It’s a Secret

Christine (2016)

BorderLine Films

Please be advised that the following essay deals explicitly with the act of, and the psychology surrounding, suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, you are not alone. For 24/7, confidential help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or click here for other immediate resources.

Pay attention to the title character’s hands with long fingers that tense around whatever’s handy, the arm of a chair or the edge of a desk. If there’s nothing available, her hands clutch at each other or curl inwards into fists; something needs to be pushed against.

Her voice pushes, too. It’s a nasal insistence that could use a breath or two, now and then, and when that breath comes in the film’s final 20 minutes its signal is crystal clear, if you’ve been paying attention: Christine Chubbuck is about to kill herself.

There’s no spoiling ​Christine​. Not really. If you’re interested in seeing the film, you almost certainly already know the story behind it. You know that in 1970s Sarasota, Florida, an anchorwoman at a local news station pulled out a handgun during an evening broadcast and shot it, once, through the base of her skull. The ending of the film is its premise. That premise might seem to point towards a psychological thriller, but expecting one would be a mistake. So, too, would be expecting a sort of ​Network​ 2.0, something to indict sensationalist new media in broad strokes.

The question of how to watch the film is answered in its opening minutes, which show Christine (Rebecca Hall) alone in the newsroom, conducting a mock interview with an imagined Richard Nixon. She quips to an empty chair, “Is it paranoia if indeed, everyone ​is​ coming after you?” Then her backdrop lifts, the outside world pours in, and she’s back to the present. We’ve just caught her dreaming, planning, manifesting a future for herself, and it’s enough to make you forget that you know perfectly well she won’t get it. She’s so much more than grainy still images getting passed around the internet, as people fruitlessly trawl for her infamous final footage. We see Christine fretting over the minutiae of her on-camera head movements and she cannot be reduced to a correct answer at a ‘70s trivia night; here is a person who, at this point, does not have a death by which she can be defined.

This is an exploration not of the ​where​ or ​how​ of Christine Chubbuck’s death, but the ​why​ and, consequently, the ​when and who.

Film suicide is usually the end result of outsized, capital-T Trauma, shame, disgrace; great if you need to suffuse a third act with some needed pathos, easily kept contained to a failed attempt if things don’t need to get quite that bleak. In bringing Christine’s life to the forefront, Campos refuses to consign suicide to the margins of dramatic extremity; the act, when it does come, is the culmination of myriad disappointments that seem manageable on their own, but are made caustic by their function as proof that one is fundamentally unfit to exist in the world alongside other people.

When the real Christine’s suicide was still front-page news, The Washington Post published a posthumous profile with this headline: “Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated, A Television Personality. Dead. Live and In Color.” How perplexing that a person with such clearly listable advantages would kill herself, and yet. Although everyone quoted is upset, hardly anyone is surprised. Her mother Peg (played by J. Smith-Cameron in the film) was interviewed by a local reporter at the hospital on the day it happened:

She couldn’t register with people. That’s the main thing…She felt if you’ve tried as hard as you can, you’ve prepared yourself, you work hard, you reach your hand out to people and nobody takes it, then there’s something wrong with your drumbeat, and she really felt she couldn’t register with anyone except her family. And at 29, that’s sad.

Hall’s Christine would be called statuesque if she could manage to carry herself with greater ease. Her eyebrows are static, straight, her cheekbones held taut; she’s not unpretty, to suck a compliment from the rind of a double negative. Christine is intense and struggles to package that intensity in a way that others might accept, in a way that might help her get ahead. If she could just be plucky! If she could just take a pumice stone to her drive, passion, intelligence and scrape away their rough edges. In a moment alone during a work party, her station’s lead anchor, George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), leans in and tells her “You’re not always the most approachable person, Chubbuck.” Christine’s static brows, almost imperceptibly, knit. “Oh, I am approachable,” she immediately rejoins. “Maybe you just don’t know how to approach me.” Seeing those lines without Hall’s performance for context, you could assume they’re delivered flirtatiously; she’s secretly in love with George, after all. But there’s nothing like that to be found here. She means it and, as always, she means it too much. “You just don’t know how to approach me” contains an unspoken question:​ Why don’t you know how to approach me? What am I doing wrong?

The real-life George Ryan admitted that his initial relationship with Christine was one of mutual animosity: “‘[I saw her as] a pain in the ass, not very attractive…doing a man’s job, only doing it better than a man.’” Six months before Christine’s death, however, the two became friends. Ryan credited this to changes in his personality wrought by transactional analysis, a wildly popular form of group therapy at the time.

