’s honestly surprising more of them don’t have a habit.
C) Why don’t you understand?
Imagine if, one day, you woke up and nobody could understand you. They swear up and down you are not speaking the language you once did. Try as you might, communication can never be reached.
It’s difficult to see what nobody else sees,
to say what nobody else sees,
to feel what nobody else feels.
Couple that with the bizarre feeling of being professionally and perennially on display for the world to see, and isolation becomes inevitable.
D) Delayed Development
From Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud to Ghandi, Harvard Psychologist Howard Garnder pointed out an interesting phenomenon. He noticed in his research that almost all who do groundbreaking work tended to be emotionally and mentally stuck in their childhood to a point.
Einstein himself called his own intellectual development “retarded,” which is why he never could quite grasp the assumptions (such as, say, the very fabric of space and time) many of us smart people understand to be true.
It is this intimate connection with childhood which might be the reason for intense tantrums, as well as broken connection with “grown ups.”
E) Fantasy (un)Fulfillment
Here’s a hypothetical question:
If you don’t have to worry about money…
if you receive all the fame you could ever dream of…
if you never have to want for a romantic partner ever again…
if you could satiate any desire with a vocal request at any moment…
What would you live for? What would you chase?
Perhaps one reason those who fulfill their biggest dreams also go through the most pain is because they were never able to answer one of life’s most daunting questions:
F) Relationship Disasters
Kurt Cobain’s Wikipedia entry about his relationship with Courtney Love is like reading a fiction novel.
Sylvia Plath’s husband was the classic misogynist, whisking her off to Ireland at one turn and dumping her mid-trip for his mistress.
Amy Winehouse and an on-again-off-again boyfriend often came to violence, being seen in streets bloody and bruised by paparazzi.
Whatever the cause, the inner turmoil in the most at-risk artists is almost always fueled by dysfunctional and often dangerous relationships. These relationships don’t necessarily come from the creative himself, but from another, equally unstable force.
G) Pressure from the machine
Just as a guess, how many people do you think make a living simply because Taylor Swift exists? Never mind the songwriters, how about the lighting for the stage? The sound system for the tour? The guy who drives the bus. The twelve other people who drive the rest of the equipment. What about the brand managers? The backup singers? The dancers?
Make no mistake – once a creative person bursts onto the scene, money is at stake. A once revered and loved passion becomes an obligation tied to the livelihood of real, breathing people. Or on too many occasions, the terribly greedy label executive.
My heart nearly burst into pieces when I read about Avicii’s death. He actually predicted he would die sooner rather than later, saying:
“Everyone knows that I have anxiety and that I have tried. I did not expect that people would try to pressure me into doing more gigs.”
H) None of the Above
What? Are we supposed artistic work just makes a person suicidal?
Maybe it’s just that emotionally charged people are more likely to enter into professions which require them to wrestle with their issues actively and publicly. This is opposed to the majority, who shove their issues in desk drawer at a cubicle for 35 years and succumbing to a quiet, but grey, existence.
Who Is Next?
Can I be truthful? I started writing this post with a list of potential names in my head — Ed Sheeran, Bo Burnham, Adele, etc. — but have come out on the other side with an entirely different perspective. Sorry to tease you.
Here’s what I believe now:
The creative most in danger is the one you will never know.
Can you imagine coming of age today? You want to cover a song on guitar and discover there are 103 people who have already done it on YouTube. You post a picture of Downtown Pittsburgh which is entirely new and unique to you, only to discover countless identical shots on the location tag.
Big-fish-small-pond syndrome now only exists to those who willingly close their eyes. We are all insignificant fish in an impossibly large ocean.
It is not a surprise some use self-violence as validation.
To the girl who feels lost, useless, hopeless. To the boy who feels like his very existence is a redundant to the human race:
Please protect yourself. Protect your mind. Protect your soul. Protect your heart. Protect your craft. Keep making your stuff.
We have a lot of art, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of voices, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of dreams, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of opinions, but we still need yours.
We have a lot of lives, but we still need yours.
Please don’t go.
In my more arrogant days I put my own contact information at the bottom of posts like these, but soon found myself impotent and terrified when some confessed their personal desire to commit suicide.
Instead, here is the suicide hotline number: 1–800–273–8255
Here are some stories of suicide survivors: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-yourself/attempt-survivors/
Here is another way I think I can help: I love you. You are amazing.
When I asked for feedback on this topic, I had a number of good responses on Twitter. Some of them were question which turned into sections of this post.
Others were too poignant to water down with my own language, so I’ve included them here:
We’re easily susceptible to flow states, but most of us don’t understand it. We’re connected to everything and then left disconnected and exhausted with very few systems in place for us to become steady again.
— Cassi Frasure (@MadVisionKitty) March 26, 2018
Thought: We become so wrapped up in/enamored with the ideas and dreams in our head that we cannot deal with reality.
— JR Ramsey (@JR_Ramsey) April 1, 2018
Thought: We become so wrapped up in/enamored with the ideas and dreams in our head that we cannot deal with reality.
— JR Ramsey (@JR_Ramsey) April 1, 2018