Thursday, August 19, 2010

Volume 5, Number 20: What You Leave Behind

In light of the terrible events that unfolded on the night of August 17, 2010 in West Bloomfield, I thought I should revisit two themes: The want to appear richer and more successful than one really is, and the reality of how people will be remembered.

There are people in this small world who want to establish and maintain the appearance of being richer and more successful than their peers. Ellery Bennett was one of them. A pharmaceutical sales representative for 15 years--and that's got to be a very good job considering how well pills sell themselves these days--Bennett gave up that job to pursue a handful of "get-rich-quick" ventures. His Facebook wall includes photos from a trip he took to this year's Kentucky Derby; his YouTube account has videos of him vacationing in Hawaii and the Bahamas.

Or, rather, he appeared to be able to afford those trips and that McMansion in West Bloomfield.

What he really did, starting in 2007, was take out a huge (reportedly $400,000) loan to finance those trips and those failed pipe dreams. His wife filed for divorce on August 11; less than a week later, he stabbed her four times, stabbed himself in an apparent suicide attempt, then left behind her body and a suicide note as he drove off to the hospital in her car.

In an April 2008 blog entry, I mentioned two other people who felt that they were under pressure to at least appear to be doing well: Steven Sueppel, the Iowa City bank executive who resorted to embezzling money from his own employer; and Michael Waleskowski, the Waterford, Michigan cop who had repeatedly paid off his credit card debt by rolling it into his mortgage, then found himself short of money to pay a tax bill so he tried to steal some money from a drunken driving suspect. Both cases resulted in multiple murder-suicides as both men killed their families, then themselves. I said at that time, "Greed, ego-centrism and 'status anxiety' led to the destruction of the Seuppel and Waleskowski families," and it has led to the death of woman and the scarring of yet another family.

We as a people are so compelled to measure ourselves against each other, and compete against each other, and decide, this guy's got a McMansion, he must be more successful; that guy's got a Lexus or a BMW, he must be better off. But there comes a time when we need to leave well enough alone. Impressing our friends shouldn't come from material gain or wealth, and it especially shouldn't come at the expense of one's future.

Besides, nobody at a funeral ever says of a rich, successful person, "He got to take all those trips and drive all those expensive cars and had this huge house."

Instead, we need to remember that we never get a second chance to leave a good final impression. Ellery Bennett, a Northwestern-educated man who had a very good job and could have left well enough alone, will not be remembered that way. He will be remembered as a usurer, a liar and a murderer, and (in all likelihood) he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Now, if you have that BMW or that nice, big house, that's great. Congratulations. But no matter what, you will be remembered, not by what you have, but what you leave behind.

My April 2008 blog entry also references a column by Mitch Albom. That column was published in the Detroit Free Press on January 14, 1990, and it appears below in its entirety.


I never got much out of reading Thoreau. Maybe because I read him in high school. An urban teenager doesn't exactly fall for a guy who moves to the woods and talks to squirrels.

I do, however, remember one line he wrote. It struck me when I read it and it has stayed with me all these years: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

What did he mean by that, I wondered? Did grown-ups really have it so tough? Quiet desperation? Such contrasting words. Like "dying hope." Or "deafening silence."

Or "I didn't mean to hurt my babies."

That last sentence has been in my brain since I read it in the police statement of a 29-year-old tire store manager named Lawrence DeLisle. Five months ago, on a warm summer night, DeLisle allegedly slammed his foot on the gas pedal and drove his station wagon - with his wife and four children inside - smack into the Detroit River. The adults escaped; they swam to the surface, gasping for air. The children drowned.

It was originally deemed a tragic accident. But a week later, in a rambling and confused conversation with a police investigator, DeLisle suggested he might have been trying to kill everyone in that car - including himself. The reasons he gave were 1) the suicide of his father, something few of us have had to endure, and 2) the pressure from work, bills, children and a wife - things many of us endure every day.

It is the latter that haunts me. Could life become so intolerable that you might think of ending it like that, in a river, the water rising, no way out?

"I didn't mean to hurt my babies."

Quiet desperation.

Chances are you read the transcriptions of the Delisle tapes. Were you shocked? How could you not be? The horror. The senseless death. Here were four beautiful kids - they had just stopped at McDonald's - and now they were at the bottom of a river.

We may never know the true story. Even DeLisle's statements - in which he said, "I don't even want to go to trial. Just lock me away" - were ruled inadmissible in his trial because of the interrogation methods used by police. (That ruling has been appealed.) Just the same, what disturbed me most was not DeLisle's gruesome account of the incident, or his alleged attempt to kill his family by leaving a candle near a leaking gas pipe.

What got me were exchanges such as these:

Police: What were you thinking about?
DeLisle: Peace ...
Police: What were you thinking about?
DeLisle: Not having to pay bills every week ...
Police: At the time you wanted to be rid of everybody, didn't you?
DeLisle: I just want it to be over ... the constant repetition. Same thing day after day.

Is it possible that everyday pressures - a thankless job, credit card debts, sexual friction with a spouse - could push a man to such an unforgivable act? Can "normal" life be so awful? We distance ourselves from killers by believing they are sick creatures, out of the ordinary. What frightens me is how ordinary some of DeLisle's pressures were.

And not just him. We read today of how a man in Boston may have murdered his pregnant wife, in part because the baby would have interfered with his career. We hear of children murdering parents for inheritance money, because their jobs don't pay their bills. Horrifying. DeLisle said he loved his wife, he loved his children. He also said he sometimes wanted to escape them all.

Quiet desperation.

How many more Lawrence DeLisles are out there? Who knows? He could be a lone troubled man or one of an army of walking time bombs. In eight years of reporting, I have learned this much: We never know what is going on inside the heads of the people next to us. Not even if we live with them, eat with them, work with them.

We never know. People bury their darkest thoughts; they appear perfectly normal. But inside, private demons - such as DeLisle's memory of his suicidal father - can chew at the heart, making the most simple parts of life seem too burdensome, and the most unthinkable solutions somehow appealing.

So we have men driving into rivers and parents selling babies and husbands injecting wives with poison to rid themselves of things such as debt or marital problems.

And we can only draw this conclusion: Perhaps surviving everyday life is more noble than we think. Perhaps we should ignore sports stars and actors and celebrate instead the husband or wife with two jobs and no bank account who still has time to hug the kids.

God knows not everyone is making out that well. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." OK, Thoreau. I get it now.

It scares the hell out of me.

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