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FIRST-PERSON: Fame, drugs & emptiness


McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“There is no refuge from confession but suicide,” observed American statesman Daniel Webster. “And suicide is confession.” When Hunter S. Thompson took his own life on Feb. 20 at his home near Aspen, CO., he confessed that success and licentiousness are poor sources for hope.

Thompson, who was 67 years old at the time of his suicide, was the author of many books and countless news articles. He was best known for the 1972 best-seller “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Thompson’s widespread literary fame stemmed from his creation of “gonzo” journalism, in which the reporter becomes a prominent part of his own story.

While critics and writers lauded Thompson’s literary prowess, it was his larger-than-life debauchery that constantly took center-stage, to the point that it overshadowed his prose. Alcohol and drugs so dominated his life that The Philadelphia Inquirer once described him thusly: “Hunter S. Thompson is to drug-addled, stream of consciousness, psycho-political black humor what Forrest Gump is to idiot savants.”

“I was a notorious best-selling author of weird and brutal books and also a widely feared newspaper columnist,” Thompson once said of himself. “I was also drunk, crazy and heavily armed at all times.”

One anecdote Thompson shared involved a time his physician warned him that his esophagus was being damaged by a duodenal ulcer. The doctor explained that drinking alcohol would only exacerbate the problem. Refusing to be forced into sobriety by a physical malady, Thompson obtained a syringe with a five inch hypodermic needle. He filled it with gin and injected the contents directly into his stomach.

In all of the tributes to Thompson appearing in print and on the Internet, few have described him as an alcoholic or a drug addict. Based on his self-descriptions, he likely was both. It is a sad commentary that in America, bad and destructive behavior is often overlooked, even excused, if one is considered talented or famous.

As to why Thompson placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, no one seems to really know. Since the man known for his loquacious prose left no suicide note, his motive for killing himself is left to speculation.

Douglas Brinkley, who has edited two volumes of Thompson’s published letters, and is working on a third, told USA Today that he had spoken to Thompson two days before he died.

“He was getting to the age that his body was not cooperating with his lifestyle, but he had his flaming intellect to the bitter end,” Brinkley was quoted as saying.

If dementia was not the cause for Thompson’s suicide, what was? Speculation among his admirers vacillates between rationalization and romanticism.

Those who seek to rationalize Thompson’s suicide point to physical pain caused by surgeries and a recently broken leg. David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “But a chronic series of physical infirmities -– he had to use a wheel chair at times –- left him feeling that he was finally being maneuvered by forces he could not medicate or write into obscurity.”

The consensus among those who try to romanticize Thompson’s suicide is that he wanted to leave life the way he had lived it -– on his own terms. His wife told The Denver Post, “He lived like a champion and he died like a champion.” Douglas Brinkley told USA Today, “… this is the way he wanted to go out –- in a blaze.”

All attempts to rationalize and romanticize suicide, even Hunter Thompson’s, cannot obscure the fact that the act of taking one’s life is the result of a hopelessness that is conceived from the union of misery and despair.

To describe anyone’s suicide as courageous or heroic makes the act seem more attractive, especially to someone who is groping for hope and searching for a reason to live. To justify it in Thompson’s case, a man who had long marinated himself in a mix of booze, narcotics and unbridled adventure, is disingenuous — talent notwithstanding.

Hope provides a motive for life. Hunter Thompson’s suicide is a confession that hope does not flow from success and cannot be discovered in hedonistic pursuits. Hope is a byproduct of faith, and its most enduring source is God who is revealed in the Bible.
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Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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  • Kelly Boggs