Transactional analysis (T.A.) is an outgrowth of the “human potential” movement that dominated the 1960s, and which operated under this basic philosophy: everyone has a deep reservoir of untapped potential, and success is just a matter of mastering the methods to properly access it. Consequently, any serious obstacles to that access begin and end within the confines of an individual’s mind. T.A. uses this principle to position the “transaction” as the fundamental unit of human social behavior. This form of therapy essentially gamifies one’s interpersonal life, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that all relationships are as mutually beneficial as possible. This mindset seems perfectly innocuous at first pass, particularly given how easily it slots into prevailing common sense—of course an equal balance of give and take is ideal.

One of the best-known books to come out of the T.A. movement is I’m OK—You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris, a former Chief of the U.S. Navy’s Psychiatry Branch. In the preface, Harris declares his “growing impatience” with psychiatry’s “debatable results” and “vague, esoteric terms.” As one might expect from a Navy man, Harris’s book is “for people who are looking for hard facts…about how the mind operates, why we do what we do, and how we can stop doing what we do if we wish.” American culture, with its fetish for individualism, has long been drawn to such promises like a moth to a flame; I’m OK—You’re OK was no exception, with a two-year stint on the New York Times bestseller list.

No one could say that Christine Chubbuck didn’t wish; if anything, she was undone by the fervency of her wishing.  

Hall plays Christine with unconscionable tenderness. It wrecked me, how much I felt for her. I saw the overtures of kindness and connection from others that she desperately wanted, and how they slipped through her fingers. I knew that she couldn’t see them for what they were, because she didn’t believe she’d done anything to deserve them. Watching ​Christine​ was more like watching a horror movie than anything else; I was powerless to stop her as, one by one, she severed her own hopes with chillingly familiar precision.

One particular severance is far and away the most harrowing. Christine finds out that she has a malignant cyst on one of her ovaries, and the requisite surgery will make it extremely difficult for her to have children. Later, at work, she runs out of an interview in the throes of a panic attack. Jean (Maria Dizzia), a camera operator at the station, follows her and asks if she’s okay.

At this point Jean’s given every indication of wanting to be Christine’s friend, even coming out with her in the middle of the night to capture a trailer park fire for Christine’s local interest news segment, Suncoast Digest. Jean’s question obviously comes from a place of real empathy, and so it’s utterly dumbfounding to watch as Christine, clearly stifling tears, immediately brushes her off. A grim, reflexive “Yeah. Just, you know, summer allergies.”

It would have been so easy to tell the truth! It would have been so eminently understandable to say “I just found out that I probably won’t be to be able to have children, and I’m having a really hard time with that.” Jean would have understood! Everyone would have understood! So why on earth did she not say it? How can she rebuff such an obvious offer of care, if she’s really as isolated as she claims?

In his study of suicide, Emile Durkheim dismissed the notion that it was a discrete aberration of human nature. If suicides really were isolated incidents brought on by individual psychosis, those incidents wouldn’t necessarily occur at a consistent rate; as suicide rates for most countries remained relatively consistent from year to year, something beyond the individual must be at play. Durkheim posited that suicidality was a response to “the tendencies of the whole social body” which “by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide.”  

Christine’s suicidality is the product of outsized despair at her own shortcomings, and that despair didn’t arise in a vacuum. Her actions were a response to ever-present feelings of rejection, and it would be wholly disingenuous to call them unfounded.

From the Post profile:

She had no real friends. She was a strange combination of someone who at once wanted, needed desperately, the support and friendship of others and in another way rejected others out of a sense of defensive pride. Her initial image was one of a self-confident, totally contained, together young woman. She would seem haughty, distant, standoffish really. Yet when people began to know her she evidenced such a crying need for a completely committed relationship that it drove them away for fear they couldn’t give her what she wanted.

Naked need is anathema to a culture that venerates self-sufficiency. Christine, practically saturated in her own yearning, is trapped in an increasingly bleak feedback loop: people shy away from loving her precisely because she’s so desperate to be loved and with each rejection, her desperation becomes that much more difficult to manage. This is how Christine, painfully aware of her own social shortcomings, continually acts in ways that make things worse.

Christine’s hyperawareness also has an undeniably gendered element. Women’s assumed social role is that of the nurturer, adept at forging social bonds and making others feel at ease. As such, scorn towards socially awkward women can take on a particularly vivisecting intensity. Beyond a personal shortcoming, her off-putting behavior is a dereliction of duty; for being so keenly judged, her own position is that much more keenly felt. In the social body of her place and time, Christine’s loneliness is a mark of her abject failure to function as a woman. She knows it, too, and this knowledge arranges for her heart to be broken again and again and again.

Christine takes the news of her probable infertility as a death knell for any hope that her capacity for love might someday be met. Her dreams for a family, her volunteer work at a local home for disabled children—what happens to all this as she ages, as she’s pushed out the window of an acceptably childless woman? She loves volunteering, putting on puppet shows for the kids, telling them jokes, seeing them laugh. Now, in another few years it might become creepy, pathetic; every time she expressed affection towards children, she’d always be aware of the possibility for a new kind of scorn. People might ask themselves, why didn’t she have her own children? And then, why didn’t anyone want to have children with her?

