Memorial Day is a time to remember the dead, especially those in the military who died in service to our country. Those who died by suicide are a group that are not often talked about. As many of you know, I have worked as a volunteer on the Samaritans suicide helpline the past three years. Through Samaritans I know that last year Massachusetts had 531 reported deaths by suicide, three times the number of homicides. In our state there were 11,000 suicide related hospital admissions in 2011. Brian Arredondo, whose family attends our church, died by suicide in December.
If you think someone may be suicidal, take the time to talk and listen to them. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Ask if they have a plan, the means to carry it out, and a time frame when they would act. Encourage them to get help. When someone dies by suicide, it’s not as if they suddenly had the thought to kill themselves, and went and did it. You won’t give someone the idea by asking the question. Most people struggle with the decision over time. As a wise Samaritans’ staff person told me, “When someone dies by suicide, there were many days before when they chose to keep living, with the help of others. Though they may have lost the war, they won day-to-day battles.”
Marian Hooper (“Clover”) Adams died by suicide. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an exhibit through early June based on Hope College Professor Natalie Dykstra’s thoughtful book on Clover Adams. My information on Clover in this sermon is drawn from her biography. I have a particular interest in the Adams family; after college I read Clover’s husband Henry Adams’ autobiographical Education while travelling in Europe. The Education of Henry Adams helped me ponder what it means to be an American.
Clover came from a Unitarian family, like her future husband Henry; her father had a pew at King’s Chapel in downtown Boston. Her maternal grandmother had deserted her family when a beloved son died suddenly. She couldn’t cope. Clover’s mother was a published poet who was a close friend of Unitarian feminist and reformer Margaret Fuller. She married a physician, and Marian was the third child. She was always known as “Clover,” as in a lucky four leaf clover. When she was only five years old her mother died of tuberculosis.
Her Aunt Susan promised to help with the three children, but she died by suicide when Clover was nine years old. Unitarian theologian Ralph Waldo Emerson commented, “We must rely on that tough fiber.” Sort of, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ As Dykstra points out, such advice was absurd regarding a nine year old who has already lost her mother at the age of five.
Clover had a loving father who choose not to remarry. He made sure that his daughters received what was probably the best education for young women in America at the time: they attended the Agassiz School in Cambridge. Many of her teachers were Harvard professors, and along with learning to read Plato in Greek, she also studied what were then considered unfeminine subjects such as the natural sciences.
Clover disliked her appearance, especially her large Hooper nose. Perhaps inspired by Gogol’s short story “The Nose,” she wrote a mock account of her murder. A strong wind lifts Clover up by her nose and deposits her in the middle of the Charles River. Her body and nose are discovered separately.
For Clover and her generation, the Civil War was the great moral struggle. After the war, the centers of money and influence shifted away from Boston. So did a sense of purpose. Clover, as a single, affluent woman, engaged in charitable work. She was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, assisted in the education of freed slaves, and worked to provide for destitute children and orphans in Boston.
Historian Henry Adams was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents. His father had achieved one of the greatest of American diplomatic victories, keeping the British Empire neutral in our Civil War. Henry was the founder of graduate historical studies at Harvard, eventually graduating the first American Ph.D.s in that field. He also suggested to the Harvard libraries that they put in tables where students could study! Henry was taken with Clover’s intelligence, humor, and athleticism; both liked to ride horses. Upon hearing of his engagement, Henry’s brother Charles described Clover’s family as “crazy as coots.” Henry was in love, but not uncritical, writing, “People who study Greek must take pains with their dress.”
Henry’s parents didn’t attend the small wedding, and eventually were estranged from Clover.
Though not wealthy, Henry and Clover were able to take a year long honeymoon. While sailing on their private yacht on the Nile, Clover had a breakdown, but recovered. They moved to Washington D.C. where Clover was the center of a circle of close friends including Clara and John Hay (a future Secretary of State), Henry, and the explorer Clarence King. They called themselves the “Five of Hearts,” and had stationery and china made up for their group. Clover was considered, “The First of Hearts.”
Clover’s wit, intelligence, and vibrant personality made her a popular fixture of Washington society. She had pizzazz – she and a friend decided, while visiting Niagara Falls in winter, to walk across the frozen river to Canada and back. Clover was a highly educated woman who lived in a culture where the primary role of married women was to bear and raise children.
There was no real place for her as a childless wife; likewise, Henry Adams would write in his autobiography how there was no political place for an Adams in the corrupt politics of their gilded age.
