The year my death thing kicked in was not a good year. That was the year my English teacher threatened to kick me out of his class because of the bad things I said and wrote about him. That was the year too the coach asked me if I wanted to quit the basketball team because my attitude wasn’t right, he said. I didn’t know anything was wrong with my attitude, and I didn’t know either that I stopped talking for most of that year until years later when one of the parents said something about it and said they were worried.
Now I wonder if that wasn’t the time my depression started to kick in too. My death thing, as I said, was not some random cognition but an actual sensation of some sort. I have read that the biochemistry of the adolescent brain is still in flux and I know that quite a number of types of mental illness kick in for males in their late teens and early twenties. Prime time for schizophrenia. So that sensation might have been some sort of biochemical shift, or blip, or glitch in the old brain. What the connection between this blip or glitch was and the “death thing” I couldn’t say. I doubt there’s any connection between a biochemical shift and an awareness of death.
I don’t recollect having thought of myself as depressed at the time. But I didn’t have a word for that either. People didn’t talk about depression much. I guess I would say I felt lousy and the old lady would see me moping around and ask what was wrong, and I would say, Everything or Nothing. That’s what it felt like too: everything or nothing.
I suppose I was lucky to have found Dostoevsky at that time. All of his books are about death, dying, suicide, the threat of suicide, people that die, or should be dead because they are such goddamn crappy people. Raskolnikov kills an old lady for no clear reason and goes around the rest of the book thinking about suicide. Suicide or insanity—those seem to be his choices. I do know that reading Crime and Punishment the first time made me feel as if I had been saved. Not exactly that, I guess, but at least somewhere, some time, people had been who might have had an inkling of what was going on inside of me at the time in 1962.
And through Crime and Punishment I came upon the diverse existentialists who opened up a whole new world of death and misery that made me feel at home. OK. It was a bit of a stretch. Most of these people lived over in Europe and didn’t speak English. I had to go abroad to feel at home, still that was better than nothing. How could I not feel that “shock of recognition,” as I think Edmund Wilson called it, when I opened up The Rebel and found Camas saying the first and the most basic question for the philosopher was, “Should I kill myself?”