Friday 30 September 2016

Brendan O'Connor on the death of Cathriona White: An LA tragedy closer to home than we might think

Haunted, like many of us, by pictures of Cathriona White, Brendan O'Connor wonders if her death was that different to other Irish suicides

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Maybe her skinlessness, her sensitivity, her black dog, had left her isolated while surrounded by people
Maybe her skinlessness, her sensitivity, her black dog, had left her isolated while surrounded by people

Everybody looked for reasons why Cathriona White took her life. First it seemed to be as simple as a break-up. The movie star with whom she was besotted, with whom she had enjoyed an on-off relationship, had broken up with her again and she couldn't take it, apparently.

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To many, this view seemed to be endorsed by Jim Carrey, the movie star in question, in the statement he issued following her death. "She was a truly kind and delicate Irish flower, too sensitive for this soil, to whom loving and being loved was all that sparkled", he said.

This thesis was backed up by a lot of coverage about how 'toxic' Carrey is. While women who don't settle down face their own stigma, men who don't settle down are usually either toxic or suspected of being closet gays. Carrey has been branded as the former. Last week, much coverage was devoted to the women he disappointed and the lives he "ruined". And Cathriona's death, we were invited to infer, was the inevitable result of this.

All of this was further bolstered by pictures of Jim Carrey out at a party the day he broke up with Cathriona, where he was seen talking not to one but to several females. And sure enough, there he was in the background of someone's selfie and in various other pictures in varying states of blurriness, and he was indeed, at this party, talking to other people, and they were female. How callous. How toxic. And meanwhile Cathriona ... well Cathriona was not at a party.

Scientology was next. Reports started to emerge that Cathriona, through her friendship with the musician Beck's circle of friends, had become a Scientologist. Beck is a well-known Scientologist himself. It was even suggested that Cathriona had been encouraged to leave Ireland for LA originally by some and to start doing Scientology courses. Pictures emerged of her doing some class of Scientology 'Purif', a purification ritual which claims to boost your IQ by 15 points.

Indeed, it was suggested that the Scientology courses may have been what gave her the strength to think she could handle getting back with the 'toxic' Carrey. Friends were concerned when they got back together, we were told. But people who go to Scientology courses apparently think they are superhuman, even superhuman enough to handle someone as 'toxic' as Carrey.

We have been having a big discussion about mental health and suicide in this country. But the usual parameters of that conversation were suspended in this case. Because this was not just the tragic death of a young woman from a small town in Tipperary. This happened in LA and involved a movie star. So we looked for these other reasons. LA reasons.

But the more that emerged, the more we seemed to get another picture, a picture that suggested that this death was maybe not so different to the suicides of young people all over Ireland.

For some reason, the pictures of Cathriona haunted me last week. I think they have haunted a lot of people. It could be for all the obvious reasons. She is petite, and pretty, and delicate-looking. She is elfin, like the fairies she invoked in one of her last social media posts. "Faeries come take me out of this dull world," she wrote, quoting Yeats.

She does indeed look delicate and sensitive, easily broken. She seems to walk behind Carrey in pictures of them, a certain hesitancy, a discomfort with being in the gaze of the camera. And then we heard that one of the tensions in their relationship was that she was shy, and didn't like Hollywood parties, and Carrey did. And we read, whether it is true or not, that he has suffered from depression on and off and that a lot of their relationship was conducted locked away from the world, reminding one of what Kurt Vonnegut called "a nation of two", the two of them bonded in their dark sides.

And gradually it became clear that the standard myth of the young beauty heading to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune or to marry well did not apply here. Fine Gael councillor Mary Hanna, who is a friend of Cathriona's family, said during the week that she was a very quiet, very reserved, very gentle, very bright girl. So not your pushy Hollywood wannabe, it seems. Not dying to be at the hot parties with her superstar lover on her arm.

And then we learnt that Cathriona was actually one of the undocumented Irish. This too cast her in a different light. Three years ago, when Cathriona's father Pat died, she was apparently not able to come home to his funeral, though she does seem to have been at a family wedding in recent years. She was mad about her dad. When her mother left, she was reared by her dad and her stepmother. But she missed his funeral.

And when you knew that, the picture of the little girl in the Tipp jersey out in LA become more poignant. This was not the girl who wiped the dust of her small town off her feet when she hit LA. Still the Tipp jersey. Did she crave home and the connectedness of a small town? LA is the opposite. Dispersed. No intimacy. Everywhere is far away from everywhere else. You drive miles to see anyone. And your friends can all tend to be on the make. Everyone is on the make in LA. At the parties Cathriona eschewed, people are apparently constantly looking over your shoulder to see if there is someone more important they should be talking to. It's a long way from Cappawhite.

We don't know that Cathriona was lonely. But we know that it's very easy to be isolated in LA, and also it's very easy to be surrounded by glitzy, exciting people and still feel alone, to feel sometimes like a lonely little girl in a Tipp jersey far away from your family and friends and with your dad gone. And it's probably easy to feel isolated in your $1.1m house in Sherman Oaks when your Hollywood boyfriend is gone away. Especially if you are one of those people who was born sensitive, who was born, as Paul Durcan calls it, skinless, without that hard epidermis that you need for LA, without the armour of what my mother calls ignorant courage.

And that is it. She seemed soft, slightly ill-at-ease, delicate, fragile. She didn't seem entirely at home in this place, this place that didn't protect you the way a small town can.

But a small town can stifle you too. And sometimes sensitive people need to get out, and go somewhere less intimate, where no one knows their past and their business, a place where they can start again, reinvent themselves.

As the week went on, some people were surprised to read that Cathriona's family were spending time grieving with Jim Carrey in LA. Did they not see, as the tabloids did, that he was the bad guy in this? Clearly not. Carrey wore a Tipp jersey on occasion too, funnily enough. And maybe this brings us back to where we started. Maybe Carrey isn't the bad guy and maybe he was right, and maybe her family saw that. Maybe she was too delicate for this soil. Maybe in the end Cathriona's death was not that different from any suicide in any small town in Ireland. Maybe her skinlessness, her sensitivity, her black dog, whatever you call it, had left her isolated while surrounded by people.

And maybe in those final moments she felt alone and far away from home, and maybe she succumbed to that permanent solution to a temporary problem, because maybe she thought it would take her home again to somewhere she was comfortable, where things didn't hurt so much.

Most people don't kill themselves after a break-up. It takes a certain type of fragility. And people who have that sadness are not always the obvious ones. And they are not always locked in their room, or sitting around glumly.

And maybe that's what we can learn from this tragedy. To look out for the people who are under our noses who may be that bit fragile, that bit too delicate for this soil.

Sunday Independent

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