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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of October 8 - 14, 2003

Opinion Columns

The male mystique

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

When 37-year-old Bob Long told a friend about 3:30 on June 9 of this year that he was going to go outside to plant some cabbage, he seemed fine. However, Long, a much-praised worker in the dramatic rescue of nine men from Pennsylvania’s Quecreek mine, may have had other things on his mind. At 5:30 p.m., his kids awakened him from a nap, and he seemed to be unreasonably angry that he couldn’t find clean socks. Before his wife could comprehend what he was about to do, he went to his pickup, took out his 9-millimeter semiautomatic Glock pistol and, in spite of her pleas, shot himself in the head. In Long’s case, hindsight provides some clues. His community had ostracized him ever since he signed a deal for a cut of a book and movie about the miners’ story. Certainly alcohol was involved: a toxicology report would show that his blood-alcohol level was .26, more than twice the legal driving limit in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Goodell, a New York Times reporter covering the case, remembers thinking at one time that Long, who had received $150,000 from Disney, was the luckiest guy in Somerset County. The suppositions about Long’s suicide and the events that followed the dramatic rescue can be found in a thoughtful July 27 New York Times Magazine cover story. It is a fascinating study of the disaster’s impact on the lives not only of the nine rescued miners but also of their rescuers. Being a hero, according to the article, does not guarantee an easy ride afterwards. There have been stories of 9/11 heroes suffering depression, jealousy over the media attention garnered by colleagues, and what may possibly be post-traumatic stress. Even the tales of former lottery winners bear out the simple truth that sudden fame and fortune do not guarantee happy endings.

What most fascinated me about Long’s story, though, was the unpleasant reality that his is merely one of an increasingly disproportionate number of male suicides. More than four times as many men as women die by suicide, although women report attempting suicide during their lifetime about three times as often as men do. What I wonder about this odd statistic is if this is because women call for help at the last minute.

I am teaching a communications course this semester, and it is tempting to fit everything I encounter into a matrix of communication-related issues. At the risk of a huge generalization, one nonetheless supported by several studies, men have a harder time communicating their emotional concerns than do women. It has been documented that even very close male friends spend much of their time together talking about mutually interesting events, sports, people and business matters rather than about their personal lives. And, in spite of advances made in the ways men express their emotional needs, there is still a pervasive macho mystique, which derides any man’s more feminine or "wimp" factor.

Of course we all know exceptions to this generalization, but I bet that if you can overhear groups of men and women conversing with each other, you will observe a similar pattern. Several years go I wrote a light piece about waiting in bathroom lines with women. After a preliminary joke or two about the "luck" of men who could find bushes, and by the time we finally reached our stalls, we already knew many personal facts about each of the women in line. Even in a silly context, women got right to heart issues.

What I would hope, of course, is that everyone, whether male or female, would feel there was a kindred soul somewhere to whom he or she could go for help. I remember a good friend who disappeared one morning on the way to the bank where, we later found out, he confirmed a balance of only $35. He was a creative and honorable man suffering a temporary setback in his profession. His wife, four months pregnant, and I spent many hours combing the streets of the neighborhoods around his Hollywood home thinking we would find him slumped behind his car wheel. Six days later he leapt from the top of the Howard Johnson’s near the LA Airport. There was no note, and we can hardly imagine his thoughts during those last agonized days of his life. We do know that we would love to have been given the chance to help him. Our abiding words were, "If only he’d said something!"

Certainly, most of us never can understand the rationale of a suicide. Whether or not the inability to communicate sadness and need are paramount in the motivation for committing suicide, I would hope that we all keep up our efforts to tell each other what is really important. It is also, of course, incumbent on those of us to love the men we know and listen carefully to them. Maybe if Bob Long had been able to have an open discussion about the issues that alienated him from his fellows, if he could have moved beyond the haze of alcohol to connect with a loved one, perhaps he would have survived not only the momentary impulse to do away with himself but also the pain that eventually separated him from the life he could have led. I imagine his children would love to talk with him now.



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