I read recently a piece in the online magazine Godspy by David Griffith about the life and suicide (in February) of writer Hunter S. Thompson.
I met Thompson twice, corresponded with him briefly and interviewed his mother, Virginia, while working on a piece about him for a magazine in Louisville, his hometown. (Oddly enough, I lived at the time about three blocks from where Thompson grew up.)
I never did get to interview Thompson — he blew off an interview
we’d set up at a NORML convention in Washington — but I was an admirer
of his for years. Eventually, however, I lost interest in him and I
think now it had to do with what I called in my post “his spiritual
As so often happens when I speak first and think later, those words
later seemed rash and intemperate, and more than a little
sanctimonious. And, as so often happens, I now find myself trying
I’ll begin with the night I attended a jazz festival in Cincinnati
in the early ’70s. I was talking to a guy outside Riverfront Stadium
before the gates opened, and we were discussing some of the performers
— including Sly and the Family Stone, the Staples Singers and Ray
Charles. When I mentioned B.B. King, the guy snorted: “Shoot, he ain’t
nuthin’ but a one-string guitar player.”
Hunter Thompson, too, was a one-string guitar player. And, like B.B.
King, he was a damn good one-string guitar player. He wrote
brilliantly, vividly, with devastating insight and great humor. Most
important, he wrote from a belief that this country could and should do
better. He was a prophet in hairshirt, at his best when flaunting
The problem was that ultimately his “life’s a bitch and then you die”
mentality — the one string — grew tiresome. The anger that inflamed some of his best writing
was ultimately self-defeating, because it set him up – unwittingly, to
be sure – as a victim. And a victim must always find others to blame.
When I started cleaning up my own life, I discovered that the source of
the ugliness in my life was old, untreated wounds. My failure
to own my emotional garbage was irresponsible, and the key
to what had become a very unhappy life.
I’d been dragging around the highly inflammable
emotional debris from my past. Then someone would pass by and throw down a metaphorical match – a chance remark, an innocent observation, cutting me off in traffic – and
the debris would catch fire and I would explode with anger.
On the face of it, the person who threw the match was the problem.
But had there been no debris, there would have been no fire and no
Being angry is a choice, and the payoff is self-righteousness. But
if you’ve ever been around anyone with an anger problem, you know how
tiresome and immature it can be. The answer to Thompson’s issue,
bizarre as it may seem, lies in Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the
Mirror”: “If you want to make the world a better
place/Take a look at yourself and make a…change.”
Griffith wondered if Thompson could have been converted to
Christianity, perhaps even to Catholicism. Wishful thinking, of course.
And while it’s dangerous to oversimplify the complexities of human
behavior when it leads to suicide, had he tackled his anger head-on, he might have come to terms with spirituality in some fashion. It’s a natural
progression: from anger to understanding to acceptance and finally to
forgiveness – of others and, most important, of self.
It would have been fascinating to see what a transformed Thompson –
who, according to Griffith, had read and was impressed by the apostle
John’s cataclysmic Book of Revelations – might then have done with that
The irony is that a central figure in the Nixon White House that
Thompson despised so much – Chuck Colson – transformed himself (if not his
politics) and became a Christian author and a champion for prison
reform and prison ministries.
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