Two weeks on, I still ponder how gray Folie’s Drop-Out affected me. I couched that earlier post in my own experiences with suicidal ideation — the most overt theme of that comic — but listening to a certain song during a walk last night helped shock me into realizing how I myself likely played a significant role in convincing a friend to stay alive. Of course I knew about this goal while actively pursuing it, but I hadn’t since let myself pause and reflect that it may have worked, let alone feel good about it. Drop-Out’s ending set me up to come to this conclusion for myself, at last, and the song catalyzed it into realization.
Before I say more about the song, I want to describe the six-part audio series S-Town. A tough listen that becomes quite emotionally demanding in places, it may stand as my single favorite modern work of its format. Entirely non-fiction, the series begins when a resident of a backwater Alabama town writes a radio reporter he admires with promises of a lurid true story of murder and political corruption, if he comes to visit. The reporter and his studio have never heard of this fellow, but they find the letter so engagingly written that they decide to gamble on it.
The promised story dissolves almost as soon as the reporter arrives and begins investigating. (For one thing, and if I recall correctly, the reporter found himself able to interview the supposed murder victim.) He still senses a story nearby, however, and gradually adjusts his focus onto the author of the letter that summoned him. The resulting series becomes an unlikely and absolutely riveting biography of someone I’d have never otherwise heard of, living somewhere I’d likely never otherwise care about. And, as presented, it all but wrenched my heart from my body. It’s very, very good.
The single part of S-Town I recall most clearly involves a beat when the show’s subject confesses to the reporter that he thinks often of suicide, and lately worries that he may actually carry through with it. And the reporter says, with no hesitation, “It is very important to me that you do not kill yourself.” That extremely deliberate phrasing stuck with me. It implements the “I-statement” phrasing I know about from management seminars and other advice-show experts, making a personal critique or request harder to reject by anchoring it to the speaker rather than the subject. All quite clinical and careful, but here delivered with ferocity, almost desperation. It struck me deep.
And only days after hearing that powerful demand within S-Town, I found myself in real-life straits that called for me to invoke it myself. Of course I remixed it for the situation, and my own version of it lasted longer than a single radio-edited moment. But it did sit in my conscious mind as I did what I could to help someone navigate through a very fraught personal period, and I know I must have used it as a template, or perhaps a mission-statement, for whatever I did say.
So the song I heard last night, bubbling up on my Spotify shuffle, was Illusion by VNV Nation. I first heard it earlier this year, only a little after all the above events had taken place.
To a first order of approximation, the song’s lyrics involve the speaker imploring the subject to stay — one of the oldest song-stories, surely. Listening more deeply, though, initial assumptions of a jilted lover begin to seem misplaced. The relationship between speaker and subject seems less romantic and more one of mentorship, an experienced voice addressing a young heart in pain. The song expresses deep sympathy, not just love, as its principal emotion. The speaker, in crisis, fears he’ll lose the subject not because she’ll leave him personally, but because she’ll leave “here”. Please don’t go. I want you to stay, begins the chorus — there are those I-statements again!
And given all that I had experienced so recently, I could only understand the “here” of the song’s lyrics as the world, the land of the living, and the hurting, and all those doing their best to help each other through it. Yes, it did flatten me. So last night I heard this many months after the night I felt safe and correct in sharing it with my troubled friend, adding very little further commentary. And I know better than to directly credit my words or this song’s words or the podcast’s words for the fact I can make plans to catch up with my friend this weekend. But I can take a moment to allow myself to acknowledge that I did okay for once, here.