“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
This is one line from literature most everyone has heard but, because it is such a commonplace line, most people have not actually thought about the meaning behind the line. It’s about a guy considering suicide.
While the suicide contemplation scene from Hamlet may be dramatic gold for an actor, what do you do with someone who says numerous times, in real life, that they are going to kill themselves? What do you do if that person is your five year old son?
That is the particular dilemma facing the Perry family in the fascinating documentary Boy Interrupted because they had a child who began suicidal ideation at age five and continued until he was 15 when he actually killed himself by jumping out of a window in his New York apartment building.
Now, I have not given away anything important here, we learn all this before the first reel change and the entire rest of the film is made up of massive amounts of home video, photographs, vacation film etc. We literally follow Evan Perry from the day he was born (his birth was videotaped) to some video of him in a restaurant only a couple of days before his suicide. It’s an extraordinary record of a life. Evan’s parents were filmmakers so they had the talent, the equipment and the inclination to record Evan’s life even when it must have been fairly unbearable to do so. Evan’s mother (also the film’s director), Dana Perry actually says she began filming her son’s morbid moments for no other reason than she didn’t think anyone would believe her if she told them that the seemingly cheerful young Evan was obsessed by death and suicide, because that is not what you expect to hear from kindergarteners.
Boy Interrupted also contains numerous post-suicide interviews with family, friends, various doctors and counselors who all knew Evan and while they are all very saddened by his untimely death, none of them seemed particularly surprised that it happened. When Evan’s psychiatrist describes him as “the scariest kid I have ever met”, that should make you sit up and take notice. And that is what makes Boy Interrupted so gripping, intense and ultimately so heartbreaking – people did take notice. Boy Interrupted is not a story about a boy ignored. From early on Evan’s parents sent him to doctors, got him analyzed, committed him to asylums if needed; at one point, while at a Connecticut school called Wellspring, Evan actually begins to mellow out and grow up a bit.
Evan is diagnosed a Bipolar II (Depressive) with suicidal ideation, but starting with Prozac, moving on to Depakote (I take that myself) and finally onto lithium, Evan’s parents seem willing to do everything medically or therapeutically indicated to help their son. I don’t even want to contemplate what their medical bills were like. But the psychiatric treatment of Evan was not a case of too little, too late, in fact, there is nobody in the film who ever says they wished that they had done anything differently. They all did everything they could do, did it properly and it still didn’t stop Evan from killing himself.
It’s important to remember, doctors are not miracle workers. Evan’s psychiatrist makes the analogy that Bipolar Depression is the psychiatric equivalent of various cancers; you can treat it for a while and some people will go into remission, some will not, but ultimately you have to stay on top of it at all times or it will kill you. Unfortunately, Evan Perry couldn’t see that and appeared to just get tired of dealing with his disease. So, on one ordinary night in October 2005, he jumped out the window of his bedroom falling to his death into the trash filled alley below. An ignominious end to such a handsome, intelligent and talented youth.
Despite the very sad theme, I didn’t find myself moved to tears all that much during the film. This is because the director Dana Perry presents the story in a very matter of fact way. I don’t envy her task of having had to sort through all the accumulated footage and then shape this recorded video into some kind of narrative. Having made films myself, I know you have to be brutal in the editing room and cut out everything that doesn’t contribute to the points you are tying to make. That can be difficult for any director, but when the subject matter is your own son? That is not a job I would wish on my worst enemy.
Tell a lie, I did cry at one point and that was when they interviewed some of Evan’s schoolmates who are all now young men in their late teens. Dropping all teenage swagger and pretense, they speak more openly and honestly about their lost friend than most teenagers would ever do in private, let alone admit on camera. Seeing the real hurt they feel when Evan said in his suicide note that he had “no friends” was heartbreaking.
Boy Interrupted is a heart felt and honest account of one family going through one of the hardest things any parent should ever have to go through and they have chosen to make their story public. Despite the fact their son did kill himself in spite of all the support he had, I did not get a sense of futility from watching Boy Interrupted.
What I did get was that you should take every threat of suicide seriously, especially if it comes from a teen.
Finally, it was one of Evan’s final wishes to be totally forgotten, well Evan; this just proves you can’t always get what you want, either in life or death. Too bad you’re not still around to appreciate that grand joke on us all.