Remembering Denny, from 1993, is Calvin Trillin’s meditation on the death by suicide of his one-time Yale classmate and friend Roger D. (Denny) Hansen.
The suicide was puzzling to Trillin, and to many people who knew Hansen. He was a man of extraordinary talent and promise, highly intelligent and loaded with charisma.
He arrived at Yale having been king of his California high school—star athlete, academic success, dating the consensus hottest girl in school—and soon was similarly conquering this new world.
At this time—in the 1950s—it was understood that the students at the top Ivy League schools like Yale were being groomed to rule the world. The students spoke amongst themselves—only half-jokingly—about who would be president, who would achieve only some “lesser” office like senator, who would head up what corporation, etc. And when the members of Trillin’s class so speculated, it was Hansen they pegged as destined for the presidency, teasingly lobbying him for future positions in his cabinet.
What struck people as much as anything back then was his smile. He had a way of charming parents who met him even for just a few seconds, of eliciting a “now there’s a boy who’s going places!” reaction.
Next he was off to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He intended from there to enter the Foreign Service, with a career in politics certainly a realistic possibility not too far down the road.
But somehow it all went awry. It’s hard for Trillin to pin down just when and why, as Hansen largely dropped out of touch with all his old Yale classmates over the years. There was a little contact here and there—mostly one of them contacting him—but he would keep the interaction brief and superficial, not return phone calls, stand people up for lunch dates, etc.
Certainly Hansen when he died at age 55 was very different from the Yale Hansen, not just in the obvious sense that everyone changes in various respects as they get older, but in that he had lost the “it” factor that drew people to him and convinced them that he was destined for greatness.
At some point soon after Yale, Hansen stopped going by “Denny” and became known as “Roger.” Trillin is especially struck by how the photos of Roger never had that smile that Denny had been so well known for. The reflections of the people who knew him later in life—when he had settled into a middling academic career that included publishing one very highly regarded book on Mexico but little else and developing a reputation for being difficult—makes it sound like he really was two different people. They didn’t know Denny, and Trillin and his peers didn’t know Roger.
Trillin sets out to know both Denny and Roger better. He questions a large number of people from his life, and among other things finds that while the differences were indeed great, when pressed people were able to identify traces of Roger way back in the Denny days, and remaining traces of Denny in the Roger days.
As is common in the wake of a suicide, people in Hansen’s life wanted to understand why. Trillin’s informal investigation largely fits this theme.
What he finds is a plethora of possible causes:
- Hansen had suffered from a bad back from an early age, and it seems to have only gotten worse over the years. He was in pain from it every day, sometimes severe pain. He and his doctors tried everything, but nothing brought much relief. He was increasingly despondent about this, and it is the one factor he mentioned in the brief note he left when he killed himself.
- By most measures his career was a reasonably successful one, but it didn’t come close to the expectations of all those around him when he was the Golden Boy. There’s some evidence that even when everyone thought the world of him he still suffered from a certain amount of self-doubt, which he hid as best he could. Once he was no longer living up to his promise, and anticipated that people would no longer have such an inflated opinion of him, he avoided them as much as possible, especially people who knew him before his decline. The contrast between what he had been expected to become and what he actually became apparently ate away at him.
- He was gay, or bisexual, or had homosexual tendencies—in any case he wasn’t totally straight—and he never seems to have accepted that. He must have already been aware of it at Yale in the ’50s, but virtually no one came out of the closet back then. He went to a psychiatrist about it, indicating that he—and this was the mainstream position back then—saw it as a mental illness, and one that could potentially be cured. Even as times and attitudes gradually changed he stayed in the closet. Most people in his life didn’t even know until a Washington D.C. gay newspaper ran his obituary and mentioned certain gay clubs he at least occasionally went to and such. (What about the ethics of that, by the way? Should a gay newspaper implicitly out somebody like that after they die?) Obviously it was something he was ashamed of.
- His mother suffered from depression, so it’s possible he had some genetic predisposition to depression.
- For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he broke with his family and had virtually no contact with any of them after leaving home for Yale. What little evidence there is indicates that even in childhood he’d never had a warm home life, never really been close to anyone in his family.