There, Jean. Aren’t you glad you asked?

By the end of the film, Christine is fully under the sway of suicidal logic, which is no less operable for its cruelty. She’s killing herself because it makes sense to do so when the only other option is continuous humiliation, daily awareness of a growing gap between what she yearns for and what she fears she’ll get. It’s a logic that says, to a woman who tries so hard to move about the world free from pity: ​Your pain is pathetic unless it serves as a prelude to something better. So if there’s no evidence supporting the idea that things might change, then why bother?

Suicidal logic, then, isn’t so far removed the logic of popular self-help, or for that matter the logic of bootstrap individualism. The three share an underlying tautology: If you have the right attitude, you will get what you want; if you don’t get what you want, it’s because you don’t have the right attitude. How do you get the right attitude? By wanting to have the right attitude, and if you can’t figure things out after that, you’re on your own. The deepest shame imaginable, then, is wanting something desperately, giving it your all, and still not being able to get it.

George asks Christine out to dinner. She dresses up, and has an uncharacteristic glass of wine.  “Laughing” by The Guess Who is playing as her reflection flickers in and out of the mirrors leading from the restaurant bathroom, and she’s noticeably more relaxed than we’ve seen her thus far—maybe, finally, things really are turning around. Then they go to George’s old high school, where he opens the double doors of the gymnasium and says “Everybody, this is my friend Christine.” Everyone says “Hi, Christine.” He’s brought her to his transactional analysis group.

There’s no way George could have known how she’d interpret what, to him, was a helpful instinct towards someone clearly struggling. Christine follows him into the gymnasium, tense again, her face forming a bulwark against any show of disappointment. Of course this was it, goes the suicidal logic. What did you expect? Imagining that George asked her out because he was interested in her romantically, sexually—that was delusional, the delusion of a silly little girl with a pink bedroom who lives with her mother and and is about to turn 30 as a virgin.

In another inadvertent blow, George shares some news as he drops Christine back home: he’s moving to a new, more prestigious station in Baltimore that’s been recently acquired by Bob Anderson (John Cullum), their current station’s owner. After George leaves, a distraught and frantic Christine immediately heads to Bob’s house, where he amiably accepts her lie about having a flat tire and needing to use his phone. He amiably rebuffs her as she drops the thin pretext and asks him, flat-out, for Baltimore. He’s sorry but he’s already filled his hiring quota with Andrea, the station’s vivacious sports reporter, and he did it at George’s request. “I just try not to overthink these things too much, you know?” he says, amiably finishing his nightcap, utterly unaware of the effect his words have just imparted. “Life is hard enough without dwelling on every little thing.”

Bob’s philosophy is the antithesis of suicidal logic and for someone else, it might actually be good advice; for Christine, it’s devastating. Suicidal logic demands she constantly dwell on every little thing, in the name of personal responsibility for her own unhappiness. Each blunder raises the stakes of unambiguous success, the only possible redemption from a past riddled with markers of personal inadequacy. Christine’s career was her last, best option for that success and, in many ways, her professional prowess helped attenuate her emotional isolation. What Christine hears at Bob’s kitchen table is: If you haven’t yet learned how to move about the world, you’re never going to figure it out. She says, “Follow your gut” in a show of agreement, looking and sounding like she’s about to vomit. Because, what happens if your gut has only ever led you astray?

Suicide, both in films and in life, is often framed as a break in individual resilience. This one specific person was unable to live in the world like the rest of us. Someone like Christine Chubbuck just couldn’t cope with professional and romantic rejection. She was simply too fragile, shortsighted, melodramatic. But thinking this way is missing the forest for the trees; when viewed as indicative of a society’s broader health, suicide becomes symptomatic of a much greater malady than individual despair.

A culture of individualism needs a continuous stream of winners to deify, but winning is meaningless if there are no losers; losers, in turn, are required to know their place. To couch the brutality of this social arrangement, the culture then dictates that we act as though everyone can win, if they’re only willing to do what it takes. Winning, the thinking goes, is the natural endpoint of resilience; resilience comes from being wholly self-reliant.

Earlier in the film, during a fight with her mother, Christine howls “Why won’t anyone just listen to me?” Her voice, gone guttural, is filled with a cornered animal’s desperation. Peg Chubbuck’s efforts to reach out to her daughter are just another galling reminder that something is wrong to begin with. For Christine, it only adds insult to injury to know that others might think she needs help. A person who’s 29, good-looking, educated, and a television personality should really have been able to figure things out on her own.

If I went into Christine knowing that her suicide was borderline grotesque, I left knowing how she might have responded to such an assertion. I could easily see Christine Chubbuck giving a dry chuckle, flipping her long black hair over her shoulders, and asking me: “More grotesque than what was already going on? Really?”

After all, she did have a notoriously dark sense of humor.