29-year-old Christine Chubbuck didn’t leave behind a note. Instead, she staged a grand and memorable performance. Looking healthy, well-groomed, and in good spirits the morning of July 15, 1974, the newswoman geared up for a special presentation. “She was in a much better than normal mood. To this day, her enthusiasm puzzles me,” news director Gordan Galbraith said of her demeanor that morning. Christine asked to change things up a bit for that morning’s broadcast of Sarasota, FL’s WXLT-TV’s Suncoast Digest. She wanted to start the normally unscripted talk show with some news reports, and spent the few minutes before air-time typing up what she was going to say on-air.
She started off with some standard news item, but when it came time to roll footage of a local shoot-out from the night before, a shot she specifically requested, the film stalled. The person operating the camera panicked a bit, but this was all a part of Christine’s plan. She looked into the camera with a determined eye. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide,” she read, inflicting a little sarcasm into her tone. Then she pulled a gun out of a bag of puppets she had at her feet and shot herself on live television.
As she convulsed and slumped to the floor the rest of the news team froze, thinking it was some kind of morbid joke. The camera stayed on her for a while after the act as the reality of the situation sunk into to everyone at the news station. When the news director rushed to the desk to yell at her for such a horrible stunt, he was confronted with the grim seriousness of her act. It was not a joke or a stunt, or even a cry for help. She used the word “attempted” in her announcement, but it seems she did that only to cover herself in case she failed. Christine aimed to be an accurate news reporter to the very end.
Among her typed reports was a handwritten news item she wrote in third person about her suicide. It chillingly described shooting herself on-air and even predicted the fact that she would be taken to the hospital in critical condition and later die there, which is exactly what happened.
Just three weeks before Christine had spoken at length to a police officer about the best way to kill yourself with a gun. She was officially researching a segment about suicide, but didn’t entirely cloak her true intentions. According to the police officer who spoke with her, she mused that it would “wild” if she shot herself on air. She also joked about killing herself live with the night news editor, who quickly changed the subject because he was jolted by the angle of her sense of humor. Colleagues described her as funny and likable, but also insulated; one of those lonely and sensitive people too constricted in their own ego to risk letting anyone get too close. Her mother said Christine was unsatisfied with her personal life. She was distraught over turning 30 without ever having a romantic relationship. In recent weeks she’d been especially self-depreciatingly vocal about her lack of sex and romance, lamenting to her coworkers about her status as a virgin at age 29.
Christine’s personal struggles were amplified by recent drama at work. Her closest pal at the station, Andrea Kirby, had just gotten a job in a bigger market, which sparked Christine’s jealousy. To make matters worse, Christine had a crush on coworker George Peter Ryan and showed her feelings by baking him a cake on his birthday. Not only did he reject her advances, but she learned he was instead romantically involved with her friend Andrea Kirby.
Christine’s suicide is one of those factoids that snaps you into feeling something. The aggressively public nature of her choice sets her apart from other suicide headlines. Although it was covered extensively at the time, including a thorough profile by Sally Quinn where most of the known details about her life can be found, and even inspired the movie Network, her story soon quieted to a hush.
The morbidly curious often go looking for video footage of her suicide, which isn’t available anywhere, and then find that there’s virtually no footage at all of her. There are no extensive clips of Suncoast Digest, or her news reporting. Steve Newman, who was the weatherman during Christine’s time at the station, has put on Youtube up some his clips from the time Christine was working at WXLT, but hasn’t supplied any of his late colleague.
The most that can be found is this 11-minute segment from a 2007 E! show called Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It includes interviews with her brother and colleagues, and just a flickering few seconds of Christine doing her work.
Her suicide was personal protest against what she saw as a detestable trend of sensationalism in television journalism. Her brother and others noted that Christine operated with very rigid thinking. “She had no greys in her life” her brother said. “Everything was black and white. Things were either wonderful or terrible. Chrissy just didn’t have a compromise button.” This type of thinking is a type of “cognitive distortion,” which can sully our chances at peace and happiness. Cognitive distortions are errors in thought and logic that are, insidiously, partially rooted in reality, and can either cause or enhance negative moods.
There is something a bit disturbing about certain media tactics, and often ethical lines are crossed, but our fascination with danger, with the morbid, with the fear and gawking is part of who we are. We like drama, thrillers, murder mysteries, real life stories with an edge. The media recognizes our hunger, and tries to deliver it any way possible.
Our draw to this kind of stuff has a lot of elements. We have an innate survival instinct, and our our emotions and intellect are positively stimulated by these types of stories because we often learn something from them that may help keep us safe. We also often reinforce our own feelings of our own relative safety (or self-righteousness) by learning about the troubles of others.
We also have a drive to be empathetic and our attraction to the macabre, chilling, and disturbing is partially to fulfill this insatiable hunger to understand each other, to feel for each other, to be connected. Our boundary-pushing drive to suss out salacious details, for the vast majority of us, is partly because we want to feel something for another human. We want to know what is is like for them, to feel connected with them even though they are strangers.
When Christine turned the gun on herself she cynically delivered one of those terrible shocks that rattles us and focuses our attention. She’s still delivering those shocks every time someone learns of her story. The power of legend reverberates through time. Once our attention is drawn, however, it’s isn’t just her death we’re interested in. Yes, she was protesting something she saw as wrong with the world, but whether she was cognizant of it or not, she was also trying to show us how real and deep her pain was. Her death, and the stories that were told of her life through remembrances remind us of our own pain and of how we can never really know the simmering desperation of others, of the real lives behind glossy surfaces. Her story reminds us to continue to try, though, to reach out to others and to to not be so self-enclosed. We cannot always help each other, but we can always be more compassionate, and more aware.
At the time of her suicide, Christine was under the care of a psychiatrist who didn’t think she was serious about her intent to die. She was getting “help,” but it wasn’t enough. Mental illness is such a tricky, horrible beast. It stalks and infiltrates a life to the core, coloring everything. Christine’s death and the mystery of her life remind of the helplessness we can feel when we care about someone who’s going through mental and emotional turmoil.
UPDATE: For the first time Christine’s life will be explored on-screen in two films, one a documentary, and one a drama, both which debuted at Sundance this year.
Christine’s brother has spoken to the media recently about the renewed interest in his sister’s suicide, saying that footage of the event will never be found. “It’s been more than 40 years since my sister killed herself but the pain we feel is still raw,” he’s said.
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