He is rended, he rends himself, he dances,
he whirls so hard everything he is falls off.
– Jim Harrison
Suicide is what the death certificate says when one dies of depression. – Peter Kramer
Robert Glenn Bennett phoned his wife, Judy Burkett, one day after walking out. He told her he was confused and had to get away. The date was July 14, 2007.
Leaving was an impulsive act but well within his nature. “He lived very much in the moment,” Burkett said. Clara Welch, a friend who struggled with depression most of her life, warned him of his impulsiveness, especially when dealing with the illness. “When casting out demons,” she said, “don't cast out the better part of yourself.”
But those demons are resilient.
Those afflicted with clinical depression have described it as a sensation of drowning, falling down a mineshaft or being buried in a dark tunnel. An utter absence of light or hope is universal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than two million Americans suffer from manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. Twenty percent of those die at their own hands. Many others consider it.
Winston Churchill called it “the Black Dog,” and confessed to keeping safe distances from the edges of train platforms and ship rails. Franz Kafka was so miserable that he found joy in imagining a knife twisting through his heart. “The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Abraham Lincoln described himself as the “most miserable man living. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.” It was familiar terrain for Bennett.
Anyone familiar with depression will tell you that being alone leaves them defenseless against their demons. Bennett would be alone for the rest of his life, and his demons were gathering.
A week went by without another word. When he called Burkett it was to say his van broke down in Valentine, Neb., a town of 3,000 straddling the Nebraska-South Dakota line. The transmission failed and the vehicle could only maintain a speed of 25 miles per hour. He asked if she was angry with him. She told him she couldn’t wait for him to come home.
For more than a week he called her every day. He holed up behind a hotel in Valentine and tried to sell photographs through a local art dealer. Then, in desperation, he started limping home.
On the way, a sympathetic rancher gave him $65 and two meals for loading hay.
By July 29, he reached Washington County. His emotional state was volatile, a pendulum of ecstatic highs and devastating lows. When he wasn’t driving, he e-mailed Burkett nearly continuously. “My goal is to get home as fast as possible,” he wrote. “You are the only person who has ever loved me and I’m going to focus on our life together.”
Two days later his mood darkened. “I’m sorry I failed you so badly,” he wrote. “I’m stranded and I don’t see a way out.”
Bennett’s presence in Washington County didn’t go unnoticed. After seeing a van driving on the shoulder of U.S. 36, Deputy Corey Riggs pulled it over. Riggs noted expired tags and gave Bennett a warning. He suggested seeking help at the Pony Express Truck Stop between Washington and Marysville.
In vain Bennett searched for a pay phone. The truck stop didn’t have one but he heard that Wal-Mart in Marysville did. “I will risk arrest if I try to get there,” he wrote. “I have no idea what to do. I’ve been crying for days.”
On the evening of July 31, Bennett’s e-mails to Burkett were rapidfire. “No more spiritual journeys,” he wrote. “I think I screwed up bad this time. I’m afraid I will die here.”
He discussed calling AAA, having his van towed to Wal-Mart, finding a job when he returned to Alabama, renting a Ryder truck. The mundane planning seemed to calm him.
“This trip taught me that you are the only person I will ever love,” he wrote. “My spiritual journey is over. I will no longer be looking for a community. You are all the community I need.”
Three minutes later he wrote, “I got where I need to be! This trip was awful, but I finally defeated my demons!”
Almost at once the demons regrouped. “I am too depressed to think,” he wrote. Burkett agreed to call his parents to see if they could help.
The next morning, Aug. 1, Burkett greeted him with a message. “Here is something to look forward to when you get home,” she wrote. “The garlic is ready for a taste test.” Bennett’s favorite snack was pickled garlic, an expensive treat he had tried unsuccessfully to emulate. Burkett had perfected a recipe that needed 21 days of refrigeration to infuse.
Bennett responded with a message saying he had contacted his parents. “Wish me luck,” he wrote.
He gave his parents the address of the Pony Express, where he was staying temporarily, and promised he would seek psychiatric help on his return. Worried about his spiraling mood swings, he asked his mother, Margarette Bennett, if he suffered from schizophrenia. “I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me,” he said in an e-mail.
“Dr. Mom thinks you are bipolar,” she wrote. “You can go to the health clinic and get medication for that. We love you, son, and you are going to come out of this just fine. Hang in there and we will see you soon.”
“I’ll be here,” Bennett wrote.
When asked to leave the truck stop, Bennett relocated to the campground beside the Mill Creek Dam in Washington. He called his parents to tell them of the change.