Clover became interested in photography, which in the 1880’s required enormous skill and experimentation with lenses and chemicals. As Dykstra writes, Clover’s subjects seemed to give her an opportunity to portray her interior life, a very different world from that which she wrote about to her father in long weekly letters. Some of her photographs had maternal themes. In her photo albums, she paired her portraits of Henry with photographs of a solitary tree, emphasizing his nature as a writer working alone. Some dignitaries asked Clover to take their portraits. A friend suggested that her photograph of the American historian George Bancroft would be a good cover for the Century magazine. However, the editor wanted Henry to write an appreciation of Bancroft to go with it. Ambivalent about fame and his famous name, Henry convinced Clover to decline, closing off an avenue of creative success for her.
Henry enjoyed the company of beautiful women, especially that of Lizzie Cameron, the wife of a Pennsylvania senator. He used Lizzie and Clover as the basis for characters in his novels Democracy and Esther, both of which he published anonymously. In Esther, a woman who tries to be an artist falls apart emotionally when her beloved father dies. With life reflecting art, after tending to her father when he died, Clover became deeply depressed. To make matters worse, the beautiful Lizzie Cameron was pregnant.
Mental illness was considered shameful, and Professor Dykstra finds no evidence that Henry and Clover sought the treatment of doctors. On the other hand, the best medicine had to offer was the “rest cure” of bed rest, eating fatty foods, and passive exercise. Feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes it well in The Yellow Wallpaper; the rest cure drives the protagonist truly insane. Henry tried travel instead, and Clover took photographs in West Virginia.
Clover had drifted apart from her husband, she was childless in a culture that saw family as the female role, and she had lost her beloved father, evoking her mother’s loss at such a young age. Though she was a woman loved by many, Clover experienced deep self-loathing. Then she seemed to be more upbeat and to be sleeping better; she had decided to kill herself. On a Sunday morning, at the time when she used to write her weekly letter to her father, Henry left for a brief dental appointment. Clover took advantage of his absence to drink some of her photographic chemicals to kill herself. The date was December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
Adams never really recovered from the wound of her death. One friend described it as, “the worm that never dies.” Even though his autobiography was published posthumously, Henry doesn’t refer to his wife or their 12 years of married life. Some speculate that the passage referring to the death of his sister by lockjaw may have been colored by Clover’s suicide. Adams writes that, because of such cruelty, perhaps God could be, as the ancients thought, a “substance,” but never a “personality.”
Adams engaged the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens to create a memorial for Clover’s burial place (later Henry Adams’ also) at Rock Creek Park Cemetery in Washington D.C.. He suggested that the artist draw upon Buddhist images and Michelangelo’s Sybil’s. St. Gaudens used both male and female models for the work. The head of the sculpture is on the cover of your order of service; it certainly has a prominent nose. Adams never had any descriptive plaque placed at the site, feeling that the individual viewer could decide what it meant. He informally called it “The Peace of God;” it’s also been referred to as “Grief.” A generation later, Eleanor Roosevelt would go to the statue when she learned of her husband Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer.
As a footnote, an illegal copy was made of the sculpture, and sold for a Baltimore family’s cemetery plot. In the 1960’s, the cemetery asked to have it removed, as it had become a site for what Wikipedia describes as “occult practices.” The sculpture was given to the Washington museums, then de-accessed and given to the Cosmos Club, a social club for intellectuals founded by Henry Adams, where it sits in the courtyard. Last year, I conducted the memorial service for my friend Priscilla Holmes at the Cosmos Club.
At the end of his long life, Henry was finally able to talk about Clover and their life together. When he died in 1918, his friend Aileen Tone found the half full vial of potassium cyanide that Clover had used to kill herself in the top drawer of his writing desk. Perhaps Henry wanted to know it was there if he needed it.
We remember Clover and all those who died by suicide on this Memorial Day, the military dead, and all of our loved ones who have died. We also remember and pray for those for whom it is a daily battle to stay alive. Today is also in the church year the Feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. In the passage from Acts 2, the Spirit of God’s love allows the disciples to speak to the pilgrims in Jerusalem in their own distinct languages and be understood. Clover’s death reminds us to try to speak in love to the individual’s language of personality. As the novelist E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.” And sometimes to ask the question, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Whether in the spirit of humanity or the Spirit of God, to connect, listen, and remember, in the mystery of life and love.