- He was very much alone. There was no one he felt connected to, no one he could talk to, no one he could turn to when he was in trouble. Because he was depressed, was ashamed, and had some self-loathing he did not make an effort to enter into new relationships or sustain existing ones, and in fact to some extent actively avoided doing so. He had no family connections, he had let his friendships of the past with his Yale colleagues and such wither away, and he wasn’t close with the new people he interacted with during the Roger years. He didn’t have a significant other, someone he could have a healthy sex life with that would facilitate intimacy in other areas. He had a fairly long term relationship with a woman, but that was apparently mostly platonic and ended well before his suicide. He did later live with a man for a couple years, but otherwise evidently never had a significant gay relationship either, not surprising since he couldn’t accept that part of himself.
- He had a morally uncompromising streak in him which became more extreme the older he got, an unwillingness to bend, a tendency to get angry and disdainful toward people over what he perceived as their moral failings. Trillin sees this as a more admirable than not integrity, a commitment to principles that was quite rare in the circles in which Hansen traveled, but he acknowledges that it would also surely have been experienced by others as his being judgmental and morally arrogant, and was yet another reason he didn’t have people he was close to. Plus, there is evidence he was at least as hard on himself and what he saw as his own hypocrisies and moral failings, and that this just drove his state of mind and sense of self-worth even lower.
One possible reaction to Remembering Denny is to say that while it’s understandable why Trillin would be haunted and fascinated by Hansen’s life and death, and obsessed with trying to figure out why he killed himself, since this was a friend of his and someone who had occupied a key role in his life as the most “can’t miss” life prospect he had ever encountered, why should the reader care?
But Trillin’s musings take Hansen as their starting point, not their end point. Speculating about these various factors as they relate to Hansen and his suicide gives rise to broader discussions of the issues they raise.
Certainly one of these issues is the phenomenon of singling out certain people—based on class, race, gender, sexuality, acceptance by the “best” colleges, etc.—as destined to be society’s elite, like the gold-souled folks in Plato’s Republic, a phenomenon that was significantly stronger when Trillin and Hansen came of age than today, and how that bestows both unfair advantages and burdens with potentially crippling expectations.
Another is what it was like to be gay, especially in the pre-Stonewall era, or to be anything that one feels compelled to keep secret and that one is pressured to feel shame about.
So Remembering Denny has some interest as a kind of mystery, an investigation into the specific question of why Hansen committed suicide, but also as a discussion of these broader issues.
In the end, while all the factors Trillin identifies may well have played a role in Hansen’s decision to kill himself, I’m inclined to take his suicide note at face value and say that the at times excruciating, and chronic, back pain was likely the main reason. That’s a genuinely debilitating, depressing thing to have to deal with day after day, and I suspect most people who haven’t experienced something like that underrate just how big a deal it can be in one’s life.
Then again, back pain is the least “sexy” of the possibilities, so naturally there’s a tendency to look to these other factors that raise so many more political, social, and psychological issues that are so intriguing to speculate about. And I’m not saying those other factors should be ignored. Like I stated, they probably did play at least some role. I’m just saying my guess is that this was as much about him finally reaching his limit of how much physical pain he could endure as anything.
In one interesting passage, Trillin acknowledges that at times he and the people he’s discussing the matter with may be falling victim to the temptation to project their own problems and insecurities onto Hansen. That is, someone who felt a great deal of pressure at Yale to live up to unrealistically high expectations, and who has struggled with that to some degree all his life, might well look at Denny and think: “The expectations for him were even higher. What a burden! It almost destroyed me. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to him, especially with his lack of a support system in his life, and his possibly being genetically predisposed to depression. Apparently he just never had the inner strength to overcome the pressure of his sky high early promise.”
This isn’t the kind of mystery one can expect to be solved in any definitive way. Trillin himself comes to no firm conclusion, except that his efforts to better understand his Yale classmate and his suicide have largely failed:
The one person among Denny’s friends who resented my inquiry into Denny’s life—the young man who had briefly lived with him in Washington—seemed offended when I referred to Denny as an old friend.
“Roger would have said that you didn’t know him at all,” he told me.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I said.