“Mom, something is wrong with me,” he said. He was nearly hysterical. His mother assured him that his father would arrive the next afternoon to bring him home.
His final e-mail was sent at 8:40 a.m. “I am afraid for Judy,” he wrote. “I love her very much and I fear I’ve lost her. I fear she will never trust love again. She is a wonderful woman, mom. She is the best I will ever find.”
“Depression exhumes our shames,” wrote E.M. Cioran. But it does more than that—it flays its victims with them, methodically stripping away flesh and tendon, each lash reveling in another bloody layer of their own worthlessness. In his e-mails over the past 28 hours, Bennett had agonized over his failings, or what he considered failings, and though he was able to hold them at bay for a while, when at last alone, stranded, faced with returning in disgrace, of having again to be subjected to therapists and medication, of finding another job, of trying to prove himself, he instead gathered a length of climbing rope and walked away. One of his last e-mails lamented, “I am sorry for all the pain I caused.” Impetuous, in the moment, tormented, he would do the one thing that would defeat his demons for good.
Bennett’s father, Robert S. Bennett, arrived the next afternoon, Aug. 2, to find the van unlocked and the generator running, both things his son would never do. He grew frantic when Oscar, his son’s dog, emerged matted and muddy from the woods. When he called his wife for advice, she told him to contact the sheriff. Nine hundred miles away, Margarette Bennett walked over to the calendar and penciled in, “Robert left me today.”
From the start, Washington County Sheriff Bill Overbeck had no idea what to believe. He could have a murder on his hands, a drowning, a confused stranger wandering off into unfamiliar territory, or even a man looking to start a new life elsewhere. The search began the next morning.
Overbeck was half-right on all counts though he wouldn’t know most of it for several days, nor would he know the rest until three months later, when Janice Radford posed her children on a log in a wooded area south of town, raised her camera and snapped the shutter.
“In hindsight you wonder what you could have done differently,” Burkett said. “There’s all this guilt. But I really don’t feel guilty. I feel sad. And I miss him like crazy. I wish I could have known him longer. He taught me so much that I can’t even put words to it.”
When her husband was in Washington he was dealing with a lot of dead ends, she said. “He wasn’t working so he didn’t have much money. He was in debt. His van wasn’t working. He was so alone, so desperate, in so much despair, that he didn’t see any other way out. I wish he would have called me, but he was in such a terrible, terrible place he couldn’t.”
“He was a tortured soul,” his mother said. “It wasn’t in our power to help him. I don’t blame him for what he did. He couldn’t survive in this world.”
On Dec. 1, the remains of Robert Glenn Bennett were laid to rest near Weaver, Ala.
His memory remained very much alive.
Margarette Bennett and her husband attended a memorial service at Burkett’s home, where more than 150 cards arrived the day of the service. Strangers approached her with stories of how Bennett helped them through their own personal crises. “I didn’t realize how many people he had touched,” she said.
When she canceled the annual Christmas family reunion, her other son, Robbie, vowed to keep the tradition alive, even if it meant doing all the cooking himself.
“I really felt young until this happened,” she said. “It has aged me 10 years. My hair had a little gray in it before. It’s completely white now.”
The State of Alabama refused to recognize Burkett and Bennett’s common-law marriage on grounds they hadn’t filed in time. Burkett contacted Overbeck and asked if her husband’s wedding ring had been found with the remains. Having no record of it, the sheriff returned with a metal detector and located it a few feet from the tree. He subsequently mailed the ring to her.
Friends told Burkett that Bennett’s death was a tragedy. She disagreed.
“Part of me thinks maybe it wasn’t a tragedy just because he struggled his whole life and that he tried to live and survive on this earth as we know it,” she said. “And it just wasn’t working. Maybe his tragedy was being on earth, if that makes sense. Who knows what happens after you die? But he struggled so much that part of me thinks of him as being brave to be able to do what he needed to do.”
After a quiet pause, she added, “I need to believe that for my own way out.”
“It was an amazing chapter in my life, like a whirlwind,” Burkett said. “Those 15 months I was with him, I would do it all again, I would do it all again in a heartbeat, even knowing what I’ve gone through the last three months. He really was a good guy, but he probably didn’t know that.”
Radford keeps the photograph on her work desk. Bennett’s death haunted her for weeks, especially the coincidences involved with finding the body.
“How else do you explain them?” she asked. “I think it was meant to be. Why we were chosen to answer that question I will never know. I don’t get too upset about it anymore because I remind myself that his family now has closure. The question ‘where is he?’ has been answered.”