“My mom said I was always a happy baby.” The Suicide of Martin Manley


Martin Manley killed himself.

This in and of itself isn’t so unique. Thousands of suicides happen without much notice. Manley was a public figure, a former sports writer for the Kansas City Star and editor for the website Sports In Review. However, what makes his suicide bizarre is that he created a website [this link still works] to explain his reasons for his actions. The final thing he wrote was a post for SIR.

In his final post, Manley explains:

The reason for my departure is 100% within my ability to control. You see, earlier today, I committed suicide. I created a web-site to deal with the many questions a person would rightfully have. It’s called martinmanleylifeanddeath.com. It went live today. In my opinion, there is no question which you could conceivably ask that I have left unanswered on that site. My goal with this post is closure for SIR.

Manley shot himself in front of a police station. His final post touches on some of his reasons, but mostly he seems to just want to put everything in order. The website he created is split into 2 categories, ‘Life’ and ‘Death.’ I won’t try to summarize or pull quotes. There is too much there to be crammed into a single blog post. The man laid bare his entire existence, from beginning to end, and if people are interested it is there for people to read.

martin manley

There are two reasons this story caught my eye (besides for the sensational angle of it):

First, he was from Kansas. He says that he lived in Topeka and then moved to Overland Park. Both of these cities are about 30 minute drives (in opposite directions) from my hometown of Lawrence. While I haven’t lived in Kansas in years and I was never one to read sports stories in the newspaper, I have to imagine that I have a lot of friends and old acquaintances that were familiar with this man, maybe even regular readers.

Secondly, there was something he wrote in his Pictures section of the site:

These are pictures of me when I was around one. My mom said I was always a happy baby. It seems odd to me that would be the case considering I’m not sure I ever really learned what happiness was as an adult.

Emphasis mine. That really stuck out to me, because my mother has said the same thing of me. She says I was her “sunshine baby.” This has always struck me as odd because for as long as I can remember, I have dealt with depression. I’m sure for anyone who has dealt with lifelong depression it’s hard to remember a time when you could be roundly described as “happy.”

If this story blows up, and it likely will because of its odd, viral nature, it will almost certainly spur a conversation on suicide. I hope it does. But if the comments on related articles are any indication, the conversation may get buried in dross. As soon as a public suicide hits the internet, the opinions start flying: People should be allowed to kill themselves. People who commit suicide are idiots. Only God can help you fight depression.

Everyone brings their preconceived ideas to the topic and nothing of importance ever gets discussed. The conversation takes bunny trails off into topics such as “Is depression genetic?,” “Is suicide wrong?,” and “Is there a God?” Personal agendas get brought in and pretty soon no one is talking about what really matters: How do people who have suicidal thoughts cope?

There is no single answer for everyone, and I don’t feel like getting into my personal beliefs on the topic. (I’ve done so elsewhere.)

It’s that phrase that keeps coming back to me: “My mom said I was always a happy baby.” We all have loved ones in our life and we think we know them, we think that we know what they’re capable of. Part of the reason that suicides so often take us by surprise is that most of us pride ourselves on being perceptive, at least when it comes to the people in our lives.

The TV show House M.D. had an episode where a main character committed suicide. At the time, there was a lot of online chatter about whether it was just for shock and how there was no hint that the character was going to do that. But, as unexpected as the episode was for me, it struck me as incredibly true. My own personal experience of suicide was with someone who I (and, I imagine, most of the kids who knew him) thought was the happiest, most well-adjusted person I knew.

I wasn’t familiar with Manley. I’m sure as people unpack his website and his backlog of articles things will come out that will make his suicide “obvious” and easy to predict in that perfect 20/20 hindsight sort of way. And maybe he had hinted at it to his readers for a while, I don’t know.

But the broader truth is that suicide isn’t something we usually can predict, especially not with our loved ones. There are those who display early warning signs, but for every person on suicide watch, there is a ‘happy baby’ who takes their families and friends by complete surprise.

I think what Manley was trying to do (what the writers of House were trying to do, too) is bring this difficult conversation to the forefront and get people talking. Your opinion on Manley’s actions are irrelevant. It happened. Where do we go from here?

~

If there is any one person in culture having this conversation the right way, it’s the stand-up comedian Maria Bamford. She talks openly in her routine about her Bipolar Disorder and suicide. One of her best bits is called “Stigma” and you can listen to it on Spotify. I can tell you that for someone with depression, it is one of the funniest, most cathartic comedy routines I have ever listened to.

I don’t know if society will ever be capable of taking on this topic in a way that doesn’t fall back on preconceived judgments and fears, but I hope that if anything positive can come out of Manley’s death, it will be a willingness to look at this subject with fresh eyes.

Let us not hide from this.

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