I recently read Heavier Than Heaven, A Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles Cross (2001) as part of my ongoing preparations for the Suicide Prevention workshops we teach at CDP. In our workshop we use several famous and historical figures whose lives have ended in suicide to illustrate various aspects of theories of suicide. Kurt Cobain is one of the people we reference when discussing the acquired ability for suicide that is a key component of Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal–Psychological Theory of Suicide Risk. When reading Joiner’s book, Why People Die by Suicide (2005) Cobain’s suicide is referenced in six different locations. Wanting to improve my understanding of the man so often referenced, I decided to read the biography itself. Like many Generation X kids, the soundtrack of my days in college was peppered with Nirvana and the post-punk grunge sound of the time. It’s impossible not to remember the news reports of his suicide attempt in Rome and the final shock of his suicide in April 1994. But I was never such a fan that I bought his CDs (my roommates did that for me) or would have considered reading a book about his life in 2001 when Heavier than Heaven was published. This was a book I thought I’d never read. But I found myself riveted and terribly saddened by the story of this man’s life and ultimate death at his own hands.
Kurt Cobain’s story reads like a case example of Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of suicide (IPT). Every aspect of Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory is acted out in the life and death of Kurt Cobain, and it is heartbreaking to have it unfold before the reader knowing what the end will be. One of the most obvious themes in the book is Joiner’s idea of habituation to pain and provocation, particularly through drug abuse. According to his biography Cobain began using multiple drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and marijuana in his early teens. The book chronicles his troubled relationship with his parents after their divorce and his withdrawing from his family and childhood friends into typical juvenile delinquent behavior, such as truancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and petty crimes, such as vandalism. As a teen, he does not have a stable place to live and at times is homeless in a region known for inhospitable weather and severe economic problems. Even after he achieves tremendous fame and financial success for his music, Cobain struggles to find stable living conditions, and is at times homeless (too many trashed hotel rooms and bad credit, and no one wants to rent to you).
Cobain’s life also paints a tragic portrait of Thwarted Belongingness and Perceived Burdensomeness. From his feelings of rejection by his parents to romantic rejection, Cobain is a man with multiple instances of feeling unable to matter to the people he most desires. Even his friendships were riddled with problems and instances in which he felt cut off from all those around him, unable to be understood or accepted fully. As his drug addictions deepened and he slid more and more into heroin addiction, even his long-standing, most loyal friends began to distance from him. As often happens with serious drug addiction, much of the distancing came from the secretiveness of trying to hide his addiction as well as the erratic, volatile behavior and depression Cobain was slipping into as his addiction deepened. His behavior was beginning to take a negative toll on his band as he cancelled tours, performed poorly on stage, and argued with producers and managers. It is easy to imagine his growing sense of being a burden to his band (although this was never stated in the book, but rather my conjecture as a psychologist), and all those whose livelihood now depended on the financial machine that was Nirvana. Furthermore, he was acutely aware of his role as a father and the importance of trying to overcome his drug addiction for the sake of his daughter and for the sake of his marriage. Yet he felt unable to overcome his addictions, and he was plagued by chronic abdominal pain that he believed the heroin alleviated. The debilitating pain was a major barrier to his sobriety. He was aware that he would continue to disappoint his wife and daughter, as well as his band, managers, and fans. His suicide note clearly states that his daughter will be better off with him dead – a tragic real life illustration of Perceived Burdensomeness.
All of these facets of Kurt Cobain’s life and death were generally known to me and did not come as a surprise reading this book. What did come as a surprise was how clearly he spoke about his life ending in suicide for years prior to his death at age 27. As a teenager he told friends that he planned to become a famous rock star and kill himself. During interviews with magazines and radio stations he made statements about having thought about suicide. While on stage he once temporarily stopped a concert by climbing about 30 feet above the audience and shouting that he was going to kill himself. Cross writes about how the crowd and the band seemed to pause while waiting to see what Cobain would do. Once he was brought down, the concert was paused while he was taken backstage to calm down. According to Cross, Cobain also had a video of R. Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania public official committing suicide during a press conference which he watched obsessively during the year before his own suicide. The book never mentioned whether those who heard or saw Cobain talk about suicide encouraged him to get help or appeared to take his behavior as a serious warning sign.
Most disturbing were the last four chapters that detail the final months of Cobain’s life. By February of 1994 he was described by most who saw him as depressed and was desperately trying to cancel the tour he was on in Europe. He eventually saw a doctor who recommended a break from the tour, but there seemed to be no effort to assess Cobain’s risk for self-harm or mental status, rather he was viewed as a drug addict. During that break from the tour Cobain attempted suicide in a hotel room in Rome, overdosing on 60 Rohypnol and leaving a suicide note. This attempt left him in a coma for over 20 hours and in respiratory failure. After his discharge from the hospital his wife remained concerned about his mental health and feared he might be suicidal. However, most of the efforts to obtain help detailed in the book were focused on his drug addiction. Many of the people in his life did not appear to be aware of, or concerned about, his suicidal ideation. For example, when a friend warned him he was using too much heroin, he replied he wouldn’t die by overdose because he was going to shoot himself. This statement from a man who attempted suicide four weeks previously did not garner any intervention. He was put in contact (by telephone) with an addiction counselor, but the therapist was not told the incident in Rome was a suicide attempt. He believed it had been an accidental overdose from a drug addict. As the book spirals towards its tragic end I wanted to shout at the people in Kurt Cobain’s life, both professionals and friends, “Ask him about suicide!” The book doesn’t mention anyone assessing him for suicidal plans or intent. His wife does fear he is suicidal and attempts to get him into rehab, but there is no attempt to evaluate him or hospitalize him for his suicidal ideation. During the week prior to his death one friend even escorts him to a gun shop and purchases for Cobain the shotgun uses to shoot himself. By the end of this book I was left with deep sadness for this man who made it clear to so many that he needed help and was thinking about killing himself, yet no one seemed t seriously address his risk for suicide.
Heavier Than Heaven (2001) provides a harrowing illustration of Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide Risk and unheeded warning signs of suicide risk as it played out in the painful and lonely life of Kurt Cobain.
Cross, C.R. (2001). Heavier than heaven: A biography of Kurt Cobain. NY, NY: Hyperion University Press
Joiner, T. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Libby Parins, PsyD project developer and trainer in military and civilian programs with the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. She began her professional career in the Navy in 1999 where she served in San Diego, CA and Bremerton, WA. Dr. Parins initially had ideas leaving active duty and moving on to civilian private practice, but after 5 years the Navy instilled in her a love of military psychology that dramatically changed her career path. She joined the CDP where she has worked in both Navy and Army hospitals as well as serving as a trainer for many of the center’s workshops. The focus of Dr. Parins’ work has been on treating deployment related behavioral health problems including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and trauma. She spent many years working with military psychology internship programs for the Navy and Army training new psychologist in military specific practices and empirically based treatments to benefit service members. Dr. Parins’ professional passions are military psychology and training.